Sound Bites: Tasting the Texture of Classical Music
AbstractHave you ever bitten into a thick, fragrant casserole and tasted the layers of flavor? Or maybe you've licked of a vanilla ice cream cone and thought, "This is so pure, simple, and refreshing!" These observations about the taste of the food are also comments on its texture—the casserole is complex and thick, and the vanilla ice cream cone is simple and thin. You might not realize it, but sound can also have texture. In this music science fair project, you'll learn how to "taste" the texture of music with your ear, and compare the texture differences in classical music from different time periods. Do you hear a rich stew of sound, or a fine, clear broth?
Kristin Strong, Science Buddies
To determine which musical time periods have the thinnest musical textures.
Remember when you were a baby? OK, of course you don't remember, but do you have any pictures of your first tries at eating solid foods? Pretty funny, huh? As a baby, you began eating solid foods that had a smooth texture, like rice cereal and pureed fruits. Although most of the food wound up on your face and on the floor, you then progressed to more textured foods, like mashed yams or bananas. Later still, and you began to pick up your first bits of cracker or dry cereal, and then you progressed to multiple textures, meaning with chewy and soft things in the same bite. Your parents soon learned what textures you liked, and the ones you didn't care for got blown out of your mouth or thrown. Even today, as a big kid, you might prefer chunky peanut butter over smooth, or you might enjoy a smooth, low-textured snack, like yogurt, over a highly textured, crunchy one, like popcorn or pretzels. Whatever you like, texture plays an important role in determining what foods you love, and which foods you think are... well... yucky.
Taste is not the only one of your senses where texture determines what you like. Texture is available to all of your senses. With touch, you might prefer the way smooth fabrics (like polyester, silk, or some cottons) feel, instead of chunkier, high-textured fabrics, like wool. With smell, you can find yourself in highly textured layers of aromas, like when you walk into a kitchen on Thanksgiving. Or smells can be simpler and low-textured—a single smell, like an orange. Visual texture is apparent in your environment, too; whether it is stark, simple, or spare (low-textured), or lush, layered, or cluttered (high-textured). Artists consider texture when they create their works, both for the way the work feels when you touch it, and the way it makes you feel when you look at it. If you look at these two paintings below, by the same artist, Yves Tanguy, what do you notice about the bottom parts of each painting? Does one feel "heavier," like it has greater density than the other? How does that make you feel?
Figure 1. This image shows a low-density and a high-density painting, by artist Yves Tanguy. (Wikipedia, 2009.)
Your sense of hearing also experiences texture. When you listen to a piece of music, you might hear sounds with a lot of "open space," like the painting on the left, or you might hear sounds that are crowded or layered, like the painting on the right. You can even describe music with the same words as you might use for something you can see or touch, such as thin or thick, as having low density or high density.
Examples of thin-textured or low-density music are:
- A person whistling a tune,
- A person singing, without being accompanied by an instrument,
- A group of people all singing the same melody, without instruments or harmonies, or
- A single instrument, like the bugle playing "Taps" at a funeral.
Examples of medium-textured music are:
- A singer accompanied by a guitar,
- A small jazz group, like a drum, piano, and bass, providing a background for a solo given by a trumpet, or
- A hit tune by a major pop singer.
Thick or highly textured music is heard when there is more than one melody occurring at the same time. Examples can often be found, at least some of the time, in:
- Music written for large groups of instruments, like bands or orchestras,
- Baroque music (like that of Johann Sebastian Bach) or,
- Music described as a canon, round, fugue, or an invention.
In this music science fair project, you'll compare classical music textures from each of four western, classical musical time periods: the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern eras. You'll listen to samples of music from each period and see which period has more "thin" samples, meaning music with a low density and more open space.
Terms and Concepts
- Average, as in math
- Which of your senses can experience texture?
- How does each one of your senses experience something that is highly textured? How about something that has a low texture?
- What does a low-density painting look like? How about a high-density painting?
- What examples of thin, open, or low-textured music can you think of? How about thick, dense, or highly textured examples?
These sources provide a discussion of musical texture and examples of density:
- Pearson Education. Silver Burdett Music Centennial Edition. Silver Burdett Company, 1985, pp. 240-249.
