Mind Tools: Applications and Solutions


What to Think About When You Conduct:
Perception, Language, and Musical Communication
Part 2 (of 4)
Download complete article as PDF file

Lee Humphries


Pitch, Color, Rhythm, Tempo

Hearing Pitch

Pitch is perceived in different ways under different musical conditions.  In some instances, its harmonic aspect dominates our experience; in others, its melodic aspect; in still others, its textural aspect.   At times the musical fabric is stratified—with harmonic, melodic, and/or textural styles occurring simultaneously.

What we hear depends on several factors: the overall pace of the activity, the number of parts, their contoural and rhythmic independence, their spatial and timbrel proximity, and the number of pitch classes presented per unit of time.

As complexity increases, there is a decline in our ability to hear music as a series of discrete chords.  Vertical pitch relationships recede into the background; horizontal pitch relationships move into the foreground.

Beyond a certain point, even the horizontal relationships loose their individuality.  Texture reigns supreme, and one hears the musical equivalent of physics' Brownian motion.

A passage's organization determines what you listen for.  To effectively rehearse horizontally conceived passages, you need a vivid mental image of the individual lines.  This is best developed by playing and singing each part.

To deal with vertically conceived passages, you need a clear image of each separate chord and an understanding of the role each instrument plays in it.

Building a harmonic image.  Building a harmonic image of a score isn't as difficult as it seems.  Here's a strategy that will do the trick:

•       Begin by taking a phrase of music and figuring out what notes make up each sonority.

•       At the keyboard, condense each sonority into a block chord.  Put the bottom note of the sonority on the bottom of the block chord.  Stack the other notes above it in close order so that the block chord spans less than an octave and contains all the pitch classes of the original sonority.  (In most cases you'll be able to play it with one hand.)

•       Play the series of block chords to familiarize yourself with the progression.

•       Arpeggiate each chord from bottom to top to bottom (e.g., C-Eb-A-B-A-Eb-C), then sing the arpeggiation.  Use note names, scale degrees, or solfege syllables.

•       Play each chord's bass note, and sing its arpeggiation.

•       Play nothing; sing each chord's arpeggiation.

•       Looking at the score, sing the arpeggiation of a chord; then sing the chord member played by each instrument.  Proceed this way through the progression

•       At the keyboard, play each sonority as it is voiced in the score.  While the sonority is sounding, sing its arpeggiation.

This process develops the harmonic image in a series of small, easy steps.  Each step prepares you for the next one.  The more you do this sort of thing, the more vivid your harmonic imagery will become.


Hearing Color

The coloristic sound of an ensemble arises from things that are rarely spelled out in the score: attack and release characteristics, speed and width of the vibrato, vertical dynamic relationships, vertical tuning, and unity of execution when two or more players are on a part.

Color is sometimes paradoxical.  An instrument's warm, resonant sound can be unsatisfactory within the context of the ensemble if it lacks sufficient edge to cut through the other instruments.  Give it some nasality, and it becomes more beautiful in a relative sense by being less beautiful in an absolute sense.


Hearing Rhythm

One of the most useful statements ever made about the perception of rhythm turns up on page ten of Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer's The Rhythmic Structure of Music (University of Chicago Press): "Durational differences . . . tend to produce end-accented groupings . . . ; intensity differentiation tends to produce beginning-accented groupings . . . ; and the proper combination of durational difference with intensity difference tends to produce middle-accented groupings. . . ."  This has tremendous implications for musical performance.

If players put undue dynamic stress on a note that is located on a weak beat (or on the weak part of a beat), they will disrupt the underlying meter.  Specifically, the stress will create a beginning-accented grouping whose strong and weak elements are out of phase with those of the meter.

Similarly, if players under-stress an "on-the-beat" short note and over-stress an "off-the-beat" long note that immediately follows it, they will create an end-accented grouping whose weak and strong elements are, once again, out of phase with those of the meter.

Metric disruptions also arise because of inappropriate dynamic relationships between instruments.  If one instrument's on-the-beat note is under-stressed, it can make another instrument's off-the-beat note sound stressed—creating the illusion that it is on-the-beat.

These are common problems, even in the best ensembles.  They are brought on by our natural tendency to emphasize notes having formal importance within the phrase (e.g., first notes, highest notes, longest notes) and to de-emphasize their neighbors.

The ability to distinguish subtle dynamic differences is critical in maintaining metrically appropriate rhythmic groupings.  An accurate image of rhythm incorporates an understanding of dynamic, as well as durational, relationships.


Hearing Tempo

Setting the tempo.  The maximum and minimum tempos at which a piece can be played are determined by its most difficult passages.  Although these passages may last only a measure or two, if you set a pace without taking them into account, disaster will meet you around the corner.  Either the strings will capsize trying to negotiate a raging torrent of presto thirty-second notes, or the trombones will sink into blue-faced oblivion trying to sustain a tied string of largo whole notes.

Once you've decided on the appropriate tempo, your next problem is to feel it each time you begin.  It's easier to remember a tempo within a musical context than to remember it in the abstract.  So practice setting the tempo by first recalling the musical passage in which it appears.  When you think you've found the right tempo, get feedback from the metronome.  If you use the metronome for correction, not direction, you'll shorten your learning time.

Changing the tempo.  You can master the shift from one tempo to another by understanding their mathematical ratio.  Suppose the work begins at QUARTER = 80, then switches to QUARTER = 60.

•       Make a fraction of the two tempos; put TEMPO I in the numerator, TEMPO II in the denominator: 80/60.

•       Reduce the fraction: 80/60 = 4/3.

•       Divide TEMPO I's beat by the fraction's denominator: QUARTER ÷ 3TEMPO I's beat is now divided into three units (i.e., triplet eighth notes).

•       Four of these units equal the beat in TEMPO IIFOUR is the fraction's numerator.

When the mathematical ratio of the tempos isn't reducible to an easy fraction, an approximation of the ratio may be just as good.  Say, TEMPO I is QUARTER = 63 and TEMPO II is QUARTER = 80.  The fraction 63/80 won't reduce, and you can't think eighty units per beat.

But 63/80 approximates 63/81, which reduces to 7/9.  Better yet, 63/80 also approximates 64/80, which reduces to 4/5.  The latter is preferred—it's simpler to divide the beat into 5 units than 9 units.  So again, divide TEMPO I's beat by the denominator, 5.  And multiply the resulting unit (i.e., one-fifth of a beat) by the numerator, 4.  The four units satisfactorily approximate the beat in TEMPO II.

Continue to Part 3 (of 4)
Return to Part 1




Bookmark and Share

About the author
Return to Home Page
E-mail us