Understanding Music as a Combination of Elements

Someone recently asked me about the importance of knowing history in being a musician, and I thought it interesting enough and important enough a question for all of us, regardless of instrument.

Music can be seen as having three major areas: technique, music history (under musicology), theory and composition. These build up the main sectors of study in any major university, along with more specific areas like conducting and ethnomusicology and secondary areas like audio engineering, music education, and music therapy. Each of these areas have products of their own, but in combination provide us the recipe for rounded musicianship.


1. Technique

Most musicians start off playing some sort of instrument (including the voice), including conductors, composers and music historians. Many of these musicians also continue to use these skills, and use them in combination: music history lecturers perform examples for students, composers sometimes perform their own works, and in some cases a solo performer can be the conductor as well.

Daniel Barenboim, pianist and conductor. Taken from: http://www.topnews.in

Thus, a lot of study goes into the specific ways we perform, whether it involves finger work (strings and pianists), the use of the tongue, lips and lungs (singers and winds), or even the legs (harpists and keyboardists). Sometimes there are published works that help us in the process, like studies and scale systems, but in most cases these are not useful without the knowledge of how to use them. Basic technique is more or less common to all musicians, but for detailed work (such as the specific way one holds a bow) there are often different perspectives divided into “schools” of thought. Whether a violinist is of the Russian, German or Franco-Belgian Schools (or a combination of these) will provide a noticeable difference in the way someone performs and it is useful to be aware of the different perspectives in your instrument. This is where the history of technique is important to view the changes in ideas, as well as the history of the how the instrument has changed – like the evolution of today’s piano from the harpsichord, clavichord and pianoforte.

2. Music History

On one hand music history is especially useful for our specific instrument and the specific music we are playing. But music is a very large interconnecting network, and other areas of history will eventually be relevant as well. For example, violinist Maxim Vangerov developed ideas on performing Mozart after realizing a connection between his compositions for instruments and that for opera singers. Sometimes we need to expand our knowledge into socio-political history – for example, the use of the French national anthem in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as part of the history of Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia.

3. Theory and Composition

This brings us to understanding the minds of composers. The use of theory in British external exams is certainly demanding, but could often use a better connection to performance. It is only the first step to define where and what cadences are used and to provide an accurate Roman numeral analysis of a work. The next step is to understand the function, the reason why those notes and chords were placed exactly where they were. Did the composer have different options, and if so, why did he or she take that choice, go down that path?

The history of theory and composition usually falls under this category as well. We learn about the changing perspectives about sound – for example what sounds are consonant (blending) and which ones are dissonant (clashing) and even this basic idea has changed much over time. Studying the theory and composition of other cultures such as ethnic Chinese music introduces us to the 5-tone or pentatonic scale, which has influenced some later Western classical music. Studying modern day theory introduces us to the idea that there may be notes between two semitones – such as an E half-flat (a note between D and E flat) in what is known as a microtonal system. Compositions can influence technique, with advancements needing new techniques for performers to learn – or sometimes, these the composer works with performers in writing new music. For example, Colorado College’s Bowed Piano Ensemble shows how we can play the piano without using the keys:

Taken from the Colorado College Music Department website.

4. The Building of a Performance

A good performer combines all the elements discussed above. A good violinist who performs Bach first of all has to have the ability in the fingers and arms. He or she has practice techniques including scales and exercises for chords and double-stops some of which are developed specifically for Bach. There is a historical knowledge of the violin during Bach’s time (e.g. different strings, no chinrest or shoulder rest) as well as technique during that period (e.g. less vibrato) and a larger context of history (e.g. Bach as a church organist used to resonant acoustics). The performer will have a knowledge of performance history as well and may choose to go back to how violinists played Bach in the 17th century or follow the path of modern players and find new ways of interpreting the music. And there will be a knowledge of theory and composition to understand why Bach kept repeating a particular note over and over (e.g. a pedal tonic) which can then change the way we play, the notes we emphasize, and even the speed and dynamics we choose.

The performance stage is not simply a showcase of what we can do with our hands and legs, but a communication of detailed study. History and the composer have produced a meaningful creation; the performer, armed with technique and the knowledge of context adds his or her own ideas and soul to produce another meaningful creation – a performance.

Recommendations for Further Study

Roger Kamien: Music – An Appreciation
Music magazines and online classical radio
Read and follow up programme notes for live concerts
Listen to: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (with commentary) and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, as well as almost anything by PDQ Bach.
Look online for “bowed piano” to see how new techniques are created.


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