How to organize dramatic elements in music

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AndrewMeronek
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How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by AndrewMeronek » Fri May 11, 2018 11:22 am

Something that is probably one of the most difficult things in music is how to organize dramatic elements in music, at least in music that has a dramatic focus, in contrast to something that is specifically non-dramatic like some minimalism or pop music. This is something I've thought about for a while, and as an aspiring composer (I don't know if it's even possible to leave that "aspiring" state) has been very difficult to really pin down. But, given that the trombone community has a pretty good collection of accomplished composers and arrangers, I figure there may be some pretty good thoughts to share out there.

I'll start with what I have figured out: one thing that seems to be universal in terms of musical perception is a sense of tension in a particular musical moment, being completely independent of the particular details of harmonic or rhythmic or tambral motion, that people even hearing completely unfamiliar music can get a sense of music being more or less tense in some parts than others. At least, I think this is a thing. So, it seems to be pretty important in terms of dramatic development to make sure that there is clear contrast in the "tension" elements in a piece of music. The classic sonata form does this extremely well, where the most "tense" part is in the development section, with other tension building and releasing elements of lesser impact spread throughout the form - for example, it's fairly typical for the transition from the first to second themes (with the typical key change) to add an element of tension. And, of course, tension can be added to or subtracted from at different scalar levels in music, from the largest-scale things like development sections, to simple harmonic tension contrasts like suspended chord resolutions.

Of course, this is also pretty vague in concept, so actually achieving a good dramatic piece of music with this in mind seems to need a bit more help. How do you consistently achieve good dramatic contrast while not using the same dramatic forms from piece to piece and keep from becoming stale?
“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.”

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Wilktone
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by Wilktone » Sun May 13, 2018 10:27 am

Different composers/arrangers are going to approach it differently, but I think a lot of it is intuitive. But in order to reach a certain level of intuition I think it helps to really study what great composers have done.

You mention the classical forms, which allow composers to explore ways to organize thematic and dramatic elements in what might be considered a safer way than something through composed. Depending on the composer's interest, what about taking themes that are influenced by pop music and using those as part of a sonata allegro form? What about trying to apply the harmonic structure of a sonata allegro form into a minimalist rhythmic concept? What if the modulation between themes goes to a different key other than the dominant?

There are different ways of playing around with the standard forms, blending them into different combinations, and borrowing certain ideas from them to create something that is more original. It may also help you to assimilate what you like from those forms so that the organization of dramatic elements in your own composition becomes more organic.

Dave
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boneagain
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by boneagain » Mon May 14, 2018 10:44 am

AndrewMeronek wrote:
Fri May 11, 2018 11:22 am
... a sense of tension in a particular musical moment...
Have you thought about this observation from the opposite direction? Ever notice how painters achieve white highlights in their watercolors? Hint: they do NOT use white. You might gain insights searching the web for hints on painting with negative space.

In a nutshell, that "particular moment" you mention can be no more effective than all the OTHER moments surrounding it. I think this is why I like Mahler so much... not in spite of the length, but BECAUSE of it. He controls the lack of drama in vast expanses all around the big statements he wants to make.

Also visible in Mahler (at least when performed according to the score) is the idea of priorities. Just as in any given life situation there can be only ONE top priority, a musical experience can really only have one true dramatic peak. Ever been to a concert with one door-buster after another, all played with maxium volume, energy, and intensity? Does it get to be tiresome and somewhat monotonous, rather than exciting? Have you been to well-programmed concerts where the whole evening seems to build to one massive high point in the climax of a major work? That pacing and contrast are important even within works.

I don't think it's a simple as a specific form, like the classic sonata. I think it was the composer's control of the elements and not the form, although I cannot be certain without knowing which sonatas you are thinking about.

IMHO this, like the "negative space" is about working with expectations. The painter, or composer, set them with a huge amount of careful attention to detail around the main idea, then use different methods of surprise with the kinds of contrast you describe so neatly.

interesting topic!
AndrewMeronek
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by AndrewMeronek » Mon May 14, 2018 3:23 pm

Boneagain - I was thinking along the same lines but you described it with a different take. I guess I didn't stress the importance of contrasts - the Mahler thinking of how he has long periods of lower dramatic impact to build to shorter, big impacts definitely is worth paying attention to. The dude was da bomb for good reason.
“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.”

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AndrewMeronek
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by AndrewMeronek » Mon May 14, 2018 3:25 pm

Wilktone wrote:
Sun May 13, 2018 10:27 am
There are different ways of playing around with the standard forms, blending them into different combinations, and borrowing certain ideas from them to create something that is more original. It may also help you to assimilate what you like from those forms so that the organization of dramatic elements in your own composition becomes more organic.

Dave
Most definitely. I am thinking more of coming to a deeper understanding of why standard forms work as well as they do. Without understanding, it's pretty easy to use those forms and completely whiff on writing a good piece of music.
“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.”

- Thelonious Monk
AndrewMeronek
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by AndrewMeronek » Mon May 14, 2018 3:28 pm

boneagain wrote:
Mon May 14, 2018 10:44 am
Ever been to a concert with one door-buster after another, all played with maxium volume, energy, and intensity? Does it get to be tiresome and somewhat monotonous, rather than exciting?
Yes, definitely, more than I want to have had to experience, for sure. From both sides of the stage.
“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.”

- Thelonious Monk
VJOFan
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by VJOFan » Thu Jun 07, 2018 9:48 am

One thing I am learning more and more as I slowly move further and further away from being "in" music to just occasionally seeing some music is that untrained (no music school background or extensive practice beyond high school) audience members aren't really hearing what trained musicians hear.

I've been asked on several occasions by people after a performance if what they heard was excellent?

They just couldn't hear the difference between a 19 year old kids with a few years of lessons and a professional soloist.

Composers have to compose for themselves. If you write with integrity to what you truly think is good and pleasing then that should do.

The majority of audiences will respond to the feeling of importance the event projects. Or to the fact that their friend is on stage.
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Matt K
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by Matt K » Thu Jun 07, 2018 10:08 am

The majority of audiences will respond to the feeling of importance the event projects. Or to the fact that their friend is on stage.
On the other hand though, I don't think professionals are totally immune to that either. Particularly things like theater pieces, there are some things that are not really aesthetic, though they might a thematic message or something similar. They can definitely push the bounds of what 'art' is. E.g. https://jwpepper.com/General-Speech-Tro ... 93803.item

I feel like something like that is going to be much more well received by musicians than the general public, who might prefer to hear a good high school wind ensemble concert to it for exactly the reasons you stated.

In other words, is there a distinction between someone doing something that isn't "aesthetic" but "artistic" vs. something that is, perhaps "amateur" for lack of a better term and also not aesthetic if it's important to the audience that they are creating the art?
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by brtnats » Fri Jun 08, 2018 7:38 am

<I do not compose, and this is opinion solely gained through years of performance, writing as a musicologist, and teaching the development of western music to undergrad and grad students.>

In working with composers, and studying their compositional processes, it seems to me that they tend to organize based on a formal roadmap. They select the ideas/motives/dramatic elements that form the major arrival points within a piece, and then select the kind of emphasis those ideas need to be most effective. Sometimes its a modulation, sometimes a crescendo and thicker orchestration, and sometimes it’s highlighting silence and sparseness (I really like that). Once these formal destinations are set, they just build the rest of the road to get there.
Compositional process today reminds me a lot of the Baroque use of rhetoric; a composer write a piece like an orator composes a speech. And, I think a lot of this is reflective of the personality of the creator. I have friends who compose who are soft-spoken, and they often tend to use softer, more introspective rhetorical devices in their music than those who like to talk loud at cocktail parties.
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AndrewMeronek
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by AndrewMeronek » Fri Jun 08, 2018 8:50 am

VJOFan wrote:
Thu Jun 07, 2018 9:48 am
I've been asked on several occasions by people after a performance if what they heard was excellent?

They just couldn't hear the difference between a 19 year old kids with a few years of lessons and a professional soloist.
This may be true, but I think it's worth considering that typical people are complimentary in general, and may not have the vocabulary for criticism that a musician has. It doesn't mean they can't tell difference in quality between performances.
brtnats wrote:
Fri Jun 08, 2018 7:38 am
Compositional process today reminds me a lot of the Baroque use of rhetoric; a composer write a piece like an orator composes a speech.
Can you elaborate on this? I don't know much about Baroque rhetoric.
“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.”

- Thelonious Monk
VJOFan
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by VJOFan » Fri Jun 08, 2018 12:13 pm

AndrewMeronek wrote:
Fri Jun 08, 2018 8:50 am
VJOFan wrote:
Thu Jun 07, 2018 9:48 am
I've been asked on several occasions by people after a performance if what they heard was excellent?

They just couldn't hear the difference between a 19 year old kids with a few years of lessons and a professional soloist.
This may be true, but I think it's worth considering that typical people are complimentary in general, and may not have the vocabulary for criticism that a musician has. It doesn't mean they can't tell difference in quality between performances.
Of course what you say can be true too. I just want to emphasize that in the situations I am speaking of the people (well educated, intelligent, experienced concert goers) were truly saying they couldn't tell if they had just heard something good or not. That's interesting.
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by brtnats » Wed Jun 13, 2018 8:12 am

AndrewMeronek wrote:
Fri Jun 08, 2018 8:50 am

Can you elaborate on this? I don't know much about Baroque rhetoric.
Sure. There is a lot of scholarly writing on rhetoric and elocution in Baroque music (I used to study this kind of thing when I was a musicologist). The basic gist is that originally, composers organized the music of Baroque arias to accentuate the text being sung. In order to do that, they went with classical models of how effective speeches were given. If you’ve ever read Cicero’s speeches, you’re on the right path. The dramatic elements of a good, persuasive speech were applied to declamatory music as a way to accentuate a text, and these elements eventually shaped solo instrumental sonatas who didn’t have a text at all. Historically, Baroque instrumental composers were using the same techniques drawn from classical rhetoric to accentuate and organize instrumental solos, and then concerti grossi, and then ultimately binary form compositions that segued into the symphony. Dramatic effect is a literary device we recognize in language, and therefore can scaffold onto music.

Matt
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Re: How to organize dramatic elements in music

Post by AndrewMeronek » Fri Jun 15, 2018 8:32 am

I ran across this nice video blog by David Bruce on this subject:

“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.”

- Thelonious Monk
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