Lately, I’ve been sketching some compositions based off of a simple question: what is a line? Of course, according to Euclid, a line is “breadthless length” and is the genetic makeup of geometric figures, whether they be two or three-dimensional. Ironically, a line in geometry is not the same as what humans perceive as a “musical line”. When it comes to music, a line can be described as/describe many different things. To name a few:
- a complete or incomplete phrase of melodic material
- notating a type of glissando or graphical representation relating to manipulating pitch upward or downward through time
- a way of organizing pitches evenly on a five-lined staff
Psychology and Line
Before we delve into my thoughts on musical line, I thought it would be best to first understand what the psychological effect is of a simple line. Visual art is teeming with lines: straight, curved, hidden and leading lines, to name a few. These lines are artistically captured or consciously put together to create some kind of perspectival awareness from an observer. So when we talk about line, what we are dealing with is this idea of individual perception. In other words, one person may be able to see the lineo-genetic makeup of a visual image and interpret the experience one way, while another person may only be able to ‘sense’ it, experiencing the image in a different way.
I am no psychologist, but I would bet that it takes practice to experience an image in multiple ways such as one can perceive music in multiple ways. As a line can have infinitely-profound functions and interactions, so will the individual interpretations of that that single line. With experience in actively viewing, listening and understanding this idea of line, a person’s awareness of it may drastically change, affecting how they respond to what they perceive – whether it be emotionally, spiritually or personably. My goal in studying the basic functions of a line will be to consciously and carefully use it as an underlying psychological tool that can successfully affect how people respond emotionally, spiritually and personably.
Musical Composition of a Line
In thinking about this, I’ve realized that coming to a greater understanding of “line” – and its various implications – can bring profound depth to a contemporary composition. One could say that music is geometry in time – which is the fourth dimension. Since listeners attach linear significance to a piece of music, it’s possible to reverse engineer that perception and turn it into a compositional tool – that has been my aim. Various questions have been coming up in my thinking about this issue:
“What is the most basic element within a line that could be used in music to encapsulate notions of spirituality, psychology, sociology, nature, emotionality and the interpretive experience?”
“How can a line be used to connect one person to another when listening to a piece of music, even if they have different cultural backgrounds?”
“Can a musical line be used to accurately represent the vastness of the cosmos, God, space and time though it is only a line?”
Two-Dimensional Line in Music
Ultimately, how can a line be used in a musical composition? Already, we can easily rule in sheet music. Sheet music is comprised of geometric shapes that stem from lines, alone. Though humans perceive things three-dimensionally, we tend to equate sheet music to a two-dimensional surface because it sits flat, and as it sits flat, we perceive it to have no z-axis; depth. It is profound to think that something as basic as sheet music can be interpreted into four-dimensional phenomena, however it is merely one vehicle by which music can be heard through.
Another thing about two-dimensional figures is that color has the ability support a 2D line’s function. Color has the power to be interpreted into emotional and psychological data. Though most sheet music is black and white, lines found within music could be composed to have different colors, affecting a performer’s psychology.
Can music be represented through a two-dimensional object? Technically, there are no physical two-dimensional objects, but in the digital age, there are ways. A computer screen can be an active representation of a 2D plane – despite the fact that the screen, itself, can be viewed from many angles as opposed to one. On a screen, you can have waveforms that represent music, which can be printed onto a paper – which is another representation of a 2D plane, as discussed earlier. These spectral analysis waveforms could represent music’s pitch, dynamic, rhythmic, textural and timing aspects.
Three-Dimensional Line in Music
What you see around you is perceived in a third-dimensional space. We relate objects to each other by comparing their locations in a physical space. Something I’ve often wondered is how music can relate to us three-dimensionally. When it comes to attaching a meaning to music, listeners inevitably attach a geometric understanding to what they hear. In other words, we visualize music based off of individual perceptions of a musics’ sonic results. Is it just this psychological phenomenon that we can only interpret music into three-dimensional images? Perhaps not. Dance is an important aspect to active form with music. Dance doesn’t necessarily have to have music to have form, however, can give a three-dimensional form to music via the human body. Dancers work through body line and stage directions (which are based on lines) to create an active choreography with music.
On the flipside of things, can music be represented through three-dimensional objects? In visual art, sculpture is usually what represents idyllic abstraction on a three-dimensional plane. Though music would be difficult to represent on a three-dimensional plane other than that of the imagination, something that interests me is the possibility of writing 3D musical scores. These sculptural scores could be extremely flexible ways of performers interpreting three-dimensional figures – based on many lines’ depth, height, and width, creating figures inside of figures – into a four-dimensional, sonic figure.
Interestingly, everyday 3D objects are still subject to the effects of time; aging. It would be interesting to purposefully create a sculptural score that decays slowly or quickly, and therefore is subject to be interpreted differently every time it were performed.
Sketches on Musical Line
I’ll be thinking more about what line is. Already, I’ve found myself writing a few essay pieces on how a physical line relates to the sonic results of music, and it has been a great time of study. Cathect (2014) for thirteen (or more) trombones and Imago Dei (in process) for chorus, organ and two percussionists use similar ideas of line and how it is represented in sheet music. Both settings of a basic line-form will be perceived differently from an audience’s perspective but are both built upon the same building blocks.
As time progresses, I hope to come to a better understanding of the psychological effects of line and implement it into my music. I foresee many sketches in my future, but I’m sure it will be worth it. In all of this, I hope that I got you thinking about musical and geometric lines in different ways. It is my hope, too, that in daily life, no one will take for granted the genetic makeup of everything they see around them and respond thoughtfully to how complex the universe truly is.