Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sonata Allegro Form and the Gentle Art of Persuasion

Sonata Allegro Form is a compositional formula which began to take shape in the early classical period and reached maturity in the works of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A detailed description of the concept can be found here. In discussing how this compositional vehicle relates to the art of persuasion, I will address three elements of the form.

1. Exposition
2. Development
3. recapitulation

These three elements of Sonata Allegro form are at the heart of most logically composed pieces. A composer will make a musical statement. He will follow by expounding on the statement and developing the material by use of various methods. He may restate the material in the relative minor of the original key, or invert the intervalic relationships of the statement. He may cast the statement in a different rhythmic setting or pass the statement like a relay baton between various instruments. And when the original statement has been developed to the composers satisfaction, he will pick up the loose ends in a logical manner and restate the original material.

After the piece has come to a conclusion, the listener has been given information, had the information explained, during which time the listener may have asked himself some questions regarding the material, and finally, the listener is given a conclusion which attempts to answer whatever questions may have arisen during the development.

This form can be as complicated and convoluted as the composer chooses to make it but this is the Sonata Allegro Form in a nutshell. Make a statement, expound upon the statement, and restate the original idea. I think of this formula as being the primary building block of every musical phrase. When the formula of Exposition, Development and Recapitulation is brought to bear in popular music, every element of a song can be crafted not only to express more precisely the message of the writer, but also to make the song more accessible and pleasing to the listener.

Popular music is by definition commercial music, music to be bought and sold for the enjoyment of the listening audience and for the financial gain of the writer and performer. A pop song is really an advertisement for itself. The more persuasively a song is presented in the media, the more likely it is that the public will embrace the song and the more commercial success the writer of the song will enjoy.

The form can exist in miniature in even the shortest musical solo. A great soloist will make a musical statement, show off a bit as he develops his idea, and then wrap it up. A song lyric will follow a formula in order to convey everyday ideas in a more poetic setting. Even a simple joke can be analyzed in terms of Sonata Allegro form...

Statement: A dog with his arm in a sling walks into a bar.
Development: The bartender says "get outta here, we don't serve drinks to dogs."
Recapitulation and conclusion: I don't want a drink...I'm just gunnin' for the hombre that shot my paw!"
And now we know why the dog went into the bar and why his arm was in a sling.

Humans seem to seek form in all things, Form pleases us, it makes us feel safe. We buy cars, shoes, furniture, appliances and most things based on form. You may think that studying over the specifications of a dishwasher will give you the upper hand in deciding which manufacturer best fills your needs, but at the end of the day you'll put your money on the one that looks the best in your house. Developing the shapes and sizes of products in their most persuasive forms is a much larger component of research and development than any consideration for technical advancement. We buy packaging, not products. And we do so because the form of the package is appealing and persuasive.

Persuasion is not a bad thing in and of itself. We try to persuade children to be good and not to hurt themselves. We try to persuade our friends to use certain products or think in a certain way because we care about their health and welfare. We tell others about the merits of this movie or that recording artist because we believe that these things will make their lives better. But sometimes our efforts to improve the lives of our loved ones are met by "Mind your own business, will ya?" And even though we care deeply about the welfare of our friends and neighbors, one such rejoinder can cause us to give up.

Enter the Sonata Allegro Form as a tool of persuasion. Let me illustrate by using as an example something which I feel strongly about, the exploitation of recording artists by the music industry in general and major record labels in particular. Picture this scenario...I'm listening to new music with some friends and the conversation turns to the hot new act on the billboard charts.

Friend: "Hey Pete, have you heard the new album by the Lizard Wieners?"
Me: "Yeah they really rock!"
Friend: "yeah, I read in Billboard that they signed a multi-album deal and got 500 thousand advance money. They really made it big man."
Me: "Oh really? And how much of that do they get to keep? Did you know that now they are really in debt to the label for 500 thousand and that they'll be lucky to see any royalties in their lifetimes? There's a lot better way to go for new bands you know."
Friend: "What do you mean?"

Here comes the exposition...

Me: "There is this new internet thing called Sellaband that treats artists much more fairly than the major labels. Being a musician, I really care about this a lot. I've looked into it and not only do the artists get a fair deal, but its a great site for music fans to find cool new music and even get involved with the artists themselves."
Friend: Yeah right. I've heard about those sites, they're probably all bullshit. The Lizard Wieners got a pile of new shit man, and the label paid for everything. Your full of shit."

And now, the development...

Here I would log on to my Sellaband page, show off some of my favorite artists, or read over some choice comments on my page from bands that are every bit as good as the Lizard Wieners thereby showing how any fan has access to any artist on the site. And I would further expound on my original statement by illustrating how the Sellaband business model works to the benefit of artists, fans and label unencumbered by the greed that drives the conventional music industry. My friend may have some questions which would give me an opportunity to further develop my original statement. And my motive of persuasion would always be clear, this is a better way to go for everyone involved because it offers more freedom to the artist as well as the music fan. I would develop the original statement until any and all questions my friend might have are addressed.

And finally, the recapitulation...

Me: "Now you know what a skeptical prick I am, especially when it comes to getting screwed by labels. Hell, I've starred in that movie more times than I want to admit. And I don't intend on that happening again. So I've researched this Sellaband thing to death and you can do what you like, but I'm running with it. And so are some of my music bros...and you know they aren't into bullshit."

The Sonata Allegro Form came about as a vehicle for composers to organize their musical ideas in a persuasive form that appealed to more listeners thereby making their compositions accessible and successful. There is form in everything we do, we thrive on form. And the principles of form can be a powerful tool when used in the gentle art of persuasion.


jane said...

This is great. I've learnt more in the two minutes it took to read one of your articles than I ever have in two hours of squinting in front of a theory 'handbooks'. Many thanks, and I 'specially love your analogies.

Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read that post. Thanks the author for it. I like such topics and anything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.