Bridging the g a p.

Violinist, vocalist and composer Caroline Shaw has made quite a name for herself in the classical music world as well as in pop music. Her music has been in the spotlight since she won the Pulitzer Prize for her Partita for Eight Voices in 2013. Her achievement drew much attention from prominent musicians and music critics, as she was the youngest ever Pulitzer Prize winner in the music category. She has been called a “modern Mozart” for her skills as a vocalist and violinist, as well as her style of composition, which has a connection to the old classical tradition. In another sense, she is being called “the future of music.” Her early fame has caught the attention of artists in the popular genre. One of these artists, Kanye West, has become a collaborator with Shaw, combining the elements of her music with his to create a completely new sound.

After her Pulitzer was awarded to her, West reached out to her to create a remix of his 2008 song Say You Will, from the album 808s and Heartbreaks. During the Democratic National Committee Fundraiser, Kanye West was scheduled to perform. Shaw appeared on the stage before him, as a sort of surprise for the audience. After she began performing, West then joined her on stage. This was the first public performance of the two together. The composer states that she was excited to work with West because of his artistic approach to music making and his unpredictability. She stated that he likes to try different ideas together and keeps tweaking them until he creates something new and unique.

This first collaboration led to many more. They have now been working together for multiple years, collaborating on both older tracks and creating remixes to create new tracks. Shaw’s arrangements have also been used in live performances. Her vocal writing style is prominent in their collaborations and adds drama to some of his live performances. This has also allowed his audience to be exposed to a new type of classical style, one that is not as traditional but is still smart, creative, and innovative. Her style adds new sounds and textures and helps create a whole new atmosphere for pop artists.

Through these collaborations, Caroline Shaw is bridging a gap between those who enjoy pop music and those who enjoy classical music. Through my own personal experience, I have noticed that once I find something online that interests me, it usually guides me to further research in the topic, or it is recommended to me by other websites based on my interests. Because of these recommendations, Shaw’s music has the ability to expose those who enjoy pop music to the classical world. Her new classical style could be the gate to combining the two genres together.

-Michelle Shaheen

Works cited:
Allen, David. “A Composer Who Finds the Soft Sighs in Haydn.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Dec 08, 2015, (accessed April 29, 2019).

Anderson, Stacey. “Is Caroline Shaw Really the Future of Music?” The Guardian. June 09, 2016. (accessed April 30, 2019).

Articulate. “Caroline Shaw: Of Carnegie and Kanye.” Articulate. April 10, 2018. (accessed April 29, 2019).

Martin, Katherine. “DePauw’s School of Music: Interview with Caroline Shaw.” Youtube, September 29, 2014. (accessed April 29, 2019).

Tommasini, Anthony. “The Pulitzer Prize was Nice and all, but a Work is Finally Fully Heard.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 06, 2013, (accessed April 30, 2019).

Tsioulcas, Anastasia. “Caroline Shaw, 30, Wins Pulitzer For Music.” NPR. April 15, 2013. (accessed April 30, 2019).

Speak up.

Caroline Shaw
“So Quietly”
Premiere date unknown (2016-2017) by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus

With a title like So Quietly, this composition defied my first expectations. I clicked “play” with the expectation of soft dynamics, thin textures, and possibly a slow tempo. What I heard was a group of young girls and boys (all most likely altos and sopranos) using every possible timbre they could produce with their voices as well as full ranges and dynamics. I heard soaring melodic lines, ostinatos, counterpoint, defiant lyrics, and lastly an ingenious use of rests.

Listening to the lyrics, I could see that Shaw wanted to take the listener through a development of emotions and mindsets. At first the “narrator,” or “protagonist,” is tentative and not wanting to share their thoughts or feelings on whatever issue they are thinking of. But as Shaw develops her musical ideas, she also develops her text until the “narrator” is now ready to share their thoughts and ideas to be “a difference in the room” instead of sitting quietly.

