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A Practical Guide to Musical Composition
by Alan Belkin 1995-1999
Flow vs. break; continuity vs. surprise
" [...] convincing continuity: one must have that above all other things."
Elliott Carter (3)
The distinction between foreground and background has a direct bearing on issues of musical
flow. To understand this, we need to explore the nature of musical unity and variety.
It is conventional to speak of unity and variety as the cornerstones of artistic structure. However,
these concepts can be formulated in a more useful way for composers. Unity is a difficult notion
to define in music because it relies on memory. Unlike the spatial arts, music takes place in time.
In particular, the temporal nature of music does not permit perception of the whole except in
retrospect; or, perhaps more accurately, as an experience spread out over time. Music depends on
a web of memories and associations that gets richer as the piece progresses. Unity is therefore
required on (at least) two levels: local flow - the convincing connection of one event to the next -
and long range association and overall balance.
Successions of musical ideas can be thought of on a continuum of various degrees of continuity,
ranging from the smoothest flow to the most abrupt change. Unity and variety thus emerge not as
separate, but rather as different degrees of same thing. If the flow of the piece provides little
novelty, the music becomes boring; if there are too many fits and starts, the discontinuities eventually break up the work's coherence.
The composer's first and most fundamental problem is therefore to ensure that the overall flow is
not broken from the beginning to the end of the piece. However the degree of novelty must be
varied at different points.
The key to controlling this balance between emphasizing common elements and introducing
novelty lies in the interaction between the perceptual levels described above. If the foreground
elements are new, the effect will be one of contrast. If the changing elements are more subtle, the
listener will sense gradual evolution or relative stability. A convincing musical form is not
possible without many degrees of stability and novelty.
Beethoven, 3rd Symphony, 1st movement, m.65 ff: Here the change to a new motive (with 16th notes) is in the foreground, but the common repeated notes (upper strings and winds) continuing from the previous passage provide an audible link in the background.
Any audible musical element can participate in creating connection or novelty. Among the most
obvious to the listener, and thus the most useful, are:
Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte, m. 13: The 2nd theme is quite similar in character to the
first theme, but the fact that the oboe opens up a new register (even though the change is quite
mild) creates an effect of freshness.
• speed (note values or harmonic rhythm)
Beethoven, Sonata, op 2#1, 2nd theme, m. 20ff: Most of the novelty here comes from the
accompaniment, which is in steady 8th notes for the first time.
Brahms, 3rd Symphony, 1st movement, m.3 ff: the arrival of the new theme in vln. 1 provides
foreground novelty, while the imitation of the melodic profile of the opening chords (now in the
bass) adds an element of continuity in the background.
The best example of this Ravel's Bolero: over an extremely repetitive and predictable structure,
novelty is mainly the result of timbral variation at each presentation of the theme.
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