141 • The Holy Trinity of Music

The Holy Trinity of Music: Rhythm, Harmony, and Melody.

Rhythm is like organized space, architecture in time - a matrix that is warped and sectioned by the gravity of larger entities which attract smaller ones; in the same way there is a pull towards the larger, more important note, often the first beat; smaller notes belong to and move towards the bigger note. Rhythm is also an organic cycle that has properties of inevitability in continuity. While tempo is speed, rhythm can for example be sharp or mellow and thus define and express the character of the music it gives foundation to. Rhythm is like the skeleton that gives the body shape.

Harmony is a force like gravity of a planet - a force demanding the return of a thrown or raised object back to the ground; the same way dissonant harmonies, having higher energy, need to be released, resolved into consonant ones. Dissonant chords, e.g. a dominant sevenths, like an acid or base, demand reaction until they are tonic. Harmony, independent of the different systems it serves, is also a force that emotionally stimulates the archetypes of our collective and individual memories and reality. It is like atmospheric pressure (dissonance) that needs to equalize (resolve), resulting in (harmonic) motion: wind (cadence). A chord can through color or spacing be happy, sad, mysterious, victorious, playful, sensual, odd, etc. - something to listen for*. Harmony is like the muscles covering the skeleton, giving movement, poise, strength, and expression to the body.

Melody is like aerodynamics above the surface of the planet - like air, it needs more energy to go up and releases energy when going down. Melody can also gather momentum as well as linger and soar in thermodynamics. Melody obeys natural dynamics: a raised voice is louder, a halved string needs double the bow movement, a smaller air column needs more air flow to vibrate. On the piano we have to recreate natural dynamics, as the piano has no such properties. Melody is like the skin, covering the contour given by the skeleton and the muscles, the first thing we encounter.

"Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous."
Sir Yehudi Menuhin

*Something to listen for: Besides the three fundamental principles - The Holy Trinity of Music: Rhythm, Harmony, and Melody - there is one more component: Color.

This fourth element, noted by Aaron Copland (What to listen for in music) as tone color, or Timbre, is essential for composers concerned with instrumentalization and spacing of the registers. For us pianists it is a matter of proper balance; overtone proportions, the secret of golden sound.

The sound of one note on the modern (almost 150 years old!) grand piano has by itself little capacity of beauty or expression; the variability is solely of volume, not timbre, and therefore comparatively limited. But the sound of two notes can produce a myriad of different overtone combinations, resulting in a vast variety of sounds, and is capable of great aesthetic beauty and expression. And what mysterious potentialities lie in chords and inversions ... not to mention lines, phrases, cadences, and form.

Color on the piano is not an independent and fundamental principle such as rhythm, harmony, or melody, but rather a subcategory of harmony. Color, or timbre, depend on the way the individual interval or chord is orchestrated, or balanced on the piano, which gives it its own character within the system of a harmonic cadence.


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