Music and Dignity

I love to see pianos played in public places, and, of course, other instruments too. Over the last few years I’ve seen more and more pianos, some of dubious quality and provenance, in railway stations and airports.

On Saturday I saw someone play jazz (very well) on a piano at Avignon station, and later a teenager practising a chromatic scale (very badly) at Charles de Gaulle airport. And when I was last in Sofia I admired this lonely, unplayed Steinway and its incongruous ‘piano stool’ at the airport, but sadly, there was nobody to play it, and no one, I think, would want to hear what I can do.

sofia piano

Live music, wherever it is, in the concert hall or the departure lounge, is always preferable to the piped variety. I’d put my own Bluthner grand piano in the street outside my apartment if only I could get it through the window. It would probably get more playing there than in my living room.

People often think that classical music should be played with a special kind of dignity, in sombre, old-fashioned, uncomfortable, expensive clothes, in sombre, silent, sepulchral halls. We forget that it’s ‘entertainment’, by which I don’t mean that it isn’t serious or intelligent. It’s entertainment because it’s played for, or to, an audience, and audiences can be found anywhere.

Most of the time classical music is played as if it’s a ritual, whose moves are known only to a few initiates, and as if its practitioners are unapproachable high priests, even Gods, remote and full of dignity. It’s usually played in sterile ‘laboratory’ conditions, in an inert and unvarying atmosphere, where performers and audience are set decisively apart. Heaven forbid that you should clap at the wrong time or show too much emotion as you sit and absorb what the musicians are doing in front of you. Small wonder that when this is the prevailing style, audiences are sparse, and elderly.

Why should we listen to music in just one way? We eat in restaurants, on the street, at home, even at 30,000 feet. Every new location adds something different to the experience. Food tastes different in the open air. A Beethoven sonata, taking us by surprise on the concourse of a railway station, comes at us in a different way, catches us in a different frame of mind. And for the performer, too, it can be exciting to play for different audiences in different places. Why should the experience of performing and listening be confined only to a few locations?

Classical music needs to be stripped of its excessive dignity. At its best it’s an informal, warm, living, exciting, entertaining, even challenging, activity that’s performed by people for people, the one lot ‘saying something’ to the other, and the other responding with appreciation, delight, or sympathy. Music, at least in the form of singing (or howling!), was probably the precursor of speech. Music is communication of an elemental kind.

The fact that music is entertainment doesn’t mean it can’t be serious. I mean ‘entertain’ in the broad sense of capturing the attention of an audience. In this sense both Hedda Gabler and Absolutely Fabulous are entertainments. Seriousness needn’t be pompous, needn’t be surrounded by too much dignity. You can play Beethoven just as well in blue jeans as in a dinner jacket.

When I played my oboe regularly in amateur orchestras in London in the 1980s we often performed in busker venues, such as in the piazza at Covent Garden, and these performances were as serious, and as much fun as any in a concert hall. Never mind that some people came and went, that others stayed, that the applause came at the ‘wrong’ moments, I’m sure we said as much as we ever said in the frigid conditions of the concert hall.

So, I love the pianos that we see in public places, where the public are invited to perform any music that comes to mind. Sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes (too often) it’s Fur Elise, and sometimes it’s deeply serious music. When my nephew Frederic played some Chopin at Herne Hill Station in London, a small crowd gathered and applauded. I would love to come across Alfred Brendel or Andras Schiff playing at St Pancras station or on this Steinway at Sofia Airport. I hope that they could dispense with the dignity they’re used to.

But, for some players, music is so special that it’s no longer part of life. It’s something separate, dignified, dead. There’s a young pianist I know in Prague who takes himself too seriously. He’s good, and has played as a soloist with many famous orchestras. Though he has a magisterial way with Brahms, he’d be a happier man if he could lighten up a little. I invited him to my annual Christmas Party, which is also a Birthday Party for my partner. As I lit the candles on the birthday cake (a little the worse for drink, I will admit), I asked him, on an impulse, to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the Bluthner grand. I knew immediately it was a faux pas of colossal proportions. He actually shuddered, as if I’d put something nasty under his nose. Too much dignity!

If Leonard Bernstein were my guest (sadly, he never will be now, because he’s dead), I wouldn’t even need to ask. It would be difficult to get him to stop. Music infused every moment of his life, not just those moments in the concert hall, and he didn’t give a damn about dignity.

Music and Information – a guest blog post by my brother, Jonathan

My brother and I are both musicians, and we both recently read Alan Rusbridger’s Play it Again, in which he describes how, as a moderately competent amateur pianist, he took on the challenge of learning and playing publicly Chopin’s ‘impossible’ Ballade in G Minor in a year (it took him nearly a year and a half in the end, his life, as editor-in-chief of the Guardian, very much at the mercy of other global events). One of the topics he discussed, in connection with learning a piece by heart, was the concept of how much ‘information’ music contains.

music roll

Jonathan writes:


We can express the question “How much information is contained within a single piece of music?” in another way: “How much information do we need to store to enable a mechanical rendition of a piece of music that would be recognisable as a true representation by the human ear?”. Such storage mediums have existed for well over a century in the form of piano rolls, and in the modern-day equivalent of digital midi files. In their simplest forms only pitch, duration and pedalling were recorded as punched holes in a roll of card. (Intensity of attack and other refinements were added later.)

In considering what a musician needs to remember in order to perform, we can presume these basic components to be adequate. The layer of information needed to build a logical program for mechanical transposition into played notes as well as the layer of human ‘interpretation’ (which amounts to refinements and distortions of the original) can be ignored.

