• Robert Adams, USA

    Robert Adams is currently in his 31st year as a public school music educator. He teaches music in the New Haven (CT) Public Schools to children in grades PK through 8, and also serves there as a curriculum facilitator. Over the course of his career, Robert has directed bands, strings and choirs at elementary, middle school, and high school levels, as well as serving as musical director for numerous musical theater productions. Mr. Adams has also served as adjudicator certification chair for Connecticut Music Educators Association, is a frequent adjudicator, and has performed on clarinet for numerous wind ensembles, orchestras, and show bands in Hartford and New York City. Robert has published over 300 articles on his music education blog, Mr A Music Place, which is read in 83 countries.


Robert Adams of MrAMusicPlace.net discusses how composers of symphonic music create works that sound frightening. To get the most out of this article, copy and paste the Youtube links into a separate browser window and play the examples as you read the related material.


Sounds can be among the scariest stimuli that we humans face. We are comforted by being able to see what has just frightened us, and when we cannot see the source of our discomfort, the dread within us increases. Anyone that has been alone in an old house can immediately relate to this. The night time creaks, the windblown branch scraping against a window pain; these things unnerve us because we cannot see them. Given our tendency to be frightened above all by sound, it should come as no surprise that music at times can sound frightening. Though our rational minds know that there is no danger posed by a home sound system or a symphony orchestra on a stage before us, still certain sounds initiate fright reflexes in spite of what we might think our rational selves would tell us.

Composers sometimes take advantage of our skittishness, building scary sounds into music in order to give us a good musical scare. What are these devilish devices served up to us by composers of concert music and film music alike? Let’s take three examples and see if we can find what they all have in common. First, listen to “A Night On Bare Mountain” by Mussorgsky. This is Mussorgsky’s original version, not the more often heard revision by Rimsky Korsakov. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zR2P-5J-2MA

This music has three of the things we humans are most afraid of: power other than our own, excesses, and unpredictability.This music lunges at us from the outset, and accosts us with largess. The timpani and low brass sound powerful amid a context of swirling, prowling strings and pounding, incessant, percussive repetition. The music immediately hammers away at us, catching us off guard and surprised by the ferociousness and ugliness of the sprawling creative ideas. Piccolos swipe away at us from their extreme and shrill upper perch. Then, a cymbal clash and all but the quietest and lowest sounds drop away, leaving us apprehensively awaiting where the music will deposit us next. A few moments of hopeful frolicking before darkness ambushes us again, and we are accosted all over again by the sudden trumpet attacks. A few unexpected harmonies and we are lost and surrounded in sonic darkness. Then beams of light come flashing through the flutes and scampering strings. Still unsettling in its uncertainty, the new found brightness at least for now entices us with hopefulness. Yet a storm begins to brew, and the woodwinds turn on us, now caught up in the returning stormy gloom. A bit of frolicking development with the ever returning hint of doubt. We are never far from hints of the ominous opening which leave us apprehensive, unwilling to find comfort in whatever peaceful moment we may find. The cellos again lurk beneath familiar melodies while the brass continue to stab at us, as if probing to discover our whereabouts. The melody struggles to cross over into major, at at the very last seems to succeed, but only to escape and not triumph.

Now let us consider a work not necessarily part of the usual classical music canon, but never the less symphonic and scary. The music immediately sets our innate physical defense system on alert. The abrupt, high, shrill blasts from the strings are well outside the pitch range of what we expect at the beginning of a musical work. The extreme high range of these pitch blows gets our attention, tricking our self-preservation mechanisms to prepare to defend our bodies. The adding of a dissonant interval heightens the affect, making the music not only threatening but also unpleasant which unleashes a feeling of sadness or despair. As in “Night On Bare Mountain,” the incessant repetition of this threatening unpleasantness builds tension and unsettledness throughout our bodies and minds. The repetitions last long enough to become irritating and to set us wondering just what sort of attack we are under. (Of course if we are watching the movie, we know; but we are talking about the music here, apart from the film images.) These attacks are eventually replaced with plodding basses, giving us a new image to interpret. The plodding is repetitive making its duration and destination uncertain, adding to the scariness. Soon repeated flourishes in the high strings are added, reminiscent of the swirling high strings near the beginning of “Night On Bald Mountain.” These two contradictory forces, the plodding basses and the swirling strings, now give us two potential threats to defend against. Then the plodding slows and stops, but never quite goes away, leaving us to wonder if we are safe or not. And that doubt is scary indeed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Me-VhC9ieh0

