Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Musical Storyboards

A couple of posts ago, I suggested that the fast-forward feature on certain kinds of CD players can provide a useful aural overview of a long musical structure. Although this worked pretty well for some wild Prokofiev, my initial experiments with the more orderly soundworld of Mozart didn't work out so well. (Those experiments haven't made it online, which is good news for us all.) The jumbled clash of indiscriminately selected musical "snapshots" (the CD player in question fast-forwards by sampling tiny little segments in quick succession) just sounds too far removed from the character of the original.

However, I've still been thinking of using something like this technique in the classroom where I often find that students have trouble "hearing structure" in large musical structures. The old ABACA language makes plenty of sense to me, but if the student isn't readily able to associate a musical idea with each of those letters, the analysis can seem overly abstract.

For example, my music history class is studying early Classical style. Our anthology includes a piano concerto movement by J. C. Bach, and the authors provide a nice little table that summarizes the major structural events relating to themes, harmony, and texture. (Texture here is mainly about orchestral ritornelli vs. solo episodes.)

I love looking at tables like this, but it becomes clearer to me year by year that not all students are used to thinking this way. It occurred to me that the table would make a lot more sense if the student could easily associate each thematic idea (its aural image) with its abbreviation (1T, Tr, 2T, CT which stand for 1st theme, Transition, 2nd theme, Closing Theme), so I opened up Audacity and threw together a little bird's-ear view of the movement, with each important event represented by 3-4 seconds of music. Here's what that sounds like:

For the most part, each jump in the music matches up with the thematic changes shown above, except that in the "Second Episode" (essentially, the "Development" section), each modulation to a new key is also sampled. [Sorry, I can't post the entire recording, but if you find yourself wanting to hear more, you can download the whole movement for only $0.99 here.]

Yes, it's a bit jarring, but I think it provides a useful way to "hear" the whole piece in 60 seconds; ideally, that can then provide a framework for listening to the real thing. In this way, the clipped version functions kind of like an aural storyboard - or, you can just think of it as an aural version of the chart above.

I thought it would be useful for this post to "storyboard" a more well-known work, and since the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No.40 will be coming up in my music appreciation class soon, I took out my shears and pasted together the following:

Although the snapshots are even shorter here (2-3 seconds), I was surprised to find that some of them went together quite nicely (especially the quick modulations in the Development section from 0:15 to 0:33) so that, while it's not always elegant, this Cliff's Notes version actually makes some musical sense on its own. Perhaps you'll recall that earlier this summer I pasted together parts of three different Mozart violin concerti. In that case, my goal was to make things musically comprehensible, but I'm gratified to find some "music" can still be discerned in this symphonic snapshot when entire phrases are reduced to mere motives.

That raises another connection to be made, that this kind of musical storyboard is somewhat analogous to the kind of long-range voice-leading analysis made famous by Heinrich Schenker. (See here.)  I'm no expert in Schenkerian analysis, but I have found that listening to Mozart this way gives me a greater appreciation, even in just one afternoon, for the way in which Mozart fills up this structure. That's a crucial point, because I'd never want students to think that the structure is an end in itself. The point of this kind of thinking is to perceive more effectively the long range shape that all these beautiful tunes and harmonies and textures inhabit. In the process of picking and choosing where to cut, I became aware of several passages in which Mozart elegantly extends or contracts expected phrase structures. True, those details get lost in the version above, but they were revealed to me by thinking in storyboard mode.

And more importantly, from the Schenkerian point of view, it's much easier to hear the long-range harmonic motion when seven minutes are reduced to one. I feel certain Schenker's mysterious graphical reductions would have made more sense to me when I first encountered them as an undergrad if I could've heard audio reductions like the ones above. (Yes, I realize many important Schenkerian principles are lost in my reductions - but the overall principle is the same.) When I mashed up the three Mozart violin concertos, my original goal was to show how similar they are, and I didn't necessarily mean that in a flattering way; but spending time with Mozart's fragments only gave me a greater appreciation for his skill and creativity - which probably means that the best thing I could for students is get them to do their own trimming and storyboarding!


Ian Good said...

I think there needs to be pauses between each segment. or link each snapshot up with a clickable form chart


Hey Ian,

Sorry, I just saw this comment! I agree about linking up with a form chart - that was kind of the genesis of this idea, giving students a way to "hear" form charts in their books.

Personally, I like the non-stop jump from segment to segment as a long-range hearing thing; it does get kind of goofy sometimes, but the idea is to listen in a strange kind of fast-forward.