Structure and Content

In Rhythm As Motion I discuss the value of learning rhythm by learning the underlying components that are common to all metronomic rhythmic systems. As an aspect of that I would like to discuss the difference between structure and content. In “Exploring music Deconstructively” I explore different methods for identifying pulse and meter and acknowledge that there are occasionally multiple “right answers”. The reason for this is that when you only have the content (what you hear), you are reliant only on the music as you hear it to make sense of  what is happening. As a participant in the music, this is sometimes not enough information to know how to address the music. When possible, it is helpful to know the underlying structure from which the the composer/musicians are operating. It is also useful to have a sense of what kinds of structures are available as a means of developing creative music. An awareness of the relationship between structure and content can provide broader  possibilities for content from the perspective of tension and resolution.

Music is intended to take the listener on a journey or tell a story. Every good story has at least one plot, and often better stories have subplots, twists and unexpected turns. Both in music and in storytelling, the way we keep an audience engaged in our tale is by creating tension and resolution. We do this by playing with the expectations of the listener. Even an uneducated listener has a cultural framework from which music is experienced. That framework is informed by all of the music the listener experiences. The characteristics shared by these various pieces of music become the (usually unconscious) framework upon which new music is experienced. These characteristics become the basis for expectations in new music. If the expectations are satisfied to too great a degree, the music may become predictable and cliche – whatever tension is present has less of an effect due to the listener constantly having their expectations met. If enough expectations are not satisfied, the music loses its cohesion from the perspective of the listener and the composer loses the audience. The key then, from one perspective, is to deliberately manage these expectations to maximize engagement while exploring novel musical territory.

It should be noted that neither cliches nor novelties are intrinsically good or bad – but only become so in how they serve the music.

Tension and resolution are managed in a variety of ways. For example, a composer might  choose is to overlay multiple layers or levels of content that expose or obscure the underlying structure by focusing repetitive consistent emphasis on a particular place in the time. One might  introduce a cross pulse, or work with prolonged periods of alternate subdivision (for example a 3 beat pulse subdivision over a structure of a 4 beat pulse subdivision). Alternately one might develop phrasing that pulls the time in a particular direction, or develop shapes that imply a different time signature. The approaches are myriad and range from the subtle to the bombastic.

The underlying rhythmic structure of a piece or section of music is necessary for the musicians executing the music. It serves as the common map from which all of the musicians use to play. Whether the piece is strictly composed and no variation is expected or desired by the composer or the music is largely improvised, this map is what enables the artists to navigate cohesively. The structure  further defines the territory ahead. Just as actors in a play or movie know the plot in order to properly interpret how they should play their part, the musicians need to know the structure so that they can properly interpret their role in the sound (even if that role is misdirection).

The structure of a piece of music from the perspective of rhythm is determined by tempo, pulse, meter (time/signature), and form. The content consists of the specific voices of the instrument and note lengths. While the two are related and typically inform each other, it is worthwhile to question assumptions that we might make about one based on the other.

Example 1

Here is a simple example that illustrates ways to interpret a phrase over multiple structures. First, just the phrase:

O . T . . T . S X . T T

We see that this is a phrase with 12 pulse subdivisions. Because the phrase is divisible by either 4 or 3, we know that it could be either time signature (or something more arcane). Let’s look at the phrase with a 4 beat pulse subdivision (3×4) the shaker states the pulse

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a
O . T . . T . S X . T T

From the point of view of tension and resolution we see that this phrase places two notes on pulses (the 1 and the 3) and has two notes on primary ups (the 1& and the 3&), with three notes on secondary ups (the 2e, 2a, and 3a).

Next lets look at the phrase with a 3 beat pulse subdivision (4×3)  again, the shaker states the pulse

1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a
O . T . . T . S X . T T

Here we see that only 1 pulse note is played (the 1); also, the “&” and “a”  have similar values in terms of tension in a 3 beat pulse subdivision. But we see that each of the “a”s are played here whereas only 2 of the “&”s are. So the most significant repetitive element would be the note preceding the pulse.

From this, we can identify that the phrase could be either time signature – if it were the 4 beat pulse subdivision then the phrase would serve as a more grounded element in a composition. If a 3 beat pulse subdivision is the underlying structure, the phrase would likely produce more tension by pulling the music back to precede the pulse.

Without hearing the pulse or knowing what other instruments might be doing in relation to the part, we can observe that the same phrase (content) would produce very different effects depending on the underlying structure. As a musician, you would probably choose to address the material in subtly different ways and you may find the material more difficult or easier to play depending the structure in which structure you are working.

