Music isn’t typically considered something that requires a context, as much as it is a contextual element. Music, like everything else in the universe, does have a mathematical component. As such, it can easily be incorporated into a contextual framework.
However, there are times when providing a visual context for a piece of music can greatly enhance not only the enjoyment of the piece, but the understanding of the underlying structure. In this post, I’ll be showing you how context can enhance the understanding of musical structure, and in the next, we’ll look at music as a contextual element.
Bach To The Basics.
Johann Sebastian Bach composed music in a time when form, symmetry and structure of a piece was one of the most important components a composer addressed, and it is beautifully illustrated in a short piece he wrote, according to history, in a half an afternoon.
As played here, with minimal context, the piece is simple, but beautiful. Balanced, delicate, and light. A Canon is a piece of music that is highly structured, and as there are multiple elements that can be introduced, the composer could achieve an amazing diversity within the rigid structure of the style. A Crab canon is also called a “retrograde” canon, as the leader is reading the music left to right, while an accompanying musical instrument (or the “other hand” on a piano) is reading from right to left. Crab canons may also include “inversion”, where one set of notes is rising while another is falling.
The Canon Structure
Canons can range from the simple canon, a “round” like “Row , Row, Row Your Boat”, to complex Baroque pieces employing retrograde, inverse, and several varieties of contrapuntal motion; everything from parallel (the note spaced evenly apart in pitch and rising or falling) and oblique (one note remaining the same while another rises and falls in relation to it), to the “species counterpoint” found in fugues. BTW, a “species counterpoint” is when you start with one simple progression or melody, and add a second, third, and fourth, while still maintaining structure and harmony.
Now that you have heard the Crab Canon with minimal context, let’s watch the Canon in action:
The simple addition of animation allows you to “follow” the piece, and better appreciate the structure in a way that the sheet music alone doesn’t, unless of course you can read sheet music :-). Even then, the Moebius effect isn’t evident at first.
Then there is Pachelbel….
In this very familiar piece, you’ll see nearly every possible form of contrapuntal construction; parallel, oblique, inverse, and species are all represented. Note that the more complex animation used, “Synthesia” is actually a teaching tool. If you look around on You Tube, you’ll find literally thousands of complex piano pieces translated into this format, typically in different speeds–this one is 100%, but it is available as slow as 30% of full speed.
The growth of synthesia is part of an overall trend in learning and multi-sensory knowledge integration known as “gamification”, something we’ll be referring to more often as this series progresses. Gamification has been used for everything from teaching piano to collecting data in political campaigns, with Ted Cruz’s Cruz Crew App being the first example of a truly sophisticated data mining program disguised as a game.
Gamification works because it fully engages the subject, creating an immersive, personal experience in a way that is instructive, and in many cases, mildly addictive as well. Combining a zero risk environment, strong audio and visual cues and carefully spaced “rewards”, gamification provides an ideal vehicle for enhancing and delivering a project over time.
Personally, I prefer Pachelbel.