Theoretical Awareness– 2nd in Series: 7 Musical Intelligences

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musical intelligence theory, hearing patterns

Hearing Patterns in Music

7 Musical Intelligences Series: Theoretical Intelligence -

Now we look at Understanding Music Though Formal and Harmonic Patterns

Continuing backwards from the holistic “feeling” of the emotional content of the music discussed in the previous post: Musical/Emotional Intelligence - in this article I want to take you a step deeper into the musical experience.

In answer to the query “What causes or creates the emotional content of the music?” -Beyond feeling music emotionally, we want to understand how it creates those emotions.

Theoretical intelligence - or just plain “theory” - is one of the best tools to grasp the content of music through underlying and extended patterns and structures.

Considering the big picture- examining the structure of a piece on its largest scale- we can ask:

  • What are the musical “ideas” - or melody or motive or theme - presented at beginning?
  • How many new musical subjects are offered throughout the whole piece?
  • Are there any relationships between separate concepts?

Music theory may intimidate some people - it does me! - although if you approach it from the simplest possible angle it becomes less so.

Without being a theoretician or academic, most people can spot patterns of different kinds in a work, starting with repetitions of a theme and perhaps exploring further from there.

By listening to a recording and/or reading a score, you may notice slight variations in repetitions or how a fragment of a melody is developed and explored.

Much though I am loathed to admit it, the greater your knowledge of of theory, the better you’ll understand the musical message.

Structure and pattern are the form which gives music context.

I also encourage you to read about the writing and performing style of a piece from first performance to present day and also to research a little about the composer’s life.

The purpose of music, and any art, is to reveal something fresh and new within recognizable patterns. Nature has structure, ecosystems, biology - a myriad of interconnected patterns, and is infinitely creative within those frameworks. The same applies to music.

Let’s look again at the first phrase of the Rondo movement from the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. This time I’ll outline the basic chordal structure.
mozart clarinet concerto opening thrid movement
The first bar is a simple “tonic” chord - A major in this case. The second bar immediately heralds the ubiquitous “dominant” I discussed in the previous post. And further - it’s a dominant 7th that is not only desperate to resolve to tonic but with insistence. It’s as if the “dissonance” of the 7th is not content! Fortunately, it doesn’t loiter for long - only one beat. By the second beat of the second bar, it’s home again.

The third bar is only mildly unhappy with its harmony a mere 4th away from home as opposed to a 5th. This is the sub-dominant and no, that’s not a strange master-slave game!

The fourth bar is Mozart’s humor - even sexiness - showing through. A slinky chromatic gesture tickles our fancy, keeping us guessing a bit but then finishes on that needy dominant which quickly resolves again to tonic as of to say “Whew! I like coming home!”

The fifth bar is a repeat of the first, giving us a cozy comfort of the familiar. As expected, it lands again on the dominant 7th but we’ve been there, done that - nothing out of the ordinary.

Then something really dramatic happens... two things really.

First of all there’s another chromatic “dissonance” thrown in, upsetting the direction. Aha - something is coming! Instead of arriving at our destination we’re suddenly suspended somewhere completely different: we land on a minor chord - the first one. What a change!

Even more wonderful is that the expectation of “business as usual” threw us off when it didn’t happen. We were tricked - hence the name “deceptive cadence”. We went from feeling far from home in the dominant 7th to even MORE lost in the deceptive cadence to a minor 6th chord!

Luckily it was all a joke and the next bar pretends as if nothing has happened, bouncing back to tonic. Home again! Yay.

There you have it. Approached with playfulness and humor, any piece will begin to reveal itself through its own structures and patterns, bringing with them a few challenging surprises.

Practice –

-What are the themes? How are they developed?

-Analyse and identify the chord structures of a few phrases.

-If you really want a real challenge: seek out chord progressions in the development section of the Mozart concerto or any piece - talk about feeling lost at sea!

Would you like to share practice ideas with other musicians? Please consider joining the Musician Practice Café.

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8 comments for “Theoretical Awareness– 2nd in Series: 7 Musical Intelligences

  1. October 13, 2010 at

    I really enjoyed this informal harmonic analysis. Here's a good reference recording on YouTube (for anybody else who couldn't quite auralise it directly!)

