Energies In Music

When a music affects me strongly, I’ll listen to it over and over–because it’s fun but also to give myself time to think about what’s responsible for the music’s emotional impact. One way to think about this impact is in terms of different kinds of musical energies. Yes, we could just as easily use the terms musical characteristics or features, but energy is a more exciting descriptor. Energy is vitality and the capacity for doing work, which in the case of music is emotional work adjacent to attentional work adjacent to spiritual work. While different styles of music foreground different kinds of energies, multiple energy types are often in play in any music. Let’s consider these energies through a few contrasting–and entirely subjective–examples that may or not not deserve to be juxtaposed like this.

Tonal Energies. Much of the world’s musics are oriented around either melodies, chord progressions, drones, or a combination of these forms. Melodies are the sequences of pitches that you might sing or hum, chord progressions are collections pitches-sounding-together you might strum or play on a keyboard, and drones are single notes or chords sustained over time to create an unchanging backdrop. When I think of tonal energies I think of chord progressions that sound striking or surprising in some way. Consider my favorite Messiaen piece, “Le banquet céleste” which slowly moves through one beguiling chord after another, telling you everything you need to know:

Also consider this Radiohead song, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” which features a four-chord progression (arpeggiated) that distinguishes itself from conventional pop progressions along with a long-tone vocal melody.

Or consider this introductory alap by the Indian santoorist, Shivkumar Sharma. In this performance  Sharma improvises ever-changing melodies within a raga (which, unusually, mixes two ragas, Bhinna shadja and Chandrakauns). If you listen closely to the opening few seconds you can also hear drone tones in the background. As Sharma’s melodies move near and far from the drone’s tones–which are soft but still heard in your mind’s ear–tonal energies are created. 

Rhythmic Energies. I think about rhythmic energy in terms of how a music moves and what generates this movement. From hip hop to EDM to rock and pop, all of the world’s popular musics have beats of one kind of another, so when we speak of rhythm we’re often referring to a music’s beats. Beats create instant rhythmic energy, define the music’s meter (e.g. 4/4 time, 3/4 time, etc.), and suggest to listeners how they might move to the music. (“The downbeat’s here, dummy.”) Consider this Basic Channel minimal “dub” techno track from the 1990s, “Quadrant Dub 1” on which we can hear, amidst the bubbling chords, bass, and fuzz a clearly defined 4/4 kick drum laying it down.

Or consider this West African djembe and djun djun drumming where we see three rhythmic layers in action: a lead djembe drummer on left, a supporting djembe in the middle, and a djun djun drummer on the right whose left hand also doubles as a bell player. This is a fine example of polyrhythm, but it also illustrates one of rhythm’s magical qualities which is to articulate different time feels simultaneously. Can you hear the fast 4 beat feel superimposed on a slow 4 beat feel? 

Timbral Energies. Different musics rely on different timbres or “tone colors” to define their affective space. For example, the Japanese koto zither has a dry, almost brittle timbre which goes a long way in shaping the sound of the instrument’s music. The koto sound is delicate and almost transparent, allowing the listener to hear the silence (or “Ma”: emptiness/absence) between the notes as much as the notes themselves. 

In contrast to this delicacy, the timbres of hard rock and metal music–notably its amplified electric guitar sounds–are punishingly overdriven and thus feel aggressive. Consider “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. From its distorted guitars, pummeling drums, to its raspy shout singing, every timbre in this music signifies intensity (and hearing loss).   

Structural Energies. When we listen to music, we also notice–or intuit–structural energies embedded in the melodies, chords, and rhythms. Often we can’t explain what’s happening structurally speaking, yet we can feel it working on us. Consider Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” whose structural energy derives from melody lines introduced then echoed in different registers, interweaving to make a conversation-like whole that’s satisfying to follow. 

Another example illustrating structure is Autechre’s “32a_reflected.” Broadly speaking this music is about long hovering tones, but it manages to organize itself through subtle evolutions of these tones to create a suspended feeling that something significant is about to happen: 

Spatial Energies. Since the development of multitrack recording in the 1960s, musicians and composers have availed themselves of studio technologies to shape the spatial energies of their recordings. Recorded music quickly moved from mono to stereo, and in the decades since electronic music producers in particular have pushed stereo wider and wider to create immersive musical spaces without real world analogs. Consider the hyper-articulated, binaural-esque production on Rob Clouth’s “Casimir”

Performance Energies. The most reliable indicator of a musician’s skill–and the skill that counts the most artistically–is the capacity to perform in the moment and summon something feelingful to happen. There’s no better place to observe this than someone’s improvising, because improvising shows how performance energies unfold. Consider the piano music of Joep Beving:

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