Friday, September 18, 2009

About Those Essays

There have been a lot of questions about the essays.

First of all, choosing your topic:

This should be something that interests you, relates to you, expresses something that you've learned about Mendelssohn or his music, the historical or biographical background or how something you've learned about something almost 200 years old relates to you today. It could be about listening to or watching the musicians perform the music last Wednesday. It could be about the experience of hearing this music.

You can choose a topic that might relate to you but you might also find something that someone in your parents' or grandparents' generation might be able to give you some perspective on your topic. Ask them some questions and tie that in with what you know first-hand and what you've learned about Mendelssohn, his music and his times through this project.

We're not looking for a biographical summary that just parrots back facts you've read. Incorporate those facts and your observations about the project into something about what YOU learned or experienced.

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You can use "Mendelssohn's World" as your resource. Use the "study question" posts on the blog to help you find a topic that "fits" you if you're having trouble thinking of one.

To find information by topic, see the upper right-hand column for links to specific topics (biography, music, issues &c) then use the "search" field within the blog to find reference to key words you're looking for.

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The essay's “format.”

Even though this isn't a “language arts” project, treat it as if it is, using all the skills you would if you were writing an essay for that class.

The individual teachers can set their own parameters and guide-lines about the technical format.

It should be 2 pages long, but if it goes a little over, that's okay (it depends on what you have to say).

Each essay will be labeled with the student's name and grade, the name of the class and the teacher's name.

The individual teachers set the schedule, whether they require “internal deadlines” for selection of topic, submission of rough-draft and so on.

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All the essays should be done and turned in to the individual teachers by or before Friday, October 2nd, 2009. Once the teachers have gone through the essays, then they submit the ones they feel are the best from each class by or before Friday, October 9th, 2009. Then Odin Rathnam and I (perhaps asking for input from some of the teachers) will select the best of those.

The winner will receive a $250 scholarship prize. And we'll submit the top essays to MOSAIC, the school's literary journal, for publication in the end-of-the-school-year edition.

Thanks, and good luck!

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Study Questions #7: Listening to Music

Here are the "Study Questions" Ms. Robbins wrote up for Mendelssohn’s World.

Musical Qualities

In addition to the musical issues that Dr. Strawser has raised, I would like you to think about the following questions.

Please observe carefully at the concert.

Watch and listen to what the musicians do. (Use SHMRG or something like it - see this post)

Pay attention to the details that you see and hear. You may use this sheet and/or the listening guide organizer to take notes for your essay if you like. (two sides to this page)

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1. - What makes this a “fine art”? How do the performers and the music differ from pop music or other folk music forms? How do you think they might have similarities?

2. - How does the music express itself? Is it merely the notes and their loudness, or are there different ways to play them?

3. - What provides contrast? What is the same (unity)? What is different (variety)?

4. - Can you recognize the structure of the music? If we hear a tune, call that A, then hear A again, and then something new we call B. Many structures are AABA, ABA, ABACAD, etc. Can you analyze the structure of your favorite song?

5. - In what ways does the composer create? In other words, what tools are used to create a musical work of art? If a painter uses color, shading, texture, medium, etc. then what does a composer use?

6. - How do you think the composer communicates through two centuries how the performers today should play the music?

Fun with SHMRG

When I was teaching in college, my students often asked what they were supposed to listen for and I said “anything you hear.”

How do you learn to hear something? Well, that sounds obvious – you listen – but sometimes there's so much to listen for, you don't know where to begin. And if you don't know that much about the technical aspects of music, you can easily be intimidated.

Here's a way you can “break this down” to get started. This is better to do when you're listening to a recording that sitting at the concert, but mentally you make notes too about certain things. What's great about this method is, the more you know about music the more you can write down or the more specific you can be; if you don't have that much experience listening to music – and I mean ANY kind of music – your observations will be more generic but you can still notice things.

It was really cool that while I was writing this up, Ms. Robbins, one of the school district's music teachers, sent out a diagram of things you can listen for and discuss when listening to a piece of music. It's very similar to what I was using with my students years ago.

