Acoustic Anatomy

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is experienced on a macro level. The listener is enveloped in waves of acoustic information, the immediacy of which tends to inhibit real-time analysis. We may recognize pitch-differences in succession (melody), pitch-differences in combination (harmony), rhythmic patterns and basic form, but the elemental makeup remains hidden until it is examined under the microscope of music theory.

This is as it should be. Music is an expression of life. It is a storehouse of memories, a sensory stimulant, a source of pleasure, an igniter of feelings, a conjurer of images, a kinesthetic motivator and so on. More often than not, we embrace the rush of sound on a non-rational level, allowing the force and flow to take us where it will. We encounter it as a complete entity, unaware or unconcerned about the parts that comprise the whole.

However, like a biological organism, a musical selection contains micro and meso structures. Its complexity is determined by the type and amount of these intersecting components. To illustrate the analogy, a nursery rhyme tune might be compared to an earthworm while a drawn-out movement of a symphony might be likened to an elephant.

The micro level of music includes syntactical ingredients like individual notes, rests, durations, intervals, fermatas, ties, slurs and accents. These are the building blocks or atoms with which the piece is composed. Alone, these basic units are identity-less fragments. But when assembled in combination, they constitute the foundation of musical life as we know it.

On the meso level, we find structural segments such as cells and motives. These germinal fragments are molecular in scope. They consist of micro parts, or atoms, bonded together, and represent the smallest identifiable sliver of a musical piece. The cell is a minute and self-contained melodic or rhythmic particle that contributes to thematic content. The motive is a recurring succession of notes that may be separated into more than one cell. It is the smallest subdivision of a phrase or theme that imparts the identity of the piece.

Henry Granger Hanchett, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century organist, inventor and medical doctor, described this biological breakdown in his 1905 book, The Art of the Musician. He explained, for example, that the motive “contain[s] the germ and life of the product, while the simpler items which unite in its structure are like chemical elements, capable of making up an amorphous mass or even a crystal, but that can never make an organism without first combining to make a cell.” In his evaluation, “all great and significant [Western classical] compositions . . . are the outgrowths, the organization, so to speak, of one or more recognizable motives which may properly be called the germs of the work.”

As listeners, we do not ordinarily take record of these inner workings. We embrace music in its entirety. The same is true when we come across other living beings. We don’t usually see or think about their internal organs, connective tissues or skeletal systems—let alone the invisible activity occurring on the atomic level. But without these various interlocking pieces, there would be no organism, animal or musical.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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