The Blueprint – A Philosophy of Musical Structure
Posted in Learn | Last Updated on October 4, 2018
As a percussionist who has been playing and teaching for many years, I presumed that I personally understood rhythm and that the music community as a whole understood rhythm. It came as a great surprise one day when I asked myself what rhythm was and failed to provide a sufficient response. I began searching for answers but the more I researched the topic, the more I realized that very few resources explained rhythm beyond vague, basic, and bland definitions.
When confronted with the fact that terms such as rhythm, pulse, tempo, duration, and time had never been defined or organized in a practical system, I concluded that most musicians had been using these terms without understanding exactly what they were referencing.
I thus deemed it necessary to create a philosophy that defined musical terms in the context of a practical system and established a blueprint of musical structure.
After relentlessly questioning, analyzing, explaining, and organizing my musical knowledge, I have come up with the following philosophy of musical structure.
PART ONE: FOUNDATION
A strong and secure foundation is absolutely necessary for any building or object to be structurally sound. Structures without an adequate foundation are at risk of collapse and destruction. It is on this premise that the first step in creating a comprehensive and logistical philosophy of musical structure is to establish the most basic foundation on which music is constructed.
In order to establish a foundation for music, the most basic element of music must be determined. To determine what this is, one must ask what is absolutely necessary for music to exist. When sifting through the possibilities, it appears as though time is the most basic element of music because it is absolutely necessary for music’s existence. Simply put, without time, music would not exist.
In order to understand time as the foundation of music, two essential questions must be explored and answered: (1) what is time and (2) how do I relate to time? Exploring and answering these two questions will help create a comprehensive understanding of time as it relates to music.
Time is a subject that we, as humans, know very little about. Is time a dimension? What is time made of? What causes time? We may never know the answers to these questions, but as musicians, we must embrace time as a complex entity and utilize our vague knowledge of it to enhance our musical experiences.
Despite what we don’t know about time, we do know that time is a type of movement. Time is a movement in the sense that it currently moves in one direction: from the past to the present, to the future. Although some physicists believe that time is capable of moving backward from the present to the past, we currently only know how to experience time as it moves towards the future. As a result, time can be represented as a directed line that moves organisms and objects in the world from the past to the future.
As we move with time, we experience the present. If time stopped, we would be frozen in the present and unable to travel to the future or the past. If time was sporadic and moved forward and then backward at uneven ratios, we would have a very hard time understanding how we progressed to the future. The consistent, continuous, and directed movement of time is what allows us to utilize time as a measurement.
In order to use time as a measurement, at least two events must be observed or created: one event to mark a beginning and another event to mark the end. If a measurement begins at one event with no subsequent event to end it, time will continue on without measurement. The most common way to use time as a measurement is through milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc. All of these, then, are not time itself but measurements that represent time. These measurements allow us to artificially structure and regulate time in order to create a more secure feeling of comfort and accuracy throughout day-to-day life.
The capability of measuring time has led scientists and physicists to discover gravitational time dilation. Gravitational time dilation was first suggested by Albert Einstein in his theory of relativity and was later confirmed by experiments testing general relativity. Gravitational time dilation is the effect of time passing at different rates depending on the gravitational potential. The stronger the gravitational potential (the closer to the Earth’s core), the slower time moves. The weaker the gravitational potential (the further away from Earth’s core), the faster time moves.
The ability to measure time has also shown that the Earth’s rotation is irregular and causes the length of a day to vary. Because time is not absolute (as shown by gravitational time dilation), and the irregular rotation of the Earth causes days to be different lengths, organizations such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) adjust clocks in order to synchronize local and global time. This information supports the notion that time is imperfect and leads me to conclude that time is a directed movement that is regular but inconsistent and can be measured by the occurrence of two or more events.
