Why Do We Analyse Music?
Music is all around us, and plays a big role in our daily lives. Much of the time, we are unaware of it – playing on the radio in the car, permeating through the ceiling in a shop or hotel, underscoring a television programme or film we are watching. In these cases our listening is passive – the music accompanies other activities and provides a comforting background, atmosphere or mood to go with our travelling, shopping or viewing. We might only notice it if it suddenly stopped playing.
At other times we are more acutely aware of music because our listening is active. This might be because we are watching a music video or are at a concert, are listening to a track we have just downloaded, or are actually involved in performing music ourselves. It is when we are engaged in this active listening that we – consciously or subconsciously – start to ‘feel’ the music, and develop an opinion about it based on some unknown formula that has affected us in some way.
This ‘x-factor’ formula that music has, that gives it the power to affect mood, emotion or atmosphere and actually ‘get under our skin’ in such a way that we become fond of it, is what composers and performers have been trying to replicate for hundreds of years. This is the main reason why we look at music in an analytical way. It helps us understand it better, appreciate it more and – crucially with something so centred on emotional reaction – understand why it affects different people in different ways. Why does your friend dislike the band, artist, song or composer that you like so much? Why can’t you understand what he or she sees in their favourite music?
Discovering more about how a piece of music is put together is key to being able to play, write or appreciate music better. The same applies of course to other areas of life – for example, in sport we will spend just as much time analysing and discussing tactical approaches such as team shape and positioning as we will spend working on our skill and fitness. When football matches are shown on television experts are brought in to discuss the way the match is being played, and their analysis helps us to appreciate and enjoy the game more. In theatre much time is taken during the rehearsal process to understand and develop the motivations, sub-plots and backstories that contribute to add weight and impact to the delivery of the lines. Experts talk at length about the direction, cinematography, design and acting in films, all of which combine with many other factors to make the story vivid and gripping.
So just as it is important, for example, for a member of a sports team to understand their role within the team, so it helps us as musicians to understand how one part of a piece of music works within the piece as a whole. Why does the melody stick in your head? Why is the rhythm so key in driving the piece forward? Why does the music sound the way it does?
In a nutshell, investigating a piece of music and discovering more about it helps us to:
enjoy it more when we listen to it
be able to play music more effectively
learn how to write music that others will want to listen to.
We all listen to music, and many of us play it. Some of us try to write our own. By analysing music we can listen, play or write with more enjoyment, engagement, confidence, impact and success. This is why we analyse music!
How do we analyse music?
The word ‘analyse’ is a bit dry and academic, and probably does not make the prospect of studying music all that exciting. Thinking of analysis more as a treasure hunt, an opportunity to discover why a piece of music has an effect on its listeners, is perhaps more of an interesting prospect. This is what analysis is – the opportunity to shine a light on a song or instrumental piece and find out what makes it sound like it does, maybe so that we can replicate it ourselves through performance or writing new music. Discovering something of its ‘x-factor’ is very satisfying, and there are many ways in which we can do this.
The first, perhaps most natural step would be to ask open questions like:
why is this piece of music so good/bad?
why do I/other people like/dislike this piece?
why does this piece sound the way it does?
This initial investigation is a good way to start but it tends to throw up quite open and vague answers which are based on emotive words like ‘I like the melody’ or ‘the rhythm is catchy’. More specific questions should be asked such as:
What makes the melody work in this piece?
What maintains my interest throughout the piece?
How is the change of mood in the middle of the piece achieved?
Now we are thinking from the point of view of the composer, who made conscious decisions at many stages throughout the writing process in order to maximise the effect of their music on the listener. But answers to these kinds of questions are hard to find unless you know where and how to look.
At the start of an investigation into a crime, a good detective will narrow down the parameters to ensure that their work is focused on the right areas, and no time or resource is wasted. For example, very early on they will determine the geographical area they should work in, the people they should talk to and the time period they should focus on in order to maximise their chances of finding the criminal.
So in music, we can do our ‘detective work’ in specific areas, which are usually known as the elements of music. These are ‘building blocks’ rather like the key ingredients in a cake – things like flour, eggs and sugar that most cakes need whether they are fruit cakes, chocolate cakes or Victoria sponges. Music comes in all genres and styles but with very few exceptions, most pieces of music will have these seven elements:
Melody – the use of pitches to create themes (or ‘tunes’) that define the piece
Harmony – the use of more pitches to underpin the music with chords and give it mood
Structure – the way in which the music is organised – important to maintain our interest
Rhythm – the combination of different note lengths, metre, pulse and tempo to drive the music forward
Texture – the layering of sounds which help music to have variety and feel ‘full’ or ‘sparse’
Instrumentation – the actual sounds used to communicate the music to us
Dynamics – the ‘volume’ at which different parts of the music is played, which gives it expression
In order to remember these seven, you can rearrange them so that their first letters spell out ‘DR SMITH’ if this helps, but in the box above they have been put in a kind of ‘order of impact’ to reflect how quickly the listener homes in on each element in turn. Most of us notice the melody first, and perhaps remember it the longest. The harmony immediately colours the music and gives the melody its context, adding mood or atmosphere. We may not notice the structure but a well structured piece maintains our interest, and crucially gives us the right balance of repetition and variety that we need to appreciate the music.
Then the final four, rhythm, texture, instrumentation and dynamics, put the flesh on the bones by giving the music its drive, shape, colour, subtlety, expression and sound.
In these seven core modules we are going to examine each of these building blocks of music individually, and start to learn how to strip back the music we love and discover what makes it the way it is.