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The Principles of Music

Music an art form expressed in sound, or sonic art. All that matters is what it sounds like to the listener. There are no rules more important than that. However to produce good music you will have to keep in mind certain principles otherwise it will result in a long process of trial and error which is unlikely to produce anything significant. On the other hand we should not be too bounded by convention. Innovation is important too.

All composers are adhering to some sort of music theory even if they are not conscious of it. If we use conventional instruments, or if we create music some other way using the normal notes available to us we will be already following conventional theory.

Many musicians manage to perform without really understanding harmony or how a melody and harmony fit together. At one time popular songs were written by an elite with knowledge of music theory and then performed by musicians who just played what they were told to. In the late fifties there came the singer-songwriters who probably used experimentation together with their own judgement of what sounded good. What they produced fits music theory, but not by consciously applying it.

A lot of high-tech music of the eighties and nineties is very strongly based on electronically generated. Often there simply is no harmony. There may not be more than one different note playing at the same time, or it could be just two-parts, bass and vocal.

An essential ingredient of music is repetition. Even a single note is achieved by repetition of a sound wave cycle. Rhythm depends on repetition, and the structure of a piece of music depends on repetition. In all these things complete absence of repetition is just chaotic and simple endless repetition is uninteresting. Successful music depends on getting the right balance between repetition and variety.

The Notes

It is interesting to ask how modern music evolved, and how we arrived at the notes used. It is quite possible to produce notes of any pitch, but music has evolved to use only a limited number of fixed notes, such as we find on a keyboard for example. Different kinds of music from different backgrounds have all converged to use the same set of notes, which we have named using letters C, D, E etc.together with various sharps and flats.

Early music did not have absolute pitch. In fact for a melody to work, it is only necessary to keep the relative intervals between the notes correct. It is difficult to know what early music consisted of because there was no way of recording the information. Where early systems of notation existed we cannot be sure how to interpret them.

Some early music has been passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth, for instance the primitive singing of the early church. Other information can be obtained by looking at early instruments such as flutes, which reveal which notes were used. The ancient greeks made some observations on vibrating strings which can define relative pitches in mathmatical terms. It was probably not until about 500 years ago that music started to come to a form similar to what we know now.

A musical scale does not consist of equal changes of pitch between one note and the next. Where did these notes come from?

It is known that certain notes sound good and harmonious when played together or in succession. The simplest musical interval is an octave. Two notes an octave apart are so similar that we give them the same name. When the note is expressed as a frequency, a note an octave higher is exactly twice the frequency of the other. What is important in a musical interval is the ratio of the frequencies. To get from one note to the octave higher the frequency is doubled. The actual size of the increase in additive terms is different in each case.

The next most important interval is what is called the Fifth. It is so called for historical reasons and really has nothing to do with the number five. A note a fifth above another it has exactly one and a half times the frequency. They sound harmonious because after the lower note has completed two cycles, the higher will have completed three and so the sound comes back together again and we effectively get another repeating sound pattern. The notes C and G are a fifth apart. There are other pure musical intervals with simple ratios such as three to four. Other notes come from combinations of intervals like these. By this process we end up with the notes commonly used.

Some notes of the scale, however can have more obscure derivations. Different factors can sometimes require the note to have a different pitch. Their actual pitch will be less precisely defined and may vary depending on the usage of the note. This is easy enough for a singer, because a singer can vary the pitch by any subtle amount, often without realising it. When we consider musical instruments the choice of the exact pitch of the note will usually be built into the instrument and the exact pitch used may depend on the judgement of the instrument maker or tuner.

It is easy to see that a singer can use subtle variations of pitch to suit the circumstances. Some instruments can also do this with certain limitations. A violin has only four strings which define absolute pitches. All the other notes can be subtly varied. Many other instruments such as flutes allow the player to apply slight variations of pitch. Guitars have frets and these define the basic notes, but the player can vary these too by playing technique.

What about keyboards? In a way keyboards are responsible for making it seem that there are only certain fixed notes and no others. Together with the sharps and flats, (the black notes) there are 12 different notes in each octave. Conventional keyboards such as pianos and organs can be tuned, but not every time a new piece of music is played, and there is no scope for the player to apply variations of pitch. According to perfect theory the tuning depends on the key of the music to be played. The keyboard can be tuned to play perfectly in one key but will be slightly incorrect when music in other keys are played. To tune a keyboard in a way which allows music of any key to be played involves a compromise. I believe this compromise is responsible for the loss of harmony in much music of the eighties onwards which makes extensive use of electronic keyboards, and explains the revival of music using traditional instruments.

See also Tuning Systems for Musical Instruments


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