So take a piece of paper and right these letters

S – H – M – R – G

in different parts of the page – leave yourself enough space in between to write several random observations.

What do these letters mean?

S = SOUND which means what kind of sounds do you hear? With 8 string players, talking about what instruments are playing is fairly easy, but at some points you might focus on the first violinist (Odin Rathnam) or another of the players: what are they doing that caught your attention?

Sound also means “how is this sound created?” What is the TEXTURE like – are all the instruments playing, just a few, maybe only one or two? Is the sound “thick” or “thin” sounding? That's texture.

H = HARMONY which basically means how notes are put together to make chords and how chords move from one to another to create different moods: are they moving slowly or rapidly? What kind of feeling do you get from that? Is it creating a relaxed atmosphere or is it very energetic or unstable? For musicians, you could notice if the chords are more vertically oriented – like chords you'd play on the piano – or are they the result of different parts moving horizontally in such a way that chords are created out of the different lines they're playing together (this is also called “counterpoint).

Of course, by the time you write something down, the music keeps going and you may look back later and have no idea where in the music was that thought you just wrote down! Don't worry. Music moves forward in time: it's not like a picture you can look at in your own time and stare at one item for a while before moving on to the next. Music moves at its own speed – fast or slow – but you have to go with the flow!

M = MELODY which is usually what people listen for. Not everything HAS a melody and not all melodies are “tunes” you can hum or sing along with. Sometimes “melody” is just the most prominent line which could be in the top part or in the bottom part.

Melody is also made up of fragments, like I'd said: you have a note, you take several notes and make a word out of them – these are MOTIVES and you can build melodies out of these. These might be “recognizable gestures” you'll notice when they come back. Sometimes they come back in places you might not expect, not always in the fore-ground. Maybe it's in the middle-ground or the back-ground.

You can also jot down ideas about the shape of these main motives – maybe a line that represents the shape of the music: in the opening of the Octet, the first violin plays a rising line that contains three fragments. You might draw a short rising line, separated by a small space, then a higher rising line, another 'breath' and the one more rising line that expands into a descending squiggle. How often does that “shape” come back as you continue listening?

R = RHYTHM. Everybody knows what “rhythm” is but you don't need drums to have rhythm (they do make it easier, though!). In the Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” Mendelssohn has several melodic ideas that are different from one another by their rhythms – if not the exact patterns of short and long notes, then a sense of how the notes are grouped together. Are all the notes bustling along really fast? Are there notes that sound slower (for musicians, the difference between eighth-notes and half-notes)? Do these set up patterns you can recognize when you hear them again?

G = GROWTH which means how things grow. If you look at a seed, you have no idea what it's going to look like when it's full grown. Even after a few sprouts, you can't always be sure what the flower or the leaves will look like later on. Music is the same way: when a piece starts, do you know what the whole thing is going to be like? No, unless you've heard it before and really know it well. Even then, there might be things – small details – you'll pick up on another hearing that you didn't notice before. Have you ever walked past a familiar place and suddenly something catches your eye? “Oh, I hadn't seen that before.” But it was probably there all along.

This is where you might notice these “small details” of how a melody is put together, taking a musical “word” and turning it into a musical motive that you hear again and again. Is it different from before? Is it the same or maybe only slightly different? How does the composer make it sound different? If it sounds REALLY different, is there something about it that kind of sounds like the earlier one did? Is this a complete contrast? What impact does this contrast have: does it change the mood, increase the drama, make it sound like another character in the scene has just walked into view?

One of the basic concepts of music is “UNITY” and “VARIETY.” How does a composer use either one? What does this do to the overall sense you're getting from the music?

A lot of these ideas will give you “small building blocks” which can be put together to make “larger building blocks.” What you have might be like starting with a single brick, but eventually you start seeing how these bricks can make a wall that, when you get a chance to see it, is actually the side of a house. How does a brick house look different than a wooden one? How does an apartment building look different than your school building or the State Capitol? How does something built 5 years ago look compared to something built over 100 years ago? These are elements of “growth” - how you develop a larger sense of “FORM” and how the surface differs from piece to piece. But just like those houses and buildings, no matter what they look like to you or how big they are or what they're used for, they all have similar things in common: they're built out of small things, they have walls, a roof, windows and doors. Different kinds of music can have the similar kinds of things in common but yet be completely different in how they sound to you.

