Music Well – Dosia McKay, Composer, Painter, Writer

Reflections on Art and Life

What Is the Shape of Your Music?

tension curveWhy are you attracted to certain kinds of music and not the others? What need does the music fill in your life? What are the circumstances in which you find yourself listening to music? There are as many answers to these questions as there are listeners.

Your answer might be as straightforward as “I like rock music and I hate classical music”, or “I usually listen to heavy metal when I run”, or “I listen to ambient music at work”. But allow me to take it a step further and ask you about the shape of the music you listen to, or, more specifically, its tension curve.

A tension curve is simply the measure of intensity of the listening experience as it changes over time. For example, a heavy metal song would most likely have a fast amplitude rise and then plateau at a high level and remain there for the rest of the song. An ambient track might have a similar shape, except the plateau would remain very low, or maybe vary slightly with long and almost imperceptible waves. A tension curve of an average symphonic work would likely resemble a printout of a seismograph registering several earthquakes of various magnitudes. And what about a pop song? Probably a series of plateaus arranged like a bar graph from an Excel spreadsheet; mid-level, high, mid-level, high, higher, out with a bang, or a soft taper.

Can you recognize any of these shapes in your music library? What is your favorite tension curve and why? Show me your tension curve and I will tell you who you are!

My favorite tension curve has its roots in classic geometry and the Golden Ratio. You can find this relationship in nature and in classic Greek architecture. Johann Sebastian Bach frequently employed the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci series in his compositions. In very simplistic terms, it means that the major climaxes of his music often mark the 61.8% of the length of a composition and that unique events (such as modulations, cadences, extended harmonies, new voice entrances, or register changes) fall on the divisions of the Fibonacci series.

If you are not into mathematics or geometry, suffice it to say that a skillful formal design of a piece of music can make for a very exciting listening experience. Why? Because it’s like reading a good novel. The suspense of an introduction draws you in gradually and moderate pre-climaxes and carefully spaced reposes foreshadow something exciting yet to come.

I like to listen to different genres of music while performing various tasks, and many of them feature very simple tension curves, but when I listen to music with undivided attention, when listening is the sole task and purpose, I want to be taken on a more intricate journey. I want to be swept away and lifted to new emotional heights and somewhere, while overlooking a picturesque valley from a tall cliff, I want to be pushed over the edge and free fall in a rush of adrenaline before safely landing at the foot of the hill. Skydiving, anyone?

As a composer, I can tell you that it is very difficult to design a piece of music like this. That is, it is easy to design it, but it is difficult to execute it skillfully so that the listener experiences it the way the composer envisioned it. It is relatively easy to create either calm or excitement but it is difficult to create transitions between these two states while regulating the proper level of tension.

The enclosed picture shows the original tension curve I have designed for my new piece “First In Flight” for vibraphone and strings. Below, you will note the final design with the first “take off” happening 30 seconds sooner than I originally planned, and the major climax delayed for 30 seconds. For those who are geometrically inclined, I will leave it for you to calculate the placement of the major climax and how it compares to the Golden Ratio.

What is your favorite tension curve and why? Does your music library contain the shapes I mentioned before? Do you gravitate to different shapes in different circumstances?

One comment on “What Is the Shape of Your Music?

  1. t h i n g s + f l e s h
    May 31, 2013

    Dosia, this is what i love about visiting you here. it’s a brainy, irresistible adventure.

    of course, music is shaped profoundly by its time and place, the emotion of the artist and listener ….
    i’m always feeling around for the emotional third rail in a track of music. it isn’t always there.

    especially the tension of opposition and a burning, yearning heart. tony

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