Symmetry in Music – Musical Form
Have you ever seen a movie and came away feeling like something wasn’t right? Instantly, a movie may have popped in to your mind where you remember thinking that you invested a lot of time in to learning the characters only to reach the climax scene but then it felt like it suddenly ended.
Maybe it was a book. Maybe you felt like it took a lot of time to develop the story but not enough time tying up all of the loose ends.
In a more scientific sense, what do you see when you look in the mirror? You! Have you seen plants or animals that would have two exact pieces if you were to cut it in half? These are all examples of symmetry.
In science and math, symmetry is complex and although the idea of symmetry is more abstract in music and other arts, it’s no less important. Artists struggle to achieve symmetry in their works and they know that when it isn’t right, their audience knows.
Classical period composers understood symmetry well. Music theorists have long debated with conductors about the appropriateness of not playing all of the repeats in Classical period symphonies. Composers like Haydn may repeat large sections of his symphonies adding a lot of time to the performance.
Conductors argue that these repeats cause the audience to disengage (become bored) with the performance while music theorists argue that the repeats can’t be omitted because it robs the music of the symmetry the composer intended.
But how does any of this apply to you? Western music is generally organized in to four or eight measure phrases in order to establish symmetry. Listen to your favorite melody and if it’s an eight measure phrase, cut it in to two, four measure pieces. If it was written well, the last four measures should sound a lot like the first four. If the melody is in the key of C, it likely started with a C chord and ended on a C chord.
If you count the total number of measures in your favorite piece of music, it’s likely that each piece of the song will be about the same length. The verse and chorus will be about the same with the bridge possibly half as long for contrast. Performers who spend their lives playing music find that the rehearsal numbers written on the music are often the same, again, because of symmetry.
Of course, some composers use the lack of symmetry as a compositional device but in the end, even the strangest sounding music has symmetry. Listen to the works of minimalist composer John Adams and try to find the symmetry in the midst of the chaos.
When you’re writing music, think of symmetry in your melodies and when you’re playing consider how you will phrase the elements in order to give them that mirror image or symmetry. Next time you listen to music, watch a movie, or view a piece of art, see if you can find the symmetry. In art, when it feels or looks right, it’s because symmetry is present. We as humans are wired to find comfort in symmetry and discomfort when it isn’t present.
Symmetry in music is an abstract concept and one of the best ways to learn about it is to look outside of music. Our world is beautifully and symmetrically made. Every day the sun goes up and later goes down. We wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night, and the waves hit the shore only to retreat and be replaced by others. Symmetry is everywhere and as musicians we naturally reflect that in our performing and writing.