Visual Music: Part 3

“Dancing is music made visible.” 
― George Balanchine

I heard this quote recently and was immediately struck by it.  Of all the ways to make music a visual art, which is more obvious than this? The renowned choreographer, George Balanchine (1904-1983), naturally placed tremendous importance on his dancers and their dancing. But the music itself took precedence over all. He choreographed to show off the music, to give it new meaning, to make the audience think and wonder. The best way to experience this is not to read, but to watch. I’ve posted below a few videos of interviews and performance clips from the New York City Ballet. I hope you’ll seek more, and discover the ways Balanchine and other choreographers use dance to explore music!


The first video on this page is of an interview with a dancer performing a Balanchine work. She speaks to Balanchine’s skill at bringing the music to the forefront of his choreography, and the dancing in the video serves to prove her point.


The first video on this page show interviews with three principals in a performance of Balanchine’s Jewels. Their insight is interesting, and the clips give you a flavor of each of the movements.


This video has an interview with the principal dancer for Balanchine’s Serenade, the first piece he choreographed. Tchaikovsky’s music is beautiful, and the choreography snippets made me want to see the piece live!




Visual Music: Part 2

ImageThere are so many amazing things to discuss about music, but so often conversation centers around the audial rather than the visual. The visual aspect of music creation is critical to consider, because we humans are such visual creatures. Connecting what we hear to what we see is an unconscious but vital act, and it undeniably adds interest. Consider Fantasia—famous works of music set to cartoons. Children (and adults!) are given something concrete to watch, and the musical stories become much easier to appreciate. Attempting to make a 5 year-old sit still for even half an hour while listening to a symphony on CD would be very difficult. But pop Fantasia in the DVD player? Now you have a captive audience.

And this is why it is sooooo incredibly important that classical music concerts continue. With audiences for classical music dwindling, symphonies and opera houses folding, and musician-mimicking technologies on the rise, it’s easy to see how live performance has become an endangered event. But aside from the purely aesthetic reasons for live acoustic music over canned, we cannot lose the visual connection to classical music. You cannot have the same experience at home listening to a beautiful choral work, that you can at a concert hall where you can see every face, watch every orchestra member, feel the music with the conductor’s motions. (And since it does always come back to sound, no system in the world can replicate the intensity—the most delicate pianissimo or the crushing wall of sound—of a live performance.)

Additionally, physical gesture in music is more easily interpreted if you are watching the artist move. And in the case of singers, the way we present ourselves overwhelmingly affects the way our performance is received. In fact, these issues of performance and the way it affects observers have been validated in this recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the full text of which is available here:

There are definitely downsides to this visual world in which we live, particularly in this era of High-Definition television and photoshopped fashion magazines. HD broadcasts, for example, are causing the industry to favor “attractive” people over beautiful music.  (They are also not the same as attending a live performance, though they can be a good substitute in a pinch.)

But as foolish as it is to rate music solely based on non-musical aspects, it is even sillier to try and ignore them altogether. Ideally, they exist in a happy medium where each adds to the other. So go to a concert—watch and listen—and recognize the beauty of theater inherent in live performance.

Visual Music: Part 1

When I think of “looking” at music, I usually picture notes on a piece of paper. But another fascinating way to experience music is through the actual representation of the sound waves. It’s been a while since I posted spectrogram analysis on here, so I thought I’d return to it a bit this week. I was fooling around with my Adobe Audition software recently, examining various “pop” songs, when I stumbled across a particularly cool-looking spectrogram of none other than Psy’s “Gangam Style.”

The actual patterns created by the electronic beats are pretty awesome, and that’s what initially drew me in. But as I kept looking and listening (and fooling around with functions that allow me to silence or single out frequency-ranges), I realized that the parts of the song where Psy is speaking look eerily similar to the sound patterns created by the electronic beats (just with more noise surrounding the outline of harmonics).

Spoken voice:

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Electronic beat (shown alone here, but underlies most of the song):

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This can’t be purely accidental, but it also is not totally natural (as I discovered by muting certain ranges). The sound is definitely manipulated, but it still sounds like a speaking voice, and not Auto-Tune.  My hypothesis is that the general acoustic pattern of: o-ppa gang-nam seu-ta-il (오빠 강남스타일) was used to create the contour of the background electronic beat. Maybe this is far-out, but it seems possible! Pitch is more important to the Korean language than to English (though it is not a fully-tonal language like Mandarin Chinese). At the very least, it’s interesting to think about, and brings a new level to the meaning of well-set text.