The third example is the fifth movement from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Once again we have basses in cellos beginning with an lumbering other worldly moving about, to which are quickly added once more high strings playing a rapid figure, a sort of musical version of nails on a chalkboard. Pizzicato notes climaxing with a descending trombone line leave us tentatively wading in an underworld of sorts. Then the flutes, piccolo and oboe impose a grotesque character of a devilish character wishing to be both friendly host and hostile interrogator. Then the protagonist herself arrives, the mocking and strident clarinet fixed on taunting us beyond what we can endure. The movement goes on with unexpected outbursts interspersed with retreats into quiet, death knells on the bells, the dies ire, ancient hymn of death in the requiem mass, and more unworldliness when the string players strike their strings with the wooden part of the bow. It is a parade of unexpected twists and orchestral effects that take the listener completely by surprise. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cao6WyF-61s

What we learn from this short survey of scary classical music, is that music is scary when it sounds like things that scare us in real life, such as big (low) strong (loud) or overpowering (high and shrill) beings, and situations in which we don’t know what to expect, have no power over, and in which we hear things that naturally frighten us. The wonder of music is that it can do all of this in an environment we know to be safe. It is a grand bit of trickery that music pulls off, and one that we seem to universally enjoy, just as if we were delighting in the terrifying drop afforded us in an amusement park roller coaster or free fall ride. It is this toying with our emotional survival mechanisms that makes scary music scary.


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Robert Adams from http://mramusicplace.net explores the devices composers use to control the speed of their music.


It seems simple enough; when music gets faster, we call it an accelerando. Orchestral musicians know they have to watch the conductor, and conductors know they have to give an increasingly faster beat to create the accelerando. As far as it goes, this is all correct. But is increasing the beat the only way composers and performers create increases in speed?Are tempo and speed the same?

Consider the beginning of the final movement of Dvorak’s symphony no. 9, “From the New World.”The tempo is constant throughout, but the speed of the music clearly increases. This increase is achieved entirely through rhythmic means. The motif of an ascending semi-tone (half step) is written with a longer duration on the first note of the interval, and is followed initially by two beats of rest, thereby spacing out the second occurrence from the first. After one repetition, the duration of the first note is reduced by half a beat, and the rest between occurrences is also reduced, from two beats to just half of one beat. By the fourth measure, the first note of the interval is down to only half a beat, and the rest in between is down to one-quarter of a beat. In each case, the unit of the beat is the quarter note. By composing the rhythms this way, Dvorak has written an accelerando without increasing the tempo; therefore, accelerando and increase in tempo are not synonymous.

Apart from changes in speed, rhythm is also frequently used to present the same melodic material at the same tempo but at different speeds. Brahms was particularly fond of doing this. For example, in the fourth movement of the A Major Piano Quartet.27, measure 467, the accented material that is heard throughout the movement is played in the violin and viola in its original form, while in the piano, the pianist’s left hand plays it half as fast due to elongation, but at the same tempo.

From these examples, we can see that relying on tempo to define how fast or slow a piece of music goes is insufficient. Music with an extremely slow tempo may go quite quickly, as with the fast moving string parts playing sixteenth notes that accompany the slow moving theme written mainly in whole note and half notes in alla breve in the final section of Wagner’s Prelude to Tannhauser. To accurately define the speed of music, we must consider both tempo and rhythm. Music that is perceived as fast has notes that move at a relatively high rate per second, regardless of how they are notated. This can be achieve with a combination of a fast tempo and note duration equal to or divisions of the beat, or with a slow tempo and note durations that are further divisions of the beat. Conversely, music that is perceived as slow can be achieved with a combination of a slow tempo and note durations equal to or elongations of the beat, or with a fast tempo and note durations that are further elongations of the beat

In either of these cases, a rhythmic hierarchy is likely to be established. Music written primarily with divisions of the beat is likely to be perceived with a beat unit of a longer duration in order to keep the tempo manageably slow, while music that is written primarily with elongations of the beat is likely to be perceived with a beat unit of shorter durations, what musicians call subdivisions, in order to keep the tempo manageably fast, because both excessively fast and excessively slow tempos are difficult to comprehend and cognitively maintain. This is why designating a unit of beat is so important. It makes a tremendous difference if the beat is equal to a half note or a quarter note or an eighth note. The difference from one to the other in each case is halving the tempo.

