Rhythm and structure, algebra and arithmetic, concreteness and abstraction

Erica Sipes of Beyond the Notes is rolling around an interesting topic on Twitter at the moment, that of why in her experience so many people seem to have problems connecting with rhythm and are almost fearful of it. I’ve been mulling it.

I tend to compare music to math and language a lot, so it’s natural I guess that I’d see this in that light. Both math and language have structure underlying the actual words and numbers.

For example, you can diagram a sentence — illustrate the grammar underlying the words by putting the words into a tree structure. It turns out that when you do that, you reveal that there’s far more to any sentence than just the words themselves. There’s a whole tinkertoy structure underneath the whole thing, invisible but essential. You can diagram a sentence and then erase the words, and still have something vital sitting there that will tell you way more about that language than just whatever that one sentence was talking about.

Same with math — start out with simple arithmetic, something like 7+4=11. When you erase the numbers, you wind up with algebra: x+y=z. Again, it turns out that there was structure underneath those concrete numbers the whole time that is a vital part of the whole understanding, and the vast majority of mathematics lies in grasping that invisible structure — and many others!

I think that worrying so much, as classical musicians tend to, about the real, actual notes keeps students from seeing the underlying structure. Linguists and mathematicians are okay with putting their words and numbers on a tree structure, placing them relative to one another, and then wiping out the actual words and numbers and manipulating the structure itself. They seem to be more comfortable with a certain level of abstraction whereby the invisible structure is as real — or realer — to them than the actual words and numbers. They’re okay with that. Like Saint Exupery’s Little Prince, they regard what is invisible to the eye as more essential than the things you can stub your toe on. They (we, really — I know I’m like this) often regard the words and numbers as merely bits of lint the main function of which is to reveal to us the shape of the structure they attach themselves to.

Music students don’t have this attitude. They live and die by the notes. They are encouraged to live and die by the notes. Hence, making out the invisible structure behind the notes involves letting go of something that they have always seen as their one and only calibration point. As far as they’re concerned, their worth as a musician, and possibly their worth as a human being, relies on keeping a death grip on those notes.

The problem?

Rhythm lives on the invisible structure.

If the students can’t see that structure, they can’t sense the rhythm naturally.

And in order to perceive the structure, they have to relinquish their death grip on the notes.

(I think this is a big part of why improvisation is so useful — not just to get over fear of mistakes, but to help perceive the things that you can perceive in music once you do unclench your hand, rhythm being one of them.)

Now, there are up and down sides to these attitudes. I’ll never be a fussy soloist, and I was never qualified to be one. The notes mean less to me than the abstract structure, so a clinker every now and again is to be expected, as long as the abstract representation of the piece on paper is clean. This is part of why I’m going nuts with the recording process; the “who cares about a bum note here and there?” attitude is not acceptable once you plug something into AUX OUT. The audio recording now has to stand in for the sheet music, and well … the sheet music is 100% perfect, no clinkers, no pops or hisses, no skips or compression issues. As someone who regards abstraction as more real than reality, I resent having to be so detail-oriented about one transient representation of a piece. I will never be detail-oriented enough to make an acceptable performing classical musician.

And people who are concrete and very fussy about quality of the actual notes, who might have more trouble with the underlying structure or even dislike it (as many performing musicians dislike music theory), may make better actual performers since they are focused on the quality of the actual notes. (Although I reserve the right to go o_O at violinists who sound good and yet have no idea at all what key they are even in. Come on.)

Every person will probably lean more to one side than the other. An awful lot of professional orchestra musicians (who live and die by the notes) outright hate music theory, yet I’m reminded of Beethoven’s famous quote that a wrong note here and there means nothing, which indicates that composers may be more more worried about getting it right on paper; clearly composers are not likely to win auditions playing their own pieces.

And I think youngsters are more likely to focus on Getting The Notes Right as well, especially since they’ve spent their lives from the age of 6 immersed in an environment where grasping fine points of concrete detail matter far more than abstraction, and where authority figures will mark them down for getting the wrong answer no matter how well they grasped the broad strokes.

As we grow and mature, hopefully we all come to an appreciation of the side toward which we do not naturally incline. I’ve been made through my working life to realize that abstraction matters less if it’s not realized properly, and perhaps a more detail-oriented person will grow in awareness of the abstractions that surround us all.

Anyhow, there’s some babble for you.