Robert Estrin - piano expert

Discover what's most important in music

In this video, Robert tells you what the most important thing in music between texture, melody, instrumentation, orchestration, and pitch is.

Released on March 15, 2023

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

This is the argument that rhythm is the most intrinsically important element that makes music have meaning.

Welcome to, I'm Robert Estrin and today is what is the most important aspect of music? There are so many things, you've got textures and melodies, you've got different instrumentation, orchestration, pitch, but you know what is the most important thing and I'm going to prove it to you today if you stay to the end of this video, rhythm is by far the most important aspect of music. I'm going to prove this to you in innumerable ways to give you some historical context. The first thing I'm going to do is I'm going to play a very familiar piece but see if you can figure out what it is without a rhythmic context. Some of you may have noticed the pitches that are the famous Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

But without that rhythm it doesn't sound like Beethoven's Symphony, does it? It doesn't sound like much of anything because rhythm is a vitally important part of music. I'm going to demonstrate this in another way. I'm going to play a very familiar tune but I am going to displace the pitches so they're not in the normal range. I'm going to play them all over the piano but I'm going to play it in the rhythm of this familiar tune and see if you can figure out what it is. I'm going to use the rhythm but the pitches are going to be all over the keyboard.

I'm sure you'll recognize that as Mary Had a Little Lamb even though I didn't have any two notes that are together the way they are in the original, which of course.

So let's break this down a little bit. If you think about for a minute the trajectory of music starting with the classical era of Mozart, Haydn and later Beethoven, there was a structure and a firm grasp of harmony that actually grew from Bach and earlier composers with Bach chorales and all the rules of harmony. And basically major and minor chords, the primary 1, 4 and 5. 1, 4, 5, 7, 1. Now as harmony grew into the Romantic period, composers such as Mendelssohn, well first Schubert and then Mendelssohn and Schumann and Tchaikovsky and later Romantic music got even more chromatic with Wagner and Richard Strauss and Rachmaninoff. And eventually the entire tonality got to the point where keys were shifting constantly until it broke down to the 12 tone system, which was originally developed by Arnold Schoenberg, which took all 12 tones arranged in a random fashion instead of music being based upon scales.

They were arranged in all the different 12 tones. When I talk about 12 tones, there are just 12 different notes in music. Those are the 12 tones and then you're back home again. So you think about how many different possible arrangements are there of 12 tones? Well, 144. When you think about the vast majority of all Western music from before the Baroque era through to contemporary times, it's based upon just those 12 notes, then you realize how derivative melodies must be without the advent of rhythm. Rhythmic variety is what really separates melodies. So the 12 tone system, you take those 12 tones and arrange them in some order. Actually, that wasn't quite it.

That's a tone row because there's all 12 notes before any repeat. Let me see if I can figure out another one for you. Is that right? Well, that's definitely a tone row there. Imagine building a piece out of that. Well, that's exactly what Schoenberg and later Berg, Webern, all the way to Eliot Carter and Stockhausen. Not only that, in trying to randomize music, not only peaches were randomized to avoid repeated patterns, but even rhythms were randomized, trying to serialize the repetition of any elements. Now, this music is brilliant in its composition, but extraordinarily difficult to hear because atonal music is harder to digest than intervals that are more closely related because you can hear octaves, a two-to-one relationship very easily, or fifths, a three-to-one relationship. But when you get more distantly related than octaves and fifths and fourths, and you get to seconds and sevenths, these are very hard to hear. Atonal music by its very nature is difficult to decipher. And then when you start randomizing other elements like rhythm and textures and dynamics, the music is very hard to grasp because of its random element.

This is why rhythm comes to the rescue in most music. And of course, the revolution away from serialized music, like I just described, was the advent of minimalism. Minimalism has a return of rhythmic elements in a new way, instead of just motifs like in Beethoven.

There we go, there's a motif you can grasp right from the get-go and follow it through for the whole first movement of that famous Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Well, the brilliance of minimalism was the nested combination of different patterns overlapping with one another, creating these beautiful kaleidoscopes of sound in new ways. Well, once again, the intrinsic element of rhythm. Whereas you had Baroque music using motifs, actually subjects of fugues that were intertwined with counter subjects. And then you have the structure of classical music with different formal structures, but with the rhythmic elements in place. When that broke down in atonal music in the 20th century, finally minimalism to the rescue so you could once again be able to decipher and grasp what you were listening to. So the answer to music, what is the most intrinsic element since you only have 12 tones? Now you might be saying, well, what about microtonal music? I wonder how many of you are thinking that? Well, why the 12 tones is because the overtone series is built upon these essential 12 tones. If you were to take any vibrating pitched object and you were to go through and listen to it, you blow through a tube, whether it's a French horn or a garden hose, you're always going to get the same series of notes, which is as follows.

And from here, it's all half steps.

So the overtone series has your basic diatonic notes. They're not arranged as a scale, but they're the same notes. Now on a tempered tuned piano, all the pitches are slightly off. This is why so much music, whether it's Persian music or Native American music or Indian music that has notes between the notes, but they still are pure tones found in the overtone series. These are mathematical relationships, which are part of nature, which we can discern with our ears quite easily. So when you have arbitrary divisions of pitches, for example, quarter steps, that is putting notes between the notes, this isn't something that really has any real validity in nature. It's an arbitrary division of pitches that occur naturally in all vibrating objects that are pitched. So once again, this is the argument that rhythm is the most intrinsically important element that makes music have meaning. Otherwise, with only 12 tones, everything is derivative of everything else. But rhythm, by its very nature, has almost an infinite variety of possibilities because of all the divisions of time that are possible that adds so many elements of possibilities to composition. I would love to get this discussion going here at, where we have thousands of articles and videos with people like yourself who appreciate these videos, who comment on them, and we get a rich discussion going, as well as here on YouTube and all you hundreds of thousands of subscribers here on YouTube, and I want to thank you all. And once again, I'm Robert Estrin. This is, your online piano resource. Thanks again for joining me.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Pharooq Abubakar Said on March 15, 2023 @3:43 am PST
Your presentation was more of theory than practical. You should have played something to support your argument. Rhythm is actually the movement in music but you didn't show that in your presentation. Thanks 👍
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