Musical Contrasts: The Changes People Actually Like

2011 Symposium2

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.

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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

W. A. Mozart

W. A. Mozart

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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