Why is repetition so good in music

And does the marmot say hello every day?
Some thoughts on the repeatability of musical processes

Some time ago I found an old music book from my school days and leafed through it a bit. As an introduction to the explanation of the notation of the score, it read as follows: “Since the beginning of human culture, it has been the highest goal of musicians to make their pieces of music repeatable and thus to keep them for posterity. In simple folk music this is achieved by learning by heart; European classical music as the highest level of culture has developed a precise system of notes and symbols in order to make complex and polyphonic compositions repeatable and thus to tear them away from transience. " Appropriately, the book was called “Sound and Sign”.

I have seldom seen all the ignorance of forms of music that are based on improvisation, the intensity of the groove and the individual sound so succinctly and clearly summarized as in this short section. Time and again, in conversations with students, I have found that practically nothing has changed in this attitude in the 25 years since my school days. Especially interested young people who have a differentiated and unusual taste in music or who make music themselves creatively in their own band projects have to experience that the official music aesthetics declare their music to be worthless and simply do not take note of the design principles on which it is based. I have had the same experience in my arguments with GEMA, in many discussions about music and reading newspaper articles. A real examination of this kind of music observation must therefore begin with central basic questions: How do compositions come about and what is their meaning? Is it even possible to repeat a piece of music?

Music evokes emotions and leads to intense physical and mental experience. Many people who only know music from the listener's point of view believe that the composer must have felt these feelings himself while composing. When composing a sad piece of music, the composer was sad, when composing a cheerful one, he was cheerful and relaxed, etc.

However, this approach completely misses the reality of the creative process. Above all else, composers need a concentrated working atmosphere in order to work, as is the case with any other intellectual activity. Scores by great composers also clearly show this working atmosphere. They can be clearly divided and structured or show traces of numerous revisions. But nowhere do they bear the characteristics of the emotional state that the piece expresses. The entire process of composing a score is too complex and too closely linked to precise theoretical and technical working methods. The concentration that is necessary for writing polyphonic scores and which, especially with polyphonic voice guides, can sometimes take on the character of a complicated puzzle solution, does not allow a merely emotional approach.

Composition is about the invention of musical material, its structuring and shaping. The emotionality of the expression depends on different musical parameters such as tempo, rhythm, harmony and melody. Emotional expression is not the basis of the creative process, but its result. Composers of earlier ages also knew this and consciously used certain creative elements. In baroque music there was what is known as the “doctrine of affect”, a technically sophisticated system that explains which stylistic devices evoke which feelings (“affects”).

But how about the development of the first basic idea for a piece, the theme? Isn't there at least a direct connection between a feeling and its musical implementation? When considering music in Romanticism, there is the theory of the so-called “incident”. The first musical idea should follow a spontaneous feeling, even more, it should be an inspiration from higher powers. But the reality is different here too. Of course there are spontaneous musical thoughts that are also linked to a momentary feeling. Basically, it is an improvisational process that takes shape in the performance or on an instrument. These improvisational melodies arise from the already accumulated treasure trove of musical experience and repeat in a modified form music that the composer already knows. Every composer knows the experience of having come up with a musical idea out of a spontaneous feeling, but then having to realize that this idea, this “idea” actually comes from an already existing piece of music.

A good topic arises in a long work and consolidation process in which the first thought is turned back and forth a hundred times, expanded and varied. It is only during this process that the composer's artistic identity comes into play. He has to decide which of these countless variations comes closest to his body and melody and what he wants to express personally. And of course he has to be able to judge whether the topic will enable and support the further development of the piece. This applies regardless of whether this further development takes place improvisationally, as in jazz, or compositionally, as in classical music.

We also find this priority of the design, the structuring of the material over the spontaneous first idea in the great works of Romanticism, which ought to be most indebted to the theory of “higher inspiration”. The drama, the tension and the emotionality of the great works by Brahms, Mahler or Bruckner result from the design and processing and not so much from the subject matter, which is very often based on the melody of folk songs.

But if it is the case that composing is not about putting spontaneous feelings into notes; when design, structure and, last but not least, mastery of a complicated compositional craft play such an important role; Then where does the emotionality in a performance of composed music come from? The answer is actually quite simple and self-evident: from the performing musicians. With his notated rhythms, melodies and sounds, the composer offers a framework, a basic structure within which the music moves and which also makes certain expressive specifications for the musician. But the energy and expressiveness of the music come from the performance and come from the musician himself. The unity of the human being created by listening to music, which includes body, soul and spirit, presupposes the experience of the piece of music in its temporal course. Music is the artistic creation of sounds in time; it is inconceivable regardless of the performance. Music as something purely spiritual and timeless does not exist, or it is then no longer music. In this respect, the actually created work of art is never solely the work of the composer. It is always the work of everyone involved in which the composer plays a certain role.

The classical concert business also takes this fact into account, in that the performing musicians often play a larger role than the composers of the pieces, both in the advance announcements and in the reviews of concerts. The passage from the textbook cited at the beginning proves to be an ideological construct with which other, especially improvised forms of music are to be disqualified as inferior.

