Thinking Music in 3D

musicianship Feb 15, 2016

When you look at your music, is your vision bounded by the black dots, lines and spaces and the edges ofthe page?

Let’s get out of the flat two dimensional world of the printed page and look at music in 3D.

The Horizontal Dimension of Music 

Melody is horizontal dimension of music. It is the narrative voice of music. Melody tells a story, sings a song, or paints a picture.

Melody is linear, but a good melody is never merely a line. Melody has direction, energy and flow. Like a well-crafted sentence, a melody must have a clear beginning, convey a thought and carry through to a conclusion.

Melody is often thought of as an arch, moving upward from its start to a high point and then coming back down as it ends.  The great oboist Marcel Tabuteau developed a precise numeric system to help his students learn how to shape a phrase from beginning to the top of the arch and back. You can read more about that in this previous post..

For us harpists, playing a carefully constructed melodic arch is a little more difficult. Since we cannot sustain through a note and develop the phrase during the note, we must create a dynamic progression from note to note by gradually changing the tone, volume and energy of each note to either point to the high point or lead back to the end of the melody.

The Vertical Dimension of Music

Imagine you are listening to someone playing a melody on a violin. Then another violinist joins in with a different melody, and now you hear two different notes being played at the same time. You are now listening to counterpoint – two or more melodies that, when performed together, create combinations of notes. This is the origin of harmony.

We can think of harmony as the vertical dimension of music. You can easily visualize this when you look at chords accompanying a melody. But harmony also has a direction and a flow, just as melody does. This is why we speak of a series of chords as a “progression.” Harmonic progression has its own energy and flow, distinct from the melody.

In our western music system, the most fundamental harmonic progression is from the chord based on the tonic, or key note, to the chord based on the dominant, the fifth note of the scale, and then back again to the tonic chord.

For example, in C Major, the tonic note is C, and the chord based on that note would be C-E-G. The dominant in C Major, the fifth note of the scale, is G, and its chord is G-B-D. So that fundamental progression in C Major would be a C chord to a G chord and back to a C chord. (You might have seen these chords labelled by the Roman numerals I and V. The entire progression would read I-V-I.)

Of course, harmonic progressions can be much more complex than simply I-V-I. Harmonic progressions can be subtle or powerful, serene or intense, and without them, music would not be as interesting. But the third dimension of music is perhaps even more powerful.

Music Exists In Time

Music happens over time. The beat, the pulse, the meter – whichever you call it – is what governs the progression of the melody and harmony. It connects the horizontal and vertical and is the framework that supports them and gives them meaning.

To truly understand the power of the beat, try playing a piece of music as if it had NO beat. It is difficult and musically unsatisfying to play notes in this random way. We long for the order of the pulse. We need the beat to make sense of what we are hearing.

It is easy to believe that the beat is where music began, whether you imagine a prehistoric tribal drum or just feel the inner pulse that is your heart beating. But for most of us, music exists in all three dimensions – melody, harmony and time.  As you make music this week, take a moment to see the role that each of those dimensions plays in the music you play and hear.

It’s an ear-opening experience!

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