Musical Structures

When I think of a musical structure, I imagine a fixed musical object, perhaps a chord, or a melody, or a certain scale or mode—something specific that would be possible to write down in music notation, or to capture in a recording.

An idea like a “C Major chord,” though, begins ever so slightly to challenge the stability of the objects I’m imagining. Does the chord mean three fixed notes: C, E, and G, and nothing else? Does the word “Major” describe the quality of the chord’s third, or does it also suggest an association with the Major mode? If the same three notes came about in the context of the Lydian mode, or the Dominant mode, or the Lydian Dominant mode, would they still be a C Major chord? Or would they become a C Lydian, C Dominant, and C Lydian Dominant chord in these different contexts respectively?

Furthermore, if I’ve started to think in this way, does the musical staff I’ve used to write down my musical structure influence something about the structure itself? Or even, does whatever other artifacts I may have captured in the recording of my musical structure influence that structure as well?

In asking these kinds of questions, I become increasingly aware of a relationship between the musical structure—the object I can see or hear in front of me—and one or more potential contexts that it may be embedded in. And this begs yet another question: whether there is also some process by which the structure emerged from the contexts, or perhaps by which the contexts emerged from the structure. And if so, is this process, whatever it may be, a part of the musical structure as well?

When you use the anchor note to come up with ideas that structure your playing, you may think something like, “okay, I’m in this shape, this is my anchor, now I’m going to skip every other note of the shape.” By settling on this principle, this process, you have set out the ingredients for what may very well become a musical object that will closely resemble my C Major chord. But it didn’t begin as an object, or even as a context. It began as something much more difficult to articulate.

You were playing along with a song, responding to that song, drawing on your intuitions, and also thinking of structured ideas you might try out. You settled on some principles, you tried playing them, you adjusted them according to what sounded good with the song, and then you continued playing with the song. Perhaps if you happened across a structuring principle that really turned out something that you liked, you remembered it, or you even remembered the exact notes that resulted from it, and then you tried playing those notes again in a different context, perhaps as the seed of a new structuring principle for your playing.

The feeling of this experience, its richness, its uncertainty, its playfulness, is worth pausing to take note of and to appreciate for a moment. You have used musical structures in your playing, and your playing has given you a way of making sense of a musical structure when you come across one, even when it looks like a straightforward, fixed musical object at first glance.