From the listener’s perspective, the tempo at which music is moving is going to depend to Picture1a large degree on what beat unit he or she perceives, while we could expect the speed of the music, because it is measured in time and not beats, will be more reliable and consistent from on listener to another. An example of this is the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. A person (or conductor) who perceives the beat in quarter notes is going to find the music has a fast tempo; it has both a fast (quarter note) beat, and mostly durations that are divisions of that already fast tempo beat. A listener (or conductor) who perceives the beat in half notes is going to find the music has a moderate tempo and a fast speed; it has a moderate (half note) tempo, and mostly durations that are further divisions of that beat. The speed is still fast because the notes are moving at the same rate per second, and are divisions of divisions of the half note beat.While rare in practice, it is even possible to perceive the music with a whole note beat, giving the music a slow tempo but still fast speed. Listening to, conducting, or performing music with a slow tempo beat is valuable because it reveals rhythmic structure at a deeper level, focusing our perceived organization of the music over longer time spans compared to zeroing in on beats that occur over shorter time spans of music. For musicians, it is useful to be flexible in this matter so that listening comprehension is enhanced, and difficulties adjusting to conductors who use a different tempo beat than the musician is used to are minimized.

I mentioned earlier that tempo is measured in beats, while speed is measured in time. This statement needs some tightening up, because tempo itself is a kind of speed, and tempo is typically defined in units of beats per minute, as revealed in tempo markings and metronome usage. The distinction between beat and speed is necessary, as we have seen, because they can go in opposite directions. Even so, ultimately both are defined by time. This being so, the speed at which music moves must be defined entirely by time, and specifically by the number of musical events, whether they are beats, elongations of the beat, or divisions of the beat, that occur per unit of time. It is useful to define beats in units of occurrences per minute, because that is the established convention, and because beats are slow enough, even at fast tempos, to be so defined. Divisions of the beat, on the other hand, are more conveniently defined in units of occurrences per second. This is useful because knowing only the tempo does not give an accurate description of the speed.


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Robert Adams of MrAMusicPlace.net discusses a common misunderstanding of creative thinking, aspects of creative thought and work, and how to go about teaching creative thinking in music.

I consider developing creative thinking to be at the heart and soul of music education. Creative thinking, and expressive thinking too, are included in the arts standards, curricula, and in most defenses of supporting the arts in education. Yet being creative is often misunderstood, and misleading and even harmful teaching sometimes results when even music teachers don’t fully understand what being creative entails, and how one uses creativeness to be successful.

Teaching a child to be creative does not involve letting him or her do whatever they want, or placing them in a completely unrestricted environment, free to choose anything that randomly comes to mind. This is because even people would generally consider to be a highly creative idea must be of some benefit to those affected. Scissors with sensors on them so they can remotely move according to my jaw motions would be extremely creative, but highly unusable because they would take the cutting motions away from the object being cut, making it extremely difficult to be accurate. If a person invented such a pair of scissors, they would have done so without a specific need they were trying to fill, or a specific problem they were trying to solve. There is I’m sure a need for scissors that people with a disability in their hands could use by some other method than manipulating them manually, but my jaw controlled scissors aren’t a helpful solution to that problem or contribution to that need. Creative thought must be directed toward a goal if it is to be accepted, beneficial or even just considered a good idea.

With that in mind, let us now consider music. The great musical innovators in Western art music were not all inventors of something totally new. J. S. Bach was an innovator whose influence reaches over the centuries to the present time. His creative thought, or perhaps restlessness, lead him to incorporate into his music rhythms and textures from abroad at time when composers were provincial and not aware of what was going on elsewhere. Bach was also creative in that he did what he was doing at such a high level, that his music has been the prototype for great composers that followed, including Mozart.

Stravinsky caused not only a riot in the concert hall with his premiere of The Rite of Spring, but also introduced a level and use of dissonance not known before, and that would become highly influential, especially to film composers of the 20th century. Jimi Hendrix thought of a way to use feedback, and Louis Armstrong though of using his distinctive voice even though he was known for his trumpet playing. In each case, these creative musicians found new ways to use old forms or instruments to create a new sound, and even a new way of thinking about music.