There's another one I left out – I guess it would be T for TEXT (or W for WORDS). Since a lot of music, especially “pop culture music,” sets words – even though a lot of classical music is just instrumental – you can also jot down ideas about the words they're singing. More importantly, how does the rest of the music – what accompanies the words – get across what the words mean (or imply)?

Even if there isn't a text that's being sung, maybe it's part of a movie or TV show's scene that's telling a story or serving as background to a dialog. How does the music help the scene? What would the scene be like without the music? Are you even aware there WAS music in that scene?

So when you're done with your SHMRG, you'll have a mess of rambling observations but maybe, as you think about it, it begins to give you an idea of what you're listening to.

Try it with music you're familiar with – take your favorite song and really “listen” to it (don't just “hear” it). If there's something you really like, what is it that makes it like that? How do all these different details that make up a song help you enjoy it? Can you SHMRG a rap song or a country ballad? Sure – try it!

And the next time you find yourself listening to something you don't like at first, rather than sitting there being bored with it, try SHMRG-ing it and see what kind of things you discover in the music. It may help you realize, “hey, there's something here, after all.”

- Dr. Dick

Photos from the West Branch Music Festival

This past Sunday, Odin Rathnam and the members of the West Branch Music Festival performed Mendelssohn's Octet at the West Branch Resort, located on the West Branch of the Delaware River in New York State. It's the "Gateway to the Catskills."

And they'll be playing for you on Wednesday at the John Harris High School in Harrisburg.

Here are some photos a friend of Odin's, Michele Conrad, took at a rehearsal and at the performance (posted w/her permission).

This is the complete Octet during the performance at the lodge.
But behind every performance is a lot of individual practice time and group rehearsal time. Here are some rehearsal moments. Notice how they look at each other to "communicate" and coordinate what they're playing.

Rehearsing can be serious - this is probably one of the hard parts.

But it can also be lots of fun. Even at its most serious, if it's not fun, they wouldn't be in this business.

In an earlier post, I said that Mendelssohn wrote this when he was 16 as a birthday present to his violin teacher and his teacher was playing the first violin part at that first performance in 1825. Odin said, "it very hard - it's like playing a concerto" which means he's in the spotlight a lot. But I told him he's playing the part of Mendelssohn's teacher and the student had wanted to give the teacher something to play that would make him work! Mendelssohn played the 2nd Viola part in that performance and it must have been fun for him to watch his teacher sweat.

Well, here's Odin breaking a sweat! It's hard work!

Here's a shot of all eight players in a rehearsal.

It's a beautiful spot along the West Branch - they'll be performing another concert there this weekend, too.

- Dr. Dick

Friday, September 11, 2009

Another Way of Listening to "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

There are several ways to listen to a piece of music: you can listen to it because you like it (or because you were told to...); you can listen to it to hear what you like about it (“oh, that's the hee-haw bit”) or you can listen to it critically as a performance (“they didn't play that very well, there” or “I like how they got a little more dramatic here”); you can listen for the enjoyment you get out of it (“this part makes me sad; that part makes me smile”) or you can listen to it recognizing which section of the music represents which characters in the story (“there's the 'fairy music' again”). Or you could make up your own story using it as a sound-track for your imagination (“I hear the space aliens scattering as the space-ship lands here and they're cautious about approaching it when the door suddenly opens – at 1:15 – and out come the astronauts...”).

You can also listen to it “technically.” A music student might listen more technically than a non-music student (I hate that term, like you're majoring in non-music...) so you might call the technical details different things, depending on your familiarity with the jargon (“sounds like it's getting ready for something new here at 2:06” as opposed to “yes, the transition between the closing idea as it modulates to the dominant key”).

