Ever have a piece that you’ve been required to learn, where you listen and wonder, “What was the author on?” You can’t find the point of it; it’s really repetitive or the melody is bizarre and hard to follow. You try your best, you really do, but the piece is just a drag.
Yeah, I’ve been there too. Plenty of times.
I want to give you a couple techniques from the art world to help you find the point of the piece that’s driving you crazy, because if you can find the point, you’re one step closer to making real music.
Every piece of art, in every form it takes, has a message. Usually it’s highlighted for you a few different ways, but some artists really enjoy leaving their messages ambiguous and widely interpretable, so that different people can create a more personal message out of what the artist put there. But, the artist does want you to take in all of the picture, not just the interesting parts, because they put everything in the picture for a reason.
Finding the focal point.
The majority of visual art has what’s called a “focal point” or “vanishing point.” It’s a point (or a few) on the horizon that the artist picks and uses to draw the eye to certain parts of the picture, and to make the objects and people in the picture have depth and proportion. If you look at some rough or early sketches, you’ll see at least one dot on the horizon and a bunch of lines going from it to the object being drawn. This keeps the picture looking realistic.
For example, when an artist uses one focal point, they’re usually going to put the point of the picture on that spot. A lot of early Christian artwork that featured Jesus would have the focal point directly behind Him on the horizon, so that the eye would be drawn naturally to Him, because He was the focus and point of the picture.
That’s great and all, but what do focal points have to do with music?
Music has a focal point too. It’s just not always as easy to spot as in a picture. You can find the focal point a couple of ways:
This is the easiest and fastest method to start with. It can give you the general lay of the land before you dive into the nitty gritty details of the piece.
Before artists figured out how to give the illusion of depth, they showed what they wanted to draw attention to through how they oriented objects and people, and the directions they were looking or facing.
Think of Egyptian paintings. When the pharahos and gods were depicted, the mortals were looking and facing in their direction most often. The important people were large, because they were the point of the picture, while the less important people (in their minds), like the commoners and servants, were small. The use of orientation and size is still pretty common in pictures, but sometimes artists get creative with it.
This concept is pretty simple. If you’re looking at your music, look for the most dramatic high or low. If you’re listening to it, listen for the highest or lowest notes. And the same thing if you’re playing. Notice also variations in dynamics and speed. Sometimes pieces will get really loud or really quiet at the central point of the piece; other times you’ll feel the piece is driving or holding back until the peak of the piece, and then does the opposite once over the peak. The speed, notes, and dynamics can almost look like this < > or like this > <.
Once you’ve looked at the orientation of the notes, dynamics, and any speed variations, you can get a pretty good idea of what the author wants you emphasize. Lean into those directions and let them point you to your goal.
Once you’re ready to get more specific about the focal point of the piece, you can try:
Analyzing the piece to find the focal point.
“Yay, analysis!” most of you are thinking. “Not really.” Yeah, this is one of the usual methods teachers use for helping students understand pieces of music. It works, really. It’s just not always much fun.
Instead, we’re using analysis to paint a picture, to find the focal point or points. Not just to make memorizing easier, or find repetition, or show that we can deconstruct a piece. That’s okay, but I feel like a lot of teachers don’t show their students what to do next. When you’ve got a bunch of pieces you’re not really sure what to do with, deconstructing a piece of music isn’t much fun, because what’s the point?
The goal here is to find out the artist’s message, the point in the piece they’re driving to. Once you break the piece down into sections, you can more easily go through each one to see what its purpose is. Is section one the sky, the ground, a forest, a waterfall, a building, or a train that’s coming at you out of nowhere? Is that repetitive, boring second section maybe a tile floor, where all the tiles are leading the eye toward the focal point?
How will you know when you’ve found the focal point? It will usually have the most extreme dynamics in the piece, either loud or soft, but usually loud. It’ll also usually have the highest note, the climax, of the piece. The best indicator, in my opinion, is the part that’s the most fun, the juiciest, the most interesting to hear, and the most distinct from the rest.
