Author Topic: what is "square" when we talk about music  (Read 5067 times)

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Michel.R.E

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what is "square" when we talk about music
« on: August 07, 2013, 07:49:59 AM »
Often, beginners will be given a critique that includes a comment that their music is "too square". So what exactly does this mean?

I will try to roughly and simply explain this.

Most music is made up of phrases, much like speech.  Some phrases are longer, some are shorter.

The success of a piece of music is how phrases are placed, how they relate to each other, and most importantly for this discussion, how they are attached to each other.

I will give you a literary example of square phrases in writing:
I am Michel. I am a composer. I write music. My music is polyharmonic. Polyharmony is the juxtaposition of triads and other structures. I like the sound of polyharmony.

Now, there is nothing "wrong" with the above. It is grammatically correct if one examines each phrase individually. But as a paragraph it is... sorely lacking.

let's try this now:
My name is Michel, and I'm a composer of contemporary classical music. Most of my music utilizes the principles of polyharmony, which is the juxtaposition of triads and like-structures to create building blocks. As a composer, as a creative artist, the sound of polyharmony is what appeals to me most.

Phrases are connected, there is reference toward the end of the passage to an element that was presented at the very beginning. it "flows".

In music, the best way to create "square" phrasing is to bring each and every phrase to a conclusion. That sense that the end of a phrase is "the end" is what creates this sense of squareness.

How do we avoid this? Don't make all of your phrases be completely self-contained and complete! It's actually quite simple.

1. let the end of a phrase suggest the beginning of the next.
2. overlap the ending of one phrase with the subsequent phrase (a suspension, for example).
3. avoid a tonicizing cadence at every phrase ending (whatever harmonic language you adopt, there is often a specific sense of "home". avoid returning to this home too often, and don't force every end-of-phrase to return to it).
4. imply upcoming material in earlier phrases.
5. (related to no.4) repeat or incorporate fragments of preceding thematic material in later phrases.

So these are but a few suggestions to help you on your way. Put them to good use.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Ron

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #1 on: August 07, 2013, 08:05:10 AM »
You missed the one I think of when I refer to music as "square"--and that is where every note falls on the beat with the result that the music "chunks" along like a Cyberman marching through an English village: One-two-Three-four. Liberal use of ties helps smooth things out and create a flow, as does having different parts enter off the beat instead of everyone marching along like an army of Cybermen.
Ron
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Michel.R.E

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #2 on: August 07, 2013, 08:11:03 AM »
Yes Ron, that's also part of it.

I was trying to cover more of what makes music sound square on a larger scale, but you're absolutely right that downbeats being accented, where everything lands ON beats, also makes the music square.

"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Ron

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #3 on: August 07, 2013, 08:19:52 AM »
I thought you'd appreciate my metaphor. :)

Ron
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mjf1947

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #4 on: August 07, 2013, 09:12:05 AM »
Hey Michel and Ron,

Thanks for the tutorial ......  8)

I think at times "square" occurs when you only work with one motif which becomes "stale" ..... without any introduction of new material which either presents past thematic material or new upcoming ones.

The skill to interweave them ... with good melodic/harmonic movement is the key and at least for me quite a challenge.

Mark

Jamie Kowalski

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #5 on: August 07, 2013, 11:01:17 AM »
All good advice.

One other squarish feature I like to avoid is an overabundance of symmetry. If every phrase is the same length, you are pushing up against square territory. If every appearance of your principle theme is exactly the same, that's rather square too.

perpetuo studens

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #6 on: August 07, 2013, 11:17:15 AM »
Is squareness necessarily a bad thing or is it just another tool / technique that can be used to create the desired effect?

Jamie
The perceived object...is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analyzed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element's existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it.

That means that you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe that you know all there is to know about its colouring and its shape, and be no further ahead than when you started. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces...