The music itself spoke volumes. The tentativeness of the “narrator” at the beginning was highlighted, not only by the fact that we don’t hear any actual words until further into the song, but also the use of rests, which give the listener a sense of suspense, as if the singers are trying to tell you something but are not sure if they should share it or not. The rests also kept me very interested. They seemed to be different every time and much more organic, like a conversation inside one’s own head. When speaking, we do not just speak in rhythm with pauses in the same places like simpler music would sound when rests are placed on the same beat every-time. The flow is interrupted by small decisions in what we want to say next. Shaw has imitated, to the best of her ability, the act of decision making inside our heads.

Another thing that Shaw utilized to express the tentativeness at the beginning was the unified rhythm in the first section. It gave me the impression of someone just blending in with society and not wanting to be seen as different or as breaking the status quo. However, as the words started to turn toward thoughts of breaking out, the texture began to overlap with counterpoint, ostinatos, pedal points, and – above it all – soaring melodic lines.

Before the “narrator” changes their mind, there is a great deal of tension created by Shaw’s use of dissonances and suspensions, as well as a rhythmic motor of audible, almost percussive, breathing. But by the end of the composition, when the “narrator” has chosen to speak up, the music is now unified in rhythm and consonant, as if to say the “narrator” has completely made up their mind and is at peace with their decision.

Listening to this work, and other works by Shaw, I have noticed a trend in some of her writing. Not only does she seem inspired by minimalistic writing with her prevalent use of ostinatos but she also seems to have a deep connection to the music of the baroque period. Her use of counterpoint in So Quietly is exemplary and it is clear that she finds the development of ideas a key asset to her compositional technique. She has created a fresh new take on baroque counterpoint, which keeps the listener engaged and entertained with story-like developments of her ideas.

-Michelle Shaheen

Recording used:

An unidentified approach to compositional style

Many modern composers have embraced a genre of classical music as a style that they feel comfortable writing in. Most composers can be categorized into a particular style or described in a certain way. In the case of Nico Muhly, he feels that he cannot quite name his style of composition or genre and he does not want to. According to various sources, some call Muhly “post-minimalistic.” He has also infused his music with pop influence. His style of writing has been described as simple, interesting, and “diaphanous,” or translucent. His music has been said to be the link between Philip Glass and Benjamin Britten. His music has been called “small” and “elegant” and occasionally “abrasive”. The varying descriptions continue and continue.

With so many different descriptions, is it really possible to place a label on Nico Muhly’s music? Probably not. However, in his creative world, that is just how Muhly wants it to be. In an interview with the New York Times, Muhly talked about what his “signature sound” is saying that it was not something he was ready to define. He stated, “The moment you’re like, ‘This is the grammar,’ it stops being a secret. Inasmuch as I’m in a daily process to uncover the grammar of what it is I am doing and use that, I also don’t want to know where it ends.”

Instead of associating himself with a genre or style of composition, Muhly prefers to talk about the things that inspire his music, whether that be the music of others, or the sounds around him – whatever they may be. In a discussion about his composition “Drones and Piano” he stated that he was inspired by the fact that we are always surrounded by sounds. He mentioned the idea of singing with the vacuum cleaner. We are accustomed to existing and making music with the “hum” of the world around us present in the sound. Muhly explores that in some of his compositions.

His awareness of the world around him combined with his restlessness has led to him making musical sense of what others might perceive to be nonsense sounds. He said in a blog that when on a plane – while it is idling – you can hear certain pitches. Most people probably would not care to think about what those pitches are, but Muhly’s restless nature has led him to pay attention to his surroundings and feel their presence, making him feel that these sounds should be incorporated into music.

Muhly has also been highly influenced by other composers. However, his biggest influences have been from composers that are not of the same genre, which has led Muhly to create an ambiguous genre of his own. His first influence was early on when he sang a motet by William Byrd with his school choir. Another big influence on Muhly was Philip Glass. However, it was not the stereotypical Glass that most have come to know like Einstein on the Beach. He was struck by the Part 1 of Music in 12 Parts. He stated that the sheer “familiarity” and the “organic” quality of the music connected with him on a different level.

It is safe to say that familiarity is what Muhly may be after when he composes. He is aiming to write something meaningful that will connect to any type of audience and that is easy to understand. However, despite that neither he nor his listeners can quite put a label on it.

