what is "momentum"?

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ratsrcute
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what is "momentum"?

Post by ratsrcute » Fri Mar 09, 2012 1:45 am

My composition teacher advised me to think about including sections with "momentum." He said momentum is satisfying.

I know what it is-- intuitively, anyway. I recognize it when I hear it. But I have looked deeper. It's not that obvious.

Music with a fast, unrelenting pulse certainly has momentum. Is momentum equivalent to "fast"?

No, I think slow music can have momentum. It seems to be more related to "regularity" of rhythm than to speed of it. When new notes come on a fairly regular, fairly predictable basis, then it feels like the piece is moving.

Is momentum, therefore, equivalent to "regularity"?

I don't think that is quite true, either. I've noticed something. Let's say the music has a mostly-regular rhythm. But at one particular beat, a note is held longer than average. Now we ask, what is the rhythm of the next few notes? If they come faster-than-average, then it seems to preserve momentum.

What's special about a situation in which one note is held longer, and the following notes are shorter? One thing is that a note held especially long creates some tension due to the unexpected nature of the duration. Then several fast notes seem to release that tension. So in some way, this satisfies our expectations.

Momentum might have something to do with a combination of tempo, regularity and predictability.

But can we precisely define it? I doubt it. It's probably one of those concepts which is so bound up with a sophisticated understanding of human perception that it can't be made mathematically precise.

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by Lance » Fri Mar 09, 2012 2:53 am

I have heard the term "momentum" for most of my life in the world of music. I probably learned what it meant best when I listened to a pianist from New York City (quite elderly), who taught piano. Often when she played, certain sections would "lose the pace" either because of some difficulty in getting the technique or losing "momentum" from a sheer lack of confidence. It became a natural for me to pick up on the lack of momentum in all musical performances, recorded or live. People listening may not necessarily know "why" they suddenly lose interest in a piece of music when lack of momentum presents itself. I don't believe it could be called "faster" or "slower," but a change in the overall "pulse" of the music, which is probably a better term. Just my thoughts on the subject.
ratsrcute wrote:My composition teacher advised me to think about including sections with "momentum." He said momentum is satisfying.

I know what it is-- intuitively, anyway. I recognize it when I hear it. But I have looked deeper. It's not that obvious.

Music with a fast, unrelenting pulse certainly has momentum. Is momentum equivalent to "fast"?

No, I think slow music can have momentum. It seems to be more related to "regularity" of rhythm than to speed of it. When new notes come on a fairly regular, fairly predictable basis, then it feels like the piece is moving.

Is momentum, therefore, equivalent to "regularity"?

I don't think that is quite true, either. I've noticed something. Let's say the music has a mostly-regular rhythm. But at one particular beat, a note is held longer than average. Now we ask, what is the rhythm of the next few notes? If they come faster-than-average, then it seems to preserve momentum.

What's special about a situation in which one note is held longer, and the following notes are shorter? One thing is that a note held especially long creates some tension due to the unexpected nature of the duration. Then several fast notes seem to release that tension. So in some way, this satisfies our expectations.

Momentum might have something to do with a combination of tempo, regularity and predictability.

But can we precisely define it? I doubt it. It's probably one of those concepts which is so bound up with a sophisticated understanding of human perception that it can't be made mathematically precise.
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John F
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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by John F » Fri Mar 09, 2012 3:20 am

Momentum in the music itself, or what's sometimes called forward motion, may be something you feel rather than something definable in the work. I don't think it has to do with regularity and predictability but with a certain kind of continuity and impulse. Many movements in Beethoven are quite irregular and unpredictable but still marked by a powerful sense of momentum, but it ebbs and flows; even the finale of the 7th Symphony, the next thing to a perpetuum mobile, slackens momentum toward the end of the development, then picks up again when the recapitulation begins. Musical momentum is most obvious in fast music - all the examples I've thought of off the top of my head have been fast - but the tempo need not be constant; music that speeds up may seem to gain momentum, just as music that slows down may seem to lose it.
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ratsrcute
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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by ratsrcute » Fri Mar 09, 2012 3:31 am

I think you guys have brought up some key elements in addition to rhythm.

