Framing the Void: IV

Sing or hum your favorite tune, or any tune for that matter – even a tune you hate. What kinds of sensations do you experience? What words come to mind? Now read on to find out where this is going…

Sing, hum or otherwise produce your favorite tune, or any tune for that matter, even a tune you hate.

What kinds of sensations do you experience?

If you’re vocalizing, you probably feel your throat and face vibrating a little, and you will eventually feel the need to breathe again. You might also feel a little self-conscious, depending on who’s around.

Now think about your tune for a moment.

What words come to mind? Besides words like “happy” or “sad,” you might be thinking with terms like “up” and “down,” “short” and “long.” If someone asked you to sing the beginning of the tune, you would know “where” to start, likewise with the end. We might just as easily talk about the beginning or end of a road. A unity of sense perception reveals itself here in that we use some of the same words to describe both time and space. The very experience of being human centers around our awareness of events and things, along with the void, sit between them. We seem to have an intuitive sense of the void, a void that our minds constantly and compulsively divide, rearrange, and reassemble. Like the human experience, all music, including the tune you just sang, plays with these dimensions. When listening to or playing music, we constantly experience sound and silence, space and time in combination, and nowhere is this play more apparent than in a musical line. But first, a brief word about words.

Speech, the most ubiquitous of human sonic acts, involves placing one sound, one word after another to create both contour and cadence. Up/down contours are intimately familiar to us. Just imagine how many different ways there are to ask the question “How are you?” Different combinations of inflection and cadence can give the words overtones of compassion, sarcasm or puzzlement. In addition to what we say and how we say it, the spaces we take to breathe and to listen give our sentences meaning, humor, gravitas and power. It is no surprise, then, that most of what sticks with us about music has to do with line, the tune, the melody of a song or a guitar riff, musical ideas that place one sound after another.

In the previous installments of Framing the Void, we explored the ways in which music 1. Defines a period of time, 2. Manipulates our perception of that time’s passing through rhythm, and 3. Defines space through fundamental pitches with overtones. The combinations of these elements results in what we can call a musical line: A succession of single pitches, one after another, often with spaces in between. Imagine time running along the horizontal X axis and space running along the vertical Y axis. A musical line “moves” through both axes, which is only possible when we recognize both points and space. In fact, when we draw a line on paper, or listen to a piece of music, we generally experience more space than anything else. We seem to have a fundamental, instinctual awareness of the void’s infinite possibility but gravitate towards the relatively minor divisions that lines create. As mentioned above, all musical ideas have elements of time and space within them, yet lines play with both in tandem most explicitly. These lines may take the form of melody, counterpoint, bass-line and there is even a concept, known as linear drumming, which allows non-pitched percussion instruments to carve melodic shapes out of negative space (see below). The following are a few examples of the ways composers and improvisers use line in music.

The opening melodic statement of Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra expands with each repetition, creating dramatic sense of space. Woodwinds hover high above as the low strings rise from the depths.


On Aquas De Marco, Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s conversational vocals cut an almost horizontal line across the sonic space while the bass and piano move steadily downward.


On Blues Connotation, Ornette Coleman’s saxophone creates melodically playful knots, twists and turns, giving the listener a sense of time and space bursting forth and retreating. In contrast, the bass marks steady time.


No exploration of line would be complete without a nod to J.S. Bach. In the prelude to his Cello Suite no. 2 in D minor, a single line occupies the totality of the musical experience. Interestingly, the listener also gets a sense of the ‘implied’ harmony as the cello outlines notes of chords in succession, alternating steps and leaps.


The bass line from Parliament’s Flash Light gives a clearly defined, super-funky sense of time and space. The line moves down then up at regular intervals and, like all great bass lines, provides a steady foundation for “cosmic slop” swirling above it. Notice how, at around 1:04 the line reverses directions to signify a kind of ‘breakdown’ section.


On Cissy Strut by the Meters, the bass and guitar plunge from high to low over Zigaboo Modeliste’s “linear” drum groove. The groove is called linear because the drummer almost never plays any two sounds simultaneously, just as a melody leaves one pitch before moving to another.


Despite the fact that music has evolved into countless forms and has been intellectualized, studied, codified and recognized as high art, even its most complicated manifestations embody the basic experience of being human, moving through space and time. Rhythm, harmony and line play with and rearrange these elements just like our minds do when we see white clouds against a blue sky, recognize the tone of a friend’s voice, wait at the doctor’s office or feel the cold wind of an on-rushing storm. Our awareness of these ‘things’ is only possible, however, because of our instinctual conception of a universally empty space, the void. It is interesting to note that all the names we give to things, people and locations or the spectrums of sound and light and movement we fracture to create art always point back toward a common experience, something we can listen to, see and feel together. The awareness that we merely rearrange this void, a space we never truly leave and can never fill up, is humbling indeed.

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Bryan Hooten

Bryan Hooten performs with No BS! Brass, Matthew E. White, and other Richmond-based groups. He teaches Music Theory and Jazz Orchestra at VCU.

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