Friday, September 11, 2009

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