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Unfrozen Music

C all it Goethe’s Popsicle. You know, the phrase he coined about architecture being “frozen music.” Architects have always liked that one -- musicians, not so much. Like all great metaphors, it only works in one direction. Tell an architect her structure is musical and you’ve just handed out the highest compliment. Try telling a songwriter that his song sounds like a melted building. See how that one goes over.

The problem here is that Goethe’s Popsicle is apples and oranges flavored. Music unfolds in time, not space. We can’t hear the whole of a song or a symphony; we can only live each moment of it. You are the music, while the music lasts, said T.S. Eliot. Music plays on our most subjective and illusive of faculties, the experience of time. 
And to experience time, you have to remember it. So the structure of music, when all is said and done, is an artifact of perception. We create its structure, out of memory.

But I’m making this sound all much harder than it is. Goethe’s friend Beethoven probably would have taken no offense at being called an architect of sound, because he was obsessed with the organic unity of his compositions. In his symphonies, he took no chances. You always know you are on a guided trip with many landmarks. One favorite trick he used was the primal rhythmic motif, repeated ad nauseum, like the dit-dit-dit-dah of the 5th Symphony. Or this one, from the second movement of his 7th Symphony, which sounds like Mr. B channeling tribal drums:

Tribal drums playing rhythmic pattern—Andrew please insert, copying Beethoven rhythm

[Segue to example from Beethoven’s 7Th Symphony, 2nd movement]

Try listening to that movement all the way through and not hear that rhythmic pattern. It’s impossible.

Johannes Brahms used all of Beethoven’s devices, and more. In his third symphony, a mere three notes, F – A flat – F, tie together the entire first movement.

[Example from Brahms 3rd Symphony, 1st movement]

Supposedly, those three notes have extramusical significance: they stand for the German frei aber froh, free but glad. That’s Brahms commenting on a social structure, matrimony, which he successfully avoided his entire life.

Johann Sebastian Bach, father of 20 children, mastered and synthesized almost every known structural technique of his day. His intricately-constructed fugues are like imaginary buildings where the studs and ductwork and plumbing are so beautiful they need no walls to cover them.

[Example from Bach Fugue No. 3 in C # major]

    We could go on and on, and we haven’t even gotten out of the letter “B’s.” But let’s change things up here. For at least 400 years and probably much longer, Western music has had an underlying structural principal that no one seriously questioned: that every piece of music has a “key” and that that key is “home.”

What happens when music has no home? That was the question the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg posed in the early part of the 20th century. Instead of a ruling “key,” Schoenberg proposed that forever more, all notes are created equal. In fact, so equal that, according his rules of 12-tone composition, once you wrote a particular note, you couldn’t use it again until you’d used all of the other eleven notes. Hence the “tone row,” like this one, containing all 12 chromatic tones:

[Example of Tone Row from Schoenberg]

And a Menuet he wrote using that tone row:

[Menuet from Schoenberg, Suite, op. 25]


Schoenberg brought democracy to music. But maybe we weren’t ready for it. You can’t easily sing a tone row, and even if you have the training to do so, no one is going to sing it along with you. Of course, you can’t sing a whole Mahler symphony or a Coltrane improvisation either. But you can sing the tunes from them. A little goes a long ways. Schoenberg and his twelve-tone system flourished for about 50 years, mostly in academic settings, but it’s a technique now considered unfashionable. We’re back to music with keys, or at least vantage points of tonality. Music with ... “homes.”

And there I go again with building metaphors applying to music instead of the other way around. Can I change my mind, Herr Goethe? Well, yes, I can. We’ve now seen how architecture makes radical and enduring leaps -- how it creates new archetypes. So does our constant musical experimentation. Neither does so very often. Like nature itself, we create new archetypes rarely. 

For, once nature has found a structure that works, it’ll stay with it for millennia. John Lienhard asks us to turn next to one such structure in nature: the lowly, yet majestic spider web. 


Goethe quote: The phrase "Architecture is like frozen music" [Baukunst eine erstarrte Musik nenne] is first used by Goethe in "Conversations with Eckerman" (published 1836); however it appears earlier in Schelling's Philosophy of Art (published 1802-3), according to

Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries Oscar Sonneck (Editor) (New York: Dover Publications, 1967)

T.S. Eliot quote from The Dry Salvages, from Four Quartets

Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers. (New York: Norton & Company, 1997).

Aaron Copland, What to Listen For in Music. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957).

Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (Charles Eliot Norton Lectures). (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981). A fascinating examination of musical structure in the context of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic models.

Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition. (London: Faber & Faber, 1988).

Arnold Schoenberg, Structural Functions of Harmony. (New York: Norton & Company, 1969).

Musical examples used on this track:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7, op. 92, II. Allegretto

Brahms: Symphony No. 3, op. 90, I. Allegro con brio

Bach: Fugue No. 3 in C# major, BWV 848

Schoenberg: Menuet from Suite op. 25

Patti Wolf, piano 

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