Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Wit and Wisdom of Arnold Schoenberg

That title is just to trick you into reading the post. The famous Austrian modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg is not actually known for having a sense of humor. The only actual evidence is something he once said in class when asked to define 'good' music"If you arrange a piece of music for zither and it still sounds good, that's good music."

But Schoenberg is a fascinating figure, one of the few important composers who wrote things worth reading. His books on music contain many passages that are really worth thinking about. From the first page of his Fundamentals of Music Composition:
Without organization music would be an amorphous mass, as unintelligible as an essay without punctuation, or as disconnected as a conversation which leaps purposelessly from one subject to another.
This thought leads you to some other ones. It makes you want to ask yourself, when you hear a piece of music, "how is it organized?" A lot of pop music these days is organized around a melodic 'hook' and a synthesized drum track. There may be artifacts of the older pop form which includes a verse, chorus and "middle eight" (a contrasting passage that may or may not be eight measures long). But pop more and more seems to be flattening out the musical content as more and more attention is devoted to the video: fashion, jewelry, sex and "attitude".

The surface of a piece of music is quite important, of course. This includes the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic content. But the next level down is the phrase structure. Music phrases are organized in two basic ways: as periods or as sentences. The musical sentence and how it differs from the period was the discovery of Arnold Schoenberg, by the way. I talked about that in this post. I will talk about the musical sentence in a future post.

But there are higher, or perhaps I should say deeper, levels of musical organization such as the binary dance forms or ternary forms. These terms just refer to how many sections the piece has. Another very important kind of musical organization is the sonata or sonata allegro form which is used in many pieces in both the Classical and Romantic periods. It is also called "first movement form" because it is typically used in the first movements of symphonies, sonatas and string quartets.

How music is organized is the primary problem that a composer has to deal with. Sure, an idea comes to you: a phrase perhaps, or a motif, or perhaps just a rhythm. Maybe you stumble across a harmonic idea. But now, what do you do with it? Does this phrase/melody/motif sound like it is part of a piano piece? A percussion solo? A symphony? What are the possibilities? What is the character of the idea? Beethoven would struggle for months or years with a musical idea until he could find what it should be doing or where. I think that is probably an indicator of the intensity of musical focus he could bear on an idea.

Myself, I'm getting a bit better at it, but still, if I hammer away at a piece for a few weeks or a month, I think I have accomplished something!

A fine composer of my acquaintance, when I asked him how he wrote his music, said, "I just write down the notes that sound good." Which, as short answers go, is as good as any.

Here is a piece that is organized in ways that no-one has yet figured out in much detail. I gave it a try in this post. Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 11:


Rickard Dahl said...

I find organization of music to be far more difficult than finding (good) musical ideas. To find good musical ideas it's often enough for me to use some improvisation (most often based on a specific mode/scale). Some parts of the organization can come automatically with the improvisation but I do most organisation after the initial improvisation by improvising further or by notating in Sibelius directly. I'm also not so good at improvising using interesting accompaniment patterns or counterpoint so I mostly work with those things after the initial improvisation (those parts contribute quite alot to the organization I think). How I organize musical ideas seems to differ each time. But anyways I'm just a beginner with lots to learn.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, the organization of musical ideas is a much higher-order function than just stumbling across a simple motif. Compare Beethoven's 5th Symphony as a whole with the four-note motif that it begins with. But the goodness of a musical idea comes mostly from the way it is used. A lot of the really great pieces of music are constructed from the simplest and most ordinary musical ideas. Take Bach's Art of Fugue for example...

Nathan Shirley said...

The difference between Schoenberg's definition of period and sentence was long ago discovered by countless composers/musicians. Just as modern day psychologists are continuously "discovering" things that people already knew for ages.

That's not to say his observations aren't of value. I just found the parallel between his "discovery" and all those "scientific discoveries" we read about on your blog a little funny!

Sorry for dissecting that one sentence!

Bryan Townsend said...

Never let it be said that I am reluctant to be corrected, but I'm not sure I'm wrong in this case. Composers were writing periods and sentences for a long, long time, of course. But what I was talking about was the theoretical recognition of this, making the difference explicit, which is something different. A. B. Marx was one of the important theorists who worked in this area, but according to my theory professor and the author of a really good recent text on classical theme types, William Caplin, it was actually Schoenberg who theorized the distinction between the sentence and the period. Here is a link to Caplin's book and the passage in question is on page 9.

Nathan Shirley said...

Yes, and I saw where you were coming from with this and can even acknowledge the value in the distinction that Schoenberg made. It was just the word "discovery" that jumped out at me... really splitting hairs I admit! But to me it goes back to that key difference between music theorist and composer I brought up in your last Schoenberg post.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathan, you are right, the word "discovery" is misleading. I should have said something like Schoenberg was the first to make clear the theoretical distinction--which is actually no mean achievement.