The Role of Music Structure in Music

The role of structure in society allows for a sense of organization and allows for relatively easy understanding of an element. Architecture of the Greek and Roman era’s used structure to enhance stability of their buildings, but also used elements of design to provide comfort for the viewer. Greek columns are placed at a slight angle leaning out to give the optical illusion of being upright. If the columns were perfectly straight, the perspective would show them as leaning in and give the “feeling” of being less stable. This same design technique also makes the structure stronger, as inward leaning lines of support are stronger than parallel lines. Music has historically echoed the same role in terms of structure. During Haydn’s era, the classical age wanted form and balance, so the Sonata form, with the exposition, development and recapitulation provided this same sense of balance. The climax should be near the center, with the tensest part of the music (the development) there as well. The ends should feel resolved and harmonious, opening and closing with the tonic.

Beethoven started to break these rules ushering in the Romantic era. While he still wrote using the Sonata form (as well as other classical music forms), the climax in his music comes closer to the 2/3rd’s mark or what would later be described as the Golden Section. Rather than retaining the form of his predecessors, he broke the mold, but did so by using the mold in unique ways. The opening of his 1st Symphony in C doesn’t start with C, but rather a C dominant chord as if the symphony were to start in F. Then the orchestra plays a D dominant chord, as if moving to G and then we get the resolution to C and the presentation of the first subject. It is this breaking of pre-conceived concepts of the form that Beethoven expanded how the form could be used.

Mahler took this even further. In his 1st Symphony, the final movement gets to a point where we would expect a coda, yet Mahler takes us to a choral, breaking our expectation of the form. Later, in his 4th symphony, Mahler juxtaposes elements of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as if to show not only an in-depth understanding of the form and style of Beethoven’s 9th, but to break these expectations to create something new. Where B’s 9th starts dark and low, M’s 4th uses higher registers and sleigh bells. B’s 9th ends with a chorus singing of joy. M’s 4th ends with a solo voice that seems to fade away as if to sleep or die. Both speak about heaven in their text, but it’s the use of similarities and difference that allow Mahler to create something new and unique.

Jess Albertine wrote form has less relevance to a modern audience. Beyond Mahler, the 20th century was all about breaking form, moving beyond the “older” traditional forms and on to something new. While some composers went in the direction of complete structure and serialism, other’s ventured into a complete lack of form using aleotoric methods to generate music.

Phillip Glass, Steven Reich, John Adams, Terry Riley and many more moved even further from form into the minimalist movement –music which has few elements, but these are repeated over and over again making slight changes so the musical form develops over a long period of time and barely perceptible by the audience. Rather than using the sonata form, minimalist music is more of a single line, not easily broken into separate elements.

Jazz has also been developing over the 20th century, moving away from the classical tonal world, to more chromatic passage, with intricate rhythms. Like other forms of commercial music, jazz tends to retain a sense of folk and/or song structure. Part of this is because of the audience, part of this is to help retain a sense of accessibility in terms of audience appeal. If the audience can grasp some element of the music, than other elements that are unfamiliar are able to be presented, and accepted. Mahler did this same thing with his 4th symphony, by incorporating elements the audience would understand with elements that were new and unusual.

However, another change Mahler made in his music was to use tonal color to far more extremes than his contemporaries. Reviewers of the time remarked unfavorably at this change and this was one of the reasons Mahler’s music was not overwhelmingly embraced during his lifetime. Years later, this use of tonal color has come to be a standard part of the classical writing, as evidenced by Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie or tone melody. Stravinsky’s use of registral extremes is now considered standard practice in terms of orchestration.

It is this breaking of expectations that creates something new. Yet the inclusion of something familiar that makes new music interesting and still acceptable, allowing for growth while gaining audience appeal (for music is nothing without an audience). Schoenberg said of a motive, it must develop but still retain enough of the previous to show the relationship. Music in the larger sense must do the same thing.

In terms of my own music compositions, I strive to understand classical forms, writing pieces in the forms of sonata, rondo, variation and arch. However, more recently, I have started to move beyond these forms to something more organic. I look to the sense of narrative. Mahler wrote with a sense of narrative in a number of his pieces. Even though we don’t have a specific narrative for his 3rd Symphony, there was clearly a sense that Mahler had something in mind when he wrote it. The result is music that flows much like a story.

If, as Ms Albertine suggests, form is no longer as important to a 21st century audience (not as immersed in what these forms are and certainly struggle to recognize them when they hear them), what is important? Narrative! I believe the modern audience likes story, hence the popularity of movies, particularly movies that have sequels. The same is true of television. The most popular shows are those that have a continual story. While a given episode may be complete to itself, there is a greater understanding of the story by including the elements/episodes previously aired.

Mahler did with his 3rd Symphony, by referencing his own previous work “Ablosung im Sommer” but not by using the lyrics or even the melody –just the accompaniment, Mahler was able to reference a sense of nature in his 3rd movement. The original song is about the death of a cuckoo. By using the recognizable elements of the song Mahler establishes a sense of the forest and yet allows for a new story to develop. By juxtaposing this with the Posthorn melody, reference another poem, the music takes on the sentiment of nature verses man and yet, man is also part of nature.

The pieces of music I am most proud of are those that were begun with a sense of story. Even if I don’t have a complete narrative in mind, the sense of flow helps insure the work flows correctly, that the audience will hear the music develop in a way that makes sense and yet, still has surprises. I hope to include elements of the past, while creating something new. Story has been around since before history and tugs at the very core of what it is to be human. If music is truly the universal language, then perhaps the form we should most closely adhere to is that of story.


Jess said…
I see my Mahler papers got you thinking! Haha that's great. I think you've hit the nail on the head here. We look for music to be accessible more than anything else, and what's more accessible and natural to us than stories? If I may talk about cartoon animation again with minimal chuckles on the reader end, that's exactly what Disney and Warner Bro's figured out back in the days of Fantasia and early Bugs Bunny. If music can be turned into a visible story, more people will enjoy it, particularly younger generations. The reasons it works are the same reasons we enjoy TV series and programmatic music- the stories give us something more tangible to grasp and relate to.

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