The Necessity Of Form In Music

So much uncertainty and diversity of

opinion exists among music lovers of every grade concerning the

presence of Form in musical composition, and the necessity of its

presence there, that a few general principles are submitted at the

outset of our studies, as a guide to individual reflection and judgment

on the subject.

Certain apparently defensible prejudices that prevail in the minds of

advanced musical critics against the idea of Form in music,

originate in a very manifest mistake on the part of the formalists

themselves, who (I refer to unimpassioned theorists and advocates of

rigid old scholastic rules) place too narrow a construction upon Form,

and define it with such rigor as to leave no margin whatever for the

exercise of free fancy and emotional sway. Both the dreamer, with his

indifference to (or downright scorn of) Form; and the pedant, with his

narrow conception of it; as well as the ordinary music lover, with his

endeavor to discover some less debatable view to adopt for his own

everyday use,--need to be reminded that Form in music means simply

Order in music.

Thus interpreted, the necessity of form, that is, Order, in the

execution of a musical design appears as obvious as are the laws of

architecture to the builder, or the laws of creation to the astronomer

or naturalist; for the absence of order, that is, Disorder, constitutes

a condition which is regarded with abhorrence and dread by every

rational mind.

A musical composition, then, in which Order prevails; in which all the

factors are chosen and treated in close keeping with their logical

bearing upon each other and upon the whole; in which, in a word, there

is no disorder of thought or technique,--is music with Form (i.e.

good Form). A sensible arrangement of the various members of the

composition (its figures, phrases, motives, and the like) will exhibit

both agreement and contrast, both confirmation and opposition; for we

measure things by comparison with both like and unlike. Our nature

demands the evidence of uniformity, as that emphasizes the

impressions, making them easier to grasp and enjoy; but our nature also

craves a certain degree of variety, to counteract the monotony which

must result from too persistent uniformity. When the elements of Unity

and Variety are sensibly matched, evenly balanced, the form is good.

On the other hand, a composition is formless, or faulty in form, when

the component parts are jumbled together without regard to proportion

and relation.

Which of these two conditions is the more desirable, or necessary,

would seem to be wholly self-evident.

The error made by pedantic teachers is to demand too much Form; to

insist that a piece of music shall be a model of arithmetical

adjustment. This is probably a graver error than apparent

formlessness. Design and logic and unity there must surely be; but any

obtrusive evidence of mathematical calculation must degrade music to

the level of a mere handicraft.

* * * * * *

Another and higher significance involved in the idea of Form, that goes

to prove how indispensable it may be in truly good music, rests upon

the opposition of Form to the material.

There are two essentially different classes of music lovers:--the one

class takes delight in the mere sound and jingle of the music; not

looking for any higher purpose than this, they content themselves with

the purely sensuous enjoyment that the sound material affords. To such

listeners, a comparatively meaningless succession of tones and chords

is sufficiently enjoyable, so long as each separate particle, each beat

or measure, is euphonious in itself. The other class, more

discriminating in its tastes, looks beneath this iridescent surface and

strives to fathom the underlying purpose of it all; not content with

the testimony of the ear alone, such hearers enlist the higher, nobler

powers of Reason, and no amount of pleasant sounds could compensate

them for the absence of well-ordered parts and their logical


This second class is made up of those listeners who recognize in music

an embodiment of artistic aims, an object of serious and refined

enjoyment that appeals to the emotions through the intelligence,--not

a plaything for the senses alone; and who believe that all music that

would in this sense be truly artistic, must exhibit Form as the end,

and Material only as a means to this end.

* * * * * *

Still another, and possibly the strongest argument of all for the

necessity of form in music, is derived from reflection upon the

peculiarly vague and intangible nature of its art-material--tone,

sound. The words of a language (also sounds, it is true) have

established meanings, so familiar and definite that they recall and

re-awaken impressions of thought and action with a vividness but little

short of the actual experience. Tones, on the contrary, are not and

cannot be associated with any definite ideas or impressions; they are

as impalpable as they are transient, and, taken separately, leave no

lasting trace.

Therefore, whatever stability and palpability a musical composition is

to acquire, must be derived from its form, or design, and not from

its totally unsubstantial material. It must fall back upon the network

traced by the disposition of its points and lines upon the musical

canvas; for this it is that constitutes its real and palpable contents.

