November 2021 post “The Instruments of an Orchestra”
October 2021 post “Orchestra Types”
September 2021 post “Soloists”
July 2021 post “Programming”
June 2021 post “Good Performance/Bad Performance”
May 2021 post “Good Music/Bad Music”
April 2021 post “Meaning of Music”
March 2021 post “Hearing 3”
February 2021 post “Hearing 2”
January 2021 post “Hearing 1”
December 2020 post “What to listen for in music”
November 2020 post “Early History of Conducting”
There are several things trained musicians can do with the building blocks of music: pitches, rhythms, forms and so on. Sometimes, these processes can be confused with one another. This article serves to differentiate these creative disciplines.
Let’s begin with where music begins – composing. This creative activity involves an inspired person choosing to express themself through the sounds of music in a manner unique to their own voice and consistent with some version of aesthetic discipline. The goal is to create a piece of music that has never been written or heard before. This is more difficult than it may seem.
Much new music is really old musical patterns, re-organized with enough changes to justify the claim of originality. It is rare to find a new piece of music that does not conform to conventions of the past. But there HAVE been composers who “broke the mold”, who had a vision that music could sound differently, could be constructed differently from anything that had been written to that point.
Such maverick composers were Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Cage. Certainly, in some form, every composer of note speaks with an original voice and receives appropriate recognition for this uniqueness. The five composers I mention above (and there are others) not only spoke with a unique voice; they called into question the very rules of what makes music – music! Said another way, their music was, at first (and for some, continues to be) discounted and shunned as non-music, as trash. Fortunately, time and the aesthetic reflection time affords have allowed our musical sensibilities to grow – actually, to “catch up” with where these avant-garde composers already knew music needed to go.
Let’s now consider when a talented and skilled musician takes an already composed piece of music and puts their own original twist on this piece. This form of music manipulation is called arranging. Arrangers do not “compose” the themes (melodies) from scratch. They begin with musical material that someone already composed. The arranger’s task is to change the melody in such a way as to freshen it up, to put a new face on it.
How do people “freshen-up” music? Decorators for offices and homes know how to freshen-up interior physical space. Home remodeling specialists know how to freshen-up large housing structures. Clothing designers know how to freshen-up someone’s wardrobe. Make artists are well-known for being able to freshen-up someone’s appearance.
Mozart did this with the famous tune we know as “Twinkle Twinkle”. This “composition” actually involves “arranging”. It is known as the musical form “Theme and Variations”. In this form, a theme (original by the composer OR borrowed from someone else) is played exactly as written. Then, the composer writes several different “versions” or arrangements of this same piece. (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIq3wkUmXjw )
Arrangers of music are highly skilled in knowing the tricks of the trade: these are certain characteristic rhythms or catchy melodic soundbites that are associated with various cultures, moods, or imagery, A talented arranger can take a piece of music as simple as “happy birthday” and make it sound like a sad funeral march, or like a country-western hoe-down, or like the blues of New Orleans, or like a triumphant, Olympic march, and so on. I include here a clip of a talented pianist who, in fact, takes “happy birthday” and plays it (arranges it) in the style of various famous composers, including Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Bach and Mozart (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaZveHbxAYs ).
Another example (probably my favorite of all time) of such arranging – freshening up – is found in a most creative album: The Messiah: A Soulful Celebration under the inspiration of the inimitable genius Quincy Jones! Here is a link to the arrangement of the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGbXPvWR79o . This album is really worth the purchase! (I do know that a handful of people might be offended at the radical changes made to this “sacred” work. Yet, I believe, that this arranging offers a very contemporary feel of “halleluiah” that (again, I believe) Handel would have smiled upon!)
Transposing and Transcribing
Other forms of music manipulation include transposing and transcribing. Transposing involves the act of taking a piece of existing music and playing it in a different key – higher or lower from the original. This manipulation is most often used with singers whose voices may not be suited to the range (the high and low notes) of a piece. Transposing the song – taking exactly the same notes and playing them in a higher or lower key – can make a song singable for someone who otherwise could not do so as the piece was originally composed.
Transcribing music involves the act of writing out something that has not yet been written out. Typically, someone who does not read music but who wishes to compose some music, simply records themself singing or playing the song. He or she then asks someone who has the skill, to write down (transcribe) every note exactly as they hear it. This is sometimes done even with a rock band or even larger ensembles. It is not uncommon for some very famous rock musicians to be able to play and sing music without the ability to write it down. The entire band can “learn” a piece of music “by ear”. If the song is a “hit”, other people will want to play it, so it needs to be transcribed – written down – so others may replicate it.
Another form of music manipulation is adaptation. Sometimes music is written for one medium when another medium is needed. This happens all the time. A guitar player may want to play a piece written for piano, or an organist may want to play a piece written for orchestra, or a woodwind quartet may want to play a piece written for string quartet. The list goes on.
It was always fun for me to hear classical music arranged and adapted for childhood cartoons! There are SO many great moments of classical music to be found in the cartoons of Bugs Bunny and his various other characters, or in the Smurfs!
Once music is composed, it is far from done! There may be many metamorphoses in its lifetime!
© Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.