In order to answer the second question and evaluate the way in which we relate to time, I must start with the innate senses that I obtain as a human because it is through these senses that I experience the world. It is simple to say that time cannot be smelt because time has no scent. Time cannot be seen because it obtains no visual qualities. Some may argue and claim that you can see time by watching the seconds of a clock tick but I refute this argument because mechanisms created to represent time are not actually time. Time cannot be heard, as it obtains no audible characteristics. Again, some may argue that the tick of a clock is an audible aspect of time but just as before, clocks represent time and are not time itself. Lastly, time is not physically tangible, as it has no physical assets.
Despite the lack of sensible qualities in time, I find it interesting that time can still be felt. As mentioned previously, time is not tangible because I cannot stick my hand out and touch time or brush up against time as I walk down the street.
However, I do have a sense of feeling time. For example, when talking about the length of time an activity takes up, it is common to hear people say, “that hour felt so slow” or, “it felt like time flew by.” These common experiences lead me to believe that time can be felt in a non-tangible way.
If humans can only experience time though feeling it but are not able to touch it, is it fair to say that time is conceptual? Is the sense of feeling time created in our own minds and sped up or slowed down at our own subconscious discrepancy depending on the task at hand? This thought raises a question, is time internal or external? In other words, is time an internal phenomenon that each and every one of us creates inside of our own minds, or is time an external phenomenon that consistently surrounds us but is independent of human activity?
Through the evidence of prehistoric creatures and carbon dating testing, it is clear that time existed before humans existed. If time existed before human consciousness, it is evident that it can exist without human consciousness. Time, therefore, is independent and external to human consciousness.
Since time exists independently of human consciousness, obtains no sensible qualities, but is still experienced by humans, I believe that humans experience time through perception. Furthermore, since perception is dependent on the individual, the way in which an individual perceives time can certainly alter the way in which they experience time. To put this in perspective, acknowledge how an hour spent doing something dreadful may seem like two hours whereas an hour spent doing something pleasurable may seem like half an hour. Despite measurements of time being inaccurate, an hour is roughly an hour for both events, yet the difference in perception can significantly stretch or shrink that amount of time depending on the individual.
It is for these reasons that I believe when we say we “feel” time we are actually trying to say that we perceive time. To say that we perceive time is a more accurate description of how we relate to time since we cannot physically feel time at all.
If we experience time through our perception and time is naturally inconsistent, it is no wonder that a particular measurement of time can seem longer or shorter in some situations than it does others. It is this factor that makes me believe the time is not always perceived at the same pace but rather different paces for different individuals.
Through inquiry and analysis, I know that time is a constant yet inconsistent directional movement that is measurable. Time does not obtain any characteristics that appeal to human senses and exists independently of human consciousness. We experience time through perception and it is thus relative to the individual’s own experience of time.
Now that I have an understanding of what time is and how I relate to it, I can begin building the rest of my philosophy on top of it. The next step must be the second most basic element of musical structure and one that links time with the music. I believe the only element that fits the two criteria is the pulse.
The rhythmic pulse is music’s strongest and most basic outline of music’s structure. The pulse is dependent on the particular piece being observed, composed, or performed and, more specifically, the time signatures and meters that the piece obtains. For example, a piece written in a seven/ eight-time signature may be structured into two or three groupings within each measure (4+3, 3+4, 2+2+3, 2+3+2, 3+2+2, etc.). In this case, the first note of each grouping would create the pulse of the piece.
As mentioned before, the pulse is what anchors and binds music to time. The pulse provides a relative pattern of intervals that create a structure in time for music to be played. These patterns of intervals can be compared to the seconds of a minute and the minutes of an hour. They give musicians a musical measurement of time in which they can relate to and thus understand where they are in the music as it relates to time. Without pulse, music would not be able to connect with time or have a measured structure to play within.
The pulse is similar to day-to-day time measurements such as seconds, minutes, and hours in the sense that the pulse is not time itself but a representation of time in a musical setting. The largest difference between measurements of time in a day-to-day setting and the pulse in a musical setting is that the day-to-day measurements try to be as identical as they can be all day every day. 60 seconds = one minute, 60 minutes = 1 hour, etc. This is not the case with pulse as the patterns of a pulse can differ quite significantly due to the fact that it depends on the piece to which it pertains.