-Michelle Shaheen

Works cited:
Anderson, Martin. “London, Coliseum: Nico Muhly’s ‘Two Boys’.” Tempo 65, no. 258 (2011): 56-57. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Barlow, Jill. “London, King’s Place: Nico Muhly and Alvin Curran.” Tempo 67, no. 266 (2013): 82-83. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Greene, Jason. “Nico Muhly: Drones.” Pitchfork. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Muhly, Nico. “Nico Muhly’s ‘Mathematical, Organic And Achingly Beautiful’ Philip Glass. ” NPR. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Steve Smith. “Young composer finds his fuel in restlessness.” New York Times, March 11, 2007. (accessed April 14, 2019).

Honest Music

Nico Muhly
Honest Music
Recording released in 2006

In my first listen to this composition, I thought that I was hearing a chamber work with harp, keyboards (some sort of synthesizer included), and a small string ensemble, with the first violin being featured throughout. When I saw the composition on Muhly’s website I was surprised to learn that the piece was for violin and a pre-recorded CD. The violinist performing was so well timed that I thought I was listening to multiple live musicians interacting with one another.

I noticed that the composition had a relaxed form or structure. It seemed to me that opening was more timid and slow to develop. This was followed by a section that seemed more active and really showed off the violin soloist. Then the piece winded back down to the way it started. I felt like he composed the piece in a manner that many composers of the past would have; an ABA’ type form. The form is perceived in the harmonic content, tempo, and development of ideas.

The section that I considered “A,” or perhaps an introduction, seemed to be characterized by a layering effect with violins over a pedal point from the keyboards. It has a lot of dead space that gives a sense of reflection. At first it seems like only two violins are echoing each other but then it sounds like more and more enter the texture. The only harmony in this section is created by the overlapping of the violins as it creates suspensions and resolutions. The second section seemed to be much more active in all the parts. The keyboards and harps were now playing arpeggiating figures as opposed to just providing a pedal. The violin was now performing soaring solo lines. Sometimes the solo line seemed perfectly echoed, almost as if they were performing with some sort of special reverb. The violinist was much more forward dynamically and energetically so it seemed clear to me at that point that this composition was made to feature a violin soloist. After a particularly lengthy violin solo break that ended with an extremely high pitch, the piece seemed to climax with activity from all musicians. It was during this section that I also noticed synthesizer in the texture and made it sound like the composition was going to turn into something influenced more by electronics.

After this climax, the piece seemed to wind back down and sounded a lot like the beginning. The fact that Muhly ended the composition the way he had begun it made me feel that he values symmetry despite the free nature of his music. Listening again, in the soloistic section, I realized that the long violin solo break happens twice towards the beginning of the section and towards the end. Looking at the time frame of when the two violin breaks happen, they are at approximately the 2 minute mark and the 4 minute mark in the 6 minute composition, dissecting the composition into thirds.

As a classical composer, Muhly most likely feels that making his composition more symmetrical helps his audience connect to it more. Although the solo lines and themes would be difficult to reproduce by the listener, they would still be able to recognize them when they repeated. Muhly skillfully demonstrated mastery at creating something memorable that would keep his listeners engaged.

-Michelle Shaheen

Recording used:

The Past is in the Future

For many modern composers the main goal that they strive towards is to find their own voice and style. In many ways they are inspired by past composers, mentors, and the world around them. In the case of Missy Mazzoli, the young female composer grew up in a small rural community, only hearing music of composers who had long passed away. However, upon leaving to New York, she felt inspired by her environment and the world today to create music that can only exist in our modern era. At a young age, Mazzoli’s biggest inspirations were the greats of classical and romantic music, Beethoven in particular. She felt a great connection to the drama of his music and is still influenced by him and other composers of the past. Her writing clearly shows that she has learned from them but her style shows that she is not writing to become a part of that narrative. When Mazzoli moved to New York, she experienced a new, enriching and “nourishing” environment that she could feed off of when she composed.

Mazzoli has created a form of classical music that incorporates pop culture influences while maintaining the instrumentation of classical literature. Her all female pop group “Victoire” has fused the the two styles together to create an all new take on classical. Her group brings classical music into the new era with minimalistic motives, striking music videos, and sometimes, edgy lyrics.

