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jawoodruff

Predictability and Structure: How Relevant Are They?

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Seeing how this topic comes up again and again in many of the upload reviews, I felt that it'd be a good topic to have here in the Composer's HQ. 

Predictability is -of course- being able to predict or anticipate where a particular musical passage will go to. Tonal composers -often- choose chords due to their tendency to resolve to other chords (i.e. V-I progressions). Thus, tonal music -one could argue- carries with it a great deal of predictability on the listener's behalf (we all know the famed structures of the CP period carried with them particular departure points harmonically speaking). Good composers -the masters, so to speak- were able to manipulate the patterns of predictability by delaying expected resolution patterns. Thus expanding upon established musical structures (fugue, sonata form, binary, ternary... etc.) 

Today's audiences -who have experience with non-tonal (namely, common practice tonality) music- still have the ability to anticipate musical patterns -but... how relevant is structure and predictability in music? That is the discussion to be had.... Enjoy and keep it nice!

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Hello! This is my first post here since this topic looks delightful. I would go so far as to say structure and form are probably the most important part of music. I envision music as a discourse, wherein an idea is expanded and brought towards a greater whole. That is a very cryptic thing to say, but allow me to elaborate. Let's start with an example, say you are listening to a piece of music, and you encounter a musical object (like a subject for a fugue, or a motive, or what have you, the determination of it as an object is what is important) for the first time. To every object there is a corresponding idea (or concept whichever you'd like to call it, I'll stick with idea here; additionally if you would like me to justify this assertion I can) of which it is an instance, but as we have only encountered this single object, we only know the idea to contain at least this. But then, upon repetition, in some way, the object is changed, and yet the fact that we identify it still as an instance of the same idea implies that the idea has grown to encompass more than what it once did. This is discourse in the sense that, when two people have a discourse, one contradicts (their assertions differ, vary) the other but through growth (for example, by learning more) they come to see their positions identified (they come to a consensus, maybe you disagree because of a misunderstanding and through the growth of alleviating that misunderstanding you are unified). This is I believe what makes music great, personally, hearing an idea grow and and take life in succession. To generalize a bit, contrasting sections perform this same process upon the entire piece, rather than a single musical object, where the idea of the piece encompasses what it once did not while retaining its identity.

We took something for granted in this example, which was the determination of the object. This is where form is crucial, because where there is form, there is an idea, and vice versa. It is the idea that takes the raw content and unifies it into an object. Ideas are abstractions over specifics (content) which leaves a form, which we may use to determine objects as instances of this idea. It is clear then that without form, the process I spoke of cannot take place, and that is of great importance to me at least since it is that process which I believe makes music enjoyable and great. Some conventions and limitations (form is always limitation) are necessary for coherence and communicability of your objects, and consequently, your discourse about them, a musical language (form) for encoding musical objects akin to how natural language is a form for encoding thought. Our language though is subject too to this process I described above, whereby the idea of it is expanded by way of development. As you said yourself, the great masters pushed the form and in this they expanded the idea, just how by developing a musical object we expand the idea of it and bring it towards a greater whole. The same question you ask yourself when developing a musical object is the one you must ask yourself when you are attempting to diverge while still maintaining coherence, it must not be the divergence of the *form* of the musical object, it must the development of the object, it must still be determined as an instance of the same idea for that idea to grow, if it is too distinct it will simply be an instance of an entirely different idea. Likewise we must not leave the form despite breaking it, in that the form will grow as it now encompasses something it did not. It's a hard line to balance, and it cannot in my opinion be reduced to a science.

Just my thoughts, sorry if I was too wordy or troublesome in my post! I look forward to the discussion on form since it's my favorite part of music personally.

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Form is absolutely an important component of structure -I believe everyone would agree upon this. 

What I would argue, however, is that the set traditional forms don't carry as much weight as they once did. I know from my own experience writing that -for instance- I have no use for the traditional structural requirement of the sonata form (that it start in the tonic and modulate through the exposition to the dominant). My musical language isn't built upon traditional common practice harmony -save for deceptive harmonic passages. Thus,  when I use sonata form.. I alter the form to fit my needs -if I even use the form at all. Instead, I create my own structures and forms -or modify pre-existing forms. 

It is this reason that leads me to also think that some forms are less important now as they once were. 

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On 1/19/2020 at 3:19 PM, jawoodruff said:

how relevant is structure and predictability in music?