But what about Baroque pieces where you repeat pretty much every section? Where’s the focal point in that? The focal point is still the same. In those kinds of pieces, you get to draw contrasts; think of painting in black and white vs color, or the same vista during the day and at night. How can you change the same notes that you just played, and make a totally different vibe?
Some sections will be less interesting than others, but they’re still there for a reason. Like every strand in a spider web, every line on the page is going somewhere and doing something. You just have to figure out why it’s there. Maybe your piece will turn out to be a very close up shot of an orange. Not very interesting, rather uniform at first glance, but as you get up close and really look, you see divots of different sizes and shapes, variations on the theme, that make up the whole; you have a basic idea that gets repeated over and over, but tweaked just slightly. Find the variation that is the most unique and interesting, and you’ve got your focal point.
If you don’t fancy analysis, try:
Listening to the piece to find the focal point.
I know, pulling out your music and a pencil to write all over it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. That’s why I believe in giving options, so you can tweak and find the best method for you.
Instead of breaking down your music manually, look up a recording of your piece and listen to it a few times. I mean really listen, not just “homework” listening (like going to Cliff Notes, so you can write your book reports without reading the book. Yeah, I get it). Close your eyes, and try to picture something, catch a vision of the piece. Listen for parts that you enjoy – it might just be a string of three notes or chords – and hang on to that because it’s an important part in the picture.
Once you find those interesting bits, find the most significant. It’ll stand out with dynamics or ornamentation or by simply being different from the rest. Listen for the one that grabs your attention the most. That’s your focal point.
Playing the piece to find the focal point.
Maybe you can’t find a recording, or the other methods just aren’t bringing the picture into focus the way you hoped. We’ve got one more method to try in this section.
Sit down at your instrument and pull out that dreaded piece of music. Maybe talk to it for a minute and tell it how you will kick its tail. Breathe and get your determination on.
Don’t bother with the rules of the piece for now. Forget tempo and dynamics. Just feel it. Go slowly and sit in the piece. Sit in the music and give it a chance to talk. Try to paint a picture with the notes. You might find some interesting bits that you hadn’t noticed before, really lean into those. Milk ‘em for all they’re worth.
Once you’ve done that a few times to establish the interesting parts and the more functional parts of the piece, find the most interesting bit, the one that you can really put your heart into, and you’ve found your focal point.
What about repetitive pieces?
Not all pictures have depth and focal points, but the artists are still wanting to draw attention to certain areas to convey a message. Another technique artists use is repetition, like a motif, or a color, or a shape, or a certain object or texture. They’re trying to tell you something through repetition. Music is no different.
Pay attention to repetition. You might be thinking, “Are you kidding? I can’t do anything except pay attention to the repetition because that’s the whole dang thing!”
Truly, I hear you. I had a twelve page piece (I thought it was fifteen until I double checked. Felt like fifteen…) that I had to learn and the author LOVED using freaking high G and high A over and over and over and over with the same rhythmic pattern. SO BORING!
But the repetition is there for a reason. Sometimes it’s to make a really big contrast to a section that is totally different, because that section is the focal point of the piece. Think of it like a tunnel or a corridor in a painting; it’s pretty bland and repetitive, but it draws attention through contrast to what’s at the end, which is the point of the picture. Those sections aren’t pointless; they’re very necessary to heighten the experience of the sections that contrast. I call this “contrasted repetition.” The painting below demonstrates this idea.
This painting is called Tunnel of Love by Bob Barker of Castle Fine Art
Other times, the repetition is there to draw out the nuanced differences instead of a huge contrast. I call this “nuanced repetition.”
Picasso went through his famous “Blue Period,” where he painted almost exclusively in blue. The paintings he did at that time only used a few colors to contrast, and he used those colors very sparingly. He used blue in all its tints, shades, and hues to bring out the subtleties of shape, expression, depth, and emotion. The blues he used were all nuanced to get his message across. This is Picasso’s Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto as an example of “nuanced repetition.”