One of Mazzoli’s albums with Victoire, “Vespers for a New Dark Age”, has been a major curve ball towards traditional classical by taking the idea of music that typically comes from a sacred tradition of evening prayers and twisting it to fit into the world we live in. She stated in an interview that she likes to take sounds that are familiar and combine them with things that are unfamiliar to defy the expectations of her listeners. By combining classical instrumentation and vocal style with secular text and various percussion instruments, she has broken the status quo of what a traditional vesper song would typically be. Mazzoli described the work as “blasphemous” with its unorthodox style and lyrics. The poems she chose seemed to be narrated by someone struggling with their relationship with God because of the modern world around them.

As a professor of composition, Mazzoli inspires her students to go beyond tradition and create their own. She encourages her students to experiment and try new things. Mazzoli has felt that as a teacher of composition she should not be producing students that sound like her, but that she needs to “create the next generation of really innovative artists”.

With her innovation in incorporating technology into her music, fusing pop culture with classical culture, and putting modern twists on staples of the past, Mazzoli has created her own tradition in music as we know it. Mazzoli respects, and has been inspired by the composers of the past, but seeks a new approach to composition for musicians in this day and age. Her music reflects on the past but continuously looks to the future.

-Michelle Shaheen

Works cited:

Filmkraft. “Impromptu Episode 4: Missy Mazzoli.” YouTube. January 14, 2019. Accessed March 28, 2019.

Midgette, Anne. “Steeped in Guns N’ Roses and Philip Glass, Missy Mazzoli is a Leading Composer of her Generation,” Washington Post, January 12, 2018. (accessed 27 Mar. 2019).

School, The New. “Missy Mazzoli: Radical Composition | The New School.” YouTube. September 24, 2018. Accessed March 28, 2019.

Staff, NPR. “A Young Composer’s Evening Prayers For Troubled Times.” NPR. March 28, 2015. (accessed March 27, 2019).

Vesper Sparrow

Missy Mazzoli
Vesper Sparrow
Text from “Home State” by Farnoosh Fathi
Premiered in 2012

In listening to this composition, the first thing I noticed was the wide variety of vocal timbres. Missy Mazzoli was somehow able to notate the type of vowel shape, breathiness versus sound production, and brightness versus darkness. The group performing – Roomful of Teeth – have proven themselves to be masters of vocal control as well as showing their ability to match one another in vocal extremes. Even without a score in front of me I am able to clearly hear exactly how Mazzoli wanted the timbres to interact or clash with one another.

The texture starts very thin with repeating, contrapuntal ostinati in female voices. The way that the voices were slurring in a portamento fashion led me to believe that Mazzoli was trying to imitate an instrument from either the string family, or brass family. The lack of breath in the sound and the purity of the tone helped me to believe that it could be an instrument and not the human voice. As more voices entered and the texture became denser, a different layer of timbre was introduced slowly with the lower female voices and then with the male voices. They sang with a more nasal, bright sound, which was a stark contrast to the women in the opening. They seem to almost be imitating a didgeridoo from the aboriginal tradition. The music takes on a more native feel and seems a little more course in nature. Another aspect to the music that adds to that feeling is the meter. It is all asymmetrical and is mostly in 5/8. It occasionally changes to other meters but is predominantly in 5/8 for the majority of the composition.

About halfway through the composition I noticed that some of the upper voices had started to say text. A lot of it did not seem to make sense to me with the exception of the word “asleep,” which I heard multiple times. The word only made sense to me because of my understanding of the word “vesper” from the title, which means “evening prayer”. I felt like I could connect the two together in a way. There were other words that I could make out but I could not figure out why she chosen them. Looking at the text from the poem she based her composition on, it seemed that she did not take complete thoughts from his Fathi’s composition. It gave me the impression that Mazzoli just used some of the words for their sound based on the diction of the word, or how it sounds.

I also noticed that the rhythmic activity of the voices singing the accompaniment had become less active while the while the vocalist with the text sang. This was probably to keep the texture simple enough to make the words out or hear them at all. She wanted to stress the importance of the words by scoring them alone. It successfully drew attention to them after hearing the constant polyphony that came before.

