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What Is a Musical Idea?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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A musical idea is a concept expressed in music. Rather than being ideas about music, musical ideas are creations of composers that represent the conceptual pieces of their artwork. Some define a musical idea as the composition of a theme or musical combination. Others simply leave the definition of musical ideas up to the composer.

The use of the musical idea coincides with certain kinds of music philosophy. Many of these philosophies were more prominently entertained during the eras of classical or instrumental music than they are in today’s mainstream community of composers. While today’s music market could be seen as essentially market-driven, in previous eras of musical composition, music was a way to express a wide range of ideas, including but not limited to psychological impulses, commentaries, and even concepts in higher mathematics.

Experts point out that musical ideas are rarely accessed by the listeners. Many academics who teach music contend that musical ideas are typically at a higher level than what reaches the average listener. They are seen as a kind of elite aspect that only the trained musician can understand.

An example of musical ideas can be obtained by studying the use of fugues in the era of music in which they were primarily used. By assessing the overall construction and organization of the fugue, listeners could identify certain themes or patterns that some would call musical ideas. In trying to identify a musical idea, the listener might identify smaller parts of the music from arpeggios, counterpoint, and other types of note structures, to the repetition of motifs and other patterns in a greater musical setting.

Since the understanding of musical ideas is highly subjective, and quite solidly attached to similar theories, such as literary theory, it’s necessary for the seeker of musical ideas to read widely about musical composition and other art forms. Through evaluating how established composers come up with pieces of music, and learning more about how artistic theory works in general, the student can gradually develop a more vibrant idea of what would constitute a musical idea, and how these ideas might be expressed in sound. Reading the work of composers from different periods of time is also helpful for understanding the use of musical ideas in different eras.

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Discussion Comments
By clintflint — On Feb 08, 2015

@croydon - I think it might be partly that, but you've also got to remember that pop music is popular for a reason. It's the same reason food companies put chocolate and cheese on everything they can. Some things are widely liked, and they don't need to be original to achieve that.

Innovation is also good, but I don't like people being snobbish about it. Classics are classics for a reason.

By croydon — On Feb 07, 2015

@Ana1234 - I guess that's why a lot of people don't like abstract art. I think one of the most pleasurable things for the human brain is making associations and connections between one thing and another. We enjoy contextual meaning.

Which is why pop music is always going to be so much more popular than alternative or instrumental music. It makes its contextual meaning obvious with simple words and overused beats. Alternative music is trying to find a new way of saying things and the meaning and connections aren't going to be obvious for that reason. People don't like having to work for their meaning.

By Ana1234 — On Feb 07, 2015

I never really got the point of abstract art until someone started telling me about how it's something like music. Music is one of the only art forms which is easily and purely itself. Music doesn't have to be representing or describing something else, the way a painting or a poem usually is. The notes are not symbols, they are entities (or at least, they can be. Of course, a lot of music is supposed to be symbolic).

Abstract art is like an attempt to do the same thing, but with paint. That's why pieces are often named as numbers. A piece of abstract art exists as itself, rather than trying to represent something else.

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