Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

3.1: The Language of Transformation

  • Page ID
    56453
  • In the Introductory section of “Sound Reasoning,” we focused on listening to the overall “story of what happens” in a musical work. In this Intermediate section of the course, we move from a more global, comprehensive view to a more detail-oriented examination. We visit the composer’s workshop to study how musical content is created.

    In order to understand verbal rhetoric, you need to know the meaning of words. In order to understand music, you need to comprehend the language of transformation.

    If a listener does not connect with the music’s development, then he or she may notice instrumental colors and perceive gestures and flow, but he or she will miss the music’s content. It would be like going to a Shakespeare play and paying attention to the costumes and scenery and vocal inflections but not the meaning of the words. When you speak the language of transformation, music has a much greater impact. A listener conversant in the language of transformation can cast their net of awareness into the music and catch many of the thematic and motivic references. The more the listener is familiar with the piece, the finer this net becomes. The purpose of the modules that follow is to enable you to construct that net.

    Whereas words can describe transformation; music actually enacts it. A rose may wither, a hero grow strong, but the words “rose” and “hero” themselves do not change. In music, the sounds and patterns develop. Thus, when you speak the language of transformation, you are able to follow the fate of the musical material.

    In order to learn the language of transformation, we first need to establish how musical identity is created. We will then examine how identity can refashioned.

    The following interactive exercise will illustrate the language of transformation:

    First, please listen to Nicolo Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for violin:


    Now, listen to the following five excerpts. Four of these were composed by different composers as variations of Paganini’s theme: That is, they preserve the identity of Paganini’s theme but modify it in some way. One of the excerpts is not based on Paganini’s theme. If Paganini’s theme indeed has a tangible identity, you should be able to pick out the “impostor.”


    If you can recognize which excerpts fit with Paganini’s theme, you are already speaking the language of transformation. Hopefully, you were able to discriminate that the fourth excerpt was “not Paganini:” It is a work by Robert Schumann based on another Paganini Caprice.

     As we study the language of transformation, we will be able to refine our understanding of what unites the Paganini theme and its variations. In music, so much of the work’s message hinges on identity and transformation: the make-up of a musical idea and how long it is maintained; and how fast development happens, how long it lasts and how far it goes.

    • Was this article helpful?