What is music anyway?

I’ve been thinking about music and what it is, how it’s written and how we perform it. I first showed the following sequence in a workshop at Chichester University in 2018. Let me know what you think!

A group of white dots

What do you see?

The image above contains a number of white dots. There is very little meaning in those dots other than how many there are and something about the positioning.

The same group of white dots but now some are coloured in blue

What do you see?

Now some of the dots are coloured in. It is still difficult to guess their meaning.

The same group of blue and white dots but now they are spaced differently into groups

What do you see?

In the third image, the same group of white and coloured dots are grouped with gaps between the groups. We get the sense that there is meaning in the grouping but it is still difficult to decide what that meaning might be.

The same grouped white/coloured dots now have stems added indicating rhythm and five-line staves indicating pitch. This is how music is written

What do you see?

Finally we have a context for those dots. By adding the five-line staff we have a context in space for identifying pitch differences. And by adding stems to the notes we have a context for identifying note durations and therefore rhythm.

But is that all?

Yes, pretty much. The main identifiers of music are rhythm and pitch. Anything else is the composer’s attempt to give the performer some indication of tempo, volume changes, phrasing (whether notes belong to each other or not) and, in the case of singers, words and how they fit with the notes. And all of these indicators are relatively vague and open to interpretation.

What’s also interesting is that the notes and rhythms themselves are open to interpretation. If you’re singing classical music you stick moderately closely to what’s written (see below) and if you’re singing contemporary commercial music you add your own styling, riffs, extra notes and personal rhythm changes.

Don’t believe me?

Classical singers I work with can get annoyed with me for saying they’re not singing the notes and rhythms, since one of the main beliefs is that you stick as closely as possible to what the composer wrote and you guess his/her intentions to the best of your knowledge.

So here’s a transcription of Amazing Grace (the melody above) sung live acapella by world-class opera singer Jessye Norman.

Music score showing Jessye Norman's version of Amazing Grace
Created by Jeremy for the Oxford Handbook of Singing 2019

Notice all the extra notes and slides? And the complex rhythms? And where the consonants happen rhythmically and pitch-wise? It’s close but not what was originally written.

Now look at the same song, sung in a similar key but with a very different sound quality by Pop/Country singer Leanne Rimes.

Music score showing LeAnn Rimes's version of Amazing Grace
Created by Jeremy for the Oxford Handbook of Singing 2019

Notice the extra notes, slides, frys, tunings and yodels? Not to mention the incredibly complex rhythms, and even the breath in the middle of the first word?

But which one is more correct? The answer is both and neither. Both because they represent heartfelt performances of the spirit of the song. Neither because they ain’t accurate!

So how do I find the correct version of a song?

Since two of the world’s bestselling artists produce two completely different versions, there isn’t really a correct version to find. The best version of the music is the one that reflects you and your tastes/beliefs/expertise the closest.

So remember when you’re learning a song, decide which context you’re singing it in (opera performance, recital, gig, theatre show, recording studio etc), then which “genre flavour” you’re going to use (early Romantic Classical, Berlin cabaret, Motown, Trance etc) and add the style features of that genre to the basic melody and rhythm of the song. That’s a great way to truly make the song your own.



PS If you need some inspiration to find your version of a song, book a coaching session with Jeremy in person or online.