The Musician’s View

Every year at Christmas I am reminded of the systemic nature of music. Music is one of my favorite parts of Christmas. I sing bass in several different choirs during the Christmas season and every year I get to sing the same parts in the basic repertoire of traditional Christmas music. Many composers of Christmas music use the bass section to provide the rhythm sounds that would normally be produced by percussionists. That means that a standard bass part in the Christmas season provides a variety of drum sounds. Take the Little Drummer Boy for example. In most arrangements the basses sing, “Rum Pum Pum Pum Rum Pum Pum Rum Pum Pum.” Not something that you can stand rehearsing or listening to by itself for any length of time.

In fact, taken by itself this part makes no sense at all. But as a part of the overall arrangement it provides the percussion rhythms that keep the song marching along at its specified tempo. The bass part is very important to the overall production of the arrangers work.

This is very often true of choral arrangements, especially for the vocal parts that provide the harmonies. While sopranos typically carry the melody, the altos, tenors, and basses are tasked with singing harmony lines that, taken separately, don’t make melodic sense. Rather than a coherent melody, the harmony line is a series of intervals subject to dynamics and tempo controls but without much, if any, melodic sense. In other words, there is not a lot of enjoyment to be gained from listening to the performance of a harmony line in isolation.

The same is even truer in the marching band where not only do the harmony lines not make any melodic sense but the movements of an individual musician taken apart from the rest of the marching performance are nonsensical. Imagine watching a tuba player tracing her steps on the football field while dutifully playing her part of each song in the halftime show in succession but without the rest of the band. An observer in the stands would be unable to perceive any formation or even recognize any of the songs.

All of these, the bass section imitating drummers at Christmas, the tuba players in a marching band and the harmony singers in a choir, make sense only in the context of the musical performance. The intricate harmonies of the choral arrangement and the visual effect of the dynamic band formations provide the context in which the parts and performers take on meaning. While the parts are vital to each performance, they make sense only when taken together.

And that’s where Christmas music reminds me of the systems world. We know that systems are composed of parts that work together to produce results that transcend any that are possible for the parts taken separately. The same is true for the band or choir. The effect of hearing the parts sung or played together far exceeds anything obtainable by hearing each of the parts played solo in succession.

Christmas music also remind me that we cannot improve the system by optimizing the parts. You can have the greatest bass section in the world but if they cannot blend their sound with the other parts the performance will not be as good as it might. In order to be a good orchestra or choir the group must learn to play together. It is all well and good to be the best technical performer of your part but the most important ingredient in musical success turns on your ability to blend and harmonize and complement the rest of the group.

These same things are true of systems. Systems depend on the relationships and interactions of their elements for their character as systems. Like a choir made up of a number of individual musicians a system is composed of a number of individual parts or elements. And like the choir, the performance of the system depends on the interaction of its parts.

In addition, the optimization of the parts of a system cannot by itself achieve the improvement of system performance. This is illustrated in the music group, vocal or instrumental. Good musicians are necessary but improving the performance of the group turns on improving their interaction with each other.

So, every year at Christmas as I rehearse the intricate interactions of Handel’s Messiah or the flowing harmonies of Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter I get a refresher course in the systems discipline that is music. I am reminded that I am a part- perhaps even an important part- of the performance but the real magic is in the group interaction that brings to life the music that was born in the mind and ear of George and Gustav.

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