Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Backgrounder on musical symmetry

Symmetry is considered to lend beauty to art and design work. Engineering design favors symmetry as geometry that underlies most engineering is the root cause of it. A microchip pattern has a lot of symmetry as the physical chip is designed on strict geometric principles. Most bridge designs are symmetrical.  While symmetry in engineering is very common, arts also favor symmetry. In the world of painting, some artists tend to be more symmetrical than others. The Gettys museum in Los Angeles is dedicated to the world of symmetry in arts, engineering and even gardening!

Musical symmetry is a complex subject as music is abstract and aural. As most symmetry has a visual element to it, it is hard to visualize symmetry in the world of music. As we know, music has a written form and also a performed form. The symmetry in music mostly stems from the written form and this is where it gets very technical. The musical notation for a composition can be symmetrical and that requires a deep knowledge of the written form of music. Many western musical analysts have analyzed musical symmetry in Beethoven and Mozart’s work.

 The same can be said of the usage of musical notes. Musical notes is already an abstraction of how music is created. Symmetry within notes (say arohanam vs. avarohanam) is another form of musical symmetry. We will stay away completely from doing such an analysis of Raja’s work as most of his notations are not published formally.

One needs to be careful about symmetry in music, as symmetry is no guarantee of a great melody. Most great melodies are asymmetrical. As Raja is a film music composer with serious time constraints on his work, symmetry is not a great consideration in his work. For that matter, in any film music composer’s work, symmetry takes a backseat. However, given the volume of his work over the past 5 decades, symmetry has happened by accident. Most of the symmetrical musical pieces he has done are still melodious and full of beauty.  Some of the symmetrical pieces are obscure and others are known Raja compositions.

In particular, we will consider Raja’s interludes and some background scores in this analysis. We will not analyze any symmetry within the vocal parts of Raja’s songs. There are a few other things that one must consider as outliers that we will stay away from. Most Indian film music songs have a 3 pallavi, two charanam structure. The instrumentation that is backing the vocal parts of these parts of a film song could be identical and can be argued as symmetrical. I would argue that as laziness than any design as it is easy to reuse the same parts over and over! Before we dive any deeper, let’s do a quick overview of some high level principles of symmetry.