Let's listen to it, now, with these pointers, thinking of it more abstractly (but using the “character references” as tags). Think also how Mendelssohn gives each of his musical ideas a kind of “personality profile” so you can recognize them when you hear them again.

0:00 Opening chords – sustained in woodwinds, suspended animation? The mood shifts between one chord (in winds at 0:20) and when the strings play it (at 0:27). For music students, this is a shift between an E Major chord (winds) and an E Minor chord (strings).

0:27 – First “Theme” - the fairy music - more a sound and texture than a melody – strings scurrying...
0:49 – again
0:56 – a chord interrupts (“looking around”?), a sound associated with the opening chords
1:06 – after pausing, the 1st Theme resumes, as if starting over but now expands...
1:15 – suddenly we hear a 2nd Idea (will it be the 2nd Theme?) - what contrast do you hear here – volume, rhythm, shape of the melody? Sounds like the two mortal couples have burst in on the fairy's scene...
1:29 – a new rhythmic idea (or “word”) that gives it new energy
1:46 – it's the fairy music from the 1st Theme but how is it different, now?
2:06 – it begins to fragment and sounds like it's going somewhere...
2:13 – and arrives here – it's a more lyrical theme, associated with the two mortal couples who are having relationship issues: perhaps the mood of the music represents their love? Technically, this is the “real” 2nd Theme (not the 2nd musical idea, though, we've had several of those, like “words” in a sentence; this is a new paragraph). But it's only the first part of it: the woodwinds ask a question which...
2:20 – is answered by the strings (remember this, we'll hear it often as an independent idea or “word”) So the 2nd Theme is made up of two distinct short “phrases”
2:34 – it begins again but instead of doing it the same way, things start to expand in length
2:44 – a fanfare figure is added that interrupts the original lyrical mood of 2nd Theme (from 2:13-2:34) – there is a variation on the “phrase” from 2:20 added here (a little variety out of a little unity)
3:02 – sounds like it's going to start going somewhere... then arrives here, suddenly:
3:09 – the thumping bass notes begin the theme associated with the comic actors who will try to put on a play of their own. While they're strutting about, rehearsing, they are “attacked” by Puck who gives their leader, Bottom by name, the head of a donkey (a play on the old expression, “making an ass out of him”) – embedded in this theme are musical gestures that reflect the hee-haws, the braying of donkey!
3:20 – this rowdy theme is countered by a rising gesture
3:32 – we hear the fanfares we'd heard back at 2:44 – do they sound different here?
3:40 – the 2nd Theme returns but with more of the fanfares – which increases the tension and arrives at...
3:57 – the return of 1st Theme or the Fairy Music – it starts off sounding very similar but then starts going off in different directions... where's it headed, after 4:03?
4:13 – it becomes more unstable: how is Mendelssohn making it less stable? What does something like the low sounds you hear at 4:18 do for the stability?
4:20 – more fanfares with the 1st Theme Fairy Music in the background – what do the isolated sustained tones in the horn do for the music's stability at 4:32... 4:39 and 4:45?
4:56 – sounds like something new: a pattern in the winds (rising up by one note, then falling back) with rumblings in the lower strings
5:06 to 5:25 – things have gotten kind of hushed – one voice is moving downward while another voice is moving gradually upwards... where's it going? Stable or unstable?
5:25 – it becomes a little smoother but still sounds questioning...
5:40 – the music is interrupted by a “pleading” line, as if one of the lovers is on his or her knees asking for understanding or forgiveness – where does it come from? It's actually a variation on the “answer” part of the 2nd Theme (check out the music at 2:20).

At this point, the first video ends before this resolves. Is it a satisfying ending if you stopped the piece right here?

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Well, that's a lot of stuff going on but it's how Mendelssohn builds six minutes of music out of a few different musical ideas – some are themes, others are just “gestures” like the little fanfares – and the most important (main) theme is really just a scurrying texture of strings representing the mysterious magical world of the fairy sprites who live in these woods.

