Robert Estrin - piano expert

The Secret of Music: Randomness Vs. Order

An interesting journey into the soul of music

In this video, Robert talks about a secret of music that you may not be aware of.

Released on September 16, 2020

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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

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin. Today, we're going to talk about the secret of music: order versus randomness. This sounds like a weighty topic and it really is. Because to think about familiarness is comfortable, but if things are too familiar and predictable, they could be boring. This is true of everything, not just music. On the other side, randomness is very interesting. There's so much to take in, but it can be very difficult to digest. To listen to music that's all random can sound cacophonous and it's difficult to make sense of it. Something that has the element of some kind of order but enough randomness that it keeps you wondering what's coming next, that's what can be engaging.

Just like if you look at a painting that is a bunch of random squiggly lines and different colors, it might be interesting for a while, but kind of exhausting trying to make sense of anything because you can't. But equally boring in a totally different way is something that is just geometric and predictable, the same thing like stripes on a page.

So elements of both are really intrinsically important in art and music. Let's give a historical perspective on this. The origins of written music was Gregorian chant. This was simply plain song of liturgical text that was sung. Now, that kind of grew in the Renaissance, and music started to gain polyphony and other elements. The Baroque, it really flourished and music got more and more complex in the later Baroque. In fact, during Bach's later years, he was writing some fantastically complex music like Art of the Fugue. He had actually lost favor in the public and many composers writing the new simpler, structured classical style were more popular than he was, including some of his own sons like Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Can you imagine such a thing?

So what happened was music became more and more and more complex and, I wouldn't say random, but if you listen to a complex multi-voice fugue, to make sense of it, it can almost feel random the first time you listened to it if you're not really musically astute and comfortable with those levels of complexity, which is one of the reasons why music with a structured form became much more popular in the classical era with Mozart and Haydn, with very clear repetition of themes and development and recapitulation of themes. It was very digestible music.

Well, over the centuries that too became more complex. Beethoven expanded the form, and then came the Romantic era that became very emotional, and tone center shifting where harmonies became more and more complicated until finally, composers were writing things not based upon tonality. Alexander Scriabin, at the turn of the 20th century, was writing pieces based upon all different intervals, even nights. Can you imagine pieces based on nights? Yes. And Bartok was also writing music that bordered on atonality.

But it wasn't until Arnold Schoenberg came up with the twelve-tone system to just systematically avoid repetition of any of the 12 possible notes in what was called a tone row, and basing the whole composition so you couldn't sing it very easily. You didn't hear repeated patterns unless you have really, really good ears and can listen to that music. Well, that wasn't enough. Anton Webern went further, serializing not just the pitches, but rhythms to not have repeated rhythmic patterns, but to have different length notes in a somewhat random form. So it was very little to grab onto, but as a work of sheer mathematics, these were brilliant composition, some of them... Karlheinz Stockhausen and other composers... but if you try to listen to this music, it's really very hard to listen to.

So again, there was a major breakdown into minimalism. Mentalism came after that. If somebody wanted something that was digestible with repeated simpler patterns that... Not that minimalism is simple, because the way things are nested and overlapped can be quite fascinating. This is a historical pattern of building and building more complexity in styles until there's a breakdown and just too much, and something simpler and building up again and again because the intrinsic nature of what makes music tick is that balance of order and randomness.

I hope this is enlightening for you and I'd love to hear from you, your opinions about what I've just talked about, because it's a really fascinating idea that that's how our brains perceive things. The comfort of familiar and yet the exploration of the new and how those are balanced is really what it's all about in music and art and in life itself. Again, I'm Robert Estrin. This is, your online piano resource, and you're welcome to subscribe. There's even more on Patreon, lots more videos for you, and some exciting new developments you're going to hear about soon. We'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on September 16, 2020 @11:42 am PST
I'm wondering whether the development of music has or will begin swinging back to "less randomness", as composers begin to get tired
of the new normal or conventionality that was produced by the like of Webern, Schoenberg, etc.? It seems that things in various fields of human endeavour often go in cycles, so that what was old becomes new again. Just a bit of random musing on my part.
Maggie * VSM MEMBER * on September 16, 2020 @8:43 am PST
Thank you Robert. An excellent description of music/composition history. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot through your limpid explanation of a complex subject.
Robert - host, on September 16, 2020 @3:10 pm PST
So glad it makes sense to you. You are right - it is a very complicated subject!
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