Georges Perec - Life: A User's Manual

Michel.R.E

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #7 on: August 07, 2013, 11:49:29 AM »
squareness is a "quality" of music.

it can be used to good effect.

but far too many beginner composers allow it to become a trap that limits their creativity and hinders their advancement.

it can be a crutch upon which you overly rely, since square phrases are easier to write.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Jamie Kowalski

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #8 on: August 07, 2013, 11:57:07 AM »
it can be a crutch upon which you overly rely, since square phrases are easier to write.

"Crutch" is exactly the word I was going to use. "Prison" might work too.

perpetuo studens

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #9 on: August 07, 2013, 01:53:50 PM »
Michel & Jamie: Thanks. That's pretty much what I thought but was interested in your take. I get the feeling that in many / most situations you would consider squareness boring, and if so I would agree.

But I have run into a couple of situations where a larger proportion of squareness seemed appropriate. For example, the second movement of my current strng quartet project is a funeral march, and I found that when I allowed too much syncopation to creep into the prominent melodic lines the piece lost that plodding dirge like quality that seemed necessary.

Thanks for the feedback.

Jamie
The perceived object...is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analyzed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element's existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it.

That means that you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe that you know all there is to know about its colouring and its shape, and be no further ahead than when you started. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces...

Georges Perec - Life: A User's Manual

Michel.R.E

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #10 on: August 07, 2013, 02:17:09 PM »
Jamie: (studens)

avoiding the "square" aspect doesn't require the insertion of syncopation.

but a harmonic plan can be "too square" as well.

As I said, music that returns to a tonic at too-predictable intervals is by its very nature "square".

If every phrase ends on the same harmony as the phrase started, the effect is "square".

The harmony at the end of a section of rhythmically straightforward music doesn't HAVE to create the "square" effect... there can be a harmonic suspension into the next phrase, there can be an avoided cadence, there can be a very sudden and surprising modulation BEFORE the next phrase starts.

The idea is to make judicious use of "dramatic gestures", and to carefully gauge when they should or should NOT land right on a strong beat.

Squareness makes the music predictable.
Successful music leads the audience on, letting think they can predict, and surprising them when they least expect it.
Think of successful music like a horror movie. A good horror movie will keep you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what might happen next. A successful horror film doesn't telegraph its "scares" too far in advance. It teases, it prepares, it avoids, it dangles the possibility in front of the audience, keeps them enthralled, then lulls them into a momentary calmness before *BANG*, surprise!

In my opinion, the classic sci-fi/horror film "Alien" is the perfect example of how to structure a work of art. The transitions, the lead-up to drama, the build and release of tension, and the drive to climax, are perfectly balanced. There is nothing "square" about how the film is put together.

"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Ron

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #11 on: August 07, 2013, 03:01:13 PM »
I just knew that all those hours I spent as a teenager watching movies starting Vincent Price, Christopher Lee (pre-LOTR), and Peter Cushing would pay off some day!
« Last Edit: August 08, 2013, 04:19:36 AM by Ron »
Ron
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sandalwood

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #12 on: August 07, 2013, 03:25:24 PM »
thanks for the great insights. i believe this is a very important issue for mature music writing, and apparently a multi-layered one from phrase design to overall form.


perpetuo studens

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #13 on: August 07, 2013, 11:48:33 PM »
Michel: excellent elaboration and analogy...thanks!
The perceived object...is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analyzed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element's existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it.

That means that you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe that you know all there is to know about its colouring and its shape, and be no further ahead than when you started. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces...

Georges Perec - Life: A User's Manual

altasilvapuer

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Re: what is "square" when we talk about music
« Reply #14 on: August 08, 2013, 09:49:36 AM »
Right before finding this topic last night, I stumbled across the following:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

― Gary Provost

How aptly and cleverly put, I thought, for the subject at hand.  The quote was posted by an author I follow online, but it applies just as well to composers.

-Matthew
R: "How much time do you think it takes to write a book?"
O: "Oh, you know: Not long . . . but long."
[Patrick Rothfuss and his son, Oot, on the nature of writing.]