Lance--- I think it has a lot to do with the sense that each new arrival in some way captivates the attention, and perhaps the overall pace of arrival of "new fascination."

John, I definitely agree, but let me point out you are dealing with higher-level concepts. I do think that "predictability" is important on a nuts-and-bolts level--- which is a different idea than saying something is "predictable, i.e. boring." As listeners we have certain expectations regarding phrasing, tension-and-release, and other things, and it is satisfying when the music fulfills those in some way (while still managing to surprise us), and a lot of that can be identified in the mechanics.

Some composers (maybe some cultures) are interested in music that DOESN'T have momentum but rather the opposite, stasis.

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by John F » Fri Mar 09, 2012 4:13 am

I guess I'd say that some of Beethoven's music that exemplifies what I'd call momentum is not predictable on the "nuts and bolts" level, if by that you mean phrasing and tension-and-release. A feature of Beethoven's style is a consistent tendency, suggestting to a basic intention, to contradict expectations on the micro as well as the macro level, creating surprise, while maintaining unity in other ways. (There are exceptions, of course, such as the metronome movement of the 8th symphony, a joke by other means than surprise except at the very end.) Shifting composers, much music by Stravinsky is so irregular in its rhythms and phrasing as to be unpredictable from one bar to the next, cf. movement I of the Symphony in Three Movements. Any other characteristics you'd add to these two?
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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by absinthe » Fri Mar 09, 2012 9:08 am

It's a weird metaphor. How can the progression of music be considered the product of velocity and mass? What indeed is musical velocity? The marked tempo? Mass - the density of the scoring?

I've listened to a fair few pieces in different performances where the feeling of drive, pushing forward has little to do with 1/4 note = (whatever).

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by John F » Fri Mar 09, 2012 10:00 am

The metaphor is extremely common. It's used in politics, in sports, in all kinds of things, to indicate a trend that looks hard to stop. Of course the so-called momentum of, say, the New York Yankees last season wasn't literally "the product of velocity and mass." It's a metaphor. But it expresses a meaning, describes a phenomenon, that people understand, and expresses it more economically and vividly than a more literal form of words could do.

In music, momentum doesn't have to do with pushing forward or drive, I think, but with continuing in motion uninterruptedly.
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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by nut-job » Fri Mar 09, 2012 10:43 am

I think your teacher is the only person who can say for sure what he meant by "momentum." Newton's definition of momentum as mass times velocity was an elaboration of an existing concept, which meant "the power residing in a moving object" (as Wikipedia phrases it). I don't regard use of the term as a metaphor so much as a return to the original meaning.

The character of music which I associate with momentum involves several factors. Having a steady rhythmic pulse is part of it. But the music must also have a sense of purpose. It must move forward in a forceful manner. I often perceive "momentum" in motific development, in which a persistent motif is presented in a music context that continuously intensifies. Something that comes to mind is the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No 41. The exposition section is brought to to a close with a charming, little tune. As the development section begins the main motif from that tune is the subject of a fugato passage which starts out simple and delicate but becomes more an more intense, melodically, harmonically, dynamically and in terms of orchestration. That's what I mean when I say music has "momentum."
Last edited by nut-job on Fri Mar 09, 2012 11:04 am, edited 4 times in total.

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by Lance » Fri Mar 09, 2012 10:56 am

I like that last statement.
John F wrote:The metaphor is extremely common. It's used in politics, in sports, in all kinds of things, to indicate a trend that looks hard to stop. Of course the so-called momentum of, say, the New York Yankees last season wasn't literally "the product of velocity and mass." It's a metaphor. But it expresses a meaning, describes a phenomenon, that people understand, and expresses it more economically and vividly than a more literal form of words could do.

In music, momentum doesn't have to do with pushing forward or drive, I think, but with continuing in motion uninterruptedly.
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absinthe
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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by absinthe » Fri Mar 09, 2012 11:15 am

John F wrote: In music, momentum doesn't have to do with pushing forward or drive, I think, but with continuing in motion uninterruptedly.
Even weirder then as inertia seems to fit better. From Wiki:

"Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion"

Which probably explains why musical momentum means nothing to me. I know that experiential phenomena can't be communicated (on the same basis that if I tell you I have a toothache there's no way you can know what my particular toothache is like) there's a tendency to relate what we can to some externally recognisable object or state metaphorically. Like chromatic music is coloured music...for what reason I don't know (to me it means notes/chords alien to the current key of the work).

