For Musical Creative Outliers

Rise Prelude by Howard Lieberman excerpt
Rise Prelude Excerpt Howard Lieberman

Have you ever wondered what the definition of a piece of music is? Depending upon genre, it could be a song or a tune or a work or a movement or a section. For most people, it is simple to define, even if they have different definitions. Most of the time, in most of the world, most people are thinking of a linear thing with a beginning, middle and end. And it goes something like this.

There is an introduction followed by singing some lyrics, which tend to reuse the same underpinning chord progressions until the words run out and then the song may just end or even have an ending. Sometimes there is an instrumental interlude of a sort which could be called a solo or, in some situations, a large number of solos which can vary from a little instrumental garnish to the main course. 

In western classical music, there is less literal repetition as the melody snakes its way through different feelings and seems to actually go someplace during which the tempo and key and feeling can change quite a bit. 

According to the copyright office, in the US, at least, if you send in a lead sheet with some melody, lyrics and chord changes, they will give you copyright for a unique piece of music. They will also give you copyright if you make a recording and submit that even without a score or lead sheet, or lyrics.

So I come back to what is a piece of music. If you are a performer, you might define the piece as what you do when you perform. But do you perform it the same way every time? Some do, and some do not. Jazz would not exist if that was the only option. Classical folks seem to define apiece by the score and rock folks by the performance, and there are many variations in-between.

What are you to do if you play more than one style of music and are a multi-instrumentalist who also copses original material? This is the dilemma I find myself in, for depending upon the genre, the definition changes. Is the definition of a piece the same for the Grateful Dead jam band universe, the great American songbook people, or the contemporary classical musicians and composers? I think not.

Here is what I have come up with in part based upon an assumption not shared by everyone. I do not think music is necessarily inherently linear. I do not think the notes or lyrics, or harmony are sacrosanct either.  I think of work or a piece, or a tune is like dipping a paddle into an infinite sea of music and pulling out a large spoonful. The boundaries between when it starts and ends are wet and messy, which is not a problem. 

When a jazz quintet performs a piece, it will never be the same, and the variations will depend upon who is in the ensemble that day and two they feel, and perhaps even what they had for lunch. Music can be a very present-moment phenomenon that changes every single time it is performed.  In fact, if it was not, then why bother to go to concerts and just listen to the recording? I do realize this is a minority viewpoint so let me attempt to bring some closure and clarity to the topic for now.

In my mind, there are compositions, arrangements and performances.  The composition is based upon some core set of musical relationships, which, for some composers, they can write down as a score. This score, for a singer-songwriter, is not going to look the same as for a symphony orchestra.  But presumably, there will be at least a melody in both cases, and to avoid having a train wreck, the larger the ensemble, the more specificity is required. By the time you get up into the tens of musicians, things had better be extremely specially mapped out, and even then, it requires a conductor to keep the piece on track.  When there is a small ensemble of one to five or six, there is a lot of room for give and take, alternation and variation, and some very skilled musicians do take advantage of this.   

However, there are many different trios that can play a song or a tune or a piece of music or work, as there are many different instruments that may be present. Piano, bass and drums handling of things will be quite different than flute, guitar and vocalist. This is where the word arrangement comes in. Which players and which instruments can be arranged very tightly or very loosely depending upon the genre and the skill set of the players? But the piece of music or the composition can be the same, just arranged differently for different circumstances. 

Performances can also vary greatly even with the same trip recording the same piece twice in a row, especially if separated by time intervals anywhere between mantes and decades. 

So to summarize, there can be very many different performances of the same arrangements, and there can be very many different arrangements of the same composition. And the ratio of defined to extemporaneous is also a gigantic set of variables. This is why I have a hard time defining a piece of music for what I do in a coffee house as a solo artist playing a single instrument (and yes, there are certainly choices there) versus on a concert stage with a forty-piece orchestra are incredibly different so much so that many would not read them as the same piece but as the composer and a musician I can assure you that they are the same piece. 

Just pointing out that a song is not always just a song, and a symphonic work can also be reduced to a piano version.

Interesting. And also know why it is hard to define for myself exactly what a piece is because many different versions can be running around in your brain at the same time. And by the way, this does not only apply to music but also to every other creative work ranging as far as computer programs (known to you usually as apps) and drawing and paintings and even businesses. We all carry within us multiple versions of everything, including who we think we are from time to time.

This is not a bad thing. It just shows we have a lot of options. So, you never really have to get too down on a particular model of what is going on. When you try to sync up your external reality with your internal understanding of what is happening, there are many degrees of freedom in how you do that. In fact, there are infinite numbers of ways to do that.

Whoops, gotta go somehow, 500 words became over 1100. Well, this is just another example of the same phenomenon. No worries.