Thursday, May 24, 2007

Musical Form

When I was a kid my brothers used to talk about musical form, but they also used to talk about chess openings. I thought that they were the same kind of thing: formulas that were of little use to me. Boy, was I wrong. My little brother had piano lessons and studied the classical repertoire. My older brother just seemed to know how classical pieces were put together without really studying. I never had piano lessons and didn't make it far enough as a violin-playing kid to play anything in any of the big classical forms. Most of the flute repertoire I studied was either baroque or from the 20th century, and none of the teachers I studied with ever mentioned the concept of the form of a piece having something to do with interpretation.

I recognized patterns, but I never knew that there was a whole tradition of writing music in a way that set forth themes, developed them, and followed patterns of modulation. I could play classical concertos from memory, but I had no idea when I was in the exposition or the development section of a movement, or, for that matter, what a development section actually was. Maybe everyone assumed I knew.

At Juilliard our "Literature and Materials of Music" course might have included the formal analysis of a few songs, but I believe we spent most of our time on harmonic analysis. What good is harmonic analysis if it is not taught in a musical and preferably formal context? Maybe the people who designed that course assumed that everyone knew about form already.

I thought I knew a lot about music when I was in my 20s and 30s. I know that I played a lot of music when I was a student and when I was in the working world, but I feel like I missed out on a great deal of the experience of listening and playing because I was unaware of what was actually happening in the music. Somehow my music history courses at Juilliard managed to skip over the idea of teaching anything about classical forms. I know that the 1970s was a time when it was "hip" to consider non-formal aspects of music, but I believe it is really a disservice to music students not to teach the basic tools for interpreting music intelligently (and that's what most students are in music school to learn) in theory and music history classes.

I only began to understand form when I started writing music, and I only started writing music seriously when I was close to 40. When I read Edward Cone's Musical Form and Musical Performance and Donald Francis Tovey's The Forms of Music, I started to understand what I wish I had learned as a child or as a young adult. Maybe I should have asked my brothers what they were talking about.


Rebecca M said...

The analysis of form is one of the most miserably taught components of music for the reasons you cite. In my experience, composers, rather than theorists, have engaged with the subject in a much more meaningful way (I generalize, of course!). I think the interpretive aspect needs to be highlighted so that the relevance is obvious even to a younger music student.

Elaine Fine said...

I certainly hope that your generation does a better job of teaching form than mine did (and if you are planning to be an academic, I hope that you will make sure to teach your students what the need to know). Has anyone else in the 45-50 age range had similar experiences to mine at other conservatories in the 1970s?

Rebecca M said...

Another thing I think might help is if form and musicianship were more standard components of private music instruction. I was lucky enough to have a piano teacher affiliated with Trinity College of London so I had a set of examinations every year which included theory. With my voice students, I include sight-singing, ear training, and we ALWAYS talk about the form of the piece. I work primarily with teenagers, but there is no reason not to start earlier.