Valuing Musical Complexity

Last rehearsal we discussed long phrases in an Arcadelt piece we’re working on. In particular, I pointed out that one phrase seems to defy the barlines that the editor has provided us. I asserted that because Arcadelt didn’t think in strict 4/4, it’s important that we take the long view with this phrase.

One smart student pointed out that earlier in the year, I had shown them the symmetry of the piece, and likened it to a Baroque cathedral – with a beautiful underlying structure at every level. Which was it? Symmetrical 4-bar phrases or over-the-barline freedom?!

Both, I said. It’s incredibly important that we start to get beyond any simple ideas about music and understand that there is deep complexity in any well-written piece of music. Complexity that defies simple cogent description.

Our musical system is a method of description – the music is more complex than any system we could come up with. Is it possible that Arcadelt thought in regular four-bar phrases and over the barline at the same time? It’s not only possible: it’s the best possibility.

Our education system – particularly the modern, high-stakes-testing version – is utterly interested in finding the One. Right. Answer. The idea that there might be more than one is anathema to this motivation; all the more reason that we encourage our students to engage in complex thinking.

As I always say when confronted with two opposing world views: imagine a world big enough that both are true. Embracing cognitive dissonance with Arcadelt is a great step towards embracing it in far more important situations.