Form and Process

In last week’s post I wrote briefly about musical form, which in that context I had been discussing in terms of static “forms”: sonata-allegro movements and some short songlike pieces of my own devising. However, musical structure isn’t best understood merely as a parade of “forms” or hollow molds that notes and rhythms may be poured into; above all, musical structure is dramatic, propulsive, dynamic-properties that many blueprint-style formal analyses have a hard time adequately expressing.

Since all music occupies time, it is certainly fair and useful to regard that block of time post facto, in its entirety, and consider the ways in which that duration is divided and proportioned. At the same time, there are certain musical experiences—pieces like Steve Reich’s Four Organs, for example—in which the musical structure might be better understood in terms of process rather than form.

True, there is a form associated with Four Organs, but it is not the main event, structurally speaking—it is the result of a certain way Reich goes about expanding the central 11th chord in sequential fashion. The difference between form and process might be likened to that between harmony and counterpoint, in that nothing is ever purely contrapuntal or purely homophonic. Bach’s supreme contrapuntal creations don’t cease to exude a harmonic dimension, after all; it’s just that Bach manipulates the texture in such a way as to make us focus more closely on the horizontal axis.

By the same token, musical form can sometimes be made to take a backseat to a musical process, as I believe is the case with Four Organs, or much of Conlon Nancarrow’s work, or Bach fugues for that matter (glorious examples of process over form if there ever were any). Just as it might be missing the point to obsess over a roman-numeral analysis of The Well-Tempered Clavier, so too do we acquire an incomplete understanding of musical structure when we focus on its static form to the exclusion of the dynamic processes that gave that form its shape.

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2 thoughts on “Form and Process

  1. Jay.Derderian

    For me, form and process aren’t really mutually exclusive. I liken form to the organization of ideas, and in this regard both form and process can complement each other.

    You cited Bach’s glorious fugues and an example, and while they’re definitely a process about process, there’s still the exposition, answers and episodes. Each of these fugues goes through a series of developmental ideas in such a way that is defined by the process, and in doing so defines the form.

    Form can unfold on all musical axis’s, and because it has the power to shape how we understand and comprehend the ideas and how they relate to each other, it can be the most fun to play with.

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  2. danvisconti

    I agree that the two elements aren’t mutually exclusive, but rather deeply interrelated–and it’s this interplay between formal structure and organic process that has generated many of my own favorite musical moments.

    Bach in particular seemed to have a knack for understanding how long a musical section ought to last, when there was a need for further development or the clear marker of a middle entry; without this masterful sense of pacing and proportion it’s difficult to imagine any of Bach’s remarkable musical ideas having quite the same impact.

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