It wasn’t just the ideas that made these musicians’ innovations influential. Nobody would Dance-and-Movementhave cared or taken any of them seriously if they had been just average or just competent musicians. But each of these musicians had his craft down solid. Each had complete command of his art. There are plenty of forgotten musical compositions that use dissonance, plenty of unknown guitarists who use distortion, and plenty of trumpet players that also sing in a jazz band. These things in and of themselves were not what made Stravinsky, Hendrix, and Armstrong great. They could deliver the goods better than most. And because they were so good at what they did, and so respected in their musical genre, people followed them, and recognized that here was something worth noticing.

So what does this mean for music educators? If we are going to train our students to think and make music creatively, first we must develop musicianship to high level. As we have seen, creative ideas aren’t worth much if they can’t be implemented. Teach musicianship first. At every step of the way, allow children to explore and improvise with the ability and skill they have attained so far. Playing one pitch songs comprised entirely of whole notes and whole rests may be efficient for teaching notes, but it is not creative. Let children play other rhythms on that one pitch. It’s not necessary for them to read in notation everything they play. Think of all the great music that has been written by musicians who could not read music and what our culture would be like if we had forbidden them from making music because they couldn’t read notes. This list includes all of the Beatles, Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Van Halen. Always let children go as far as they can go with what they have to work with. That said, there must always be a purpose to the creative activity; the activity can never be random. That purpose can be personal satisfaction as when a child is searching for or enjoying rhythms or sounds he or she has discovered, or it can be to write music in a particular form, for a particular occasion, or to express a particular intent. Remember, creativity needs direction.


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In an era when many symphony orchestras are struggling financially and to attract new and younger audiences, Robert Adams of MrAMusicPlace.net analyzes a list of the top 25 classical works for it tells us about what audiences want.


Developing new and younger audiences for classical music is of interest to those who teach music, and to those who run venues and ensembles that present classical music. One of the things that attracts audiences to concert halls is favorite repertoire being on the program. Contemporary composers of classical music have at times been at odds with audiences, because their music was not what people wanted to hear. While much has been written about the lack of appeal that atonal and aleatoric music has to audiences, it’s more important to know what audiences do like and do want to hear. With this information, purveyors of classical music will have guidance as they work to attract an audience outside the tried, true and aging faithful. A list of the top 100 classical music pieces found on kickassclassical.com provides some interesting food for thought. Let’s look at what is there.

While there are really no surprises on the list, what I find particularly interesting are the keywords associated with each piece. I counted the number of times each keyword shows up in the top 25 pieces; here is what I found. Four pieces or 16% (rank 3, 6, 15, 19) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of life events. Ten of them, or 40% (rank 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16, 22, & 23) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of emotions, and half of these are in the top ten. Five, or 20% pieces are associated with the word cartoon. This is born out in my classes. Students will invariably get the most excited and motivated to listen when they hear classical music that they recognize from or that sounds like music they have heard in cartoons.

Another interesting finding from this list is that all of the top five and 8 of the top ten have prominent rhythm in the themes. This produces an overall more driving, active kind of music, and it also results in a more explicit beat. This last point I believe is key. Young people in particular enjoy the heavy rhythm and beat emphasis of popular music. I have observed in my classes that the more rhythm and beat are prominent in a classical work, the more likely it is that they will enjoy that piece. Though not on the list, it is worth mentioning that among contemporary composers, the minimalists, including John Adams and Philip Glass, have been among the most popular, and that minimalist music is much more rhythmic than other styles.

It is also noteworthy that 15 of the top 25 pieces were written in the 19th century, and that the two most popular composers on the list are Beethoven (3) and Tchaikovsky (2). If my students are any indication, it appears likely that Beethoven’s popularity is driven in large part by two works, one of which (surprisingly) did not make the list: the fifth symphony, and Fur Elise. Tchaikovsky gets heavy promotion in the United States every American Independence Day (when the 1812 overture is common fare) and every Christmas season with the innumerable productions of The Nutcracker.

In general, I could conclude that pieces that have been worked into popular culture are also the most popular in the symphonic concert hall. Between weddings, holiday celebrations and films, many of the pieces on this list are familiar to a large population of people who have rarely or never been to a symphony orchestra concert. That familiarity breeds popularity is a well worn adage in the popular music industry, which relies on heavily promoted concerts and frequent plays on radio stations to popularize its product, and it was well understood by Richard Rodgers, who once explained that he could pick a song from a show and make it popular by placing it in the overture, in the first act, in the n’tract, and reprised in the second act. By the tie the audience left, they had heard the song four times and were humming it on their way home.