THE EVIDENCES OF FORM IN MUSIC.--The presence of form in music is

manifested, first of all, by the disposition of tones and chords in

symmetrical measures, and by the numerous methods of tone arrangement

which create and define the element of Rhythm,--the distinction of

short and long time-values, and of accented and unaccented (that is,

heavy and light) pulses.

This is not what is commonly supposed to constitute form in music, but

it is the fundamental condition out of which an orderly system of form

may be developed. As well might the carpenter or architect venture to

dispense with scale, compass and square in their constructive labors,

as that the composer should neglect beat, measure and rhythm, in his

effort to realize a well-developed and intelligible design in the

whole, or any part, of his composition. The beats and measures and

phrases are the barley-corn, inch and ell of the musical draughtsman,

and without these units of measurement and proportion, neither the

vital condition of Symmetry nor the equally important condition of

well-regulated Contrast could be clearly established.

The beat is the unit of measurement in music. The measure is a

group of beats,--two, three, four, or more, at the option of the

composer. The bounds of the measures are visibly represented (on the

written or printed page) by vertical lines, called bars; and are

rendered orally recognizable (to the hearer who does not see the page)

by a more or less delicate emphasis, imparted--by some means or

other--to the first pulse or beat of each measure, as accent, simply

to mark where each new group begins. Those who play or sing can

imagine how vague, and even chaotic, a page of music would look if

these vertical bars were omitted; and how much more difficult it would

be to read than when these (not only accustomed, but truly necessary)

landmarks are present. Precisely the same unintelligible impression

must be, and is, conveyed to the hearer when his landmarks, the

accents, are not indicated with sufficient emphasis or clearness to

render him sensible of the beginning of each new measure.

* * * * * *

The same primary system of measurement and association which is

employed in enlarging the beats to measures, is then applied to the

association of the measures themselves in the next larger units of

musical structure, the Motive, Phrase, Period, and so forth. Unlike

the measures, which are defined by the accents at their beginning,

these larger factors of form are defined chiefly at their end, by the

impression of occasional periodic interruption, exactly analogous to

the pauses at the end of poetic lines, or at the commas, semicolons and

the like, in a prose paragraph. These interruptions of the musical

current, called Cadences, are generally so well defined that even the

more superficial listener is made aware of a division of the musical

pattern into its sections and parts, each one of which closes as

recognizably (though not as irrevocably) as the very last sentence of

the piece.

Cadences serve the same purpose in music, then, as do the punctuation

marks in rhetoric; and an idea of the senselessness and confusion of a

musical composition, if left devoid of cadences in sufficient number

and force, may be gleaned from an experimental test of the effect of a

page of prose, read with persistent disregard of its commas, colons,

and other marks of cadence.

* * * * * *

Another evidence of Form in music, that is at once subtle and powerful,

rests upon what might be termed the linear quality of melody. The

famous old definition of a line as a succession of points, tallies so

accurately with that of melody (as a succession of single tones),

that it is not only proper, but peculiarly forceful, to speak of

melodies as tone-lines. Our conception of a melody or tune, our

ability to recognize and reproduce it, depends far more upon its

undulations, its rising, falling, or resting level, than upon its

rhythmic features (the varying lengths of its tones). These movements

trace a resonant line before our mind's eye as surely, though perhaps

not as distinctly, as the pencil of the artist traces the lines of an

image upon the paper; and this process is going on constantly, from

beginning to end, in every piece of music. In a portrait it describes

the contours of face and figure,--in a word, the Form; in the musical

composition it fulfils, to a great extent, the self-same mission, that

of defining the Form. One clear, predominating tone-line traces the

air or tune of the piece; and this is often the only line that

arrests the hearer's attention; but there are other tone-lines, less

prominent and less extended and coherent, gliding along harmoniously

beside the Melody proper, which (something like the shading in a

picture) contribute to the richness of the design, and perform their

share in proving and illuminating the Form of the whole.

This is most salient in music for orchestra, where each player

describes an individual tone-line, rendered all the more distinct and

recognizable by the specific color of his instrument; and that is the

chief, perhaps the sole, reason why the orchestra is esteemed the most

complete and perfect medium of musical expression.