Ars Gratia Deus


Back in the days of grad school, my composition teachers would hold a one-hour seminar each week in addition to giving individual lessons. A buddy and I would go out to lunch afterward and discuss things like, "Does music communicate or is it just entertainment?" I believed then, and now, that music is a form of communication. My friend was not convinced, and at the time I couldn't come up with a good explanation or argument. In hindsight I see that my mentor (Merrill Ellis) had already given me the answer, but it would take years before I began to understand the things he had said to me.

What he said was, "Think FORM." The problem for young composers is that they think like musicians instead of composers. Because we start learning music with rhythms and pitch and then add dynamics, phrasing, etc., musicians tend to think of music in terms of the elements of the music. Young composers try to do the same thing to construct a piece of music. Create a melody; add some accompaniment, then...what? That's the problem. You can only repeat the same thing a few times before it gets boring. If you just stick one idea onto the end of the previous idea the piece has no sense of unity, but becomes episodic. So, Ellis said, the composer must thing in terms of FORM, TEXTURE, and ORCHESTRATION first and foremost. The problem I had was trying to understand exactly what form in music really is.

To talk about form in music is difficult. We can understand that the form of something physical is its shape. But music is not something physical. In music, what does it mean that a phrase, a movement, or a whole piece has shape? Form in music is taught in the music schools in terms of sections and their relationships. The classic forms are expressed as ABA, or "exposition, development, recapitulation," or some other sectional model based on either the musical elements of melody and tonality. I always felt that analysis of form in those terms was lacking somehow. It just didn't seem to express what the music was really doing. But, as every student learns, you give the teachers what they want so that you get your grade and then your duh-gree and move on. I no longer have any teachers' expectations to fulfill, and no need to prove anything, so I can think about FORM on my own terms now. And, this is what I think...

Form in music is not simply about sections and themes and tonalities. It is much more subtle and important than that. Form is really about how the elements move forward in time through the composition. There is a change in content, and a change in context, that creates the tension-release effect that makes the piece interesting. Ponder on this:

I - IV - V - I

Every music student knows that. It's about the first lesson in harmony they will give you. It seems trivial. It seems of no real importance. Just a statement of what most music of the West does. OK. Now what? Stop. Think. Why should that specific harmonic movement become so important? Look at the "form" of that simple harmonic movement.

The first step, I - IV is very important. We begin with the TONIC, the reference point, the starting place and MOVE AWAY FROM IT. That creates tension, a type of conflict that must be resolved. Yet, it is ambiguous. Do you see that I - IV is a DOMINANT-TONIC relationship? Is the first chord really the TONIC or is it the DOMINANT of the second chord? Did we begin I - IV or did we begin V - I? So, there is an ambiguity, a partial thought that needs to be completed. That ambiguity forces the progression forward. The movement IV - V removes the ambiguity, but leaves us at the maximum distance from the TONIC. Thus we must return to where we started to complete the thought. I - IV - V - I. All the harmonic progressions in western music are simply an elongation or variation of that basic pattern. That pattern forms a dramatic arch, a process of discovery, a problem to be resolved, a moving away and a return. That's how FORM in music works.

Now this is interesting:

I - IV - V - vi - ii6 - V - I

It begins as expected, but there is a kind of hiccup in there. The retrograde V - vi is unexpected. We expect to hear the full resolution to the TONIC, but it is delayed. Yet, it is not totally a delay; it is an incomplete allusion to the TONIC. The SUBMEDIANT and the TONIC share two tones in common, hence the vi is "almost there" but fails to provide the resolution we expected. Can you see that? It creates a sense of surprise, something that was not in the direction we thought we were headed, a displacement of expectation that increases the tension rather than releasing it. And then, ii6 follows. That's very interesting. Just as the SUBMEDIANT is a substitute TONIC, the SUPERTONIC is, functionally, a substitute SUBDOMINANT. The base line follows the typical progression, but the particular tones are slightly different. That other tone, the upper root, hangs into a suspension into the actual DOMINANT. It is another ambiguity, a preparation for the DOMINANT. We end up with a double-hump arch in the end, a more interesting shape that is a working out of the basic idea of the dramatic arch.

One more:

I - IV - V - vi (ii/V) - II6 (V/V) - V (I)

Well, if you don't know figured base, let me explain. That little ditty is a basic altered-tone modulation. All we needed to do was raise the mediant tone of the ii chord by a one-half-step chromatic movement and we have a DOMINANT of the DOMINANT. Functionally it is no longer II but V/V and when we land on the original DOMINANT we have a new TONIC instead. That's all it takes -- a small, almost insignificant change and we move into a new tonality. Notice how that modulation works. The middle of the progression has a dual meaning. The harmonies have a function in the original TONIC and a different meaning in the new tonic SIMULTANEOUSLY. The ambiguity erases the old tonality in preparation for the new.

Once you grasp this idea of form then you can move to another level of understanding about music. The same principle applies to any musical element, not just the harmonic progression. You can do the same thing with melodic phrases, orchestration, rhythmic patterns, or even synthesized bleeps and bloops. When you take this idea of reference, departure and return to a large scale, you have the form of the piece. A melody is a small form; the whole piece is a large melody. The aesthetic principle is the same AT ALL LEVELS. Establish a reference, move away from it, then return. Throw in an unexpected step to add interest, or slightly alter the pattern in some way to move it into a new and contrasting idea.

To perceive the form you have to look past the surface elements of the music and take note of how they move through time. The relationships, the shifts in meaning, the consequences of the choices made are what make the music aesthetically interesting. And, that makes me ponder why the human mind considers this pleasing and meaningful? Why do we prefer tension-release, conflict-resolution, dynamic balance, disproportionate relationships (such as the golden mean), over static repetition and symmetry? It's almost as if there is something innate in human nature that responds to a particular type of formal structure.

Psychologists and philosophers no doubt have their own theories. I believe it is innate in human nature because it expresses the human condition described in the Bible. God creates all things good (stable reference), a contrasting element (temptation, lies, and sin) changes the condition away from stability, leaving man in a fallen state. We long to have the resolution. We long to return to the original goodness that was departed from. Art can reflect that simple idea and effectively communicates at a visceral, unconscious level the desire to return to God that is in man.

 

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