Wednesday, 16 May 2012

How Music Works - Part 1

Music is mysterious stuff.
It’s completely invisible. You can’t smell it, taste it or feel it in a normal sense, yet it can touch you. Fair enough you can hear it, but what makes music different from anything else you may hear? After all, it uses the same parts of your body you would use to detect a barking dog, or an engine starting. We have evolved ears as a kind of early warning system for our eyes - We will hear a bus coming before we see it, so we’re less likely to get run over by it. Music was not planned by nature, and has no real purpose in our survival except for what we have made of it since we discovered it.

It’s a concept which has been invented by humans, and only humans can really appreciate it. Your dog may associate the theme tune of  'The News' with dinner-time, or be trained to jump about when a particular song is played but it will not really enjoy music the way we do.

Music is therefore a somewhat magical experience that is gone as soon as it ends and leaves no trace. But whilst it’s there, it can convey feelings of joy, pain, anger, excitement, love, hate, contentment or longing. It can give us images in our minds of beautiful landscapes, terrible storms, war, peace, wide open spaces or claustrophobia. Some music can make us sit down and close our eyes, whilst other music can make us dance like we’ve lost our minds, in a nightclub at 3 a.m.

All this just because the air in the room is vibrating a little bit?

How can something so mundane as this be the basis of thousands of years of culture? Why does music stir the soul, yet, all that is happening physically is changing air pressure? Why does it sound so simple to the ear, yet look so mind-bogglingly complicated on paper? These are some of the questions I hope to answer, and hopefully I can draw a link between what happens in the air, and what happens in our minds.

Building Blocks.

I will start with a pretty much ‘text book’ definition of music:
Most music, no matter how varied will follow simple rules. It will have a melody, some harmony and some rhythm

A melody can be defined as ‘a string of notes, one after the other’. Melodies are the part of a tune that you will usually remember easiest. When you sing along to a song, you usually sing the melody. 

Many melodies and most music is based on scales.

A scale determines which notes are used to play (or write) a tune. Scales (on their own) are played in order from low through to high. The Major scale sounds like the famous tune ‘Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Te, Do.’

The simplest scale to understand and recognize would be C Major because there are no black notes (sharps or flats) in it, and I will use it throughout this blog to demonstrate several things. Don't worry about being able to read music or not, the following diagrams are just for demonstration.

Harmony is defined as ‘When other notes are played at the same time as a melody to make the tune sound more interesting, or to give it texture.’ Harmony can take the form of either chords - long held notes that sound nice with the melody:

or counterpoint - a second melody which complements the first, (sometimes called a counter-melody):

More than likely, a piece of music will be in a key which means that all the notes played in a particular tune will have some relationship with the note the key is named after. This version of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ is in the key of C and uses the major scale so we say it is written in C Major.
Nine times out of ten, the first and last chords in a piece of music will indicate it’s key and scale.

Rhythm is the beat or pulse of a song. Any note you play can be broken down into lots of different lengths and then arranged into a seemingly infinite number of rhythms. In standard notation, we give each note length a name. Each new name is half the length of the last. They are called ‘breves’, ‘semibreves’, ‘minims’, ‘crotchets’, ‘quavers’, ‘semiquavers’, ‘demi-semiquavers’ and ‘hemi-demi-semiquavers’

There are also times when you may wish to use unusual, non-standard note lengths in part of a melody. These are called tuplets and do not follow the normal 1 - 2 - 4 - 8 - 16 pattern. Triplets (3 notes in the same time as 4) and sextuplets (6 notes in the same time as 8) are the most common tuplets, but even stranger numbers of notes, for instance 5 (quintuplets) or 7 (septuplets) are possible although these are not very common. All tuplets are indicated by a curved line with a number inside representing the value of the tuplet.

As you can imagine, there is an unlimited amount of note combinations, harmonies and rhythms available, as well as all the thousands of different instruments you can use to play them. This is what makes music so varied and so interesting, but so far, we have only described how the building blocks fit together and a little bit on how music is written down. 

We haven’t even scratched the surface of how it works

Like the ancient Greeks looking at the world, realizing that there must be fundamental constituents in nature and predicting that atoms exist, we too have to strip down music even further and ask:

But what are the building blocks made of?

And how do they relate to each other? 

We must break music down into its simplest parts and work back up. What we will find is that the three key ingredients; Melody, Harmony and Rhythm are all really one and the same thing. This will be in the next installment.

See you next time!