Exploring Music Deconstructively

“Tell me, oh great musician, who is your teacher?” Tansen replied: “My teacher is a very great musician – but more than that. I cannot call him musician, I must call him music”. – Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Mysticism of Sound and Music

One of the most challenging aspects of developing as a musician is acquiring vocabulary. It may be relatively easy at first to find some internal musicality and express it through an instrument but over time, many students find their development will slow down. Epiphanies come at first hard and fast – one after another. Over time they come farther apart, and are more subtle. Often without a teacher, the student may find him/her self falling into a rut. The same material seems to emerge and what was inspiring in the beginning becomes cliche and uninspiring. While seeking a teacher for some quality one-on-one time is a great way to break out of these ruts, there is another extraordinary resource that can be used for further development – recorded music. There is a vast array of recorded music available in our record collections and on the Internet. Anything we find interesting or inspiring can become an educational source if we listen properly.

Of course listening and correct analysis of what we hear are critical components of getting the most out of sessions with the experts of their art. In some cases doing this may require supplementing our listening skills with some reading. (This is especially the case with recorded music that falls outside of our cultural familiarity.)  Additionally, there are so many things to listen for – stucture and content, expression, meaning, underlying concept, and cultural context can all provide fodder for our own development. A single piece of music can offer years of educational material as we develop our ears and our aesthetic.

This post will be about listening for structure and content – as it is both most useful and least subjective for the beginning student. If you haven’t already, it may be useful to read “Anatomy of Rhythm” to familiarize yourself with some of the concepts and vocabulary I will be applying here.


Listening to music as a musician is different from listening to music as a lay person. It requires your complete attention. Listening to music as a musician means listening as a participant in the music. Just as it’s necessary for you to fully engage your body when you play (see Body Knowledge and Movement), you have to listen with your body when you study. Try to get inside of the music – imagine you are on the stage, rather than in the audience. Listen for every detail in every moment of the music. Be attentive to how it makes you feel (without being overwhelmed by the feeling). Pay attention to the qualities of each individual instrument and each note. Become a part of the musical dialog. Allow yourself to feel the arc of the story as it progresses. As a participant, are there moments that surprise you? Are there moments that are especially satisfying? How many patterns can you identify? Do you hear your part in the music? Are there characters in the story that continue to grab your attention? Listen past those characters to the supporting cast; what is the supporting music doing?

Listening to music as a musician is a meditation and a skill you will continue to develop throughout your life. The more you hear and understand the more you will be amazed at the miracle of music, and the better you will be as an artist.

Finding the Pulse

The first step in understanding a piece of music from the point of view of rhythm is usually identifying the pulse. While it’s not always possible to objectively identify the pulse in any piece of music without getting the information from the composer, the student should usually be able to interpret pulse in at most a few different ways – and usually one or two (an exception to this can be found in cross-pulse music of the African Diaspora) The important thing to note here would be that the identified pulse works for the given section of music to which you are listening.  What I mean by “works”  is that the pulse can be used to identify the “One,” the meter, and has a feeling of emphasis across the music. Also, the pulse is typically NOT the pulse subdivision. So if you assume that the pulse is not the pulse subdivision, then you can expect that some consistent pulse subdivision quantity can be used to identify the pulse. Here are a couple of techniques you can use to identify the pulse:

First just listen – listen with your body; usually, you can hear it – especially in most western popular music and a lot of modern “world music”

If you hear a couple of things that might be it, try both of them – clap your hands to the pulse for 10 or 15 seconds at a consistent tempo (assuming the music you are studying has a consistent tempo). Does the pulse still feel like it’s happening where you are clapping? If yes, then you have probably found something that works as a pulse. Try the other pulse; does it also work? Does one of them feel more like a pulse in your body? If they both align with the content equally well, select the one that feels best (the one you would dance to).

If the pulse you are working with isn’t consistently aligning with the music, it may be that the pulse is of an odd meter.  Double your sense of the pulse (two pulses rather than one), and see if it aligns better.

