Musical grammar

Written: May 27, 2003

To expound upon what I wrote earlier about how I think music needs a plan to be coherent…language, I think, works similarly. A language molds thought into speech so that it can be communicable and comprehensible to others; so a musical language does for musical thought.

[7/7/2003: A friend has suggested that I substitute the word ‘language’ for ‘grammar’ to clean things up. I agree.]

I should define what I mean by ‘musical language’ and ‘musical thought’.

By ‘musical language’ I mean the musical framework of a particular piece – the limitations a composer sets for h/hself. These limitations can involve any number of the elements of music: pitch, harmony, rhythm, lengths of sections, instrumentation, etc. (Less easy to get a handle on are the meta-limitations of a composer, how h/s decides what limits to play with. I wonder if it’s really the meta-limitations that distinguish one composer from another, and if they could somehow be codified.)

By ‘musical thought’…I mean something I can’t really define. Music has been likened to language in many instances; appropriately, I think. And I believe that as language communicates semantic meaning, so music communicates musical meaning. Unfortunately, I can’t be any more helpful and define ‘musical meaning’. I doubt I adequately defined ‘musical thought’.

Anyway, the analogy breaks down at a fairly high level. But it breaks down for interesting reasons.

A language is more or less common to all the members of a society. Details may change between dialects, but the core underneath remains stable enough to be understood with little effort.

Nowadays, musical language can change from piece to piece, let alone from composer to composer. Obviously, differences can be found between composers of older generations as well – it’s hard, I think, to confuse Liszt with Schubert – but I consider them more like the differences between dialects, in that there still remained basic grammars common to all…of which tonality is the most significant.

In contemporary music, part of the experience of listening to a piece of music involves figuring out and trying to understand the musical framework a composer is using, to a greater degree than ever before. Each piece might require an entirely new way of listening. This is not to say that it requires a great deal of mental labor on the part of the listener; but it certainly requires openness, and perhaps a little extra alertness.

I suppose formal musical training certainly helps, though I hate when people claim (mostly, they imply) that it’s a prerequisite to understanding. Everyone has heard music in h/h life, and knows something about it at a visceral level, even if they can’t necessarily verbalize it.

Anyway, this means that the framework of a piece becomes part of the content/meaning of the piece. A piece becomes not only about how a chunk of musical material can be developed, but about what can be done with it given a special set of limitations unique to that piece – or at least to that composer.

I wonder if the greatest pieces of music make their frameworks invisible. By ‘invisible’, I don’t mean unnecessary to the piece, nor unobserved by the listener, but instead I mean that the framework is accepted and understood by the listener without conscious effort. I can only think of my own experiences, really. I remember the first time I heard the “Gigue” from Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25, having never experienced such brash dissonance and atonality before – and thinking it was the most badass piece of music I’d ever heard. Or plugging George Crumb’s Black Angels into the CD player and being blown away by sounds I’d never imagined could exist.

To summarize, maybe a good piece of music draws you into its musical framework without you noticing, into a kind of understanding without knowing.

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