Pulse does not have to be audible in order to exist. The pulse of music can be present without anyone or anything playing the pulse. For example, a solo snare drum piece was written in common time and duple meter with a pulse represented by quarter notes does not always have to be playing quarter notes in order for the pulse to be present. Therefore, the pulse, as time, can be perceived.
Since pulse can be perceived, it is sometimes possible to simplify it. This can only be true when the primary pulse can be simplified into a larger pulse that does not neglect to account for the primary pulse within. For example, if you were playing a snare drum solo written in common time and the pulse was represented as quarter notes, it would also be possible for the pulse to be simplified to whole notes.
Now that I have an understanding of (1) what time is, (2) how to relate to time, (3) what pulse is, and (4) how pulse binds music to time, I can begin discussing rhythm.
As previously established, the pulse allows music to connect with time. Rhythm, then, is comprised of partials and subdivisions that are constructed within and around the confines of pulse. The combinations of these partials and subdivisions result in a balanced relationship of two opposites in which silence is as equally important as sound (since each of them depends on the other to define their existence). Rhythm is the third and final layer of the foundation and is always an extension of pulse.
Time is a continuous but inconsistent movement that travels from the past to the present, to the future. Pulse is the strongest and most basic rhythmic outline that organizes time by utilizing intervallic patterns and measurements. Pulse is the bridge that connects and binds music with time. Rhythm is an extension of pulse that consists of partials and subdivisions built within or around the confines of pulse. It is through pulse that rhythm is created and not vice versa.
It should be noted that pulse is the measurement that multiple players reference when playing together. It is the pulse that allows multiple individuals to play amongst time consistently and accurately. This is common as conductors often conduct the pulse of the music for the ensemble to reference. It should also be noted that it is possible for multiple pulses to exist at the same time. When multiple pulses are present and relate to time in a similar fashion but through different intervallic ratios, polyrhythms are created. Polyrhythms should thus not necessarily be named polyrhythms but polypulses.
PART TWO: VARIABLES
Once the musician understands the foundation of the musical structure, (s)he must alter aspects of the rhythmic notes in order to project a musical idea or message more clearly. There are two levels of variables: Influential and Independent. Influential Variables are closely related to the foundation and can have a significant influence on it whereas Independent Variables pertain to individual notes or groupings of notes and don’t have a significant relationship with the foundation.
The only variable in the Influential category is tempo. Tempo is the rate at which you play a musical passage or piece. To demonstrate how tempo is a variable, imagine that you have a snare drum solo to play. The snare drum solo can be played at a wide variety of tempos but for the sake of argument, pretend that you play the solo once at 40 bpm and a second time at 200 bpm. Despite the fact that the second time you played the solo it went by five times faster than the first time you played it, the pulse and rhythm of the solo did not change. The only thing that changed was the frequency and rate at which the pulse and rhythm occurred.
Throughout the process of increasing and decreasing tempo, time will always remain independent. Adjusting the tempo simply lengthens or shortens the total amount of time it takes to get from the beginning to the end of the piece by increasing or decreasing the rate of occurrence of the pulse and thus rhythm.
Tempo, like a clock, is not time itself but rather a measurement of time. Since tempo is a measurement of time, and time is inconsistent and experienced through perception, tempo is not absolute. This is to say that metronomes never produce perfect tempo. Instead, metronomes produce similarly spaced events that represent measurements of time and give musicians a reference of these intervals. To say that a metronome is perfect is as incorrect as saying seconds, minutes, and hours are perfect.
Independent Variables consist of volume, duration, pitch, and tone. These variables are more closely related to the individual notes than they are the foundation as a whole and are thus in the second level of variables. Each variable can be adjusted independently and has the ability to affect the music in drastically different ways. Adjusting these variables in various combinations provides a plethora of options for the musician to portray his or her message in the most efficient way possible.
