Visualizing Musical Lines

August 4, 2006

The first part of this post may seem a little off topic because it deals with classical music, but in the words of Charlie Parker, “It’s all music, man. Just call it music.”

In music, counterpoint literally means “note against note.” Visualizing counterpoint is a way of understanding the shape and tension of the music at a given moment. Take for example this excerpt from Rondo A Capriccio, a piano work by Beethoven:

The picture above is a piano roll, which displays the music on a grid with pitch on the y-axis and rhythmic value on the x-axis. This piano roll displays the top two voices from the Beethoven excerpt. (Click here to listen to the excerpt). When I listen to music, I try to visualize the musical line(s) – and looking at music on a piano roll has put this in a new perspective for me. Of course, counterpoint didn’t begin with Beethoven… If you want to learn from the master, Bach’s The Art of Fugue is a great place to try to begin hearing music in terms of shapes and lines.

The linear quality of improvisation in the bebop style has roots in the counterpoint of Bach (and the Bach-influenced classical composers who followed). However, bebop deals with a significantly different harmonic language.

Saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton creates a visual picture of what he calls “Bebop Sound Space” in the book Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton. The rhythm section (bass/drums/piano) inhabits the lower end of the musical spectrum. The soloist typically occupies the sonic space above the harmonic foundation of the rhythm section, and the shape of the solo reflects the contour of the harmony. (See how the dips and peaks in the solo line correspond with the ups and downs in the harmonic structure).

For Braxton, the individuality of the soloist is defined by the shape of the solo and how this that relates the the musical vocabulary of the soloist.

Link: Charlie Parker plays Confirmation (iTunes)

In Braxton’s words: “By gravillic weight I’m talking about how the gravity that underlines how a given forming is established in space. That being… Suppose I did a visual imprint, with respect to the gravillic contour; I would take one particular shape and section it off, then talk of the gravity points in forming as a way of understanding how that vocabulary works. Bird’s music would be like: (hums Parker solo and traces shape in the air).

link: Eric Dolphy plays Iron Man (iTunes)

Baxton continues: “Take Eric Dolphy’s language: the intervalic relationships between distances would be part of the contour of his music: (hums Dolphy solo and traces shape in air).”

Thinking about jazz in terms of shape and language is especially relevant when considering its historical relationship with animation. Many animators at UPA in the were highly influenced by the ideas in Gyorgy Kepes’s book, Language of Vision (published in 1944). I think many of these forward-looking animators saw the innovation of the be-bop language in the 40s as a model for creating a new visual language in animation. More on that later.

If you haven’t read it, buy Graham Lock’s book on Anthony Braxton! It will change the way you think about music forever.