So far we've had several musical ideas that can be grouped into those basic sections of a SONATA FORM – from the opening's introductory chords to 3:57 is the EXPOSITION... the reworking and fragmenting of some of the material, all mixed up, from 3:57 to the end of the first clip (actually the beginning of the second clip) is the DEVELOPMENT Section. So we'd expect, now, a RECAPITULATION, going back to the opening again to bring everything back together again.

So, let's listen to the 2nd half of the piece in this video clip which picks up just about where the first clip broke off.

- - - - - - -

- - - - - - -

Here, the “pleading” music ends at 0:13 with the sustained chords from the very opening (that “once upon a time” sound) beginning at 0:14. This is what we'd expect: this is what will become the RECAPITULATION (the final “A” in the A-B-A-like form).

0:39 – the 1st theme's fairy music continues as expected but it begins to expand...
1:17 – the 2nd theme comes back – the mortals' love theme – but wait a minute, what happened to the lively “barging-in” music from the mortals we originally heard at 1:16 in the first video clip? It's not here!

There are some other subtle differences here, too: it's not just a run-through of everything we've heard before. But we do hear familiar music – the fanfares, the Comedians' music with hee-haws. And at that point, Mendelssohn could give it a lively ending at 3:40, probably what most composers would've done – it would make people applaud more, after all. Yay! But wait, there's more!

3:40 – instead of wrapping it up, here, he brings back the 1st theme's fairy music again
3:59 – the first time around, those hesitant “looking around” chords are now expanding into something more like the opening's “once-upon-a-time” chords
4:39 – but here's something that sounds familiar: what is it? It's actually the musical idea we heard at 1:16 in the first video which we associate with the mortals barging into the woods: remember how loud and energetic it sounded? How does it sound here?

Remember, the piece if called “A Midsummer Night's DREAM” – are they falling asleep here? Then at 5:24, those magical opening chords come back as if to say “and that's how it ends: was it really just a dream?”

Technically, this is like an added bonus track that composers often use to wrap things up a little more neatly. It's not what we expect so it adds to the enjoyment by being a little more unpredictable: maybe it puts a different “spin” on what we've heard. It's called a “CODA” which is the Italian word for tail, as in the “tail-end.”

When you were children, ever have somebody read you a bed-time story to send you off to sleep? And you fell asleep before it was over? Maybe that's what's happening here: Mendelssohn has finished the story and carefully closes the book so as not to wake you.

- Dr. Dick

Technical Difficulties beyond a Luddite's Control

As it happens (so to speak), one can only count on so many bugs in any given system.

When we began setting this project up, the idea was to post things on a school-based network called (I think) cLc but it wasn't until a few days before school started that I discovered the cLc wasn't available at the high school. So we figured I'd just post anything I wanted to on my blog: material that can be used by both students and teachers.

I was told that students wouldn't have access to YouTube on their school computers because it can be so distracting (tell me about it). But if I posted them on my blog, that should make it easier. I wanted you to be able to see the music, in a way, that would help you familiarize yourself with what you'll be hearing live when these great musicians come in on the 16th to play for you. And also to give you some other things you can listen to just as examples.

Well, on Wednesday, I found out even the embedded videos from YouTube were caught in the security system and you couldn't view them. So I spent a few hours Thursday trying to figure out ways of getting those videos re-posted, downloading some software that refused to install and then discovering once I'd done what they'd told me to do (I think), it still wouldn't work.

Then some of the folks in the I.T. department figured out they could "unblock" some of the YouTube videos but not all (there are, like, 22 of them...). I suggested five that were really good for class viewing.

So check these out in the classroom:

The Octet's 3rd & 4th Movements (you'll hear it live)

The Magic World of Fingal's Cave (which has a video that takes on a tour of the cave and another that plays the piece Mendelssohn composed after he visited the cave 180 years ago)

The Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream (the overture is broken into two videos: I point out where in the timing you can hear certain themes that describe different characters in the play)

My apologies for the unexpected problems (this has become a learning experience for the teachers and myself, as well) and for the irony that we lost some time because I thought my e-mails had gone through when in fact most of them got caught in the school system's spam-filter :-\

My thanks to Ms. Lehmer and Mr. Applegate in I.T. for their help in getting around the glitches (I was calling it SnaFi which is kind of like wi-fi technology but with snafus) and also to Ms. Robbins, Mr. Askey and Ms. Botel for their additional support in all this.