Example 2

This example shows how the same sequence of notes in a phrase can produce a different effect depending on how the notes lay out across the measure.  The sequence of notes and rests are the same, but the following examples show them in two contexts. The phrase itself is simple and fairly symmetrical; it features two bass notes (dun/dum) two pulse subdivisions (8th notes in western notation) apart. First, how the phrase would read if the first of the bass notes is on the “1” :

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
X . X . T T T . X . . . T T . .

[audio:example2_pattern-v1-2.mp3|loop=yes] The audio clip has a simple accompanying Bass note on the one and a shaker on the pulse

Here we see that all 4 of the counted notes are played (bass on the “1”  and “3”  and Tones [go/do/tek] on the 2 and 4 producing a symmetry). We also see that 2 of the 4 “&”s are played (the “1&” and “2&”) Additionally there are two clusters of common voices (Tones), the first starting at 2 and the second starting at 4. This produces a very grounded phrase, with very little tension.

Here is the same sequence of notes arranged so that the first bass is a “pickup” into the phrase – starting two pulse subdivisions before the “1” (or the “4&”):

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
X . T T T . X . . . T T . . X .

Now we see that each of the “&”s are played, as are the “1” and “2”,  with each of the tone clusters beginning on an “&”.  All of this emphasis on the “&” produces a bouncy feeling against the pulse – and creates more tension at the end of the phrase that the pickup begins to resolve at the “4&”. The listener may feel the pull so strongly that the jembe and shaker get displaced and sounds as if they are on the  “&”s.

This type of transposition of notes across the time can produce some very interesting effects even with simple phrases such as this one. I encourage students to take the same phrase and play with moving it across the measure a few more times. Simply modifying the underlying structure will give you a fuller sense of the possibilities of a phrase.

Example 3

Lets look at another example, which contains some very interesting characteristics:

O . T . . X . T . . . X T . T .

Here we have a phrase that has 3 shapes. The first and third are 5 pulse subdivisions long. The second is 6 pulse subdivisions long giving us a total of 16 smallest common units of time. (Also of particular interest here is that the voice repetition and the extended rest of the first two shapes lead the listener to hear them as common, whereas the third shape uses a different voicing combination, creating a different shape. Note that subtle application of rests can produce interesting traits of symmetry /asymmetry.) The most likely underlying structure for a phrase like this is a 4 beat pulse subdivision (4×4).

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
O . T . . X . T . . . X T . T .

With a 4 beat pulse subdivision we see that two notes (the 1 and the 4 ) are on pulses (downbeats). Two notes are on upbeats (“1&” and the “4&”) while 3 notes are on secondary ups (“2e” “2a” and “3a”). The “3a” would most likely be perceived as clustered with the 4 – leading into the downbeat, whereas the “2e” and “2a” are isolated from each other by one or two rests – giving them more emphasis. We also see another shape-like characteristic emerge – 4 sequential notes with equal value (the “4”, “4&”, “1”, and “1&” – called 8th notes in western music) creating a strong wrap across the measure (the “1” being included in and surrounded by these notes). The remaining secondary upbeats echo the first two notes of the phrase and pull on the time, which produces the most tension. The sum result here is a line that I usually think of as kind of suspended. The “1” doesn’t possess as much gravity due to its relationships with the surrounding notes, and the most significant tension happens in the earlier part of the measure, giving the “4” a similar value of resolution to the “1”.

Now lets look at an alternate underlying structure:

1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5 6 1 2 3 4 5
O . T . . X . T . . . X T . T .

Here, the underlying structure uses no pulse subdivisions (in western terms this would be a sequentially polymetric structure of 5/16, 6/16, or 3/8 and 5/16). With an underlying structure like this, one would expect the remaining ensemble to resolve to each of the “1”s more consistently. Because of the absence of pulse subdivisions and the rapid-fire resolution to the “1”, the music would be heard as more urgent (tense), less symmetrical, and generally harder to follow.

In these examples, we see that the same content can be interpreted in different ways depending on the underlying structure. The structure can modify the way that the music is experienced by the performing musicians, which in turn may affect the way in which it is experienced by the audience. By identifying and addressing content and structure as different elements of rhythmic material, we can  broaden and deepen our understanding of the interaction between pulse, pulse subdivision, and the notes that take place in this space. We can also identify that by questioning our assumptions about underlying structure, there are multiple and novel ways novel in which a rhythmic idea can be applied. Bringing this type of understanding to our development of music enables us to more deliberately choose how we tell a story, and enables us to find a unique voice with which to tell it.