Find the pulse subdivision (this would be the smallest common and consistent unit of time in the music) using “Flow Technique” (see: In the Flow).  Play along with the basic rhythm of the music for a while, figure out where some of the emphasis points repeat and count subdivisions until you encounter the moment that repeats. Here are a few general conventions when applying this approach:

A lot of common forms of music around the world use multiples of 4. 2. or 3 as a pulse subdivision. Try each of these in turn and see which one best fits the music. For a 2 beat pulse subdivision count 1&2&3&… starting at the emphasis point you identify and continuing until you hear the moment repeat. If the moment lands on a number, then you have found a functional pulse. If the moment does not land on a number, try a 4 beat pulse subdivision. Count 1e&a2e&a3e&a4e&a… starting at the moment of emphasis you have chosen and continue until it repeats. If the moment occurs at a number, you have most likely found the pulse (you may also be pretty close to identifying the meter) if not, try a 3 beat pulse subdivision.  Count 1&a2&a3&a4&a… Does that come around? If not, then it could also be worth trying 5, 6, and 7 beat pulse subdivisions – but these are exceedingly rare.

Another approach to finding the pulse using pulse subdivisions is to take 2 or more repeating accents in a pattern and count each pulse subdivision starting at the first accent and starting over at the next accent. At first you will not know how many subdivisions are between the first and second accent and so you will count just the length between the first and second (If you are counting and the second accent happens on the count of 8, then when it repeats, count the first subdivisions to 7 and start over at 1 for the second accent.) Once you have established the first accent and second accent, count the number of subdivisions between the second accent and the third (if there is a third) or when you return to the first accent.  This approach most commonly produces two odd numbers (most commonly 3, 3, and 2, but also commonly 7 and 9,  or 5, 5,  and 6).  Whatever the totals, try to add them.  If you get a number that is divisible by 4 (as are each of my previous parenthetical examples), then you probably have a pulse subdivided into 4 subdivision.  If the total is not divisible by 4 but is divisible by 2, then you are probably listening to something with a 2 beat pulse subdivision. If the total is not divisible by 4 or 2, but is divisible by 3, than you are likely dealing with a 3 beat pulse subdivided pulse.

If none of these approaches work, consider studying a different/simpler piece of music.  The more you do this (especially if you are also doing Flow practice) the easier it will become and the more complex material will start to make sense.

Finding the Meter

The next step in understanding the underlying rhythmic structure of a piece of music is to find the Meter, which is usually just identifying the “1” and counting the number of pulses between “1”s.

Most music is only in one meter, though you may find some music that is  polymetric – either sequentially or concurrently. While this makes for potentially interesting music, it can also increase the difficulty in establishing a firm grasp of metric concepts. (Once you have confidence in identifying meters accurately, I highly recommend that you seek out some polymetric music to study.) The most common meters are based on 4 (4, 8, 16) or 3 (3,6,12), though the beginning student would do well to explore music in 5, 7, and 9 beat meters as well.

The key to identifying the “1” is to look for the most significant moments in the music. These moments are usually accompanied by significant changes in dynamics, texture, harmony, or phrasing. You have already used accent points in the rhythm to use as references for identifying pulses. If one of these accent points also occurs at the same time as one of the significant changes listed above, you have probably already identified the 1. If not, you can still find the length of the meter simply by counting from the first accent point to the last accent point before the repetition. At that point, you at least know the length of the measure if not the starting point. Once you know the length, look for a significant  change in the music and use that moment as the “1”. From there count to the length of the measure (1,2,3,4,1,2,3… or 1,2,3,4,5,6,1,2,3,4,5,6,…) do you notice additional moments in the music that are signficant? Perhaps a drum fill that resolves to the 1 or a chord change, or a sudden stop or start of any or all instruments – if any of these happen at your “1”, you have probably found the 1 and the meter. If not, try another accent as the “1”.

If none of these approaches seem to be helping to identify the one or the meter, you may want to go back and make sure that you are properly identifying the pulse. You may again also consider seeking out some simpler music to help you build confidence in your skills.