Singablility may well be another hallmark of more popular classical pieces. The bottom half of the list also includes many pieces made well known by use in popular media, but many of these have less lyric melodies. These works include Grieg’s Piano Concerto (used in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film Lolita), Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem (used in a recent DirectTV commercial), Overture to The Magic Flute, “Mars The Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets (used often in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and referenced in the opening bars of “(Imperial March” from Star Wars), and even “March” from The Nutcracker, which comes in at only number 75. In conclusion, it may be that the most popular classical pieces strongly appeal to at least one emotion, are already popular to audiences through popular media, and are comprised largely of memorable and singable melodies.


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Beginning with a single word, Robert Adams of MrAMusicPlace.wordpress.com shares this discussion about the ways in which the arts are woven into our humanity and perception of reality.


I recently became acquainted with the word, “dramaturgy.” The context in which I found the word was an article discussing the teaching of dramatization to music voice students on a path to learning opera singing. The writer argued that by comprehensively studying a whole opera, including musical, historical, compositional, and biographical aspects, and not just of the parts a given singer needs to sing, but of the entire work, the singer would learn to perform not just accurately, but dramatically. The job of a dramaturg, then, would be to assist the singer in this preparation and study.

Intrigued, I began looking into the word further. Dramaturgy is a concept developed by Sociologist Erving Goffman. Essentially, Goffman believed that all of life really is a stage. People are actors on the stage of life, acting out their assigned roles either alone or in collaboration with other people. Other people that are part of our lives are doing the same thing, acting out their roles in life as they interact with us.

This sociological theory, drawn on a metaphor of the theater, has apparently migrated into the theater, where we can now find people employed who hold theDramaturg title of “dramaturg.” There is a professional organization for them, the Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA). From their website, I learned that dramaturgs can be involved in virtually every aspect of theater production, including those aspects I normally associate with directors & producers. Among the lengthy list are two that stood out to me, because they at least are directly related to the practicing of one’s art as opposed to seeing to legal matters. These two are “seek and present pathways into the world of the play,” and “explore and present: the world of the play.” The connection to Goffman’s theory now begins to become apparent. The dramaturg is trying to connect the fictionalized drama of the theater play with the real-world drama of the lives of the people who are watching the play and who are all themselves acting in the play of life, which, presumably, they have temporarily taken leave of just long enough to attend the theater (or else every theater play is a play within a play). The playwright, in his role as person in the world, provides an entry point for everyone else to witness part part of the life-play, or in the case of his work, perhaps his life replay in the theater play. In the process, all in the audience become emotionally invested in it, and perhaps influenced by it as they return to their own life plays when the theater play is over.

Opera adds another layer. Whereas theater plays utilize language and acting, opera adds to these music, which transcends the expressive capacity of language, save perhaps for poetry. Music provides a means and an outlet for expressing emotional realities that cannot be accommodated by words alone. If theater plays take life plays off the street and make an author’s life play community property, then music when it is performed, which I will for convenience call the music play, takes the life play and brings it beyond what is possible outside the musical experience. Music is no longer a replay or retelling of real-life drama, it is the imagining of something beyond what can physically exist, beyond what can in reality take place in the life play. When a musician learns to perform dramatically, they are stepping outside themselves, and offering something that is beyond the reach of everyone, and so to which everyone responds in a physical and emotional way that is nearly unique in the physical world, and unquestionably unique when the absence of danger and the enjoyment or even thrill of the experience is considered. There must be, I think, something quite beyond the reach of a dramaturg, once the flow of what music does is active in the performer and on course to all who will hear the music. Bringing a young performer the power of such expression is a noble profession, and if that is what a dramaturg does, then bravo to every one who succeeds. It also comes to my mind that there are a large bastion of people who also bring this musical prowess to fruition: countless music teachers whose great delight is to watch their students take of in flight through the realm of musical expression.


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Though "invisible" is usually associated with things we see, aspects of music can also be invisible to our ears. Robert Adams explains how tonality can be invisible.

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When we think of something being invisible, surely things that cannot be seen come to mind. The air we breathe, for example, is invisible because we cannot see it (though we can see the effects of it moving an object on which it blows). We know air is all around us because we breathe it to stay alive and because of what we see the air doing. We do not have to see air to know it is there.