Ah well. The end of the Rite of Spring is a giant apple falling on a physicist's head....

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by maestrob » Fri Mar 09, 2012 11:21 am

Momentum can be found in certain recordings of great music that move forward in an unrelenting way, and is found in music of all tempi, whether slow or fast. It's what makes music an emotional experience instead of just an aural one.

In your place, I would study Toscanini's Beethoven as a prime source: there's an inevitability in his readings that really sets an example. Also his Tchaikovsky VI with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

A great example of momentum in a slow movement would be either Szell's reading of Bruckner VIII or his Mahler IV. Szell knew how to build an effective climax, and these are prime examples. (Try Szell's Beethoven IX also.)

Your next step would be to search out other recordings for examples on your own: this could be the beginning of a critical ear for music that could strongly influence your composing.

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by John F » Fri Mar 09, 2012 12:12 pm

absinthe wrote:
John F wrote: In music, momentum doesn't have to do with pushing forward or drive, I think, but with continuing in motion uninterruptedly.
Even weirder then as inertia seems to fit better. From Wiki:
Actually, it doesn't fit at all, as inertia also applies to objects that aren't moving and resist being set in motion, the opposite of momentum, and for most laypeople, that's its only meaning. With good reason, considering the meaning of the root word "inert."

"Momentum" has served as the conventional metaphor for this phenomenon in music and other contexts for a long time, everybody knows what it means, and there's no good reason to abandon it.
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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by Chalkperson » Fri Mar 09, 2012 11:18 pm

I thought momentum was the way you got to being momentous... :wink:
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ratsrcute
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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by ratsrcute » Sat Mar 10, 2012 9:30 am

John F wrote:The metaphor is extremely common. It's used in politics, in sports, in all kinds of things, to indicate a trend that looks hard to stop. Of course the so-called momentum of, say, the New York Yankees last season wasn't literally "the product of velocity and mass." It's a metaphor. But it expresses a meaning, describes a phenomenon, that people understand, and expresses it more economically and vividly than a more literal form of words could do.

In music, momentum doesn't have to do with pushing forward or drive, I think, but with continuing in motion uninterruptedly.
I like "trend that looks hard to stop." I think that may be the best succinct definition of momentum in music I've seen.

I would disagree that momentum means "uninterrupted." There is a common pattern in music, which is this: music is moving forward in some uninterrupted way (that probably means it has non-slow repeated rhythms) and then suddenly "switches gears" to something else which feels slower or quieter. If the original music returns but with a sense of greater force, that is one way of conveying momentum. It gives the impression that the original music is "hard to stop" -- so when there is an interruption, the "pressure is building" and eventually the dam bursts with extra-intense music.

This kind of pattern is what I mean by "nuts and bolts" level of music -- composers study common patterns like these. It's often used just before a climax (the calm before the storm).

Your word "trend" ("trend that looks hard to stop") applies as well. Some of the other posters here have identified momentum as involving a trend, involving something building in intensity or complexity. I like to say it involves a constant arrival of "new fascination" --- so it's not just about an uninterrupted pattern (the term "uninterrupted" implies it has something to do with rhythm, and it's not just about rhythm) but about a sense that each new arrival of notes is attention-grabbing in some way.

So put it together, "trend that looks hard to stop" is the best definition I've seen.

