If you build it . . . (I)

A reader writes:

What determines the formal structure in 20th century music? It seems that much of the music written in the early decades of the 20th century would lack structure (so it sounds to me)... Any thoughts?

I'll deal with this in some detail soon, but I want to open the question up to anybody who cares to take a shot at it, either in the comments or from their own podium.

I think that musical structure is, regardless of style, a very useful illusion. Wallace Stevens built an entire poetics around the idea that the human mind has such a "rage for order" that we will impose order, or "structure", even where there is no inherent order:

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Composers place "jars" in their music as ways for listeners to create/perceive and order to the music they are hearing. Performers can differ as to where in the piece the jars are located, and through accents of various kinds point them out to the listener.

We think of structure in functionally tonal music as a result of the deployment of changes and different melodies in time, to create a convincing musical argument. How is structure created or implied or facilitated in music that is not functionally tonal? Conversely, given our rage to order, is unstructured music even possible?


  1. I don't know if unstructured music is really possible, especially from responsible composers who try to create meaningful musical experiences for the duration of a piece of music. Musical chaos is inherently boring (because most musical chaos ends up sounding the same) and confusing (we go to professionals to try to make sense of it in our normal lives: doctors, psychiatrists, plumbers, fortune tellers). Still, in music that is chaotic and unorganized, the beginning and the end of the chaos itself creates a structure. We know that it will eventually stop.

    We can also use pretonal ways of organizing pitches, like organum. We can use the all-powerful drone (or we can call it a pedal point) to define sections of a piece of music.

    There are so many ways of creating organization without relying on tonally-based forms. Repetition can be used in all kinds of ways. "Jars" can be made of "melodic" material, or they can be made of combinations of instrumental or orchestral color. They can be made of rhythmic motives.

    We can also use instruments and voices in unconventional ways to imitate sounds that we might know (animals, birds, other instruments, power tools, sounds of bodily functions) as "jars."

  2. I agree with all you've said. The only thing I would add is that even if a composer were to somehow manage to make a totally unstructured piece, a listener would place her own "jars" in the music, and order it herself.

    Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading.

  3. Unstructured music is noise in slow motion. It's like tuning the TV in between channels, and watching the black-white-gray dots run..
    I guess if you look long enough, you start seeing pictures in that too, but my point is that - it's not art!
    Unfortunately, much of 20th century music isn't.