Music can do the same thing. The repetitive rhythms or notes or phrases can be nuanced to explore just how much of a picture you can paint when you restrict yourself. You, the artist of music, need to know where the changes are, no matter how imperceptible, and make them more perceptible for your audience and help them enjoy the journey and changes. It’s up to you as the musician to rise to the challenge and paint a powerful picture using only blue.
So, how do you figure out the point the author is trying to make in a repetitive piece?
Using analysis to find the point in the repetition.
Take out that sheet music and that pencil again. Look at all the repetitions: rhythms, dynamic patterns, notes, chords, chord progressions and structures, phrases, and sections. Look for variations on these things. As you sort through it all, pay attention to whether the author seems to be using the method of contrasted repetition or nuanced repetition.
Once you figure out which one seems to be the case, find the point of the piece. If it’s contrasted repetition, find the section that’s very different from the rest of the piece and use the repetition to build to the contrasting section, like climbing stairs and suddenly seeing a vista.
If the author seems to be using nuanced repetition, find the most nuanced, varied, different version of the theme that’s being repeated. That’s the point to build to. You’ll keep the interest of your audience by bringing out the variations in each repetition. You’ll need to use every nuance you can to bring emotion into the piece. Think of all the shades, hues, and tints of blue Picasso used – and he still conveyed really powerful messages, even though it was all… blue.
Listening to find the point in repetition.
Sit down and listen to the piece a few times, undistracted. You’ll really need to concentrate for this. Having your music so you can reference and read along sometimes isn’t a bad idea.
Listen for repeated rhythms, dynamic patterns, notes, chords, chord progressions/structures, phrases, and sections. Listen for variations on them as well and take note.
Once you’ve listened a bunch, you’ll have to decide if the author is using contrasted repetition or nuanced repetition. If there’s a section that’s really different from the rest of the piece, it’s contrasted. If it’s all just variations on the same thing, it’s nuanced.
Now, you have to go put emotion into that piece yourself. If it’s contrasted variation you’re working with, use the repetition to build to the different section, the point of the piece. Think of how people repeat phrases sometimes to heighten anticipation before getting to the punchline. That’s what you’re doing.
If it’s nuanced repetition, take note of all those variations you heard. That’s where the fun stuff lies. Milk every variation for all its worth. Emphasize them in different ways, through dynamics and speed. (Some people will insist you keep a steady tempo unless there’s a written note in the music. Not what I believe, but you can play it your way later). Paint a picture with every tint, shade, and hue you can; even if the entire piece is still one color, you can share a powerful message through nuancing.
Playing to find the point of the repetition.
Just like with the other two methods, as you play, pay attention to repeated rhythms, dynamic patterns, notes, chords, chord progressions/structures, phrases, and sections, as well as variations on them.
From that, you can figure out if the author is using contrasting repetition or nuanced repetition. If it’s contrasting, using those repetitions to build the anticipation for the different section, like walking through the woods and suddenly seeing a field of flowers.
If it’s nuanced, pay attention to the variations you found when you played through it. Use those variations to create interest by showing them off. The author meant for them to be noticed. Be creative in how you make them more noticeable; don’t just breeze through them. Build to the most nuanced and varied of the repeated themes, because that’s the point of the piece.
So, what’s the point of doing this?
I definitely won’t promise that you’ll fall in love with the piece. You might, you might not. And that’s okay. You don’t have to love every piece you play, as nice as it would be.
These tools will help you learn to understand the piece a bit better. Some might not work for you at all, and that’s okay. Some might work on one piece and not another. Keep changing it up and using them together. The more you use the tools, the better you’ll get.
But beyond getting that piece technically perfect, what you’re doing is rising to the challenge. You’re honing your musicianship. You’re making something remarkable out of a mess. It’s a really good feeling to take something that would make most people yawn, and to engage them instead, to make them feel something. That’s the power of an artistic musician.