A similar situation can exist with tonality. Notice I said can exist, because it does not always. In much of the Western art music repertoire, tonality is clearly heard every time we hear the stabilizing effect of the tonic chord providing respite from harmonic tension, or bringing the music to a temporary or concluding rest. While all this is so, there is also the invisible yet ever present aspect of tonality. Whether or not we are hearing the tonic chord, we nevertheless are constantly aware of what the tonic is. We know this because we audiate the tonality of the music we are listening to regardless of what chord we may be hearing at any given moment. So when the tonic chord is not being heard, the tonality is still there, invisible yet present because of our audiation.

As tonality became less explicit in the late nineteenth century, composers became more and more reliant on the listener’s ability to retain the tonic in mind while physically hearing it less and less. The whole concept of chromaticism and impressionism relies on this very thing. If we were not able to audiate the tonic amid chords stretching further and further away from the tonic, the tension, angst, and beauty of those chords and their dissonances would not be possible. As long as a composer gives listeners enough indications of a tonality, they can hear a piece as tonal and be aroused by the scarcity of physically present affirmations of that tonality. To the extent that a composer does this, he or she has created invisible tonality; tonality that is heard through audiation but not explicitly in the music itself.

Composer Piotr Lachert has written music that has invisible tonality in abundance. If you listen to his music, you will find that you rarely hear a tonic chord, yet always seem to know what it would be if you were to hear it played. He gives you just enough indication of a tonality to enable you to audiate what he has left out–the tonic. I’ve provided a link to a performance of his “Three Preludes” for solo piano. I hope you enjoy them.


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Poetry can be enjoyed in a poetic context. Robert Adams discusses musical semantics and structure, explaining how they are similar to poetry.

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We all know that music is comprised of sound; however, many have argued that all sound is not music. Stravinsky advanced this view convincingly when he explained that when we simply hear the rustle of leaves or the sound of a brook, we are not hearing music nor are we utilizing musical ability to hear or even enjoy these sounds of nature. These sounds are “promises of music; it take a human being to keep them: a human being who is sensitive to natures many voices, of course, but who in addition feels the need of putting them in order and who is gifted for that task with a very special aptitude. In his hands all that I have considered as not being music will become music. From this I conclude that tonal elements become music only by virtue of their being organized, and that such organization presupposes a conscious human act.”

How do humans organize sound so that it becomes music? Stravinsky specifically mentions tonality, and that is one way in which we organize sound into music. Tonality is a culturally learned concept. Western cultures organize tones into major and minor tonalities, and less often into others such as Dorian or Mixolydian. Eastern cultures organize music into very different tonalities, but tonalities nonetheless. While Stravinsky’s observation of music as a human constructed entity, restricting ourselves to tonality will be of little help in a discussion of music and poetry, because poetry, as spoken language, has no tonality, at least in Western culture.

There are other ways that humans organize music. The two most significant ones are rhythm, meter, and phrases. These are elements that are critical to both music and poetry. In both disciplines, sounds are made that are of variable durations that are perceived in patterns. Whether we are performing a music, or reading aloud poetry, the notes or words respectively are heard in patterns of durations that we naturally form into groups of sounds that make sense to us, and make what would otherwise be a barrage of noise into intelligible and enjoyable art.

These rhythmic patterns in music, combined with tonal elements, result in musical phrases that end with a pause that marks the end of the phrase and signal the immanent beginning of the next phrase. An example of this is the famous “Ode to Joy” theme from Beethoven’s ninth symphony. The antecedent phrase ends with the longest duration heard thus far on a tone from the dominant chord, and the consequent phrase ends on a duration of equal length but on a tone from the tonic chord which in this case is also the tonic tone. That tonic note of finality punctuates the phrase with the musical equivalent of a period, whereas the end of the antecedent phrase on the dominant punctuates the phrase with the musical equivalent of a comma. Both phrases are of equal length and are comprised of identical rhythms. The structure provides a high degree of predictability that brings stability to our perception of the music. The effect is the same as a rhyme scheme in poetry. Rhythm, meter, and the rhyming pattern also bring predictability, at least that a rhyming word is coming, and of when the rhyme will occur within the established meter and rhyme scheme. In both music and poetry, when the predicted tone or rhyme, respectively, does not occur, tension is built; a tension that remains until the expectation is met.

There is an aspect of the similarity between music and poetry that goes beyond structure. I refer to the expressiveness humans achieve with both art forms. Leonard Bernstein discussed this extensively in his Norton Lecture, “The Unanswered Question” at Harvard University. Music can never have the literalness that language does, because no music has literal meaning. Musical meaning is always more abstract, and is come to through the interaction with not only the organizing mind, but the creative imagination. Prose, on the other hand, falls far short of such expressive abstraction, but not poetry. Poetry, like music, thrives on abstraction, illusion, and even at times whimsy. Poetry utilizes language in a way that replaces relative precision with literary suggestion that appeals to the human imagination.

