Analyzing Contemporary Music

Chapter 11:  Broader Horizons

Perceiving musical form is a process of recognizing the interplay between repetition and contrast, regardless of the style period.  The music we have analyzed to this point has been drawn from the common practice period, approximately 1650 – 1900.  Western European music written in the 16th century was primarily modal, and it is governed by a different set of melodic and harmonic guidelines.  Concert music written in the 20th century exhibits a combination of new approaches to tonality, as well as atonality.  A great deal of experimentation was taking place, and each composer established a personal style.  To a degree, musical relationships in a piece of new music may be based solely on the universe of that particular piece.  This requires an analytical approach that seeks meaning not based on stylistic traits, but rather by discovering the relationships inherent in each composition.

The language used to refer to musical elements must be updated and expanded to address new music.  If a small structural unit does not meet our previous definition of a phrase, it might be referred to as a “gesture” or a “sound event.”  Parametric changes in such elements as texture, dynamics, accentual patterns, and tone colors may play a role in shaping horizontal structures.  Pitch centricity is often established through repetition and prolongation rather than the presence of a tonal center.  Traditional chords have been replaced with “vertical sonorities” containing all types of interval content.  Rhythmic features may include mixed meters, odd meters, or proportional notation without bar lines or time signatures.  It is interesting to note that conventional formal structures were very often preserved in new music, demonstrating their usefulness beyond stylistic techniques.

Metaform: Beyond Formal Analysis

We come full-circle here in searching for meaning and a higher understanding of music.  There are limitations in the results of identifying patterns and stylistic traits.  The goal is ultimately to comprehend the composer’s musical idea as a unique, generative phenomenon.  This approach serves us well when analyzing music from any period or source.  Although words are inadequate to convey musical meaning, descriptive analysis can be effectively used with structural graphs, melodic, and harmonic analysis to explain the nature of underlying musical ideas.

The character of an original gesture or a motive can be unique, and elicit a strong emotional response.  Words in this case are useful to communicate how the music makes us feel.  Terms like playful, elegant, dramatic, sorrowful, serene, or agitated are all helpful to describe the character of a composition. 

Since music unfolds in time, the pacing and proportion of a composition or a series of movements are important elements in experiencing the music.  Tempos, key relationships, and the duration of sections of a work all contribute to the sense of proportion that we feel as listeners.  Unity, variety, balance, and symmetry are experienced as a composition reveals itself not merely as a succession of pitches, but as a vehicle that transports us to a world that is beyond analysis or description with words.

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