- Schmidt-Jones, C. (2008, January 8). The Textures of Music. Retrieved March 26, 2009.
These sources provide lists of musical composers, by time period:
- Cincinnati Public Radio, Inc. (2009). Musical Eras. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2009, February 25). List of classical musical composers. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 26, 2009.
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2009, March 24). List of 20th-century classical musical composers by birth date. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 26, 2009.
This source provides samples of classical music that you can listen to:
- Cincinnati Public Radio, Inc. (2009). Hear The Music. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
For help creating bar charts, try this website:
- National Center for Education Statistics (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved March 19, 2009.
Materials and Equipment
- Computer with an Internet connection
- Note: While it is not essential to have a computer with an Internet connection to do this music science fair project, a computer will make it easier to quickly access and listen to samples of music from different time periods.
- Classical music CD's; you can often borrow these from public libraries.
- CD player
- Lab notebook
- Graph paper
- Select five composers from each of the four musical time periods: the Baroque, the Classical, the Romantic, and the Modern eras. The Bibliography includes sources that provide the names of the possible composers within each time period.
- Select one musical composition for each of the 20 composers. For some well-known composers, you'll find online samples that you can listen to in the Bibliography. For other composers, you will need to do online searches to find samples, or listen to samples on CD's.
- Create a data table for each trial (you will perform three trials for each composition), like the one below, listing each composer, along with his or her composition, in the appropriate musical era. Include a column for evaluating the texture of the composition.
Trial 1 Data Table
|Baroque Era||Classical Era||Romantic Era||Modern Era|
|Composers and compositions||Thin texture? (0=No; 1=Yes)||Composers and compositions||Thin texture? (0=No; 1=Yes)||Composers and compositions||Thin texture? (0=No; 1=Yes)||Composers and compositions||Thin texture? (0=No; 1=Yes)|
|Total Thin Texture Score:||Total Thin Texture Score:||Total Thin Texture Score:||Total Thin Texture Score:|
Listen to a 2-minute sample of each musical composition that you have selected. If, at any point in the sample, you hear an example of "thin" texture, or low musical density, where:
- Only a single instrument is playing, or
- Multiple instruments are playing the same melody simultaneously, with no harmonics or background music, then score that composition a "1"; otherwise score that composition a "0." Record the score in your data table.
- Repeat steps 3–4 two more times, so that you have a total of three trials for each piece of music. However, be sure to choose a different 2-minute section of the composition to listen to each time you run a trial.
- Add up the total Thin Texture scores for each of the musical eras in each of the three data tables. For example, if you had scores of 1, 0, 0, 1, 1 for the Modern era in your Trial 1 data table, then you would write a score of "3" down in the Trial 1 Data Table for the Modern era's total thin texture score, since 1+0+0+1+1 equals 3.
- Average the total thin texture scores from each musical time period and write down the averages in a data table, like the one below. For example, if your Total Thin Texture Score for the Modern era was a "3" in your Trial 1 Data Table, a "5" in your Trial 2 Data Table, and a "4" in your Trial 3 Data Table, then you would write down "4" for the Average Total Thin Texture Score in the Modern era, since 3+5+4, divided by 3 (the number of trials) equals 4.
Average Total Thin Texture Score Data Table
|Musical Time Period||Average Total Thin Texture Score|
- Create a bar chart showing the average total thin texture score on the y-axis and the music time period on the x-axis. You can make the chart by hand or use a website like Create a Graph to make the chart on the computer and print it.
- Looking at your bar chart, which musical era had compositions with the most "open sound" or the thinnest texture on average? Which musical era has the densest texture on average (was closest to 0)? Can you think of a reason why the musical texture might change by era?
Ask an Expert
- Include other musical time periods, like the Medieval and the Renaissance eras, in your analysis.
- Select one composer and evaluate the musical texture of his or her compositions over time. Did the texture vary, or did it stay the same over time?
- Select one composer and evaluate the musical texture of his or her compositions in the beginning, middle, and end of each composition. Does the composer have consistent patterns of musical texture throughout his or her compositions?
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers: