Monday, June 27, 2016

Muse's Voice Leading at the Olympics

The 2016 Olympics are around the corner. The official song of the 2012 Olympics— “Survival,” by the British alternative rock band Muse—premiered on the radio on this day four years ago.

The lyrics of the opening are “Race, life’s a – race, That I’m gonna – win, yes I’m gonna – win, And I’ll light the – fuse, and I’ll never – lose…” The music accompanying these lyrics uses the triadic progression of BbM – Bb+ – Ebm – CbM – GbM, where M is major, m is minor, and + is augmented. The progression can also be considered in terms of smooth voice leading. First, one by one, each of the three voices in the BbM triad—on Bb, D, or F—moves up by a semitone, achieving the CbM triad. After this, two of the three voices in the CbM triad slip back down to make the GbM triad. Only the voice that started on the F and moved up to Gb never retreats, at least not until the progression starts over. Therefore, one can say that only this voice “wins,” as animated below, with the gold-colored figure as the winning voice.

What makes this more fitting is that, at least at the beginning of the song, Muse’s lead singer, Matt Bellamy, is intoning his first-person account of victory using precisely the notes of the “winning” voice. Now this, literally, is…VOICE…LEADING.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Researching Some Music in Ligeti's Musica ricercata

The composer György Ligeti was born 93 years ago today. Here is a relationship between pitches and meters in some music from Ligeti's Musica ricerata that requires a little investment upfront.

1. A measure like 2/4 can be represented by the ordered series of positive integers 2-1, where 2 is the strong beat and 1 is the weak beat. Likewise, a measure of 3/4 can be represented as 2-1-1. A measure of 4/4, instead of being represented by 2-1-1-1, is often thought to have a metrical accent halfway through that is not as strong as the downbeat, but stronger than the weak beats: this could be represented as 3-1-2-1.

An uneven measure like 7/4 often breaks down as 4/4 + 3/4, but instead of simply concatenating 4/4's 3-1-2-1 with 3/4's 2-1-1 to make 3-1-2-1-2-1-1, a representation of 4-1-2-1-3-1-1 reflects the measure's initial division into 4/4 + 3/4 by making the beginning of the 3/4 measure into a "second-rank" downbeat.

When the quarter-note beat of one of these meters is subdivided into eighth notes, this inclusion can be represented by adding one to each of the numbers and then placing a 1 after each of them. For example, 3/4 (2-1-1) with eighth notes would be 3-1-2-1-2-1. 7/4 (4-1-2-1-3-1-1) would be 5-1-2-1-3-1-2-1-4-1-2-1-2-1.

2. Now, given a certain series of numbers, its cumulation is a series of numbers that sum the original series starting from the left and up to that point. For example, the cumulation of 2-1-1 is 2-(2+1)-(2+1+1) or 2-3-4. The cumulation of 3-1-2-1 is 3-4-6-7.

3. Lastly, a cumulation mod 2 of a series is a series's cumulation where every even number is replaced by 0 and every odd number is replaced by 1. For example, whereas the cumulation of 2-1-1 is 2-3-4, the cumulation mod 2 of this series is 0-1-0. The cumulation mod 2 of 3-1-2-1 is 1-0-0-1.

Below is an 7/4 example from the Overture to Leonard Bernstein's Candide -- placed into time signatures commensurate with the discussion above -- that shows 1) the 7/4 meter as a series of positive integers, 2) the culmination of the series, and 3) the culmination mod 2 of the series.

Below is a video with a score and recording of the second movement of Ligeti's Musica ricercata; attend to the first four measures.

I've re-notated these four measures to make a steady stream of eighth notes, and analyzed the music using the methods outlined above.

Notice how the alternation between 0s and 1s in the culmination mod 2 of the first measure, the second measure, and the third and fourth measures as a single measure of 7/4, corresponds exactly to these measure's alternations between the two pitches that open the movement. Each fermata both resets the metrical hierarchy and toggles the pitch-meter mapping.

Thanks to Nick Shaheed for encouraging me to think about this music.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Approximating e Musical-e

The mathematician Leonhard Euler was born in this month 309 years ago. As he contributed in important ways to our understanding of some aspects of music, I thought I would use music to help understand some aspects of mathematics. The constant e, named after Euler, is one of the most important numbers in mathematics. One way of approximating e can be demonstrated using musical intervals:

At the least, this approach offers one answer to the question of when an approximation is good enough: it's good enough when you can't hear the difference between it and a better approximation.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sonata-Principled Praises

Lent concludes during this month, and that means that many Easter performances of Beethoven's "Hallelujah," the popular chorus that concludes his unpopular oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, are just around the corner.

This is a rather unusual movement to bring up as an example of the sonata principle, because, as befitting a coda-chorus, it hardly strays from its main key of C major. In fact, it never provides an authentic cadence in any other key. The closest it comes to such a cadence, complete with a chromatic predominant and a 6/4 embellishment of the cadential dominant, is this:

If the sopranos had descended from E (A:^5) to A (A:^1) instead of ascended to G (enclosed in red above), then this would be a clear full close in A major. The G is both a surprise -- foiling a well-prepared escape from C major -- and not a surprise -- the A7 chord sends the music back, via a circle of fifths, to the movement's main key and tonic triad.

Toward the end of the movement, this happens:

If the basses had descended from G (C:^5) to C (C:^1) instead of ascended to B flat (enclosed in red above), then this would be a clear full close in C major. The B flat is both a (welcome) surprise -- foiling yet another authentic cadence in C major -- and not a surprise -- the lean toward the subdominant key is a common perorative technique in classical tonal music, and the basses's ascending-minor-third digression from the movement's main key recalls the soprano's earlier similar digression from a different key.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Sonata-Principled Kangaroos

This month and next, I’ll continue last month’s focus on sonata, particularly the “sonata principle,” Edward T. Cone’s name for common-practice-music’s propensity to present distinctive melodic material first outside of the movement’s main key and then later in the main key.

When you tonally attend to this leap of a minor seventh,
I suspect that you hear it in G, even though there’s no G there. The presence of the C natural keeps it from being in D (D as tonic would rather have C#), and the greater weight afforded to the D by its lower register, longer duration, and downbeat position keeps the C from materializing as tonic. Instead, the key of G matches these different weights well: the more weighted pitch of D is dominant, tonic’s second-in-command, and the less weighted pitch of C is a more subordinate subdominant.

So, with this in place, the “Kangaroos” movement of Carnival of the Animals, which Camille Saint-Saëns began composing 140 years ago this month, contains a rather subtle instance of the sonata principle. The movement clearly begins in C minor, but then the bass’s leap of a D-C seventh in mm. 4-5, especially when accompanied with notes taken from the G harmonic minor scale, leans toward G.

At the end, the minor seventh appears again in the bass, but transposed to G-F, accompanied by notes taken from the C melodic minor scale. Thus this minor-seventh leap is restored to the Kangaroo’s main key of C minor.

What appears even more clever is that the last three measures embed this minor-seventh recapitulation within a clear pattern in the bass: G--F#-G--F-G--E. This could be heard as a musical cross-dissolve: the repeated low G-major chords draw out the dominant of C, while the functional progression of higher chords—V/V, Fr. 6, V—prepare the key of A, which is the tonal center of “Aquarium,” the next movement where the same Fr. 6 returns as a less-functional coloristic harmony.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Schenker, Sonata Form, Mozart, and Meter

The Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker died 71 years ago today. The theory that Schenker founded distills tonal structures to their linear-harmonic essence, where prominent starting notes and normative cadential notes are stitched together into a well-formed contrapuntal design. Often, similar forms have similar linear-harmonic essences. Take sonata form. When a major-mode late-eighteenth-century sonata-form movement has a prominent scale-degree 3 in its main theme, its linear-harmonic essence is often interpreted as something like this:

P = primary theme, TR = transition, S = secondary theme, C = closing section

This graph reflects how the primary themes in both exposition and recapitulation are basically, if not exactly, the same. It also reflects how the secondary theme in the exposition, whose treble line is distilled to D-C-B-A-G, is transposed back into the main key, with a distilled treble line of G-F-E-D-C. Schenkerian theory encourages the analyst to connect, as if part of a smooth melody, the prominent pitch that begins the primary theme and the prominent pitch that begins the secondary theme. This works quite well in the exposition: E is just a step higher than D. However, the stitching of the corresponding design in the recapitulation is a bit loose, particularly at the moment marked with an asterisk (*). On the one hand, the prominent pitch that begins the secondary theme in the recapitulation should be the same one that begins the secondary theme in the recapitulation, but down a perfect fifth or up a perfect fourth: in this case, D becomes G. After all, the secondary themes are typically copies of one another, differing only by their transpositional level. On the other hand, the prominent pitch that begins the primary theme in the recapitulation (E) and the prominent pitch that begins the secondary theme in the recapitulation (G) are not smoothly connected as they were in the exposition. Rather, if the prominent pitches of the recapitulation’s primary and secondary themes were to be closer together, the graph might look something like this:

But such a graph would signify a considerable change for the beginning of the secondary theme in the recapitulation from how it sounded in the exposition.

In the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 279, there is such a change, although I will let the reader decide how considerable it is. This common-time movement is remarkable in how often it shifts the perceived downbeat from the notated downbeat to the spot halfway between notated downbeats. By my count, this shift happens 12 times: 6 times away from the notated downbeat, and 6 times back to the notated downbeat. Mozart does not notate these shifts, but they can be readily heard. I have notated them below for the entire movement.

I: = main key, V: dominant key, PAC = perfect authentic cadence, HC = cadence, --> = "becomes"

These shifts also affect how the beginning of the secondary theme is heard in both exposition and recapitulation. As shown below, in both exposition and recapitulation, the entrance of the secondary theme is preceded by a perception of downbeats halfway between notated downbeats. However, Mozart starts the secondary theme halfway through the measure in the exposition, while he starts it on the downbeat in the recapitulation. This changes which note in the secondary theme first receives metrical emphasis. In the exposition, that note is D. In the recapitulation, that note is not G, but E, as shown below.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

When Canons in Inversion Don't Know When to Say When

Two years ago, I demonstrated a bit of serendipitous counterpoint with the Christmas carol "Deck the Halls." Luck this good is bound to run out.

Here are a couple of canons that did not make the cut, although the first few measures of each held promise.

Happy Holidays!