Analysis may be defined as gathering and interpreting significant, meaningful information about music. To that end, all observations about music must be directly related to the aural experience. Analytical abstractions and theoretical models are valid only to the extent that they bear a direct relationship to the perception of sounds.
The aural experience is the cumulative effect of individual events that occur in the music and impressions which arise from the movement of the music. It has been postulated (Meyer, Randall) that the listener caries some experiential baggage into the music encounter, and that familiarity with a style or syntax becomes a frame of reference. A style is defined by conventions which are learned and culturally determinant. These conventions are identifiable patters of organization and relationships in musical materials that are shared by similar pieces in a given style. Characteristic processes, relationship, norms, and principles identify the music of influential composers and schools of composition in particular style periods. These characteristic principles have been codified by traditional theorists, and the recognition of such factors as resolution and distribution of voices, structural molds and cadential formulate is used in identify styles. Discovering the conventions of a style should be an initial consideration in music analysis, since the expectations of the listener are a product of conditioning to musical materials and their organization within a particular style.
Style analysis employs a set of abstractions or general operative principles associated with a particular idiom. Assumptions can be made about pieces of music that fit within the context of a codified idiom. However, a contemporary work which does not use traditional harmonic or formal vocabulary exhibits its own structure and language. Therefore, assumptions must emerge from materials and relationships that form the conceptual basis of each new work. The unique characteristics of a composition offer more significant clues in explaining its structure than do the characteristics it has in common with similar pieces of music. This is particularly true of post-tonal music, since individual composers have developed styles which are highly personalized, and systems which may have direct applications for their works exclusively.
After initial consideration of the style period to which the music belongs, and comparison with other works by the composer and contemporaries, general observations should then be made based on aural impressions of the piece as a whole. Developing a broad overview of the composition as a complete entity rather than a collection of parts is the first objective.