Understanding Music

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Music is one of the most complex forms of communication there is, and unless you're listening to a recording alone in a dark room, no two performances are even close to the same. The old adage, "goes in one ear and out the other" is literally true. Once the music has happened, it'll never be heard the same way again. Ever.
However, music can be written down so that the printed form is exactly the same every time you look at it. Music uses a "system" for recording the notes to be played, the relative speed and volume in which they're to be played and the musical instruments to be used to play them -- which includes the human voice. But because there are no two human beings who think, feel or do things exactly the same way as a machine might, this infinite human variability creates the wonderful potential for different performances of the same pieces of music. Likewise, there is infinite variability in those that hear the music, too. This dual-variability is why music is so complex -- it's never performed the same nor is it ever heard the same. But it always communicates something in the process.
Understand that it's not necessary to memorize or study everything presented here -- this is a general explanation of how music is designed and its effects on the listener. This is intended to help the non-musically-trained person learn what to listen for and be able to find specific kinds of musical nuances which, in turn, can and will help you design visual representations of what you hear with your ears.
Stand in front of your display area where your viewers might be and just look. Your yard/house/shrubs, etc. all have 3D physical properties. There's left-to-right width, top-to-bottom height and front-to-back depth. Likewise, most people have a head that turns left and right (width), up and down (height), and eyes that can focus close and far away (depth). Can you see everything all at once, or do you have to move something to view an object on the left side of your house, or the top of your roof, or the base of your front steps, or the bicycle by the garage? Well, it's quite obvious how lights can be used to move the viewer's attention from one place to another in your display, isn't it?
Musical sound can do the same thing because the ears on either side of your head can discern left-right, up-down, near and far dimensions, too. When you couple the music to the visual effects, it opens a whole new and pleasurable experience for the viewer. As you're standing in front of your display are, close your eyes and think about a piece of music you can't wait to use in your show. Is it quiet and calm? Is it wild with lots of drums, guitar riffs and horns? Is it a duet with a piano on one side and the vocalist on the other? Is it an orchestra on stage with violins in the front left, heavy kettle drums in the back, a snare drum back-center, a harp or piano on the back-left, maybe a flute, clarinet or saxophone in the center, trumpets and trombones on the back right and maybe violas on the front right and double-basses way off on the far right? Maybe it's the 'Hallelujah Chorus' from G.F. Handel's oratorio, 'Messiah' where you hear the orchestra in front and the massive choir behind them standing on risers. As humans, we sometimes "move with the sound." When an actor is on the left or right side of a movie screen sometimes his/her voice will come from speakers on that side of the room, too. A train the comes to the station gets louder as it approaches and then the noise moves from left to right as the train passes, doesn't it? Are you starting to see how sound has "geometry" too? Maybe then you can also see how you can use music to highlight different props or areas in your show.
Other Dimensions
But sound has much more than left-right, top-bottom and front-back dimensions to it. It has loudness, for example. Have you ever gone to a movie and at a certain part of the movie, the sound is REALLLLLLY LOUD!!!? It kind of pushes you back in the seat, doesn't it. Or have you ever leaned forward in the seat to hear some dialogue that's especially soft? Music does that, too -- and often, only a moment apart. Loudness can be used to help simulate depth in your show because loudness will push the viewer back while soft musical passages can draw his/her attention in. Loudness can also be thought of as light intensity where the lights are super-bright for super-loud passages and softer/dimmer for quieter sections.
Human hearing spans a wide frequency range. In this context, music has a pitch dimension. At the high end, piccolos, flutes and violins generally rule; at the low end, tubas, bassoons, double-basses and some percussion take over. Horns, clarinets, saxophones, violas and the like are generally mid-range instruments. All instruments are capable of playing very wide ranges of pitches but when you push a musical instrument outside its "normal" range, the sound it makes can become a bit strange, unpredictable and downright awful. But here again, music shows it's "height" component. You can use that as you design your lighting sequences.
Another dimension is timbre. Timbre is what the sound is apart from its loudness or pitch. Timbre is what allows you to hear the difference between a horn and a violin even though they may be playing the same note. Vocally, female and male voices generally have different timbres, which is partly because of different physical factors in the throats of the singers, the lengths of their torsos and sizes of resonating cavities inside their heads and chests. In a way, the speakers that you use to listen to music emulate these factors by having "woofers" and "tweeters" -- large or small speakers inside the speaker cabinets. So as you listen to your show music, consider what instruments are highlighted and use that to create different highlights in your lighting.