Mazzoli has successfully used techniques from the baroque period to create music that, at first, seems dense and complex in nature, but through use of different timbres and textures creates simplicity for the listener. She is a master at taking independently moving parts and weaving them not only to create vertical harmony, but to create horizontal melodies that are each interesting on their own.

Michelle Shaheen

Recording used:

Kevin Puts’ wakeup call in “Silent Night”

Throughout most of history, artists could have been considered to be activists in society, proving points and pushing for what they hope to be a better tomorrow. Sometimes their activism is more subtle, like writer Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games trilogy. Collins felt that her book was not only to entertain young adults, but to show them the horrors of war. The sister of the protagonist is saved at the very beginning of the trilogy. However, at the end of the final book she is still a casualty in the war, showing that at the end of the war even the winning side suffers loss.

Collins was a believer that there were unjust-wars and there were just-wars. There are other authors that display their thoughts on war from a different perspective. In the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, it is proven that war and conflict are created by misunderstanding and lack of communication. A crucial line from the book states the complications of war-waging:
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”
The protagonist of this book is expressing how much it hurts him to harm someone that he has come to understand.

In like manner, the opera Silent Night by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell tells the story of war, understanding and humanity. Based on the French film Joyeux Noël (which was based on true events), the opera tells the story of a ceasefire on Christmas Eve between three nations during the world war in 1914. The main characters of the opera all come from different backgrounds and countries that they had left behind. The story takes place mostly on the battlefield in Belgium in the intimate bunkers of the different nations, German, Scottish, and French. Throughout the opera, we are taken inside each bunker and seeing each group, their sorrows, and their true selves. On Christmas Eve, the soldiers celebrate in song and their songs are heard by the men of the three different nations. They end up waving the white flag for the night to celebrate the holiday with eachother in peace.

As the different nations greet one another and they learn more about their lives and cultures, they realize that they could not possibly battle eachother anymore. They understood that they are all the same and that it would be inhumane to harm one another. The following day they were reprimanded by their commanding officers for refusing to fight.

In Tom Mooney’s article regarding Silent Night, Puts is quoted, “If you know that the person you are going to shoot has a daughter or a wife at home, the war machine will not work.” In a way, Puts is humanizing war. War is waged by people who refuse to understand one another and compromise. Once an understanding is made, war can be made unjust.

To help emphasize the concepts of this story Puts and Mark Campbell made the opera text in the native languages of the characters. There are moments where all the soldiers are singing together in their own language but their message is the same. Puts has masterfully harmonized the three languages in sweet consonance.

Puts’ opera not only won a Pulitzer Prize for the music’s emotion but because it also expresses the universal cry for humanity.

-Michelle Shaheen

Works cited:

Card, Orson S. “Chapter 13: Valentine” in Ender’s Game. First edition. New York: Tor, 1985, page 127.

Huizenga, Tom. “Hear The Opera That Just Won The Pulitzer.” NPR. April 23, 2012. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Levithan, David. “Suzanne Collins Talks About ‘The Hunger Games,’ the Books and the Movies.” The New York Times. October 18, 2018. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Mooney, Tom. “”Silent Night” at Wexford: How Opera Woke Up to the Great War.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 104, no. 414 (2015): 185-93.

“Official Website: Opera ‘Silent Night’ by Composer Kevin Puts and Librettist Mark Campbell.” Opera Silent Night [Official Website]. Accessed March 12, 2019.

Unison Media. “Kevin Puts on SILENT NIGHT”. Youtube video, 3:50. Posted October 9, 2018.

how we got here

David T. Little

how we got here

Premiered in 2003

When listening to David T. Little’s compositions on his website, I noticed a common element in his music: Rhythmic drive. His composition for 13 players how we got here is no exception. The listener is immersed in a constant pulse in the percussion right at the beginning. However, the perception of the listener is skewed as the percussion quartet members perform different groupings of a constantly repeating pattern. Sometimes they created simple hemiolas throughout the piece, which were a little easier to understand but still created a sort of “dizzying effect” in which the listener may find it difficult to perceive the meter of the composition. It reminded me of the opening of a song called Hideaway by English composer, Jacob Collier. In an interview, Collier stated that he used multiple layers of different rhythmic content to create an effect that he calls “rolling like an egg,” where the rhythmic layers only line up every couple of measures. He states that rhythms like these give a certain momentum to the composition on a different level or “axis” to that of harmony. The percussive parts in Little’s composition likewise align themselves every couple of measures, adding momentum that drives the work perpetually forward.

