What Would Music Be Like Without Change?

2011Symposium_1_2Although most would probably say they don’t like change, the fact is that we need change and are designed to change and benefit from change. This can be clearly seen if we consider minimalist music. When a minimalist piece begins, it has our attention, because what we hear is a change from not hearing it a moment ago. As the repetition continues though, we begin to take it for granted, while hoping and listening for something to change. When it does, we are gratified, refreshed, and our interest in the music is renewed. As the music goes on, and we long for another change, we begin to notice more subtle changes, because now we are focused on change. We naturally overlook things that stay the same, and notice things that change. Think of sitting in a quiet place where there is little sound and movement, and./or constant sound and movement. We do not notice anything in particular until something changes. We instantly notice the sound of a door closing, or the motion of a paper falling to the ground off of a desk. Evolutionists will say that we notice these changes because they must be tested as possible threats to our safety. Once we realize, even in a fraction of a second, that there is no danger, we return to a state of relaxed indifference to our surroundings, until something else changes.

When music changes, it arouses this alert response in us, and that is why we feel aroused and excited, even agitated by music that surprises us. Loud sounds are initially understood as a threat, and so startle us. Quiet sounds arouse curiosity and caution. These are involuntary responses, so even though we know music does not pose a threat, our threat response system reacts anyway, and we experience the “high alert” as exciting experiences with music. Without these reactions, music would be dull and uninspiring. That is why the best composers skillfully balance repetition and variety, or change. The repetition lulls us into a calm repose, and the change rouses us out of our relaxed state. No where is this more plain than playing music for children that has a surprise in it. In thirty years of teaching, I have never played the “surprise” movement of Haydn’s “surprise symphony” without seeing a response of giddy delight on the children as that bombastic chord jumps out of the quietest of passages. Even when they know it is coming, it still has great affect.

Now contrast that to the pedantic drudgery of drilling the first few pages of an instrument method book. The songs are each comprised of one pitch, repeated on one rhythm, a whole note, each separated by a whole rest. Change is nowhere to be found, and the emotional delight that gives us all reason to want to make music is entirely missing. These early days of instrument lessons need to be recharged with change. An instructor can change dynamics, articulation, tempo or even instrumentation if the class is grouped heterogeneously, to create variety and change, and even to surprise the young musicians so that a spontaneous and emotionally charged response is enjoyed.Musical-Balance

Listening to music, even popular music which tends to be highly repetitive, can be more exciting by directing listeners’ attention to what is changing in the music. There is the form. Some students will be so focused on the rhythm and beat that they will overlook changes from one section of the song to the next, or changes in instrumentation or backing tracks. Musicians and their producers know the value in change, even in a highly repetitive musical form, and embed changes, however subtle at times, into the recorded music. Students can learn about musical form and production while learning how to enjoy their music more by practicing perceiving these aspects of songs. This type of listening can then carry over into art music, opening up greater understanding of the classics as well.   While too much change is confusing to anyone, a good balance of change and repetition in our presentation of the music we teach with will increase student interest and enjoyment.


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