If you are interested in reading more on this subject, I suggest Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons by Igor Stravinsky, and The Unanswered Question by Leonard Bernstein. Both were lectures later published that each gave when they were honored with the Charles Eliot Norton chair at Harvard University.


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Robert Adams discusses some causes of "stage fright" and offers some advice on how to minimize the nervousness that can sabotage a musical performance.

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Anyone who is a performing musician, and in fact anyone who has given a speech or presented anything in front of an audience, has probably experienced what is commonly referred to as “stage fright.” At its core, stage fright is the fear of making mistakes or failing publicly. I for one have accepted a certain amount of such fear as normal, and something that needs to be handled and contained so that it doesn’t take over and decimate a performance. But this is much more easily said than done. How does one go about winning the battle against stage fright?

As I have done before, I turn to my ongoing efforts to learn to shoot a respectable score in the game of golf. This game can quickly become unnerving, and whatever good results I’ve just had can quickly evaporate. After going through this cycle several times, I’ve noticed something important. When I have my mind think about the target, my mind occupies itself with solving the problem of projecting the golf ball in the right direction.This sets Crowd Listeningmy mind to thinking about the result it is charged with achieving, and gives my mind the task of solving the problem of how it will engineer bringing this about. When, on the other hand, I have my mind think about the task of hitting the golf ball with the club, I forget about the target, and invariably hit a bad shot. In making the ball the target, I have sabotaged my brain’s ability to bring about the result I desire. The brain and the nervous system it directs is designed to implement what is needed to hit the target. It is not designed to be micro-managed every step of the way.

Now let’s apply this golf lesson to music performance. If you stop to think about it, I’m fairly certain that you will realize that when your nervousness has gotten the best of you in a performance, it was while you were thinking about the details of what you were doing or had just done. You were thinking about a mistake you just made, or about how your playing or singing was going at that moment. The result of such thinking is that the stage fright got worse, and more mistakes were only a breath away. Now think about when your performance was going really well. Chances are you were not thinking of those procedural, technical issues. Instead, you were thinking about the sound and phrasing you wanted in music at which you had not yet arrived. You were thinking of the goal, the target, which was sound, tone, phrasing, or an upcoming cadence. You left the business of how to achieve those things to your brain, without micro-managing the details.

Feed Your Brain MusicMy point is that when nervousness or fear overtakes a musician in performance, it is because that musician is not allowing his or her brain to work as it was designed to work. We know that after practicing, our brains take over the execution of rapid fingerings on an instrument, and that the music is “in our fingers;” every note does not have to be consciously thought of and placed with a fingering. The brain does all this because we have spent hours teaching it to execute hundreds of motor commands that get the right fingers to the right keys without our having to make an effort to think of every note. In fact, were we to try to think about every single fingering, we would never be able to play the music properly. Stage fright is in large part the result of using our brains improperly. Make the musical outcome, and not the technical matters the focus of your attention, and you will have much less on your plate to make you nervous and fearful.


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While it is true that people often resist change, when it comes to Classical music, the opposite is true.

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We often hear that people don’t like change. This is especially true of the very young and the very old. The young need the security of routine and unchanging surroundings, and the old fear they will be unable to cope with change. In the context of life changes, I’m convinced that this is true. Change throws many people out of their comfort zone, and so they are unwilling to accept change.

It is also true that we are made to be attracted to a different kind of change than the one I just described–the life changes. Our senses are wired to notice change while ignoring things that stay the same. We may stare out the window with a general awareness of what we are looking at, but the minute a bird flies out of a tree, all of our attention rushes there, where the change in the picture we’re looking at is changing. The same is true of our other senses. We barely notice the many scents that surround us at work or at home, but the instant a new scent is perceived, we immediately divert our attention there. These are good sensibilities because they enable us to pick up quickly on potentially threatening or dangerous things that anticipateenter into our environment. They are also the sensibilities that make music so enjoyable, fun, exciting, and at times even thrilling.

The piece de resistance of a classical music work is the contrast. All of the things that a composer writes into the music and a performer executes to make the music expressive, interesting, and exciting are devices of contrast. Crescendos and decrescendos, accents, staccato, legato, and slurred notes, even tempo, all set up moments of pleasant drama and expression. The great Pablo Casals was famous for insisting on frequent use of diminuendos to set up expressive gestures. Accents, crescendos, and any note that was to be given added importance had to be preceded by a note that was to be given subtracted importance. Diminuendos preceded accents so that the accent would have all the more impact.