Identify Instruments/Sounds

Another aspect of increasing your understanding of music is to try to identify individual instruments. By singling out a given instrument, you can follow that instrument through a piece of music from beginning to end. Doing so will enable you to get a sense of how the instrument lends to creating either the context or the focal point of the music. Studying the individual in the context of the whole will provide valuable information on the various roles you as a musician might be asked to play, and help identify effective approaches to playing these roles.

The easiest way to identify an instrument is to look for common textures. A human voice sounds very different from a cowbell, which sounds very different from a trumpet, though one note of a human voice or bell or trumpet sounds very similar to the next sound from the same instrument. Surely you know the sound of the instrument you are studying, so you should be able to easily identify that. Excluding those sounds, what sounds are left? Much of this is common sense. Additionally, a stereo image will usually give you a sense of space where the instrument resides. If you can’t identify a particular instrument, but are confident that you can differentiate it from the others, you can still use it as material for study – particularly if the intent is to transcribe material from the instrument from a rhythmic point of view.

Identifying the Form

Musical form is typically a repeated underlying structure similar to that of a measure but on a larger scale. In a lot of music, the sections of a form are usually defined by a quantifiable number of measures until a significant change in the musical tension and resolution or theme. Typically another change will take place in the same number of measures and common to most song-oriented music is the repetition of sections. You can map out a form by identifying the repetition of sections and determining the number of measures found in each section.

Popular song-oriented music of the west (rock, pop, funk, R&B, hiphop, folk, worldbeat and the many sub-“genres” that have emerged in the last decade) typically has a form similar to this:

introduction, verse chorus,verse, chorus, bridge, verse chorus

Jazz very often has a shorter form that is then repeated several times across the piece.  An instrumental jazz piece might look like this:

the melody is stated, soloist 1, soloist 2, etc, final statement of the melody

The soloists will usually solo for 1 or more full repetitions of the form (approximately the length of the melody)

Cantigas De Santa Maria – a collection of songs from Spain in the thirteenth century – usually have a verse chorus form but no bridge. The length of the song is determined by the number of verses, whereas sephardic music from Spain in the fifteenth century has only verses, but the verses are delineated in an A/B form, where A and B operate with different chords in the underlying structure.

These are just a few examples of form, as it has been applied to music. You will find that both Western, and Indian classical music have elaborate forms, whereas electronic dance music is often not as reliant upon form but instead uses sets of measures for determining the timing for shifts in texture.

Identifying the form of a piece of music will assist you in being able to deconstruct the overall arc of a piece of music. Doing so can provide great information on how to create engaging music yourself and knowing common approaches to form for a given genre of music will enable you to improvisationally interact with other musicians in a cohesive manner.

Transcribing Individual Parts

At this point, you have identified the pulse, the pulse subdivision, the meter, individual instruments, and the form. It may now be time to get into the details of content, which might include transcription. The beginning student will probably want to find a relatively short phrase (perhaps the length of one measure) that repeats on a familiar instrument for initial transcription exercises.

First, using the same approach as the graphs found in “In the flow” lay out the underlying structure of the phrase. Identify the individual voices of the instrument, and denote a character for each voice.

Begin by identifying the “1”.  Does the instrument play a note on the “1”; if so, which voice? Mark the character for that voice in the 1 box. Next, counting the subdivisions (assuming a 4×4 1e&a2e&a3e&a4e&a1e&a…), determine what sounds if any are taking place on the next numbered boxes (pulses). Identify the voice of the instrument that is being used. Continue until all numbered boxes are accounted for (It is likely that some of the pulses are not played and so the box would remain empty or you can use a dot(.) to signify a light touch.)  Once the pulses are identified, listen for any “&”s  and fill in the appropriate boxes with the appropriate character for the voice of the instrument. Finally, fill in the “e”s and “a”s.

You should have some familiarity with reading this type of table as a result of your study of flow technique. Read the phrase as you listen. Are all notes accounted for? If not, continue to count pulses and subdivisions until you have an accurate representation of the phrase.

By doing the same thing for multiple parts in the music you can start to see how parts from one instrument interact with those of another, and how the whole thing comes together to form a whole. Additionally, you are almost guaranteed to come across material that you find falls outside of your existing vocabulary and ability to play. You can use this as material for analysis and practice material to broaden or deepen your vocabulary.