Formengattung

Last week our intrepid annotators finally delved deep into our Classical corpus. Although it doesn't look like we'll need to reword any of our analysis guidelines, the sheer variety of structural styles was a challenge. Some of the music was very easy to annotate—for instance, square-form dance pieces and the like. Other pieces with more development, such as motets, fugues, and Romantic-era sonatas, were markedly more difficult. Finally, there were those pieces that seemed nigh on impossible to annotate effectively: notably, a Steve Reich phase piece, and a Webern string quartet movement. The consistency of people's annotations seemed to vary accordingly.

The solution, regrettably, seems to be to avoid music from the latter category for now. The annotators will simply flag works that are too "weird" to annotate in a reasonable amount of time, and we can deal with them all together at the end. Until then, we can all ponder the question: how would you explain a Steve Reich phase piece to a computer that needs to learn how to annotate form?

As this project continues, it's become more and more evident that the approach to analyzing the structure of a piece depends very strongly on what Ichiro Fujinaga has dubbed formal genre. The formal genre of a piece is partly determined by the piece's form-bearing elements (to borrow a phrase from Stephen McAdams), or those features of the piece that one must attend to to understand its structure. In most pop songs, the different melodies may be enough to define the structure; in a standard jazz piece, the looping sequence of harmonies might be the most important form-bearing element; the analysis gets still more abstract when one turns to classical music. But formal genre doesn't depend on stylistic genre: there are pop pieces that are as formally complex as a Romantic-era sonata; there are pop-jazz fusion songs that demand partial abstraction—sometimes attending to melody, sometimes to harmony; and there are plenty of classical pieces whose structure is as straightforward as anything on "Please Please Me."

Let's make it official: a piece of music's formal genre, or formengattung, indicates those aspects of the piece which are form-bearing, and what analytical approach is required to address the music satisfactorily.

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