Planning to pass through Wroclaw, Poland on Wednesday night? Then be sure to stop by the THE KAROL LIPINSKI UNIVERSITY OF MUSIC
to hear a performance of my quartet Devotion
. You won’t find me there, though. I’ve got another bone to pick.
Most of us who have taken an undergraduate course in music have fallen prey, at one time or another, to what I think of as The Related Notes Syndrome.
The Related Notes Syndrome starts as a simple fascination with pitch patterns: the discovery that compositions are built from motivic cells. In its purest form, this fascination is completely harmless. You trace the ways Brahms uses the same three-note motive over the course of a four-movement piece, exclaiming AHA each time it recurs, transformed… and your listening experience deepens.
There are two ways in which this harmless entertainment becomes a syndrome: first, there is the ensuing belief that there is something innately profound about related note patterns – in other words, the more of these patterns one can find in a piece (or compose into a piece) the more serious and meaningful the music is.
Wake-up call: the fact that groups of notes are related to other groups of notes does not make a piece profound. It simply makes it music.
The other manifestation of the related-notes syndrome is the voracious tracing of related-note patterns in works from different composers/time periods. As in: “The Beatles went up a fourth and down a third, which means they were obviously listening to Stravinsky, who pilfered it from Schubert, who found it in Bach, who must have somehow come across the same pattern in Dufay” etc., etc.
Experienced musicians know that these kinds of corresponding patterns can be found in all music throughout history. There are only so many ways to put notes together – what makes a piece great, or even memorable (which isn’t the same thing), is the context in which these patterns are presented.
Just go to any rehearsal involving a group of professional musicians. I guarantee at some point they’ll break off in the middle of a phrase because there is something that needs to be worked on, and one musician will complete the phrase with a lick from a different piece that has the same note pattern as the one they are rehearsing. Happens all the time. Why? Because finding these connections is child’s play.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of crying Eureka over these common connections. I’ve done it myself. Time has taught me, though, that while I thought I was tapping into the nerve center of inspiration itself, I was actually engaging in the most trivial of musical pursuits.