On Big Pieces of Music, and Making Them Smaller

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A recent negotiation about a bespoke arrangement got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about a 'big' piece of music. I'm not going to tell you what the song was, as it is intended for a grand unveiling in due course, but if I tell you the original song was about 8 1/2 minutes long, you'll get the idea that it's a substantial piece. I had cut it down to under 5 minutes in arranging it, mostly by cutting out large-scale repetition such as multiple verses, but had retained the overall trajectory and order of sections.

The negotiation was about whether further cuts were possible in order to make the song quicker to learn. The chorus had identified several places where they felt that cuts were possible in terms of key and phrase structure and were asking my opinion on their viability.

First, I'd like to say I was so glad they came and asked rather than just making the cuts. If there's something that isn't working for a group, I'd much rather help them solve the problem, both so I can learn to meet their needs better, and so that I can help them make changes without messing up other things they may not have been thinking about.

In this case, the two issues they were thinking about were musical continuity and narrative continuity. Could the music flow across the joins? and would the story still make sense? And I thought in general their suggestions would achieve these goals.

Their cuts used two strategies: removing entire chunks of musical/narrative material, and removing small-scale internal repetition within existing chunks. And studying these suggestions for a while taught me that if you want to make a piece of music easier to learn, the first strategy is better than the second.

Removing entire chunks carries narrative risk of course - you may cut out so much of the story that it becomes impossible to follow. Which is why, I imagine, they felt they had to leave in the other bits that they were trying to cut down. They left just enough that the lyrics told you what was going on, and then hustled onto the next section.

The problem here, though, becomes that the music starts getting bitty. You have one musical/lyric statement, then something different, then something different again. At a lyrical level, this works, but musically it starts to get confusing as it keeps moving on before you've achieved any sense of completion or closure. Internal repetition is integral to how we grasp musical content, to how we identify this bit as an entity. This is why the tunes you remember from an opera are from the arias rather than the recitatives.

Now, my reservations about this second cutting strategy were initially in terms of the audience perspective; how it would make sense to someone hearing it for the first time. But as I delved into the process a bit deeper, it occurred to me that the singers would be facing the same problem - they have to make sense of it first, after all, in order to present it to their audience.

So the goal of making the cuts to make it easier to learn may not be achieved by these types of cuts - indeed, it might even increase the cognitive load on the singers as they lost the internal shape of the music as a mnemonic structure.

So the big things I learned through the process are:

  1. Our perception of a piece of music as big is not simply about its length, but also its complexity
  2. Therefore, to make it more mentally digestible, it's making it simpler that matters, not merely making it shorter; possibly a shorter length is a symptom of simplicity rather than a source of it.

Interestingly, while I was arranging this tune, I was aware that it felt harder than another monster chart I had recently one for the same group, this one a medley. I now realise that this is precisely because of this complex narrative structure. A series of more-or-less self-contained songs, each clearly stated and reaching its own sense of closure presents a simpler musical structure to hold in your head than a single narrative made up of a sequence of shortish sections which run into each other with much less internal repetition.

This makes it sound like complexity is a bad thing. But of course these huge, concatenated structures can be very exciting to listen to. The aesthetic of the Sublime is all about the thrill of overwhelm. I'm just noting that you can't achieve this effect on your audience without major personal investment from the performers. If you need to learn something quickly, it needs to be something that will offer your audience a lighter experience.

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