    • October 13, 2010 at

      Hey Christopher. Thanks for posting the recording. It's a good idea to post a sound sample for those unable to imagine the phrase. Much appreciated.

  2. October 10, 2010 at

    absolutely, you have my permission. I still do think it is important to 'educate' the listeners about theory, it is, as you, peculiar to one aesthetic although I do believe there are similar strategies in other aesthetics. I read recently someone (was it you? I read too many blogs 😉 recalling how, when the early touring orchestras would visit towns along the route, the local people would obtain piano transcriptions of the works to be performed so as to be better prepared for the listening experience, becoming intimately familiar with the script of the work in a way hardly anyone does today.

    To give full credit where due, the experiment with the off note is based on an experiment demonstrated in a Victor Wooten video although he doesn't extrapolate from that learning to the general case of other innovations that get progressively learned by the followers of a given style (or should we say 'geneology') of music.

  3. October 9, 2010 at

    Thanks for your comments all!

  4. October 9, 2010 at

    "Much though I am loathed to admit it, the greater your knowledge of of theory, the better you’ll understand the musical message."

    this needs some qualification, because I will bet you can miss the musical message of Lightning Hopkins if you go looking for 'theory'; what you mean to say is, as in Law, for music that is based on theory-precident, you will need to know your books to understand where it is coming from.

    Allow me to explain with an experiment anyone can do: have someone (or some device) play a simple vamp in G minor, then hit a 'wrong' note, any wrong note. Now the 'theory' tells us that the 'right' note is on either side of that wrong note, one semi tone, and, knowing this we can go one way or the other depending on the mood of the music and every composer and folk musician knows and exploits this, but here's the experiment: Stay on that wrong note, thump on it until the audience starts to wince and THEN ease it into the harmony. So far so good. Do the same thing again, hold that wrong note until they get edgy, then ooze it into the other semitone-away harmony. Ok, now you are saying, sure this is all still theory, but here is were the theory fails you:

    play that wrong note again and lo and behold, the audience doesn't perceive it as 'wrong' anymore, they have been trained to expect the resolution and as with colour illusions, they are now neurologically conditioned so much by their prior experience that the note just doesn't sound 'wrong' now, even before the resolution.

    In a nutshell, that is the history of Western music from Cantus Firmus to the present day, it is conditioning audience expectations one little step at a time, and the theory does give us some hints for how to design these experiments, and looking at a score that was constructed to BE one of these "take them one step farther" precident-establishing experiments, it helps to know the theory so you can second-guess the puzzle. But it is an exercise peculiar to this music. Different rules of precident are heaped upon one another to create Indian ragas, to create Jamaican 'riddims', to create 'traditional' fiddle tunes, there is an aesthetic that has been massaged into the expectations of the audience over generations of tiny steps; the process of the cleverness to exploit this musical feature of the creature that is the human is similar, but each is according to its own path of exploring the space of what we, as humans, will accept as 'music'.

    So it is not surprising that you cannot take any random human and plunk them down with any given 'masterpiece' from any culture and expect them to spontaneously 'see' the picture. In our case, we have that tool of theory that was pretty good until the 20th century came along, but we have to accept that this is only one possible way to exploit pattern-expectation in listeners.

    • October 9, 2010 at

      Wow Gary- You've really got me thinking. Thanks for helping to clarify the message I hope to get across in these posts. It's true that theory is specific to its particular style and history. And that knowledge of theory won't necessarily increase the experience of music, but will merely help grasp what the patterns are.

      Your hypothetical experiment reveals the crux of pattern and expectation. If you don't mind, I may post your comment. Let me know.


  5. October 9, 2010 at

    I believe "theory" is a daunting matter to most musicians. There are some who feel it is their "home" but most are rather uncomfortable when attempting to express musical facts in language-even in Mozart's letters he speaks of musical facts in everyday terms-harmonies are either "friendly" to "unfriendly" –
    Has anyone else ever noticed how complex the most simple matters become when you try to communicate about "musical facts"?
    I admire the language and the content of this post – I thing the descriptive terms -"loitering" – "patterns" – these are experiences with which all of us are familiar – and we feel them in the music, so we can relate to such writing as this…Thank you- I admire what you are doing here-

  6. Barry Mitchell
    October 9, 2010 at

    Great post.

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