Abstract Theory



Abstract Theory

[Welcome to the first installment of Abstract Theory with The Human Abstract guitarist A.J. Minette. Through this column A.J. hopes to enlighten and enliven the metal readership on some of the finer points of the theory behind music and music composition in a way that’s not overbearing or elitist. We hope you enjoy. -Ed.]

A lot of people like to claim that they love music, or that their life IS music, but how many of us actually give our undivided attention to listening on a regular basis?  One of the best lessons I learned while studying classical music in school was, “The greatest composers throughout history were an incredible balance of passion and intellect.” As listeners, we often take notice of how a piece of music moves us on an emotional level but it’s important to point out that we can also be moved on an intellectual level as well.

Understanding music on a deeper level leads us to a greater appreciation. Let’s take a Bach fugue for example. While the subject of a fugue (opening theme/melody) may be pleasant to listen to, we are intellectually stimulated by its use of counterpoint, harmony, rhythm, and formal architecture.

Aaron Copland wrote in his book How We Listen that music is experienced on three separate planes: (1) The Sensuous Plane, (2) The Expressive Plane, (3) The Sheerly Musical Plane.  As he describes it, the sensuous plane is enjoying the pleasure of the musical sound.  If one is experiencing music only on this plane it is likely they are listening to music while driving, or while working out, or cleaning or whatever it may be.  The music fills the room and the sound in itself gives us pleasure.  While it may be pleasant, soothing, or even exciting, it is a very passive way of listening to music.  A more active approach to listening helps me to appreciate and understand the music more deeply.

Now, I realize some people might get upset and say that they want to escape and relax while listening to music and that they don’t want to “work” while listening.  At this point I think it’s important to realize the difference between appreciating music and enjoying music.  Anybody can enjoy music, but those who participate in active listening will appreciate it in a deeper and more meaningful way.  Think about it this way,  if you were to put on a movie in the background while doing something else it would be difficult to follow.  You would not be able to comprehend the plot, the development of characters, the subtleties in direction or cinematography etc.  The same goes for music.

I will concede that not all music is constructed with such intentions, but I stand behind the point that something is gained by giving our undivided attention to listening to music be it classical, jazz, metal, pop, rock, new age, old age, mariachi, Balinese gamelan, etc.

Rather than summarizing Copland’s other three planes, try finding the text online. I’m positive you can find it on Google somewhere, or you could just ask any mouthbreather from your favorite message board to torrent it and send you the PDF.  It is a quick read, and encourages active listening.

The next few columns will focus on compositional techniques and theories, starting off with “creative limitations.”


The Human Abstract’s new album Digital Veil comes out in early 2011. Check out THA on MySpace and listen to the new song “Faust” below.

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