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Analysis is Paralysis!

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Analysis is Paralysis!

The phrase is a quote from a French horn player I used to know. From a performer's view this is certainly true! But is it true generally? I have the impression that more and more analysis is being used as a tool to teach music composition. Graduate composition students often have to do an analysis of pieces they have written. This is reminiscent of what Schoenberg was doing in the transition from tonal to pan-tonal music. He would write a piece and then sit down and try and analyze what he had done. The process of creation was instinctive, but his idea was that he had to understand what structures or ideas underlay the music composition.

A lot of composers, I suspect, just write intuitively with perhaps the development of "filters" to trim down the possibilities to ones that are most useful. Other composers follow worked-out systems of composition (the serialists). Others create systems and move on to new systems with each piece (Stockhausen). Others modify traditional styles by distorting or stripping them down to essentials (Prokofiev? Feldman? Stravinsky?). Others are what theorists like to call "refractory to analysis" meaning probably that they just have no idea what is going on.

Music theory and music analysis are somewhat different animals. Music theory is the search for general principles of music construction while analysis is more focused on the specifics of individual pieces. They overlap to a considerable extent, of course.

I have been reading this book, which though a bit dated (1987), is proving to be very informative. The author was a professor at Southhampton University in England.

His writing style is clear and informative and he gives a good overview of various different approaches. Analysts seem to prefer shorter pieces as the process of analysis can be very exhausting and time-consuming. The first prelude in Bk I of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a particular favorite:

It is amazing how much analysis you can do of a two minute piece. Another popular one is the brief (two and a half minutes) song from Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, "Das Wandern."

On first listening, both these pieces might sound very simple, trite even, but one thing analysis can do is refresh your listening so you are hearing with new ears.

In our everyday lives we are constantly hearing music in public spaces that is run-of-the-mill, routine music, music that sounds a lot like a lot of other music. This dulls our aesthetic sense so we become less capable of hearing into a piece, hearing past the surface.

So now that we are all locked down for a while, we can sit down and do some serious listening!


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