How Does Music Work?

We have all encountered teachers who began some music course or other by asking “What Is Music?” Leonard Bernstein, paraphrasing this often posed question, I suppose, asked “What Does Music Mean?” Many answers have been proposed to the former question, and Bernstein’s answer to the latter, after an interesting lecture, was that music doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything because it is not a literal form of communication as language is, but an abstract one. It can abstractly represent something, like Don Quixote encountering a flock of sheep (R. Strauss, Don Quixote) or a Bohemian river (Smetana, Vltava (The Moldau)), but it cannot literally mean those things. In light of the ambiguous result of searches for what music is, and the realization that music doesn’t mean anything, perhaps a better result can be found in asking a different question. Both what music is, and what music means can more satisfactorily be understood by exploring the question, “How Does Music Work?”

Music is sequences and combinations of sound that can be organized into recognized patterns by the human brain. Music works by presenting patterns of sound that can be matched by the listener to patterns that are already known. Margolis even went so far as to state that all thinking, including recognizing musical motifs, themes, and melodies, is based on pattern matching. When we hear a pattern, we attempt to match it with one stored in our memory. A listener might match a pattern exactly, as when he or she recognizes a familiar tune or chord, or it might be less exact, where a similar but not identical match is made. The listener then continues to work on the match, finding similarities and differences, matching where possible.

Lerdahl and Jacendoff demonstrated how pattern recognition enables a listener to make sense of the rhythmic (including metrical) and harmonic structures of music. They focused on four hierarchical structures that shape how we perceive music. Grouping structure expresses a hierarchical segmentation of a piece into motives, phrases, periods and still larger sections. Metrical structure expresses the intuition that the events of a piece are related to a regular alternation of strong and weak beats at a number of hierarchical levels, including measures, motifs, phrases and themes. These two structures are then analyzed and form the basis for an analysis known as time-span reduction. Finally, the time-span reduction is complemented with an analysis of patterns of tensing and relaxing of the harmonic component, which is called prolongational reduction.

Why is all of this theoretical writing important, and what does this have to do with music education? It’s important because we are music teachers, so we ought to know how we and our students are processing music in our or their brains. We need to understand how we understand, so that we can teach our students how to use their natural cognitive ability to make the most of their musical experiences, and to present music in a way that is consistent with how it is understood. It is this last point I would like to discuss next.

If music is understood as patterns of sound, then teaching isolated musical sounds is contrary to how music works. Music must always be taught in patterns, or at least in the context of a pattern to which a musical event belongs. For example, instrumental teachers often introduce a new note by itself. Method books commonly show the fingering, and then provide an exercise for the student to practice the new note by repeating it as one whole note after the other, played in unison. If the purpose is to teach a fingering, then this is effective, but if the purpose is to teach music, then that whole note needs a context. It needs to be part of a chord that is part of a tonality that has been established in advance, or it needs to be part of a rhythm that is perceived as a pattern when heard in it’s entirety. Ideally, the note will not be a whole note, but a shorter duration that more easily fits into a familiar rhythm or melodic pattern.

How we introduce new repertoire is also impacted by remembering that music is understood in patterns. When students are sight-reading new repertoire, patterns are frequently obscured by errors, erratic tempi, and so forth. In this environment, sight reading quickly deteriorates into a confusing mass of sound in which the students loose all sense of what they are doing, and gain little or no insight into what the music is supposed to sound like. It is not best practice to make students “figure out” what the music sounds like from sight reading unless they are highly proficient at it. It is much better to present an expert performance, either recorded or performed by the teacher, and thereby give the students a chance of matching patterns. It is also helpful for the teacher to point out pattern matches with music he or she knows the students have encountered. “This phrase reminds me of the overture we played in our last concert. Does anyone hear that?” “Here, let me play that theme from the overture…now here’s the phrase we just heard. Hear the connection?” This not only helps the students understand the new piece, but it also models for them how you want them to listen to and think about music they are hearing.

Once students are understanding music they are hearing and playing because they have been presented with intact patterns with which they can match patterns, they will develop the ability to think in sound patterns, which is the beginning of composing. Creators of music generate musical ideas. As we have seen, musical ideas are patterns the listener can match with known patterns. Composers’ musical ideas are also known patterns, or alterations of known patterns with differences intentionally added in. This altered patterns then become familiar and can be altered again while still retaining familiar parts. This is how composers develop ideas. It all depends on the clear conception and presentation of patterns. Generating those patterns comes as a by-product of being able to perceive them from listening and performing. Students who have not listened to much music of the type they are trying to compose, or performed it, invariably attempt to compose by some random method of putting down individual notes, all the time having little or no idea what they sound like. If your students are doing this, take them off composing, and let them listen and perform more, with a focus on learning patterns they will then work into their composing.

Approaching music from the standpoint of sound patterns will revolutionize your teaching if you are not already doing so. It will open your ears to deeper listening and deeper thinking about music than you have heretofore enjoyed, and your students will have whole new musical vistas opened to them. And isn’t that what we all want to see happen in our students?

If you’d like to discuss this article with other music educators, please go to the discussion forum. There’s a link to it on our home page. If you would like me to visit your district to provide professional development for music teachers, please contact me by e-mail using the contact page.

Margolis, Howard. 1987. Patterns, Thinking,and Cognition: A Theory of Judgment. Chicago:Universityof ChicagoPress.

Lerdahl, F., & Jackendoff, R. (2017). A generative theory of tonal music.


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