And my thanks also to all the teachers and the students who are bravely going into this project and hopefully discovering something about some music that's been around for a long time, long before this technology I've been having trouble with ever existed...

- Dick Strawser (a.k.a. Dr. Dick, Luddite)

Music as a Language: Putting it Together, Note by Note

Music is often called “a universal language” even though it's not a language you would speak. Because it can communicate without words, it often connects with people around the world who might not be able to talk to one another but it could still be understood.

The only problem is, what the music “means” is another thing – it's not as direct as spoken language and so it doesn't translate into anything really specific. You can't come up with a musical equivalent of “What is the answer to Test Question #4” that will get you the answer you're looking for. But if you want to comfort someone, if you want to inspire someone, if you want to make some kind of emotional connection with someone who doesn't speak your language, chances are music may be a good way to start.

Of course, if you use words with music – and most popular music is vocal: songs that set words to music and then is sung – it may communicate better. But if someone who's living in Cairo doesn't speak English, they're still not going to know exactly what those words mean. And vice-versa.

If people know the story of Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in whatever language they speak, I think they'll “get” the meaning behind Mendelssohn musical work inspired by it.

If people can appreciate the Octet for Strings, they can do it whether they speak German, English, Spanish or Vietnamese – and everybody can sit in the same room and enjoy the music together even if they're able to talk to each afterward.

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However, there's another way I like to think of music as a language.

A language is based on sounds that are written down. A writer uses letters, a composer uses notes. A writer strings letters together to create words; a composer strings notes together to create musical motives or ideas, like the opening of Beethoven's 5th. (They can also be bunched together to make chords, a dimension that spoken language or writing cannot achieve).

You can put words together. This is called a sentence.

You can do the same thing with notes. This could be a melody.

You can also just keep stringing words together to make longer and longer sentences but they can start getting out of hand not making a lot of sense especially if you don't use any punctuation so the voice never knows where one idea stops and another one begins because then I went and had lunch and slept through math class the sky is really cloudy today and now I'm rally in trouble because like don't you get the same kind of feeling I have no idea where this is going.

If you had a melody like that – one that doesn't go anywhere or has no shape to it – it would drive a listener up a wall. Writing a sentence like that won't earn you any points in English class, either.

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Sentences can also then be strung together to make paragraphs. There are many ways you can do this, and you can create a sense of style depending on how you use your words and sentences, how you choose your vocabulary, how you write so the reader's “inner voice” rises or falls with the line – these are similar to ways that composers would write a musical line and indicate how musicians would perform it.

So, if combining letters creates words which in combination creates phrases and sentences and paragraphs, you can think of notes creating musical ideas which combine to create melodies (or something comparable – it may not be a real whistleable “tune”) which has a kind of musical punctuation called a “cadence” which could either be a comma or a period – or maybe a colon, semi-colon or dash. Whatever.

In fact, in music a phrase that ends in a comma answered by a phrase that ends more conclusively with a period is actually called a “period.”

You can put some periods together to create the equivalent of a musical paragraph. This would be a “section.”

Sections combined to create larger sections which, the more they grow, can form a complete piece. A song might be fairly simple and be over in less than three minutes. A symphony, concerto or a string quartet could be more complex, have three or four separate movements and could take a half hour or more to perform. Some symphonies can be 45 minutes or longer – Gustav Mahler wrote one that's about 90 minutes long!

Just like in music, writers can keep stringing these “paragraphs” together, too, until they end up with an essay, a short story or book. Some books might be 45 pages long and have maybe 5 or 10 chapters. How long is Herman Melville's “Moby Dick” and how many chapters does it have? Marcel Proust wrote a novel that's published in separate volumes – seven, originally, though usually in three volumes that would make great doorstops – and in all consists of some 3,200 pages! (The man would never be happy on Twitter!)