I wish I could post a video of this, so you could watch the whole thing, but since I haven’t been able to figure that out, here are several snapshots of the most interesting places:

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And of course, the music video itself: 

Listening to Modern Music

I want to jump back into blogging with a post about the challenges of modern music. Something that often comes up when talking about this music and how to approach it is why we find it so difficult to listen to. Since I am trying to provide ways to make this type of music more accessible, I find this to be a very interesting question, and one that merits some rumination.

Change is a scary thing; it can be good or bad, expected or unexpected, but it always represents a sort of unknown. Some people deal with change better than others, and there is always some backlash when a big, universal change occurs. Change in music has often been received poorly, and the veneration of great composers frequently takes place posthumously. It takes the populace a while to adjust; as the next big thing rolls in, they are busy still lauding the works of late composers.

I believe timbre (in the sense of soundprint) has a great deal to do with the way we approach and handle change in music. Classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries comes out of a long tradition, but the connections to the past are generally more difficult to draw. This was, in large part, intentional. Modern composers were reacting to, and against, the music of their forbearers in favor of new and experimental methods of dealing with sound.

Out went the luxuriating melodic lines and rich harmonic progressions. Instead, audiences came to face bizarre and random sounds, electronic manipulations, recorded noise, all purporting to be this thing we call music. And not only did this epic change come to pass, but each composer treated it differently. Some more experimental than others. Some playing with recorded sounds, others with electronics. Some pushing boundaries in entirely different directions, like minimalism or chance or mathematical formulas.

I think it’s these discrepancies that make dealing with modern music (both tonal and atonal) difficult. There is not so much a unifying aspect as a unified canon they are against. So amidst all this musical confusion, timbre can provide a way to listen outside of melody and harmony and those more “traditional” aspects from which composers are running.  Yes modern music is different, yes it can be confusing, but we do have the tools to listen!

New Directions

I’m a musician. A vocal performance major. I practice everyday.  It’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up and the last thing before bed.  Music surrounds me constantly, filling my mind like a perpetual soundtrack. Mostly, this is great because it’s what I love most. I spend every day studying, listening to, analyzing, eating, breathing, and sleeping music.

But, in spite of all this, I don’t sing nearly as much as I used to.  I used to sing all the time. Alone, with friends, in my room, outside, for an audience, by myself, every song I knew, as many times as I wanted. It was a way for me to communicate, more natural and expressive than speech.

But now every time I sing it’s about technique. Singing isn’t free anymore, it’s either correct, or it’s just wrong and potentially “hazardous to my vocal health.”

On some levels that’s ok. The better my technique becomes, the more easily I can express the music. The freer the vocal production, the better chance that I will have a long and healthy career. But sometimes I worry that I’m thinking too much about technique when I sing. Particularly because nowadays, those precious hours in the practice room are pretty much the only times I sing. As the years go by, I find myself spontaneously bursting into song less frequently. (Sadly, I hardly ever sing in the shower anymore.) Maybe I’m just “growing up,” but I think it’s something more. Every time I vocalize, I worry about placement and breath and tone. I can’t just open my mouth and let whatever I’m feeling come out. It has to be “right.”

And therefore, when it counts, I don’t worry enough about what I’m singing.  My time in the practice room is spent primarily working on the technicalities of being musical.  I show up to lessons and coachings struggling to explain what I’m singing about because, though I can translate all the words, I haven’t thought about WHY I’m singing them.  I have fallen into a trap common among young, highly –trained conservatory singers: I’ve become a (somewhat) technically-proficient robot.

This is majorly unfortunate. Singing is human. It gives voice to everything we can’t put into words.  That’s why it drives me nuts when people claim they “don’t want to sing around me” because (as a music major) “I might judge them.” No. For heaven’s sake—SING! If something is stirring you to sing then by all means: do it!! We can’t go around judging people constantly because that would be exhausting, and it would make us incredibly cynical. The ultimate purpose of music can’t be technical perfection because that wouldn’t move us.  Even in the Western classical musical tradition, where seemingly everything explicitly stated, music cannot be solely about placement, articulation, rhythm etc. There is something more. Something all great musicians bring to their music, making it unique while technically brilliant, and still allowing the composers’ intentions to shine through. That is passion, or soul, or heart. Without this, a “perfect” piece of music will feel cold, and audiences, judges, and audition panels can tell.

In this blog, I’d like to continue researching and analyzing music, but with a new focus on my current repertoire, in addition to the study of timbre in music. I love learning about music, but I need to organize the information I study into knowledge that I can apply.  I want to have something meaningful to put into every song. And so I’d like to use this space to share discoveries I’ve made about the music I’m working on.  I’m hoping it will encourage me to put meaning back into everything I sing. And perhaps eventually, I’ll find my voice.