For the sake of this investigation, we assume that the music we intend to store is written over a regular grid of equidistant pitches and over a steady grid of pulses or beats.

So how can we express in a numeric manner what is stored on our imaginary piano roll?

The foundation of music is rhythm:

For this we need two parameters:

a) the length of the rhythmic unit to which the note belongs as expressed in the number of elapsed pulses that the unit would cover.

b) the number of evenly spaced notes that the rhythmic unit contains.

Some examples, assuming the pulse to be a quaver (or eighth note):

2,3    would express a semi-quaver triplet note

2,1    would express a crotchet note

1,5    would express a quintuplet demi-semi quaver note

6,2    would express a duplet crotchet note over a three crotchet bar

But that’s not enough. We need to know when each note should start. This can be done in two ways:

a) to start immediately after a preceding note in a given musical ‘string’.

b) to start a number of pulses from a sequenced note in a relative string, as we shall see later. (For notes starting in between pulses, and avoiding the use of fractions, a rhythm-defined silence or rest is inserted.)

N.B. New strings can be started at any time and will either refer back to a sequence in another string for start positioning or to ‘zero’, the beginning of the piece.

To which we add a set of numbers describing pitch:

Pitch is most simply expressed in absolute terms. There are about one hundred possibilities on a concert piano. But we can also express pitch relative (in semi-tones) to the preceding note in a string (a melodic interval, positive or negative) and alternatively relative to a concurrent note in another string (a chordal interval, positive only). This latter method being similar to the ‘figured bass’ system of the baroque era. And for this we need each note to carry an incremental sequence within the string. The pedal and silence can be represented as special ‘notes’. Bar lines do not need to be represented, as they are only an inaudible visual aid to performers. (A piano roll does not record them.)

So now we have in the below ten variables all we need to render a whole piece of music out of a succession of linked notes:

String number

String note sequence

Pitch in absolute terms

Pitch relative to the preceding note in the string

Pitch relative to a sequenced note in another string

Relative string number

Relative sequenced note

Rhythmic unit length in pulses

Number of notes within the rhythmic unit

Number of pulses from a relative sequenced note in a string

That’s a lot of numbers to store or ‘memorise’! But we can do better than this by optimising and compressing.

For example we could add:

An indicator that says ‘repeat’ the note and a number that says how may times.

An indicator that says ‘repeat’ the rhythm and a number that says how many times.

For example, a piece of music that consisted of repeating the same note in the same rhythm one thousand times could be described by a single ‘expression’, the note itself plus the compression extension.

We could:

Set up ’cells’ encapsulating commonly used pitch and rhythm structures such as scales, chords and chord sequences, giving them labels so that they could be referenced for re-use. These cells could be joined up sequentially, concurrently or even grouped together (larger on smaller) thus giving us the possibility of efficiently expressing repeated accompaniment passage work and sections. In other words these cells could be ‘stitched’ together – at their original pitches or relatively transposed.

Thinking of a simple canon such as Frère Jacques, it’s not hard to imagine how such a piece could be represented with minimal information.

The list of possible compression options is endless. However, there’s a balance to be preserved, whereby the referential complexity should not outstrip a simpler purely sequential representation.

So, going back to the original question, how much information is contained in a piece of music?

Considering that we might need 10 variables of 3 digits for each note in uncompressed format, this translates into approximately 100 ones and zeroes for each note. So the calculation is quite simple. The amount of binary information needed is the number of notes in a piece multiplied by 100. However this will be a maximum. For pieces that contain a degree of repetition and re-use of common patterns, this can be reduced considerably. True, new ‘stitching’ variables need to be added to each note expression, but this is counterbalanced by the efficiency of once-only library storage of referenced cells.

In the end we produce hugely complex constructions that need untangling by a sophisticated program. And though it’s true that the human mind does not work in this way, this approach to musical storage does, to some degree, mirror our ability to memorise simple repetitive and ‘predictable’ music more easily than the more complex and ‘unpredictable’ kind.

Mad music machines

There aren’t many things that machines do better than human beings. ’Many’ is a loose term, but I use it relatively, and in that sense, if you think of the many millions of extraordinary things that humans do, it’s true.

Almost everything we do and certainly all of the important ones aren’t enhanced by mechanics or electronics, and I don’t believe they ever will be. Machines are useful at large-scale repetitive tasks that must be done accurately and quickly – such as computing numbers, decrypting enciphered text, searching databases, brute-force chess and relaying messages across the globe. They’re not good at writing novels, or poetry, or acting, or singing, or playing the piano. In these cases the possibilities for invention or expression are infinite and the starting point unclear.

Player Piano

But there’s one interesting exception to the last case. Combining original musical composition and a mechanical piano, the American-born, Mexico-living Communist composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) devised (and punched onto a player piano roll) some studies for piano that can ONLY be played by a machine (though, some technical wizards of the keyboard have attempted them with human hands). They are too fast, rhythmically too complex, or involve more notes being played than ten digits can manage. The result is rather exciting, if not always pleasant (and why should it be that?).

Take this piece, for example, Study for Player Piano No. 21, which combines an accelerating ‘left hand’ with a decelerating ‘right hand’. No real hands of course. Whilst musical performance usually combines is compositional inspiration and a performer’s interpretative skills. In Nancarrow’s case, no interpretation, nothing between his inspiration and the listener. Pure.

What if the roles were reversed – music composed by machine, played by flesh and blood? Surely not half as much fun. Compositional inspiration can’t be programmed.

(Incidentally, someone has rather unflatteringly, but amusingly, used this very serious but mad music as an accompaniment to a washing machine spinning itself to death: