The Golden Section

Written: May 12, 2003

At NEC, there was a faction of composers who were dedicated to preaching the word of the Golden Section, using it in as many aspects of the music they wrote as they could think of. Lengths and proportions of sections, instrumental groupings, pitch, you name it.

I have to admit a real ambivalence towards it myself. I find it a very compelling proportion, and I myself have written a piece based very strongly on the Fibonacci series. But I despise how it was preached as the be-all and end-all of composition.

It’s almost certainly clear from my tone of voice that I found their attitude somewhat irritating, and maybe condescending. The Golden Section is neat and all, and yes, it can be found in a large number of works of art; but it’s also absent from a large number of works of art. It became tiresome to hear it spoken of as a kind of dogma, as if incorporating a particular mathematical ratio into your music automatically makes it good.

Like any craftsmen, composers work with a variety of tools. Sometimes a particular tool is more useful than another in getting a particular result. Sometimes we’re better at using some tools than others, and/or certain methods jive better with how we want our music to sound. That doesn’t mean that any way of composing is inherently better than any other. If someone wants to use the Golden Section in their music, they’re more than welcome to. But in the end, what matters is the finished product – not how we got there.

Though, I must admit, I find it quite neat when I discover that a piece of music I dig has an intricate and detailed structure. Then again, discovering equally arcane properties in a piece of music I hate doesn’t make we want to hear it again. I guess it’s really cool when a piece works on a variety of levels – but of primary importance is that it works on the fundamental level of making people want to listen.

Let’s say I listen to what I conclude is a shitty piece of music. Utter boring crap. Then, for some reason, I take the time to conduct some sort of formal analysis and find out that the composer used the Golden Section in every possible aspect of this piece. That doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want to listen to it, and thus fails on the most basic level.

Maybe what really matters is not the nature of the plan we use, but that we use a plan at all, that the composer has some way of guiding and focusing h/h musical ideas.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all.

I don’t really know.