The Sin of Failure to Consider the Role of Proportion

Mike Lawson • CommentaryJanuary 2024 • January 8, 2024

The renowned author Ken Follet proclaimed, “Proportion is the heart of all beauty.”  If that assessment rings true there perhaps is no sin more daunting to address than the role of proportion in music making. The artistry of making music ultimately evolves into the creation of some kind of relationship intended to achieve both contrast and unity. When it is all said and done, the aspiration must be to realize the harmonious relationship of parts to each other and ultimately, the relationship of the collective parts to the whole.

Let’s begin with the supposition that there is proportion embedded in any musical score worthy of performance.  A simple ABA overture or other work for even young ensembles has the potential to contain some degree of proportion. It might be obvious, perhaps subtle, or even hidden in the fabric of the music simply waiting to be discovered and revealed to the conductor, musicians, and listeners. 

Our joyful task becomes one of making conscious, thoughtful decisions about how the elements of music such as tempo, dynamics, articulation, pacing, nuance, and so on (the other sins) intersect and combine in a fashion that brings to life the artistry, unity, and magic of the noiseless notes and rhythms resting on the page.  Certainly, there can be more than one interpretation. There always is more than one right answer. Ultimately, the goal is to create a pleasing aesthetic through the unification of all musical elements. To ponder a score and make no personal assessments as to “how the music goes” is, without question, a musical misdeed. A failure to consider proportion is a sin.

Proportion can be found in many guises. Let’s look at a few. 

First examine tempo relationships. Since the development of the metronome composers have been increasingly specific regarding their expectations for performance tempos.  Many view this layer of specificity as non-negotiable while others see it as a point of reference. (See Sin # 4, June 2023). Perhaps far more important than the clicks on an electronic device might be the relationship between multiple tempos in each musical work. If one feels a slightly different “comfort zone” for a certain tempo perhaps that deviation should be factored into the relationship between all tempos in the work so the proportions between the various tempos remains consistent with the composer’s intent. Certainly, there are exceptions, but this is an element of proportion that must be contemplated.

So, what about dynamics? Here it is essential to step back and examine structure and flow of the entire composition. In the case of dynamic contrast pacing is everything.  It is so easy to have too much dynamic contrast too soon or there not be enough dynamic inflection until it is too late. One example might be a work destined to reach the dynamic high point of the composition in the final moments, but the ensemble’s maximum dynamic volume has been in play for measures before. When the real moment of magic arrives all the performers can do is let their eyes get bigger!  There is no reserve volume to achieve that paramount moment. Conversely, a work that ends with a final diminuendo into silence must be approached with enough volume to allow the ending nienti to be compelling. Proportion and pacing are the key.

Articulation must also be factored into the aesthetic of proportion (See Sin #1, October 2022). All accents are not created equal. There is a plethora of ways to interpret a staccato, tenuto or other articulation marking. The bottom line, all articulations are not to be styled equally. Subtle shading of articulation can enhance the ebb and flow of the musical intent. Perhaps as the volume increases, a more forceful “front end” to the notes can enhance the intensity of the moment or create a stronger sense of line. (See Sin #5, August 2023)

There is a final consideration to address. For this discussion let’s keep it simple. The Golden Ratio is a mathematical formula dating back to the Greeks. It can be observed in art, nature, architecture and certainly in music. One can even argue humankind is hardwired to embrace this phenomenon. If you want to know more about the mathematical basis of the Golden Ratio or Divine Proportion, simply do an online search and you will find more than enough to satisfy your curiosity.  In simplest terms it translates into a ratio of roughly two-thirds to one-third.  A few pieces that exemplify this magical moment include Shenandoah – Ticheli, Irish Tune from County Derry – Grainger, Sheltering Sky – Mackey and October – Whitacre. Certainly, you can name many others. In this genre of works, how we arrive at that magical “phi moment” becomes the essence of all the composition seeks to achieve. 

Let me be clear. This central musical priority is not held in reserve for only advanced music makers.  It lies at the very core of experiencing music at every level. Ponder the following reflection by an eighth grader after preparing and performing Brian Balmages’ “Lullaby to the Moon.”   

“I would kill to play this song again. The rush and anticipation of getting to the climax of the song. Then the relief after getting there and calming down! What an amazing song to make me feel that way.”

I rest my case.

It has been my pleasure to share these brief glimpses into the content of my book, The Seven Deadly Sins of Music Making published by GIA. Please explore a more in-depth discussion of our sins as well as a synopsis of what it means to be an “artist teacher.”

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