The Smallest Musical Unit

The current issue of Spectrum (vol. 30 no. 2) opens with a line by medieval music theorist Jennifer Bain:

Since the nineteenth century, analytical studies and discussions about music often have arisen either explicitly or implicitly from organicist roots. In its most extreme form, the organicist model states that in order for a work to have aesthetic value, it must have arisen from a single musical idea or concept.

This was perhaps the most beautifully worded summary of so many of the discussions I have been a part of in recent days. Here, I will illustrate only a few.

Schenker’s theories have been a central topic of interest among my colleagues in recent days. There are some postulates of his that everyone seems fairly willing to accept and others which are either so limited as to be of little value or simply seem inaccurate. One such agreement is the idea that a Schenkerian understanding of a piece can positively inform performance. A disagreement lurks around the dubious explanation for the Neapolitan chord.

An interesting middle ground (no pun intended) is the question of the status of the major triad as the “Chord of Nature” from which all true music flows. Composers may be fairly ready to agree to the concept of the compositional task as the resolution of the vertical and horizontal dimensions of music (harmony, melody). Much less likely is the possibility of finding a composer who wants to suggest that everything comes down to the major triad.

The question then becomes, is it possible to retain a majority of Schenker’s postulates while electing to reject the major triad as the only fundamental sonority? How much of modern music could be explained in such a light? How many composers think this way? To me, this is an area of introspection that deserves more time from composers today.

Another opportunity for such a discussion came up at the 2008 SMT/AMS National Conference. Joanna Demers presented a paper on “Noise, Silence, and the Microsound Movement.” This is a field that posits the smallest musical unit as a single sound wave (or some such small measurement.) Interestingly, this area of composition came from the popular realm of hip-hop.

Not surprisingly, this type of music tends to be very quiet: almost inaudible. The listener is not to raise the volume, but rather to lower the volume of the surroundings so as to be able to better focus. This music has also been termed “Glitch Music” as many of the sounds resemble mistakes more than they do traditional music.

A question arises with the premise of the Microsound Movement in regards to the smallest musical unit as it relates to music. The man who coined the term “microhouse” also said, “[Glitch] notes, pulses, and textures bear no immediate relation to the world around them, to a language of melody or tonal narrative…”

Such a view does not seem at all foreign to a compositional market that values electronics, but clearly it does raise some new questions. I haven’t made any decision on the subject of the “smallest musical unit” or what a “single musical idea or concept” might be; nor am I sure that I will have to make such a choice. For now, I am enjoying the conversation and look forward to continued discourse!

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