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You can create forms in words or music that are like rules in a game: there are procedures you can use that create different results. That's what makes the difference in card games, whether you're playing solitaire, cribbage or poker. It's like figuring out the patterns and sequences of patterns you need to know in order to play certain video games: by mastering them, you attain a higher level.

Music can work the same way. So can poetry.

There are many ways of grouping words, phrases and sentences to create a poem. There are different kinds of poems: some are defined by mood, others by structure.

The simplest poetic structure would probably be the couplet with two lines that rhyme. Or you can have four lines called a quatrain with alternating lines that rhyme. You can combine quatrains into longer strings to create more free-flowing poems.

Or you can have a longer, more involved form like the sonnet which is generally considered a more intellectual form with an involved rhyme scheme. You can also have something a little less intellectual like... well, a limerick: regardless of its subject matter, it still follows a predictable pattern of rhythms and rhymes.

In music, there are all kinds of ways to combine these units that are comparable to words and sentences and paragraphs into larger and larger forms.

But sometimes it is more than just what you hear on the surface. There are underlying principles that move the music forward, at least in Western Music.

One underlying principle is “unity & variety.” You don't want everything sounding the same because pretty soon it gets boring with nothing to keep your attention. A little variety and you have something new and different to listen to. What's really interesting is creating variety but still keeping it unified with certain fingerprints that make it sound similar but not the same. Other times, you'll want outright contrast: you have one idea that's soft and lyrical but maybe your next idea will be louder and more dramatic sounding.

Another underlying principle is “statement & digression.” You state a theme and then digress from it – through variety or contrast. The thing is to be consistent enough to be building up a listeners expectations but then doing just enough to give the listener something a little unexpected to keep the interest from flagging.

You can expand this by turning the “digression” into something that becomes increasingly unstable. But to create a satisfying ending – not necessarily a happy ending but a logical conclusion – you might want to come back to that opening statement to give it a kind of closure, rounding it off to make it feel like it's come full circle. That would make it “Statement, Digression & Return.” This is what much Western Music has come to expect but lots of composers (especially 20th Century ones) decided it wasn't all that necessary.

One basic musical form is a three-part form described as A-B-A. The A-Section is one idea, the B-Section another, the return of the A-Section brings it to a close by bringing back the opening material. This would be “Statement - Digression - Return.”

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Now, a unit of measuring notes in the amount of space it takes to write them down is called a “measure” or a “bar” (a “bar” is a place where notes like to hang out). European music usually moves in groups of 4 measures and these would be balanced by another group of 4 measures. Not that it HAS to, but it usually does. In context, you get so used to that and that's what you expect: you might sense when the composer's bending or breaking the rules by doing something unexpected. You may not know it, but maybe you sense something is a little different.

If you have a three-part form – A-B-A – it could be (4+4) + (4+4) + (4+4) or a total of 24 measures.

There are all kinds of ways you can expand on these simple forms.

You could take that A-B-A piece and turn it into a just one 24-measure section of a larger A-B-A form where each section is now a complete A-B-A form itself. That would make it an expanded piece that's now 72 measures long.

The trick is to make it sound not quite so square, all this 4+4+4+4... It's not quite the same as saying you can only have 8 words in each sentence, but it can become pretty dull – or just predictable. If there isn't some way of varying the material inside those measures, the listener would soon tune out.

Now, if you're writing a larger piece, that 72 measure piece could be one of four movements. For contrast, each movement would probably use a different form. They might also be in contrasting tempos and moods.

If you have a melody and then repeat it with slight changes, you have a form that's called Variations. You can vary the theme in different ways so as it goes along, things get a little farther afield from the original. Again, the idea is not to be too boringly close to the theme itself but to bring in as much variety as you can and still have it be recognizable as the original (it's in there, somewhere).

Another form is kind of a variation on this A-B-A idea. It's called the “Sonata” Form and it's usually used for the bigger first movement of a piece.

In this case the opening A-Section is really a bunch of sub-groups that would include a couple of contrasting themes. Using lower-case letters for the sub-groups, it might be described as (a+b).

