Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Texture are Crunchy!!!"

How music notation software can both assist, and completely destroy, musical texture.

It seems that one of the most misunderstood concepts in music theory is what is meant by "musical texture." More often than not, when I ask students about the texture of a specific piece of music, I am often greeted with a well-intended, but completely inaccurate response along the lines of "The music is soft and rubbery," or "Beethoven created crunchy music!" (I kid you not - these are REAL quotations from papers I have received).

So, before I go any further, I would like to point out that texture, in the context of music, specifically refers to the number of musical voices along with their relative functions to one another. Specific textural terminology include "monophonic" (one voice), "polyphonic" (multiple voices), "homophonic" (same voice), "heterophonic" (different voices), etc. These terms can be further divided into several sub-categories. For example, a polyphonic work is often assumed to be contrapuntal - however, any piece of music that has an independent melody, countermelody, and a corresponding accompaniment can fit this definition as well.

Now that we have our definition out of the way, lets move on to how music notation software directly impacts the composer's understanding of musical texture. Allow me to begin with an assumption (always a dangerous thing!): It can be assumed that, when composing polyphonically, there may come a point where even the most gifted of pianists would be unable to play every simultaneous line of music present in a given orchestral or choral work. Ligeti's use of micropolyphony, for example, would be impossible to perform on a single instrument due to the sheer number of voices occurring at any one time. Additionally, the very nature of these lines existing independently of one another would make it impossible for one brain to process all of these lines at the same time. Of course, this would never be the case in Ligeti's music - it isn't one brain, or one performer, that is tackling all of these independent lines, but rather several working together to create the music (of course, one could argue that one single brain - the conductor's - is holding it all together, but the conductor's role is not the same as that of the performers, and as such isn't processing the same information in the same way!).

However, in the case of music notation software, we are in fact dealing with one brain and one performer - the CPU. A single computer chip is capable of processing far more musical information than any single brain can (or should!) process at any given time. This means that, regardless of complexity, a computer will be able to play as many musical lines as its CPU, RAM, and Hard Drive will allow with flawless accuracy. This allows for limitless possibilities in the realm of contrapuntal density, including: canons at the 16th and 32nd note, infinite numbers of independent non-canonic lines, complex rhythms that exist in counterpoint with each other in the same instrument (different hands), etc. Using playback, a composer can audition and hear any combination of contrapuntal lines without needing to worry about PERFORMABILITY.

The obvious downside to this is that, although the computer might be able to play all of this, human beings often cannot. This goes beyond the relative difficulty of a single line of music - in fact, often it is the case that relatively simple lines of music can become unbearable difficult to perform when placed in counterpoint with one another. There are actually two problems here. First, in the case of instruments that are capable of playing contrapuntally (i.e. keyboard instruments), counterpoint composed in music notation software is often written in such a way that it becomes near impossible for one performer - one brain - to comprehend the music. Admittedly, this is true for music composed both in music notation software, as well as music composed by hand. Take for example...well...any Bach Invention. Each individual line is, by itself, not that difficult to perform. However, when placed together in realtime, the performance difficulty spikes! (Let's not also forget the Ligeti Etudes - specifically, Etude #1: Desordre - which I have been told by many performers requires the pianist to simply think of each eighth note as one event in order to successfully play the music!).

The second problem has to do with multiple performers playing multiple polyphonic lines in a chamber setting. For chamber music to be performed successfully, individual players in the ensemble need to listen to one another so that they can stay together. However, if everyone in the ensemble is playing something different, their ability to stay together is compromised. As the complexity of each individual line increases, the ability for the ensemble to stay together diminishes. Of course, if a conductor is thrown into the mix this becomes a moot point, but I shudder every time I think of string quartets, piano trios, and other mixed chamber groups of four or fewer musicians that had to be conducted simply to keep them together!

Another issue that should be addressed has to do with textural variety. As mentioned above, music notation software makes it quite easy to audition and hear simultaneous contrapuntal lines in a way that one might not be able to hear otherwise. However, this very same playback stutters and falls apart when attempting to make a single MONOPHONIC line sound palatable. Nothing sounds WORSE in playback than one line, completely isolated and lacking any support from its fellow virtual instruments. However, that same monophonic line - as performed by a real, living musician - can sound absolutely breathtaking! The end result is that, more often than not, music composed in music notation software relies upon too many simultaneous lines of polyphony, with little to no textural variety in the form of monophonic, or even homophonic, sections of music.

So, here are a few tips that I would recommend to any composer who wishes to avoid many of these issues:

• Variety IS the spice of life. Make sure that your composition has plenty of room for monophonic lines and homophonic "tutti" sections, as well as areas of rich, dense polyphony.

• When composing for a single instrument that is CAPABLE of performing two or more polyphonic lines, take considerable time to check, double-check, and triple-check your counterpoint. Make sure that the lines are coordinated in a way that is still performable for your player. Remember - difficult is ok, but impossible is not.

• When composing for chamber music that is without conductor, include sections where you pair up performers with similar rhythmic activity (in homophony) so that no one performer is ever completely isolated from the rest of the ensemble (i.e. in a string quartet, pairing up the violins for one line (in harmony) while the viola and the cello perform a different line). Solos, polyphony, and independence should still be used; just remember to provide unison moments in your piece where, should individual players get lost, they can get themselves back on track.

• A single, monophonic line will never sound as good in MIDI playback as it will with a live performer. Utilize these solos, and if you can't stomach the playback of the line - don't listen to it!

That is all for now - I am currently going through a very busy period in my schedule (as you might have guessed based upon the tardiness of this posting), so for now I will be continuing on a biweekly schedule. Look for my next post in two weeks!


  1. Another excellent post with meaty, useful, and practical advise.

    Can you talk more about this though:
    Make sure that the lines are coordinated in a way that is still performable for your player.

    What are the attributes of a polyphony that is performable vs. a polyphony that is not?

  2. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to identify a performable polyphony vs. an impossible one. A little common sense here helps though. In general, the more complex each individual line is, the harder it will be to put those two lines into counterpoint with each other. The point at which the polyphony becomes "impossible" is not distinct, but usually occurs as a result of many factors, including rhythmic intricacy, freedom of individual lines, performance issues for specific instruments (i.e. hand placement for pianists), etc.

    I should stress, though, that you should feel free to experiment with your polyphonic writing! Don't worry TOO much about whether the lines are performable or not - simply be aware of the issue, and make sure to double-check your writing if you are concerned about the difficulty becoming unmanageable. In the end, a really outstanding player may still be able to play any polyphony that you throw at them - it simply depends on their skill level, and their ability to process multiple ideas at once.