Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Shape of Sound

Yodelling LLama posted something a while back about mathematical proofs being turned into music. This is BS, of course, but I'll deal with that later. While looking thru the stuff I saw some images that show an 'analysis' of the music using The Shape of Song. That's even more BS, judging from the method page on that site. Allow me to explain.

It purports to 'illustrate the deep structure of the composition' while it makes pretty translucent arches that connect exact pitch repetitions in the music. That disregards two important points: 1) there's much more to musical structure than the repetition of exact pitches and 2) even when pitches are repeated, that doesn't mean structure. To illustrate, let me put my Music Theorist hat on and point out the problems with their 'analysis' of Mary Had a Little Lamb.

One good part of the illustration shows how both the antecedent and consequent phrases (1st 4 measures and 2nd 4 measures, respectively, for most of you) start with the same seven notes. But that isn't a major revelation and is described by music analysts by a form that takes up less space than a big blue arch: AA'.

The first problem with the 'analysis' comes with measure 3, the 3 repeated Ds. The Shape of Sound fails to make the connection with measure 2s 3 repeated Es, a connection that is obvious to the listener.

Next problem comes at the end, where the final 3 notes (E - D - C) are connected with the same pitches that occur at the beginning of each 4-measure phrase. This is making a connection where there is none, musically speaking. The E - D - C - D phrase that is in measures 1 and 5 is part of a tonic harmony (a C-major chord should be played in the background) while measure 7 has a dominant harmony (G major). And because of the position of the notes in each measure, the E - D - C in measures 7-8 will have a different set of accents than that in measure 1 and 5, giving it a different sound.

The main problem is that it doesn't diagnose the real connection to the end of the tune. There’s a connection between the end of the antecedent and consequent phrases that gives it a nice feeling of completion at the end. In measure 4, an E is followed by 2 Gs, making a musical interval known as an ascending 3rd. In measures 7-8, the notes E – D – C outline a similar interval, a descending 3rd that lands on the tonic (which could be described as the main note in the set of notes that make up this tune, known as its key).

There are some nice diagrams there but don’t mistake them for analysis. They might tell the novice something about some music (such as Baroque masterpieces like Bach’s Goldberg Variations) but will be quite useless with much other music, like the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: all those repeated 4-note phrases (3 shorts and 1 long) won’t register on The Shape of Sound because they’re not exact pitch duplications. But anyone who can hear can tell they’re connected, which is one of the reasons that work’s a masterpiece.

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