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by John F » Sat Mar 10, 2012 9:38 am

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by diegobueno » Wed Mar 14, 2012 8:13 am

ratsrcute wrote: I would disagree that momentum means "uninterrupted." There is a common pattern in music, which is this: music is moving forward in some uninterrupted way (that probably means it has non-slow repeated rhythms) and then suddenly "switches gears" to something else which feels slower or quieter. If the original music returns but with a sense of greater force, that is one way of conveying momentum. It gives the impression that the original music is "hard to stop" -- so when there is an interruption, the "pressure is building" and eventually the dam bursts with extra-intense music.
A good example of this is the Adagio of Bruckner's 8th symphony. He constantly interrupts the build towards the climax. There is a succession of peaks, with their attendant valleys, but each peak gets a little bit higher, and the splendid climax is all the more powerful for not having been arrived at directly. Bruckner could not have achieved the effect of that climax without the myriad interruptions delaying its arrival, nor could he have stopped and gone no farther than one of the lesser peaks. There's something in the whole design of the movement, its length and its weight, that show you he's aiming for something higher.

That's why I'm surprised your teacher talks about writing sections with "more momentum". Shouldn't the whole composition have momentum? Perhaps your teacher simply means that you flit from one idea to the next, with so many changes of direction that there ultimately doesn't seem to be a direction. In that case, he would definitely be thinking of uninterrupted motion. As one of my composition teachers remarked to me, "it may have taken you a long time to write this passage, but it's still going to go by in a few seconds. You need to think about how it plays in real performance time."
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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by nut-job » Wed Mar 14, 2012 8:39 am

Diegobueno's take on the subject is similar to what I was trying to express when I said that momentum was associated with a 'sense of purpose' or persistent use of a musical element in a context that relentlessly intensifies.

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by Marc » Wed Mar 14, 2012 9:22 pm

John F wrote:The metaphor is extremely common. It's used in politics, in sports, in all kinds of things, to indicate a trend that looks hard to stop. Of course the so-called momentum of, say, the New York Yankees last season wasn't literally "the product of velocity and mass." It's a metaphor. But it expresses a meaning, describes a phenomenon, that people understand, and expresses it more economically and vividly than a more literal form of words could do.
In sports, it's all about gaining momentum, losing momentum and regaining momentum.
F.i.: the Yankees are in a flow, then suddenly their best player gets injured, and they lose the momentum and it's taken over by their opponent.
John F wrote:In music, momentum doesn't have to do with pushing forward or drive, I think, but with continuing in motion uninterruptedly.
Sounds good. And if so, then the teacher would have meant momentum perpetuum? Like a fugue of Bach?

It's an interesting subject for sure. Maybe the teacher just wants more density of tension in a composition, without the chance that the 'momentum' gets lost?

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by ratsrcute » Wed Mar 14, 2012 11:34 pm

diegobueno wrote: That's why I'm surprised your teacher talks about writing sections with "more momentum". Shouldn't the whole composition have momentum? Perhaps your teacher simply means that you flit from one idea to the next
I'd like to make a distinction between "momentum as a good aspect of the whole composition" and "momentum as opposed to stasis as a characteristic of the small-scale." I think he was talking about the latter --- the composition had a number of sections without continuously flowing rhythms, which in itself is not a bad thing, but there was too much of it. He suggested I put in a more flowing section as a contrast (or even the main course).

What I mean by "Interruptions" can be small-scale or large-scale. It can be as tiny as a single lengthened note followed by a few quick notes (the extra quick notes serve as something that preserves the momentum, because they suggest the pressure was building for the longer note). If the main rhythm is eighth notes, then a single dotted-eighth followed by two 32-nd notes fits this pattern.

If you put in a quite a number of lengthened notes without doing something else to preserve the momentum, I think it can change the feel from "movement" to "stasis" at least for that local section.

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by IcedNote » Wed Mar 14, 2012 11:56 pm

diegobueno wrote:As one of my composition teachers remarked to me, "it may have taken you a long time to write this passage, but it's still going to go by in a few seconds. You need to think about how it plays in real performance time."
Just a note that I had that thought expressed to me last week by my current teacher, almost verbatim. :)

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Re: what is "momentum"?

Post by diegobueno » Thu Mar 15, 2012 8:39 am

IcedNote wrote:
diegobueno wrote:As one of my composition teachers remarked to me, "it may have taken you a long time to write this passage, but it's still going to go by in a few seconds. You need to think about how it plays in real performance time."
Just a note that I had that thought expressed to me last week by my current teacher, almost verbatim. :)

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