Musical speed is called 'tempo' and it's related to how fast the music is moving. We typically measure tempo in terms of 'x number of beats per minute' where a lot of beats is generally considered 'fast' and few beats is 'slow.' This isn't completely correct though, because music has a lot of mathematical components built into it and here's where things get a little wacky because music has different kinds of notes. It has 'whole' notes, 'half'-notes, 'quarter'-notes, eighth, sixteenth, thirty-second and even sixty-fourth notes. And believe it or not, there's even a 128th note, too. The wacky part of this is that these fractional notes work just like fractions in math where the tempo of a whole note is the same as two half-notes because two halves make a whole. Or a whole note can be represented by four quarter-notes, or eight eighth-notes. You get the idea. Well a slow tempo of perhaps one beat per second (60 beats per minute) sounds a whole lot faster to the ear when instead of playing only one note every second, the musician plays four notes per second: to the listener, it sounds four times as fast. In any event, you don't need to know what the exact tempo is, but you need to be sensitive to what the speed "sounds" like. If the music seems fast, the players likely require a lot more energy to play it and therefore, putting more of energy into the lighting effects makes sense.
Note Grouping. Huh? Wha?!? This is what's called the 'time signature' or 'meter' of the music and it's closely related to the tempo but is a bit broader in scope. The time signature is designed into the music by the composer and it's intended to help the musicians physically play the music in a way so that it sounds how the composer intended it to sound. Grouping several beats together into regular-sized groups gives the music a 'pace' so that the music seems to flow more smoothly. (For the director who's waving his arms out there in front of the orchestra, pace also makes the music directable instead of the director wildly flapping his arms as if he's trying to lift himself off the ground.) For the players, the music's meter/time signature makes it easier to play and allows a way for all the players to be synchronized together. Typically, the meters used for most music is called either duple or triple -- music using two or three beat groups of notes. Time signatures of four are still called duple meters because they are easily divisible by two. A time signature of 6 can be looked at in two ways: two groups of three notes each or three groups of two notes each. Lesser-used time signatures of 5, 7, 9, 11 and even 13 exist, but the further you get past divisible by 2 or 3 makes the music difficult to play and sometimes, even harder to listen to because it doesn't seem to make sense -- it just sounds "off." The good news is that almost no Christmas music uses any of the weird time signatures. (Can you think why? Right! Because Christmas music is supposed to be 'feel-good' music -- you don't want it to sound harsh.)
But note grouping -- i.e. the time signature -- is important because of how it helps make the music flow at a regular, predictable speed. The 'pace' of the music is what causes people to "tap their toes." And more than not, the pace becomes what's called "the measure" where each group of notes becomes a "measure" on the written score. For example, think of the song, "Silent Night." Got it in your mind right now? Can you hear it and maybe hum or sing it a little? Well, Silent Night's time signature has beats that sound like they're organized into groups of 3. "Siiii--ih-lent niiiite, hoooo-o-ly niiiite, right? It's not "Si. Lent. Night. Ho. Ly. Night." straight away from one to the next, is it? No, it flows. It flows because the syllables of the song's lyrics match groups of 3 so well. Organized in this way, when we sing the song, we usually put a little emphasis on the first beat of every group of 3 beats so it we sing it as "SIIII-ih-lent NIIIIte, HOOOO-o-ly NIIIIte", don't we? We sometimes even sway from side-to-side singing a song like this. Now you understand what 'pace' means. (Don't blow your mind when I tell you that Silent Night is actually written in a 6 time signature with the counts being 1-2-3, 4-5-6 -- two groups of 3 beats each -- but it still "feels" at its base like the triple meter 1-2-3, doesn't it? But you'd sway to the music because of its 1-2-3, 4-5-6 pace with a sway one way on 1-2-3 then a sway the other way for 4-5-6 and comfortably back-and-forth through the whole song -- like a count of 2! You'd sway left/right for each "measure" of the song. This is why a 6-meter can sound like two groups of three beats.)
