The late, great Leonard Bernstein said something that struck a chord with me (Ha! Sorry). He said that finding a note you love, or a sound or a chord has no meaning. Each of these things, in isolation, does not produce music. The only thing that matters, in musical composition, according to Bernstein, is how one note relates to the next, or a chord to the next chord, or the notes to the chord, or the counterpoint to the melody. Composition is all about divulging to the audience what comes next. It’s all about the movement and dynamics of the musical elements in relation to each other. Not static. It’s the motion that matters.
That’s an important insight. People are too inclined to stick to grooves or chords and presets that they like, but what matters is the progression. In other words, the composer is a tonal tour guide. The composer tells us, explicitly, which sound comes next and in what context each instrument operates. He can either lull us into a sense of expected, comfortable, reassuring musical motion, or he can startle and surprise us. It can either be highly consonant, or terribly dissonant, depending on the purpose of the composition and the intention of the composer.
A composer works to take the audience on an emotionally affective journey. His tools and techniques are the instruments or timbres he chooses, the melodic motifs he employs, the rhythms he uses and theory of music, from the tonality of romantic harmony to the twelve tone atonality of modern musical theory. He uses all of these ingredients to take the listener on an interesting, diverting and engaging journey. The composition attempts to reach the inner human being and guide him through a range of feelings and emotions, conjured up from pure sound waves. All of this is painted on a canvas of pristine silence.
All composition is about deciding which jump to take next, which leaps of the imagination to reveal and of finding new and interesting ways to delight, yet surprise an audience, by what they are hearing. He has the powers of love and despair at his disposal, aroused through the sensuousness of the tiny acoustic vibrations that impinge on your ear drum and which are translated into feelings and emotional reactions directly by our brains. We’re inherently wired for sound. More specifically, we are attuned to listen to music as a complex form of speech. It’s communication, but at an abstract level.
A composer makes a confection from sound and structure, playing with ideas, patterns, abstractions and musical sentences (phrases), to impart meaning on what would otherwise be an incomprehensible cacophony. The job of the composer is to lead you by the hand through a musical landscape of his own creation. He grows the sonic fruits in his sound garden and lets you harvest them, when they are ripe for the picking.
Context is key and the key that the composer chooses provides much of the context.
The musical motion is what matters. And the motion begets the emotion. I knew the two words were connected and similar for a reason.