The Path To Music That Bears Repeated Listenings
Pick up sticks
If you’ve ever played pick up sticks as a kid, you may recall how a handful of variously colored thin sticks are dropped to the floor (or in my case as a child, a living room carpet) with the goal of each player picking up a stick without moving any other stick. When the sticks are dropped, and before we look at the sticks, they are in random order. However, when we look at them, our brains immediately search for order, and the sticks are no longer random. The eye and brain assigns, or creates an ordering from the sticks thrown haphazardly on the floor. It is then that the game begins.
Music vs. Pick Up Sticks
With music, we have quite a different kettle of fish. Music does not come into existence haphazardly; it is created and with human intention. Order comes from the creator, or composer, then perceived by the listener. When we listen, we are neither assigning nor creating an ordering of sound. We hear, and our brains perceive the order that is created by the composer and an integral part of the music.
The Effect On Humans Of Musical Disorder
First, let’s start with the premise that there are many levels of disorder in music. Like a messy room, there can be a few things out of place, but the room is nonetheless appealing. (There are no perfect pieces, unless your name is Mozart!) As the room becomes more messy, and depending on the individual’s level of tolerance (or taste in music), the musical experience becomes unappealing.
Listeners are not expected to be able to articulate the reasons for an adverse reaction, but they do know or sense that something is off in the listening experience. Weaknesses in the order, or in structure of a piece of music, are perceived by listeners. Taste (and tolerance) are individual and of course subjective, but we know something is wrong and elect not to hear the piece again.
Vertical/Sectional Music vs. Horizontal Music
In broad terms, a piece of music is a series of sections, or segments, the combination of which is heard as a whole piece. This experience applies to any genre, style or form, whether a Mozart sonata, Stravinsky ballet, jazz piece, popular song, etc. Listeners may really enjoy one or more portions of a musical work, but not all of them. The piece falters, or fails as a whole.
How this manifests itself in the listening experience affects our desire to hear the piece again and again, like the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, or a Beatles album worn down until the vinyl too scratched to play again.
There is quite a bit of music across the spectrum of likeability (again, highly subjective) with wonderful sections and musical moments that listeners lack motivation to experience again (or infrequently). This is the effect of most musical compositions. We all have our favorites.
Let’s be clear, this article discussion is not about a value judgement or opinion as to what is or is not great art through music, but rather an illumination as to some of the underlying causes of music that consistently results in the desire for repeated listenings. There is no one size fits all formula for artistic success.
Three Dimensional Music Composition
Retrospective contextual hearing, is the human phenomenon of hearing the music of a specific piece (whether single or multi-movement, from commercial songs to symphonies) at a moment in time against the backdrop of the music of that piece heard earlier. People hear music in context, as a continuum, one of the great wonders of the human condition. We hear and absorb musical information much like one would read a book or poem, on multiple levels. In music, this is sometimes called fundamental structure (German: Ursatz), and its two subsets – foreground and middle ground levels. Somewhat analogously, this addresses the overall structure of a work (Ursatz), then a detailed chapter outline (middle ground) and then the words/notes of the piece itself (foreground). These techniques of three dimensional musical composition when applied by skilled and talented composers, regardless of the musical language selected, give rise to this three dimensional listening experience, which when achieved, makes for a more universally absorbed composition that bears repeated listenings and stands the test of time.
Two Dimensional Music That Works On A Case By Case Basis
Music composed for media can work effectively without a flow through compositional structure from beginning to end. Music for film is composed for scenes, or a large number of cues. In general, music for media is often written with an emphasis on the moment (or cue) rather than a time continuum. This leads to greater flexibility for manipulation and editing by non-musicians.
Music editors and directors generally have free reign to cut and reorder music that has been scored to picture, while composers that labored over sequential music composition cringe while music they love winds up on the cutting room floor or far different form than originally conceived. The result is often that when extracted from the film as an independent film score recording, the score may not translate well to a concert or equivalent listening environment absent the picture for which it was originally intended.
Back in the day when classical composers were first tapped to score films that had sound as distinguished from silent films, music was often composed first, then the film was created to reflect the arch and structure of the already composed music. That process would be unthinkable today, although it was quite effective at the time. Music extracted from these films had a better chance of survival in the concert hall without picture than scores created today. Scores extracted from modern films have to go through an arrangement process to create suites of music that concert audiences can enjoy.
How Composers Think Structurally
At around the turn of the twentieth century, an Austrian music theorist named Heinrich Schenker developed a notational method that actually describes how humans hear music on a structural level. This very clever and thoughtful musician divided the listening experience into three levels – the foreground (the detailed notes we all hear), middle ground (elimination of the detail and distilled version of the melody and supporting chords) and foreground (major benchmarks and structural points along the way).
Do composers really compose in this Schenkerian way? Yes and no. Sophisticated composers kind of know where they are in the overall structure to some extent within this framework on a conscious level, even though in centuries prior to Mr. Schenker the notational system for structural analysis didn’t exist. But the composers knew about this anyway. However, the more skillful and experienced a composer, the more fluid the process of composing becomes in an almost subliminal level. Nadia Boulanger, the great composition teacher of so many wonderful composers in the twentieth century, called it the “long journey”, a clear reference to three dimensional composition technique.
After The Fact Analysis vs. Structural Hearing While Composing
Really talented and knowledgeable composers do not specifically compose in a Schenkerian way. These are tools for after the fact analysis. But what they do is maintain top of mind “structural hearing” tools while composing. The Schenkerian analytic tools (or their equivalent) must be fully understood by the composer in learning and the study of works while growing, but then kept “in mind” almost subliminally when applying Ursatz and sub-levels to new compositions.
Very few composers’ works these days can stand up to a rigorous Schenkerian analysis (or any of its versions). As a result, most composers and their works fade into mediocrity. A piece that lacks a strong and definable Ursatz discourages listeners to return to a work again. Poorly structured music, or works with deficiencies on a three dimensional level are weak, and generally falter or fail in the sense that listeners won’t come back for a second serving.
Composing Well Isn’t Really All That Easy
It seems like there is a composer on every corner these days. With a computer, notation software, sounds, and production software there are lots of people generating music. Most of it does not bear the test of repeated listenings.
I am often reminded that there is not a single right or wrong way to compose music. I agree. However, we all start out from the same place, with human brains and an operating system referred to as genetic code for hearing and digesting sound information that comes into our brains. After that, our environment takes over, and taste emerges from our life experiences.
The keys to understanding how and why we hear in three dimensions are very much in the early stage of scientific research. It will take some time before this is fully understood. In the meantime, the more composers understand this and how it works musically through the application of musical structure both consciously and intuitively, the closer they will come to consistently creating art that the world will wish to hear again….and again.
Steve Lebetkin, Composer in Chief, Composition Online