Pace is one of those warm-and-fuzzy things that gives viewers a comfortable and friendly experience watching your show. It's calming and non-threatening. They'll say "I liked that one" when it's over because they not only knew the song, they could participate along with it. On the other hand, if you threw some avant garde, wild-and-wooly, super-high-energy loud and dissonant blow-your-hair-back music at them that they've never heard before, they might start the car and drive away.
Music Construction
Generally speaking, we think that if something goes up, it will come down again; if a road turns left, somewhere ahead it'll turn to the right; if something is too soft to hear, it'll probably get louder, etc. These things are all true in most musical compositions. It's this way because humans like balance. We're willing to go out on a limb for a little while but after that, we like to come back to the trunk of the tree for safety, don't we? Music composers use this technique all the time. There's always a center -- a "core" to a popular piece of music. Sometimes it's the chorus or refrain, but it's always there. In the song 'Silent Night,' it's the phrase "sleep in heavenly peace" -- a line that's repeated for assurance. Therefore, look for similarities in the music. Does the music's melody start in one place and then at some later point, you hear the same basic melody but it's noticeably higher in pitch. That's called a "key change" or "modulation." In any event, the composer did it to make a similar line of music sound different. It's something new. Use that to your advantage in your lighting effects by doing something similar yet different with the lighting effects.
Music is full of repeats of things and you need to listen for them. Earlier we covered he concept of groups of notes, which then become "measures" of the song -- the "pace." When groups of measures are assembled together, they become "phrases" in exactly the same way that poems often are constructed with lines that have exactly the same number of syllables and even rhyme. Why is this important? Well, humans like balance. We like it when something we hold in one hand is balanced off by something in the other hand. So you listen to the rhymes, and listen to how the music goes up and down, or how the music may move left-to-right, from soft to loud and then soft again, etc. and you can mimic those things with light.
You will find that 95% of the time in a song, a group of four "measures" will constitute a phrase, and it will be followed by another set of four measures as an offset phrase to balance it out. Then you'll discover that those eight measures will be balanced off with another set of 8 measures, after which the song will change and do something new. This is the "16-measure bridge" that happens over and over and over, especially in vocal music. Recognizing this gives you the ability to divide a song into 3 parts or 4 main sections, each of which has essentially the same length and number of beats, and often there's a short ending, sometimes a repeat of the last line of the song. For example, you might have this:
Section 1: Instrumental introduction (16 measures)
Section 2: Vocal, first verse and chorus/refrain (16 measures)
Section 3: Instrumental bridge (16 measures)
Section 4: Vocal, 2nd verse and chorus/refrain (16 measures)
End (optional, sometimes because they're out of words - 4 measures, sometimes 8)
You'll find the above structure in most country music songs and to a slightly lesser extent, pop music. You'll even find it in traditional classical orchestral music, although not nearly as often as pop or country. You'll find it in Broadway show music. You'll find it's a common structure of church music, and certainly, in Christmas music. Note that sometimes, the number of measures per phrase is cut in half because of the lyrics used, but the concept is the same. If it's not 16-16-16-16-4 it's likely 8-8-8-8-2. The point is, it's predictable. Use that to your advantage when you design your lighting effects.
Grab a church hymnal sometime and look at commonly well-known songs such as Silent Night, We Three Kings, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, and others. You'll easily be able to recognize their structures and you'll see that analyzing musical construction doesn't have to be that hard.
Silly Tip: sometimes the music is so predictable that you can even take the first section of the song and copy and paste it two or three more times into your sequence -- and it'll still work!
Surprises - things that happen out of the norm
For fun, many modern composers (over the past 100 years anyway) inject a little something extra into their music every now and then. Mannheim Steamroller and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra do this all the time. Usually it's an extra beat, or an extra pair of beats, a half-measure or sometimes a whole extra measure -- and they do it to create something different. It's ear candy. And you find these things by analyzing the music's structure, asking yourself, "why does this part of the music seem slightly out of balance?" Well, it sounds that way because is IS out of balance -- by design! The composer injected something into the music to flick your earlobes and wake you up! These musical ear-tweaks are fantastic opportunities to add something unexpected into your lighting effects, too. Use them to your advantage. Do they repeat? Sometimes. Sometimes not.