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Music as Tradition, Transcendence, or Both


What makes a piece of music strong?  This question could be approached in many ways—some might say the harmonies make a piece strong, others the adherence to a particular structure,






or the lyricism of the melody.  However, one good way to understand how to write a strong work is the idea of tradition, as well as “transcendence” of familiar reality in the piece.


Establishing Tradition


It is almost universal—from chant to the Romantic period to jazz—that compositions seek to establish tradition.  A theme is introduced, and that theme is repeated.  There is nothing more familiar, reassuring, or traditional once the theme finishes than to hear it played again.  Perhaps the theme is slightly altered, a pitch changed or a harmony moved, but many times the composer gives the audience what they want to hear—establishment of a tradition, a familiar sound.


Examples of this simple establishment of tradition are found in almost any piece of music.  Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, for example, opens with the theme with the ornamented E and going to A, and then repeats the theme, slightly altered.  Mozart actually repeats the theme ten times in the work.  Or look at almost any jazz standard, such as Blue Bossa.  The theme, in this case a descending scale with a major seventh interval at the end, is played and immediately repeated, and repeated again, changed in harmony and with the notes at the end.  Or look at Beethoven’s 5th, or Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, or even rock pieces—in each case we see an initial theme played, and then brought back, repeated, establishing tradition and familiarity.


Providing More Information


But the composer usually does not just stop with establishing tradition.  The next step is to change the theme, often just slightly, to “shed more light” on the theme.  The composer answers the questions, “What does this theme really mean?  Why is it here?  What is it saying?”  Maybe the composer adds just one note, or one changed rhythm, or just transposes the theme higher on the keyboard.  Then he repeats this slightly changed theme again, establishing the change similar to how the initial theme was established.


The Essence of Reality, Transcendence of Reality, or Both


Finally, oftentimes the last step is “transcendence.”  In this stage, the composer often asks “What is this theme really about at its essence?”  Many themes can be stripped of their ornamentation, and passing notes, and less significant tones or beats.  They can be reduced to their main concept.  This could be just one note, or an interval, or a movement, but usually there is some center or heart to a theme.


The composer then brings out this main concept.  The whole theme is no longer repeated, the altered theme in the second stage is no longer repeated, instead there is just the core, just the heart of the theme.  It is as if the composer is saying, yes, all those other things were present, but really, the theme is this, this is what it really means.


In one sense this is a movement to the essence of the theme—but at the same time it can also be used as an escape or transportation, moving the listener from the familiarity of tradition to the composer’s imagined, ideal world.  The composer is saying, here is what reality is, tradition, but this distillation or development shows what could be.  The theme was presented, repeated, altered, distilled, and finally transcended into the realm of the composer’s imagination and ideals.





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