On Hierarchies & Importance


On Hierarchies & Importance

Amelia Chan


I like to stay away from describing certain notes being more important than others. To me a piece of music is like a painting. One could not leave out any patch of color or shape in the background of a painting – no matter how small. Literally every color and  shade that occupies the canvas is absolutely essential. And short of that, no serious painter would think that it’s any less important to work on the background only because it’s not the subject.

By thinking that there’s a hierarchy in music-that certain notes are more important than others-even within the same voice, to me changes the essence of the entire thing-the what it is and what it isn’t. I teach a string ensemble where the kids who play the accompaniment would sometimes complain of being bored as they are “only” holding long notes or playing repeated eighths. (Frankly I don’t even like the word “accompaniment”, but admitted there are times material is written in a way that the word does carry some truth.) Just like the background of a painting, those long notes or repeated eighths need to carry just as much energy, shape, and nuance. The equality in a painting applies in the same way.

While different notes are all important, they all need their own distinct qualities. Just like on a canvas, some are supposed to be more in the foreground; some more in the back. Some more opaque; some more transparent. They have different kinds of weight, mass, density, texture. They can even have different altitudes: sometimes going with pitch direction, sometimes against. And all this even before considering the spaces between the notes. Music is motion. I like to feel how all the notes have their own individual, almost physical place, in this dynamic 3-dimensional aural world.

Without hierarchy, it means that to ”follow” another line (e.g., the melody) takes on a different meaning from the literal sense of the word. I recently read an interview of Alan Alda’s. He describes an improv exercise called the mirror exercise where whatever person A does, B has to instantaneously do the same thing. One learns that the person initiating the movement will have to take responsibility to help the other person mirror you (e.g., by not going too fast); and also that the person mirroring will have to observe the initiator so carefully that they can almost predict what they’re going to do. Otherwise it would be impossible for things to happen instantaneously. To me this same principle applies to playing. “Following” will often put one ever so slightly late. And even if the timings match, that kind of togetherness creates more of a 2-dimensional stacking (like stacking legos), rather than a true collective coming together, a real unity. Stacking is two-dimensional, but true togetherness gives you mass, girth, depth, power, and infinitely more. And here’s the thing: to me the beauty and magic of music is that sometimes it is precisely the imprecision that enables the creation of the illusion of togetherness. Imagine a (good)pianist aligning all the notes together vertically at all times. It would sound robotic and just ridiculous really. Why would we aim to do that in chamber music or even in orchestra? In the video here of Annie Fischer playing, you can hear how she sometimes ever so slightly splits even just a simple third in the same hand, let alone a melodic note with the harmony.

While I’m isolating this one particular example of how she manipulates notes to create voicing and texture, I’m not trying to reduce this beautiful performance to some kind of technical analysis. This touches me so much – I almost always get tears listening to it.


Or, tell these guys in a barbershop quartet that those not singing the melody line are less important and that they might as well just phone it in… And are they really “following” the melody here? Everyone is as much the driver. In fact, it’s most likely a give and take, where certain voices do drive a bit more or less at different times because of harmonic context.

Is playing Beethoven so different from what these guys do in terms of being together? If you ask me, us classical musicians have a lot to learn from how those from other genres jam and groove together.


I watched a Carlos Kleiber rehearsal video on youtube years ago (which I can no longer find) where he instructs the violin section to make sure to only wait until they’ve heard another player come in before they creep in with their note, to need to “guess” when to come in as the mood of the music calls for hesitancy and doubt there. To play “together” is not an already defined state, but an illusion that one can only try to create by sometimes even doing the opposite. And what it means to be together in different places can be vastly different. It’s context-dependent.

It’s like that in life, too, isn’t it? One can’t always be in step with another, metaphorically and otherwise. If only it were that easy. It takes so much more than lining things up. It takes real work. Continual work. There’s no done and you’re all good from here on. But when true togetherness happens – in music or otherwise – that’s when magic happens. I don’t think we can expect magic too often, but is that a reason to not strive for it? Or change the definition of that magical state to something more “practical” and achievable and more relatable just so we can feel more accomplished? If anything, we’re lucky as musicians this way. It is so much easier to find magic in music than in real life. Why go for mere competence or excellence (which I’d argue isn’t even the point-only a side effect), and make ourselves that much poorer by not going for the magic – for what music IS – even if it means that we won’t find it every single time.


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