I'd say this depends on what kind of tastes you have and how easily you tire of repetitions. The reason I can't physically listen to 80% of the old warhorses' music is because I literally turn my brain off after hearing most of the musical material since what comes after is usually so predictable to me that I don't need to listen to it. As a matter of fact, I've fallen asleep listening to a lot of music (In concerts no less!) precisely because sleeping is more valuable than hearing the same god-damned T-S-D-T cadence structure for half hour. I suppose I'm just very easily bored.

 

The other 20% that I can listen to is where the composers actually decided to, you know, compose. That's the thing with forms, they're meant to make your music longer. Quite literally, they're meant to make it so people tire LESS of hearing the same things over and over, but still make it go for as long as you want. This is of course why music that can't use those structures tends to vary so wildly in length and those that do end up being pretty homogenized in length.

 

As for things being predictable, that really depends on your experience. I think anything can be predictable if it's a musical vocabulary that you're familiar with, and that's including all the modern crazy stuff you can think of. If you're constantly exposed to it eventually even John Cage's stuff is pretty predictable and sort of boring. The exception here of course is that contemporary composers can choose to be arbitrarily different so that could be why I'd much rather listen to contemporary music. I don't usually know what I'm getting and honestly SOME measure of surprise is appreciated after dissecting the last 500 years of music for years. Then again, I get bored very easily, so maybe that's on me.

 

 

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@SSC

 

Hi, I totally agree.

In mhy opinion, predictability depends on the heavily fixed patterns we have been exposed for years and years when listening to music of the classic period (and pop). I'm sure there are manhy ways of going out, more or less, of it, even taking the formal, harmonic, etc...., standards as a base for composition. So, I prefer music that tries to be original in some way. Because imitations of baroque, classic or romantic music are just that: imitations. It's good to do it, as exercises or to learn,....., but making music that all the time is a reflection of those styles is, for me, boring. Of course, I always appreciate the work of people (me included) no matter what type of music they do. But, why not trying to look for something a bit, just a bit, different? We are not in 17, 18, 19th century. Many musical things have happened after and we can use them. There's no need to go into atonality, there are dozens of tools or resources to make music grow staying tonal.... But, OK, I respect any approach to composition.

Form. It's the big frame where we can organise our stuff. The same, again. Classic Forms can be taken freely and adapted. And there are many other forms to explore, I do it all the times: mosaic, cagean boxes, irrational numbers...

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On 1/21/2020 at 8:21 AM, SSC said:

I'd say this depends on what kind of tastes you have and how easily you tire of repetitions. The reason I can't physically listen to 80% of the old warhorses' music is because I literally turn my brain off after hearing most of the musical material since what comes after is usually so predictable to me that I don't need to listen to it. As a matter of fact, I've fallen asleep listening to a lot of music (In concerts no less!) precisely because sleeping is more valuable than hearing the same god-damned T-S-D-T cadence structure for half hour. I suppose I'm just very easily bored.

The other 20% that I can listen to is where the composers actually decided to, you know, compose. That's the thing with forms, they're meant to make your music longer. Quite literally, they're meant to make it so people tire LESS of hearing the same things over and over, but still make it go for as long as you want. This is of course why music that can't use those structures tends to vary so wildly in length and those that do end up being pretty homogenized in length.

 

I agree totally with the first paragraph. I think there is a difference between predictability and predictability without variation. It's often a fine line that I think a lot of contemporary composers avoid -for this very reason: we don't want to be viewed as being 'boring'. There is a way to be predictable and provide anticipation to those listening to your without making them fall asleep in the process of getting your ideas across. This is where, for me, relying on the traditional forms -as they stand- doesn't quite work for my music. When you separate yourself from the T-S-D-T structured forms of the common practice period, and write without reliance on common practice tonal standards, then you put yourself into the trap of be aurally irrelevant (people will tune out your music). 

I sort of agree with the second... but... for the reasons I stated above. Yes, you should actually compose your music. I take portions and ideas from the various traditional forms: development focused sections, recurring ritornellos, two contrasting sectionals, etc. and then utilize those in forms that I create myself -self made structures that fit the musical ideas I want to convey (in the manner I want it conveyed as well). The part I disagree with is that the traditional forms were meant to make your music longer. This isn't accurate at all. The musical forms were meant to solidify a tonic relationship and sense of cohesion within a work (which is why students had to learn the forms within their tonal constructs: I-V, etc.) Certainly, you could write a brief sonata allegro work... or an expansive minuet.... and even an hour long fugue -you could also write an hours long sonata allegro work, a 30 second minuet, and a minute long fugue. The length was irrelevant as long as the music was sound in construct (meaning that it fit the overall expected harmonic foundation of the form being used). This wasn't meant to lengthen the works -and viewing the repertoire clearly shows that it was not meant for that purpose.

 

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