We live in a world where many people want to convince us that there are only absolutes: absolute good and evil, absolute truths, absolute friends and enemies. They insist on their beliefs in absolutes in the areas of politics and religion, to name a few, and, true to form, they say you must follow them absolutely or be absolutely wrong and damned forever. As I write this, election season is in full swing, so the rhetoric about absolute values bombards us constantly.
One of the things I love about music is that, unlike some other areas of our lives, very few people, especially musicians themselves, insist on absolutes. After all, just about everything you can name about music is relative. Here are some examples:
Pitch: You may think that a song or piece of music is made up of pitches, tones, which can be said to have definite and measurable frequencies (vibrations per second). However, one tone or pitch by itself does not make music; it must have other tones, and it is the relationship of these tones to each other, both horizontally (the melody) and vertically (the harmony) that make the music. You can sing a song starting on any pitch and it is still the same song. You can transpose any piece of music to a different key, essentially changing all the notes of that piece, but still preserving all the relationships. It's the relationships that make it recognizable.
Rhythm: The rhythmic patterns we find in music, the tones of shorter or longer duration and all their possible combinations, are about the relationship of these tones to each other in time. A quarter note is not an absolute value; it is a unit of time which varies from piece to piece, from section to section within a piece, and even from moment to moment when the piece slows down or speeds up. The value of that quarter note changes depending on the person playing the piece, and the same performer will likely give it a slightly different value every time he or she plays that piece. Composers give us general guidelines (allegro, andante, largo, etc.) but the rest is up to our judgement and personal tastes. It's all relative, and thank goodness for that; otherwise it would all sound robotic.
Dynamics: Composers may indicate "soft" or "loud" or "very loud" on a score, but are there any absolute values for these? Of course not. Again, it's up to the individual musician.
Musical notation: Many students of music, learning to read music for the first time, will memorize the note names on the musical staff. Various acronyms ("Every Good Boy Does Fine") are sometimes used to help students commit the notes to memory. But change the clef sign, and the notes on the staff are all different. Many musicians in the orchestra read in other clefs than pianists do, and for pianists the treble and bass clef are different from each other. So can we really say the notes have absolute values? It's a flexible, movable system, a pretty brilliant one at that.
In my teaching, I try to emphasize the relativity of the elements of music. I start students off by playing by ear and playing simple songs, with chords, in several keys, so they immediately understand that our music is based on the scale, and, since the scale can be built starting on any key, so, too, can music move to any key. This builds the ear, the knowledge of all 12 keys, and gives greater freedom and flexibility to one's playing.
I emphasize the relativity of rhythm by having my students clap units of time and then "cut" them, to hear the divisions of that unit. (See my earlier post on rhythm and my analogy of chopping logs.) No matter the size of the "unit," short or long, they can hear the relationships of the pieces to the whole. I never use a metronome or emphasize any absolute values or tell them what speed to play a piece. The choices of tempo and dynamics are up to them. I may guide them in how to make those decisions, but I don't want their choices to be my choices.
In reading music, I teach students how to read by interval and learn to "navigate" between them by how it feels in the hands (not by looking at the hands or keys) and not to even be concerned with note names as they play. It's this skill of navigation that makes for great sight-reading. The added bonus is that you can learn to transpose at sight, a valuable skill if you accompany singers or instrumentalists. It's all about seeing the relative position of the pitches, and keeping in mind what key (scale) you are in, which, again, is relative.
With every passing day and year I spend as a musician, I'm convinced that the lessons learned from playing the piano are applicable to just about every area of life. Relationships are not only important, one could almost say they are everything, in music and in life. Let's not worry about absolutes, but embrace relativity.