Well, it isn’t compulsory, that’s a fact and when we journey out from the realm of European ‘classical’ (and other) styles we encounter more and more regions where musicians barely give the idea a second thought.
The book deals in some depth with form and the way in which other elements, particularly rhythm, are affected by a chosen scheme but I want to concentrate here on what form is and why (and if) we need it.
I have my own opinion about why form is important to some and not others but it involves an area wherein I have no expertise, so I’ll be brief:
I’ve observed a general tendency among white Caucasians to adopt a premeditated, or ‘strategic’, approach to problems. ‘OK’ we think. ‘We have a problem, so we’re going to do ‘this’ and ‘that’ and everything will be fine’. (The style is also associated with immaturity, especially in politics, where constant meddling in education and health is severely impeding attempts by specialists to effect improvements.)
The alternative ‘tactical’ approach is one I frequently noticed on the many occasions I’ve been invited to Asian weddings, most often within the Sikh community, where I have many friends. Here, people plunge into situations and react to events as they unfold, although they do enjoy a greater degree of support from their close community. This technique, I’ve noticed, is often the one adopted by those who succeed.
There are advantages and disadvantages with both methods.
The intensely premeditated, ‘Western’ approach presumes that we can always anticipate every possible eventuality from a massive list of outcomes – which we can’t, of course. Something always comes along to wreck our plans and we end up ‘thinking on our feet’ anyway.
On the other hand, the plunge-in-and-worry-about-it-afterwards approach can expose us to unnecessary risks and others will always be called in to bail us out.
The point I am making (I hope) is that musical styles will echo cultural attitudes, perhaps more than we realize.
Indian music is largely extemporized, although the melodic forms used are handed down to the musician to a large extent (I don’t want to go too deeply into that here).
In contrast, Beethoven, who I described in my previous post on here as being a supreme musical architect, constantly revised and reshaped his music until he achieved what he was looking for. This comment is not meant to imply that he was without ‘inspiration’, whatever that means. It’s difficult to listen to the ninth without feeling that he was driven by an unusually strong sense of ‘motivation’ (for lack of a better word).
It would be easy to say ‘Oh well, the architectural approach is one that stems from a more civilized society’ but this idea fails when we consider that many cultures, that were civilized when we in the West were painting our faces and throwing rocks at each other, never developed the desire to adopt a premeditated approach. Music, to them, functions as a foil to the rest of their lives where there are always plenty of problems to solve, issues that they’d just like to get away from, once in a while.
Obviously, there are Indian composers who follow Western ideas just as there are European musicians who have experimented with eastern styles, which does complicate the argument a little, but I’m attempting a broad generalization here, which we have to do when attempting to rationalize ideas in any field involving millions of individuals.
I struggled for long periods of time during the six and a half years it took to write the book (and its revisions) but, when I described form in music, the ideas flowed smoothly and I still like the definition I chose:
When an artist has been concentrating on an area of fine detail in his picture *he can take a few steps back to obtain an overall view of the work. The more he moves away the more he perceives it to be a single, unified whole.
A composer faces a different set of problems. His composition may occupy a considerable period of time and he needs to develop specialized skills to achieve the same end. The controlled arrangement of the components of music to produce a balanced and unified whole as they extend through time is what we refer to as form.
I’ve read accounts that refer to the idea of pattern in music as being ‘borrowed’ from the graphic arts (I was also classically trained as an artist) but I think this reference is inaccurate. Music, too, has shapes and patterns but, because music is a temporal medium, these features are extended through time and can’t be assessed instantaneously. That’s the difference.
Without form, listeners will experience a sense of confusion as they struggle to assimilate a constant stream of changing stimuli and their attention will wander. But the matter is further complicated by the differing degrees of musical awareness, knowledge and experience possessed by various listeners.
Form may also cause us to feel right about ourselves, enabling us to derive comfort in a confusing and potentially hostile world. Repetition, and the re-working of previous passages, provide a reassuring effect, rather like being reunited with old friends.
In studying form we eventually encounter redundant definitions . ‘Fugue form’ is one example. Once a decision is taken regarding the number of voices and their scheme of entry, certain constraints are automatically imposed upon us so that further subdivisions of classification are, strictly speaking, unnecessary, although we may adopt them out of expediency.
The book also attempts to disassociate form, in the abstract, from traditional habits regarding, for example, the distribution of climaxes and key relationships, although it does include a description of symphonic layouts etc. for the sake of completeness.
The function of music within a society will also have an influence on the chosen path. Music that has religious significance will naturally differ from that which is intended to entertain and, especially, impress, by becoming a vehicle for the composer to advertise his prowess.
Of course, the above mentioned differences cannot avoid the simple reality that what works for some won’t work for others. There’s no getting away from all that but, if I succeeded in steering young writers away from unhelpful and constricting stereotypes in writing my book, my efforts will not have been a waste of time.
*The book uses the male gender as standard to avoid complications that can ensue from attempts to achieve a fairer treatment.