Western Music & The Notion of Structure

I was talking with a friend the other day about the music in Game of Thrones and how Ramin Djawadi, the music composer for the series, uses an extremely international phonal palette.

For instance I find the theme for House Baratheon, although it partakes highly of a certain medieval martial quality, confounds my expectations for how phrases will resolve. And the theme for House Targaryeon pulls wonderfully from non-Western motifs, parts of it sounding almost like Middle Eastern belly dance music and others like a particularly intense Ravi Shankar solo.

The show’s soundtrack is a fun melange of motifs from all over the world that works just like the set direction, pulling from known historical sources but combining elements in unexpected ways to force the audience to notice the familiar as just as unusual as the unfamiliar.

Our discussion about the show turned to music in general when my friend remarked on the “unstructured” quality of non-Western music. I was immediately caught up by the fact that I knew exactly the experience my friend was referring to, and yet I questioned the assumed quality meant by the term “unstructured”. It felt like this could be code for describing non-Western music as more primitive than Western. Indeed, we had just been discussing J.S. Bach and the Baroque period as a radical turning part in music development which has rendered Western music as fundamentally different from music around the world. So it seemed a bit suspect to call all that other music “unstructured”, as if Western music evolved beyond these other traditions.

Western music is weird when you change your paradigm to see it as the exception. Sure, its widespread now, but its use almost exclusively of the Ionian and Aeolian modes, and its constant resolution of the dominant 7th chord into the tonic major triad render it unusual in a world that uses not just all modes, but quarter tones and other tonal resources.

This reduction of range in Western music registers on those familiar with it as “structure” in as much as structure is that which we can rely on and expect. In other musical traditions, we can’t expect phrases and harmonies to resolve the same way, melodies escape in all directions, we beg tones sliced into quarters to resolve to the half, hearing them as out of tune and unwanted. But this sense of structure in Western music is really a simplicity. It is not a sign that Western music is somehow more evolved or better than other traditions.

My mind jumped now to this really cool song.

It’s Jimi Hendrix played on a Korean gayageum, a stringed instrument in the zither vein. The one in the video looks like the more elaborate 21 stringed version. This instrument is more associated with sanjo, Korean “scattered melodies”. And it does indeed appear at first pretty scattered, almost the epitome of what a Westerner might label “unstructured”.

But how unstructured can it really be if 50 people can play the same tune simultaneously.

The fact that the gayageum seems perfectly suited to render the intensely structured Jimi Hendrix also belies that the music for which this instrument was created demands an equally high degree of structure. This whole train of thought got me thinking that the experience of “unstructured” music to an ear expecting Western music, is really music that has unexpected structures.

Finally, I thought of my current favorite ensemble group, Phantasm and their arrangements of William Byrd, the Renaissance composer. One of the things they purposefully did in working out their arrangements is to remove the measure bars from the music. Western music automatically groups notes into rhythmically equal measures. In musical notation this is done by putting a line down the staff every certain number of beats. When played, music notated this way is automatically accentuated regularly. That is, if the music is marked out at 4 beats per measure, the strongest accent will happen every 4 beats. We take this for granted to the extent that you probably didn’t even know this was happening.

But back in William Byrd’s day, this wasn’t the case. Byrd wrote his songs without regular accentuation, without measure bars. Phantasm goes back to his tradition and they end up with songs that are subtly different. Tap out the rhythm of one and you will find the major accent doesn’t always happen regularly. Western expectations are defied and the result is wonderful.
So here we have a case where structure is removed, the measure bars structuring the accentuation, and we find that the result is something much more complex, intriguing and challenging to the listener. Rather than being a sign a “primitiveness,” this lack of imposed structure really ends up require more from the listener.

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