To add to this dizzying, or disorienting effect, the parts played by the clarinet quartet, string quartet and electric bass do not have any sort of melodic content. They either have rhythmic content with the percussion, or they add sound effects and colors to the texture. At the very beginning we hear violins in an extremely high register playing notes that do not seem to match tonally with the percussion that is driving the texture. To me this seemed much more like an atmospheric device than a harmonic or rhythmic one. Little most likely wanted to create unease or tension for the listener. The tension created by the violins never seems to resolve and is complemented by the clarinet entrance. The use of minor seconds adds to the dissonance and is performed in an ominous low register, creating a stark contrast between the high strings.

Another thing that I noticed was the aggressiveness in the articulation of the string quartet and the clarinet quartet. They were performing their more active parts as if they were striking a percussive instrument. Even some of the string articulations sounded like they were overplaying their instruments and creating a rough and sometimes screeching tone.

After an abrupt moment when all the instruments play together, Little gives us a sort of new section with bowed percussion and the piece stops. To me he created a sense of suspense of what is to come. After a brief time we dive back into another section of hemiola with constantly altered rhythmic patterns. The composition seems to wind down slowly to the end.

Little seems to take the title of his work seriously. It seemed as though the point of this composition was to be a musical expedition. His music could be compared to that of Frederic Chopin’s Prelude in E-minor (opus. 28 no. 4). This piano composition is mostly eighth notes and relatively simple but highly effective in terms of portraying a musical journey. Both of these compositions seem to be designed like a hill with a steady growth up to the top, a climax and then a journey back down.

-Michelle Shaheen

Recording used:

how we got here

Other sources:

Lee, June. “Interview: Jacob Collier (Part 2)”. Youtube video, 38:36. Posted June 27, 2017.

Romantic and Modern Music Channel. “F. Chopin : Prelude op. 28 no. 4 in E minor (Kissin)”. Youtube video, 1:56. Posted June 3, 2011.


Kevin Puts
Premiered in 1997

Stumbling upon this composition for symphony orchestra by Kevin Puts was like trying to canoe down a river. Network takes two ideas and interweaves them into a driving minimalistic surge that pulls you along for a complex, bumpy ride. My first thoughts upon listening were of the words “shiny”, “brilliant”, and “jagged”. The first timbres we hear are metallic percussion, upper woodwinds and strings and high brass. They all enter in a homorhythmic fashion and almost declare themselves in a fanfare-like manner.

At the very beginning I noticed that the motive that drives the piece seemed to state itself and then would be repeated in an overlapping, imitative manner by other instruments. It reminded me of the phasing found in many of Steve Reich’s compositions in which he would have the same thing played by two groups or people but they would get out of phase to create new groupings and ever-changing rhythmic emphases. There was also the presence of nonstop subdivision that seemed to keep the piece driving forward like a rhythmic motor which conveyed a sense of urgency. I didn’t feel like there was really a tonal center but I noticed that the overlapping mostly created consonant and open sounds. I also had trouble hearing a particular meter as the motive would add on notes whenever it was repeated.

It wasn’t until the tubist came in that I realized almost no lower pitched instruments seemed to be playing for about a quarter of the composition. The tubist came in during what I felt was the second section of what I perceived to be four sections. This was also the most chaotic section and felt like a crescendo into cacophony. It seemed like the overlapping of the motives started to create much more striking and dissonant harmonies with each other, as opposed to the beginning when the soundscape wasn’t as dense. During this section the upper winds and strings were used to create this blanket of chaos while underneath there were swells in the brass that created a makeshift Doppler effect. Towards the end of the section as the focus was brought towards the swells, they began to play more consonant intervals once again and the rhythmic motor was now twice as slow as it was before, creating a half time feel.

