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The Life of Musical Forms

François-Bernard MÂCHE
p. 52

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Source: La lettre, no. 33, May 2012

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1There are countless studies of musical forms. We often split them into two main groups: those that associate forms with genres, or even styles (fugues, concertos, gavottes, recitatives, etc.); and those which, more or less overlooking functional or stylistic connotations, strive to analyse pure structural organizations, temporal architectures of sound. My intention here is to show that, rather than offering an alternative, both approaches are necessa­rily complementary, insofar as many temporal organizations are universals and as such cannot be reduced to cultural choices.

2Music that unfolded as an indefinite series of unforeseeable instants would elude any form. One could think that certain improvisations, or certain sequences of the “narrative” type, figure as examples of this. However, whether they stand as images of freedom or of pure chaos, this is but a utopian fantasy. The brain of the listener is shaped by the learning of language, and as such it is trained to break down any series of sounds into relevant elements. It therefore in any case places markers according to pauses, contrasts and recurrences, and tries to give a form even to the informal. If it does not succeed in doing so, it rejects what it hears as noise.

3The identification of an auditory phenomenon as being either music or noise does not result exclusively from the acceptance or refusal of a cultural convention, but also from the more or less spontaneous identification of recurrent invariants and of “interesting” deviations from these invariants. This is not only why music is considered to be noise when the perception of its invariants proves to be too difficult; but also, reciprocally, why a sequence of sounds which is not culturally defined as music may nonetheless be listened to as such, whether it be the wind, certain liturgical practices, or a chorus of wolves.

4In the latter case, we might perhaps be mistaken in talking of a purely metaphorical interpretation. Since the advent of sound recording and analysing devices, it has been possible to highlight a great many structural analogies between such phenomena and those of what is recognized as music. As we have long given up on establishing a purely acoustic distinction between noises and musical sounds, it would no doubt be appropriate also to re-evaluate this distinction according to general formal criteria. The world of sounds is not pure chaos, and inversely that of music has long been separated from the Apollonian order. What differentiates them is essentially qualitative: the perception of embodied intelligence in the dialectic between invariants and variations, what we call, for want of a better expression, a “musical sense”.

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François-Bernard MÂCHE, « The Life of Musical Forms », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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François-Bernard MÂCHE

Composer, musicologist, member of the Académie des beaux-arts

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