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The elements of music - part two

5 years ago

Pitch, time, tone, shape and performance are at the heart of all music. They also form the basis of our marking criteria. In the second of a series of articles exploring these elements, composer Judith Bingham and flautist and conductor Richard Davis share their thoughts on time and tone.

Time: the wider relationship of time with music

Music is a wonderful garden bordered and hedged by time. There is no getting away from time in music – one cannot be separated from the other.

The composer

For a start, the piece of music represents a certain period of time in the composer’s life, like a diary. That might be a week, but almost certainly more like a month, or months, or even years. In that time immense events can happen to the composer as in any person’s life - personal loss, illness, marriage, the birth of a child, war, exile, imprisonment. Or there can just be the day-today relationship of the composer with a succession of blank pieces of paper, punctuated by meals, walks, arguments or sleep. Whatever the case, the music in some way documents that progression of time, and in 99.9% of cases, contracts the time a piece took to write into a fraction of that in music. A piece that takes five minutes to be played may have taken two months to write. One complicated bar in several parts may well have taken an hour to write. Every note has been thought about – its meaning, its articulation, its dynamic – and yet it may whizz past in a nanosecond.

The listener

In the same way, a composer and their music occupies a space in the life of the listener, like an entry in their diary. Here, time becomes elastic. A long piece may speed past or a relatively short piece may seem interminable. Tiny pieces can be life changing. The Silver Swan by Orlando Gibbons lasts only 1 minute and 13 seconds on my recording and yet the stillness, sadness and intense truthfulness of the music make you experience each second in a way that we rarely do in real life. In this piece, every second seems elongated and is a wide space in which there is time to have several different thoughts.

Pulse and tempo

One of the first decisions a composer has to make relates to the time signature. This may seem a simple decision. Is the piece in 3 or 4, is it a dance rhythm like 6/8 or a march in 2/4? But all the time signature generally does is lay down a pulse, like a heartbeat. Some music does stick to that pulse – think of the famous Mozart C major piano sonata (K. 545) which has no syncopation and often seems childlike in its adherence to the tempo. However, it was written for beginners and Mozart may have deliberately written a piece that needed to be played rigidly in time to achieve its effect! Many pieces immediately start to pull around the time within the framework of the pulse. The best players and conductors know how to give a sense of that pulse without rigidly sticking to it. This is a question of poise and sensitivity in well-known music, but in new music establishing the right tempo can be very difficult. For the composer, conveying the subtlety of time manipulation in musical notation is endlessly challenging. Even setting a metronome mark can cause problems, as what seems like the right tempo mark in your living room can be quite wrong in a large space, such as a cathedral. And many conductors, who are generally highly energetic individuals, are influenced by their own heartbeats and metabolism. They may play music faster without even noticing.

The life of a piece

It takes empathy and thought to feel the deep beating heart of the music’s own metabolism. This generally only comes with time and repeated performances. Hopefully, with those repeated performances, the piece itself moves forward in time, while the creator and performers stay in the past. Each performance refreshes the piece, and adds a sort of barnacle of human experience to its side. It does not remain the same, any more than a living being does. As it ages, it can fall in and out of favour, find itself played on completely different instruments, get itself lost in libraries and attics, and be pored over by music historians and students. In its survival through time, like a spaceship on a long journey to unknown planets, the music carries human meaning to people its creator could never have known.

Tone: the importance of tone and creating a beautiful sound

Even if you possess the most natural musical phrasing or an amazing technique, it may not be quite enough if your sound is unappealing. Beauty of sound, in many ways, is the most immediately appreciated aspect of any musician’s performance. Think of tone as your musical shop window – how you display yourself to the public. If your tone is beautiful then the listener will be more readily drawn into your performance.

Experimenting with sound

The problem with beauty is that it is subjective – often governed by styles and cultures. And, it is also difficult for us to hear how we truly sound. It is essential, therefore, for students to have someone who can listen to them regularly as they experiment to create their unique tone. Teachers need to describe to students how their tone is ‘coming over’. Sometimes a student may like their sound while the teacher does not! At other times both teacher and student might love the quality but the teacher may comment that it doesn’t project or resonate enough. If students continue to experiment, with the guidance of their teacher, they will begin to understand how to replicate a variety of beautiful timbres. Once this is achieved they will have a palette of colours with which to paint their musical picture. All this beauty, though, is false and unusable if the notes are out of tune. Intonation and beauty must be thought of as one – running in tandem. The harmonic structure of every note must be in tune with itself (resonating in sympathy) but also in tune with its neighbouring notes. Then, and only then, will the sound ring out, project and be beautiful.

Approaches to practice

It is useful for students to isolate their tone practice, even if only for a few minutes a day. They should first recreate yesterday’s sounds and then try to improve on them. Encourage students to think of tone practice as putting a ‘microscope’ to their sound. Students need to ask: is that the most beautiful sound I have ever made? If not, try again. And when they finish the tone part of their pr actice, they shouldn’t then ignore the beauty of their sound. Technical practice – studies, scales, arpeggios – should also be tone practice. As musicians we continue to learn and we must also continue to practise our tone. The muscles we use as musicians are not naturally formed. We are not born with a height ened dexterity in our fingers or with extreme muscular strength in our embouchure or a sensitive flexibility in our bowing arm. These things take time to hone and every day that we don’t play, our muscles will begin to return to their natural state. An athlete wouldn’t dream of running a competitive race without months of training. In the same way, musicians must consider a similar routine of disciplined work, one that covers all aspects of musical playing and singing – including tone.

  • Read the first article in the series

This article was originally featured in the March 2015 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Judith Bingham is known for her many choral works. Her compositions also include pieces for orchestra, brass band, various chamber groups and solo instruments. She has written music for the choirs and organs of churches and cathedrals around the world, while her latest work is an anthem for the reinterment of Richard III.

Richard Davis is a conductor, flute player and author of Becoming an Orchestral Musician: a Guide for Aspiring Professionals. He is Senior Flute Tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music and a coach for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

Discover how pitch, time, tone, shape and performance form the basis of our marking criteria at

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