The third section felt like a repeat of the first but with more depth added from the lower winds, strings, and brass. This section builds up into the final section, which I noticed was noticeably faster. The percussion came out more prominently during that tempo change and also had pitched percussion playing the motive. This section also seemed to have more of a meter; to the listener and sounded like it was in 4/4 meter or another duple meter. The very last few measures of the composition solidified a perceived key center as E major with powerful, long chords played by the brass. These chords give a sense of arrival after the long winding journey Puts had taken us on.

To me, it seems that Kevin Puts has mastered the art of taking something simple and creating something complex and stimulating out of it. In the classical tradition, a composer would have typically used repetition and layering to help the listener remember a particular melody or theme and create harmonies. Puts has no intention of the listener remembering the motive. In fact it is too complex for someone to be able to sing it back. He has used repetition in Network to create layers that cause shifts in harmony and rhythm. The listener is taken on a journey away from the familiar repetition of the beginning to something distant and then brings us back home to familiar consonance.

Michelle Shaheen

Video used:

“Network.” Youtube video, 6:34. Posted by “Paavo Järvi,” February 6, 2015.

Music, Hearing, and the Psyche

Writings and reflections on the psychological effects of music have been written as far back, or further, than the year 500 BCE. In the time of Pythagoras, many believed that because our senses and perceptions of the world around us were so different, we could not count on them to explain the phenomenon of music. They trusted only in hard, scientific evidence based on mathematics and physics. [1]

In some ways these Greek scholars were correct. When gathering data on the human ear, the absolute threshold of hearing among people of the same age group is close, but every person is different. This gap in perception of sound becomes wider as we compare different age groups. Younger children tend to be able to hear much higher and lower frequencies than adults. [4] Therefore no two people hear sounds alike and their experiences when listening to music will be unique.

During the scientific revolution, scientists like Galileo helped to contribute important discoveries in the acoustical phenomenon of music. Some of these discoveries such as the harmonic series and consonance and dissonance were studied immensely. Galileo believed that consonance was the effect of a certain pattern of beating (or waves) on the ear drum while dissonance would create an irregular pattern. [1]

Some more modern writings discuss the idea of consonance and dissonance and its scientific explanations. [2] However, even these writings lead to an entirely different thought: the tonal system itself. [3] This system is different for different cultures (e.g. Western Music vs. Eastern Music). Who is to say that a consonance or dissonance has the same effect on someone here in the U.S. – where we are accustomed to Western scales and harmonies – as it would in the Middle East – whose people are comfortable with scales that include quarter tones and whose scales are different from those we have in Western music?

A couple hundred years after Pythagoras, Aristoxenus objected to the mathematical approach taken. He felt that it could not be explained fully without the senses. He stated that in order for music to have an effect, one must be able to recall the previous sonority from the one heard in real time. A melody cannot exist without having a successive nature. Experiencing one must be through both perception and memory. [1]

Some composers and artists of today do not write their music based on common practice theory. They write their music based on how the harmonic structure makes them feel. Composers, like Eric Whitacre, develop a style of music that surrounds the listener with what could be called an “ethereal environment”. The music provides the listener a feeling of being transported to another world. This cannot be explained by any scientific measurement but can only be understood through the senses of the listener. The composer associates a certain mood with a particular sonority and writes his/her harmonies based on the mood he/she wants to portray to their audience. Composers like Whitacre have taken the psychology of music beyond that of mathematical explanations and utilized the senses to create their masterpieces.

Understanding the way music affects our minds through the senses – and not just through the physics of sound waves – can allow us to see the methodology behind the composers who write with the intent to evoke more emotional response and create a connection with the listener on a whole new level.

-Michelle Shaheen


Works cited:

[1] -Deutsch, Diana. 2001 “Psychology of music.” Grove Music Online. 27 Jan. 2019.

[2] -Eric F. Clarke. 2001 “Musicology.” Grove Music Online. 27 Jan. 2019.

[3] -Helmholtz, Hermann von. Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (english translation). Braunschweig, 222. F. Vieweg, 1863.

[4] -Moore, Brian C.J. 2001 “Hearing and psychoacoustics.” Grove Music Online. 27 Jan. 2019.

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