The variable of volume in music is more broadly represented by dynamics. The volume can be adjusted to become louder or softer depending on the instructions of the composer or the personal decisions of the performer. Volume can affect large sections of music, individual notes, and even portions of individual notes. Volume is a very flexible variable that is capable of extreme changes over a short amount of time.
Duration refers to the timed length (not the rhythmic value) of individual notes. Sustaining a half note for its full rhythmic value would create a long duration. Playing the beginning of a half note and allowing silence to fill its remaining rhythmic value would create a short duration. It is important to note that duration is somewhat relative to tempo because a sustained quarter note at 35bpm will last much longer than a sustained quarter note at 215bpm.
The way duration is independent of tempo is that any note can be played longer or shorter depending on the will of the musician. This, while still dependent on tempo in terms of timed length, provides the musician with the flexibility to change the duration of individual notes regardless of tempo.
Pitch is the frequency of the said note and can be assigned both horizontally and vertically. Assigning pitches to individual notes in a horizontal fashion on a single lined rhythmic passage creates melody. Assigning pitches to the individual notes on multiple rhythmic lines in a vertical manner on sequenced rhythms creates harmony.
Tone is a combination of the timbre and texture that the musician creates through his or her instrument. On many instruments, the tone can be adjusted at the will of the musician and is often done so in order to better suit the mood of the music. Single notes can be played with different tones as well as entire sections or pieces. This is yet another variable that provides the musician with an increased supply of artistic expression.
Variables are not layers of the foundation because they are not essential for the existence or stability of music. It is absolutely possible for a musical passage to be played in a monotone fashion and at one volume level with one tempo. However, the experience of a passage performed in this manner would be quite dull and boring for both the listener and the performer. As a result, variables exist in order to better entertain and intrigue the listener as well as allow the musician to convey a musical message or idea more distinctly.
The possibilities created by adjusting the two levels of variables are virtually endless and allow the musician to phrase both entire passages as well as individual notes within passages. It is important to note that the variables are adjusted at the will of the performer. Due to this, all variables are highly susceptible to the player’s emotion. This emotional connection allows the musician to better communicate their feelings and voice through music.
PART THREE: CONCLUSION
The structure of music is extremely reliant on rhythmic elements and consists of three sections: the foundation, influential variables, and independent variables. The foundation is built upon time, which is the most basic element of rhythm. Pulse is the second layer of the foundation and acts as a bridge that links music with time. Rhythm is the third layer of the foundation and is created as an extension of pulse by utilizing subdivisions and partials in forms of sounds and silences.
The variables consist of Influential Variables and Independent Variables. Tempo is the only Influential Variable because it is a variable that can have a direct influence on the foundation. Tempo has the ability to lengthen or shorten the intervals of pulse and thus rhythm to make a musical passage be presented faster or slower across time. The Independent Variables include volume, pitch, duration, and tone. These variables influence individual notes but do not influence the foundation directly. Both levels of variables lie on top of the foundation can be adjusted at the will of the musician.
The foundation and variables of music can be compared to the structure of a house. A house needs a strong foundation and well-constructed framing in order to sustain a long and steady life. A steady foundation and structure allow the homeowner to decorate and accessorize the house in order to make it more aesthetically pleasing as well as project a personal message.
The musical structure is extremely susceptible to personal interpretation and cultural influence. Establishing specific characteristics of foundations and variables creates style. Style is the factor that makes the music of a salsa band sound far different from the music of a Scottish pipe band. The phenomenon of musical style occurs because all layers and variables are relative to the individual, group, society, current events, and culture involved with the music. In turn, it is very apparent that music is extremely vulnerable, volatile, and adaptable to its surroundings. It is due to this vulnerability, volatility, and adaptability that music is so diverse and able to connect with people around the world.