The piece of music as a work of art created in time is thus decisively shaped by the performing musicians in addition to the composer. In addition to these, other factors also play an important role: the space in which the music is made; the listening audience; the occasion for which the piece is played; and finally the relation of the piece to the rest of the music, its position in the artistic discourse. The performing musicians not only give the composition feeling and energy, but also make a significant contribution to the stylistic design. How to phrase, what sound ideal you strive for on your instrument, how you understand tempo and volume designations: all of this is the subject of a collective performance practice that was developed by musicians and without which the notes of the composition would be practically indecipherable. The composer knows this performance practice and orientates himself on it in his writing, consciously or intuitively. A jazz composer will write different things for a jazz trumpeter than a classical composer will write for a classical trumpeter. The musicians are then not easily interchangeable. Most of the time, when a classical trumpeter tries to play a piece of jazz, the result is pathetic. (Conversely, it is usually better, as most jazz musicians have mastered the classical style of playing to a certain extent, as it is an inevitable part of musical training.)

These collective performance traditions are also changing. Bach was played very differently in his time than in the Romantic era or in the 20th century. Historical performance practice over the last few decades has raised awareness of how differently a composition can be interpreted. Outstanding individual personalities play an important role in classical solo instruments, as they form styles of interpretation that other musicians use for orientation. And in jazz, the improviser acts alongside the composer as the creator of melodic designs, and is often much more important than the composer for the overall message of the piece of music.

How music sounds is not only determined by the composer and the musicians, but by the whole framework of the performance. First of all, there is the room in which the music is made. Is it big or small, does it have a lot or little echo, where do the musicians sit? All of this is essential for the sound of the music and also influences things like the speed of the game or the volume.

But even more important is the importance of the audience and the occasion for which music is being made. An interested audience with an understanding of the music being performed gives a lot of energy back, which has a positive effect on the performing musicians. An audience that is bored because they are not interested in the music can destroy any concert, no matter how well prepared. The music itself also changes depending on the occasion for which it is played. It is completely different whether a Mozart string quartet is performed in a concentrated concert situation or as background music for a festive dinner. It is not necessarily clear from the outset which of the two performance situations is more appropriate for the piece. There is no reason to fundamentally reject music in functional contexts. In any case, Mozart's “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” was written for precisely these functional occasions, and a performance in such a setting fully lives up to the intention of the piece. Something similar can be said for playing jazz standards, which, depending on the design of the improvisation, can fill a wide range from functional music to very demanding concert music. It applies to all music that the overall framework of the performance influences the meaning and thus also the content of a piece of music. The career of the song “O head full of blood and wounds” should be mentioned here as a particularly clear example. Before Bach integrated the melody with the chorale text into his St. Matthew Passion and thus made one of the most poignant Passion chorales out of it, it was a secular dance song from which nothing was further than mourning and thoughts of passion.

It should also be noted that a composition changes over time. She is aging. Starting with the special and unrepeatable character of a world premiere, it is initially an active and lively part of the current music scene. It is compared with the other pieces that are created at the same time; it positions itself on the horizon of the stylistic spectrum of this time. The general taste in music changes with increasing distance from the time of creation. Most of the “old fashioned” pieces are forgotten. Only the best works of this epoch are performed and heard, those that are able to address people from other epochs and cultures. As a result, however, these compositions lose the many connections they had to the cultural life of their time, and thus also much of their original strength. They no longer provoke and no longer intervene in the current discourse. They are revered as “classic”, but thereby also played down.

All that I have said about the relativity and situational focus of a performance naturally also applies to recorded and technically reproduced music. On the one hand, the process of recording deeply affects the sound quality of the music. A recording is always an artificial product, made through microphones, mixing and sound processing. The vibrations no longer come from the instruments, but from the membrane of a loudspeaker. The finished sound carrier is always a work of art in itself, detached from the actual performance of the piece.

On the other hand, it also applies to CDs or records that the piece of music changes depending on the situation in which I hear it. I can hear it in a concentrated manner and alone, to several people during a conversation, or collectively, while dancing at a party. It was precisely this latter situation that gave birth to a completely new type of musical artist, the disc jockey. The DJ creates arcs of tension, musical structures and energies solely through the order in which he puts music recordings one after the other. Since the 1990s, sampling technology has enabled DJs to mix self-composed grooves with older recordings by other musicians, and thus to create music whose originator can no longer be precisely identified. Composer, musician, producer, sound engineer, DJ: who was it?

From what has been presented so far, it follows that it is fundamentally impossible to repeat a piece of music. The musical work of art is not included in the score. Music only comes into being through the performance, actually only through the entire cultural and social context in which the performance is embedded. This performance depends on so many different circumstances and is performed by so many different people that the composition only plays a relative role. If you really take note of this fact, there is no reason to distinguish between composed, improvised and non-written music. The musical parameters of the tone formation, the rhythmic intensity and the communicative interplay are then just as important as the parameters of the melodic, harmonic and formal structure specified in the score.

In addition to the demand for equal rights for non-written forms of music, the aim here is also to free the great works of classical composers from their museum existence and to include them in the entire spectrum of contemporary music, in which the different stylistic approaches complement and enrich one another.


Matthias Petzold, August 2006


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