Then the Capitol B-Section is based on those two contrasting themes (in no particular order) where a composer might play one off against the other or take them apart bit by bit and mix them up so maybe you're not really sure what's developing here. The opening part seemed pretty stable: but now what's going on? It can become very dramatic, too, and feels unstable.

Then the return of the opening A-Section is like a resolution of this instability: you are now hearing something familiar and the tension that had been building up – this uncertainty – feels like it's been released. Both themes, the “a” and the “b,” will come back again in their proper order and then wrap things up very neatly.

So the opening A-Section with its two (or more) themes is called the “Exposition” because the composer is stating his basic material (in writing, passages that are “expository” state facts or material that you need to figure out a character or a plot detail – it may not be action in the plot but it may be important to understanding the plot).

The middle B-Section which develops this material more dramatically is called the “Development” (in a story, this is where "the plot thickens"). When it gets more dramatic and unstable in some way, the point where it resolves into what you've been expecting is sometimes called the “denouement” (day-noo-MAH(n)), a French term that basically means it's the Climax and after that point, things work themselves out into some kind of resolution.

This restatement of the themes from the opening section is called a “Recapitulation” and we often abbreviate that to “Recap,” just like something somebody does at the end of a presentation to remind you what the initial points of discussion were. So that would mean you're dealing with Exposition [A(a+b)] + Development [B(a/b)] + Recapitulation [A(a+b)]. (That would make that last sentence a “recap,” too.)

And that, in a nut-shell, is one of the major forms of classical music! The Sonata Form.

At least that's the idea – there are lots of variations on what a composer can do with this concept but that's basically it.

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No matter what the style is, though, most of Western Music follows similar concepts of
Unity and Variety – a theme is presented (creating a sense of unity getting started) and then you hear some contrast (different or entirely new but maybe with some aspects of unity). An idea or gesture in the music comes back and you sense that it belongs there (unity) but you also sense that it's a little different the way it's used this time (variety). Maybe what you expect isn't what actually happens – that might be more “variety” than “unity.” If you hear a variation on a melody, that would be “unity” but if it's not the same, there's some “variety” with that.

So when you're listening to a piece of music, think of it as a text with words – not necessarily a story, because not every piece of music is “about” something – that's put together with words (musical ideas or gestures – like the rising idea that opens Mendelssohn's Octet) that creates phrases with punctuation – where do you feel the music takes a breath or comes to something of a pause (maybe not a stop); how does the composer keep going so the music continues to flow past these breathing places, this punctuation, these periods?

Listen to how this gesture – or the next one – comes back and unifies the musical line. What kind of contrast is there with the next line? Is it subtle or is it more obvious, like the three ideas from the opening of the overture Mendelssohn wrote to “A Midsummer Night's Dream” - how does he differentiate the music we associate with the fairies and sprites from the music associated with the mortal couples and then the comic “rustics” complete with a guy who hee-haws? If you can distinguish between these themes and pay attention to them when they keep recurring – like following the players in a sport game – you're doing exactly what the composer wants you to do: to be aware (consciously or subconsciously) of the form.

Because the Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream” is in Sonata Form. For all its telling a story, for all the different characters and dramatic relationships the music is describing, it's still a fairly strict “Sonata Form.”

Referring back to the post on "Right Brain / Left Brain," this sense of structure makes it an abstract or a “left brained” idea.

The music's ability to describe the events of a story is very subjective or a “right brained” idea.

And so in this case, the piece can be appreciated on both an abstract and a subjective level.

That's one of the hallmarks of music – at least Western Music (music from non-Western cultures may follow different underlying principles). No matter what the surface may sound like, however the individual composer's style is realized, underneath that sound is a basic foundation in these basic principles of “unity & variety,” “statement & digression” that helps to create a context for the grouping of these notes, phrases and sections that can be abstract (giving pleasure to the mind) or subjective (giving pleasure to the heart) and with any luck, both.

Now, with those thoughts, listen to that overture - reposted in this video - from a different perspective.

- Dr. Dick