One of the most famous contrasts in symphonic literature is the moment in Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony when the clarinetist is approaching the end of the beautiful solo melody already heard and familiar to audiences. Just as the last note is reached at pianissississimo, the whole orchestra comes crashing in with an accented chord followed by a faster, more aggressive section.


In the great concertos, contrasts are even more pronounced. There is a traditional tension, even battle at times between orchestra and soloist as they trade volleys of powerful and pristine motifs alike. Here, Brahms masterfully builds drama, contrasts it with beauty, and then builds the drama again as piano and orchestra re-engage in musical battle.


Mozart used contrasts extensively in his works, none less than in symphony no. 40

in G minor. Every few seconds, there is change. Change in dynamics, change in articulation, change in timbre, and sometimes, depending on the conductor, change in tempo. The contrasts underscore the expressiveness of the music, and turn the symmetry and balance of the classical style into a passion-filled musical journey.


When it comes to music we not only are wired to embrace change, we routinely enjoy it, crave it, and are highly disappointed if we don’t find it in the classical music to which we listen. Without all of those contrasts and changes, music, even those great works written by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, would not be so great, and honestly would be outright boring. We need contrasts to make music expressive, and we need music to be expressive if it is to have value and meaning. The whole point of music is for it to be interpreted to convey expressive intents of composers and performers alike. You may want to resist other changes in your life, but I’m quite sure you are happy to encounter change in your classical music.


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A narrative interpreting Ravel's "La Vallee des cloches." mramusicplace.wordpress.com

There are many ways one could write about a musical work. There is analysis, evaluation, criticism, and narrative to name only a few. Each of these ways provides opportunities for different kinds of learning about and experiencing of music, and so each has value as a learning activity. I think that the narrative is in some ways the most natural, the most enjoyable, and even the most beneficial for many listeners. It combines expressing emotions with unleashing the imagination to create images and stories to interpret what is heard, while allowing for the more technical aspects of music such as form and structure to be set aside from conscious attention. These may surface in the narrative, but only organically, not as a dedicated task to be completed.

In listening to “La vallee des cloches,” the fifth piece in Ravel’s Miroirs, I was compelled to set down a narrative as I listened, and found my enjoyment of the piece increased during the performance, and my memory of it more enjoyable after the music had stopped. What I wrote made a decent story, and also reminded me of the music I had heard, allowing me to audiate it as I read my narrative. I would like to share it with you here. I invite you to listen to this wonderful music as you read, and then you will be able to fully share in my experience of this music.

Two delicate tones, spacious between, followed by a delicate ripple of finely tuned sounds, the delicate tones still heard in the background, at first remaining where they were and then venturing out, exploring the landscape created by the ripple. The tranquility of being gently coaxed into the image was rudely intruded upon by a boorish clang, out of place, unwelcomed, and soon joined by others similarly disagreeable. The ripple was disturbed, veering off from its recently well-accustomed path, clearly distressed at being disturbed.

The ripple then stopped where it was, just watching with trepidation the uninvited visitors move about, and wondering what they would do next. Then a solitary one, also out of place but hinting at kindness while exuding strength as a lone rescuer determined not to make too bold an entrance, appeared, and offered hope of returning to the former calm so recently enjoyed.

And so it happened: or nearly so. The tranquility returned, but tinged with an apprehension that had not been there before; an apprehension laced with the memory of what had just happened, and the realization that it could happen again. Gradually, peace increased, brought I suppose by the solitary rescuer.
There now was a confidence and even strength that bolstered the peacefulness, and worked to subtlety change the character of the ripple, which stood firm rather than gently. All became quiet, and looked around.

Darkness descended. Not an evil or fearsome darkness, but one that brings the hope for a better day. The ripple was filled with passion and love, though it knew not for what. It was a new feeling never before experienced. But it slowed the ripple, even as it stirred about pensively until at last it slumbered in the night. Dreams of longing and desire for something unnamed filled its sleep.

As the night progressed, the ripple tossed and turned. At last the dawn of the new day broke. The ripple began to move about as it had at the start of the previous day, but it was different. There was darkness, a loss of innocence and welcome naiveté that on the previous day had been lost forever.


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