The Quadrant Framework for Style Analysis in Music

October 1, 1981

Musicians intuitively perceive much more about style analysis than they may realize. For example, experienced performer-listeners can almost infallibly recognize their favorite composers, yet only rarely can they say precisely which characteristics enable them to make the identification. The missing link here is a comprehensive framework that can provide cues for observation, and storage categories for conclusions in our memories. By reference to a consistent framework for all our musical thinking we can reorganize previous knowledge (such as the generalized ability to recognize composers) in new conceptual patterns that increase our ability to communicate ideas about musical style. At the same time we may also discover new capacities of personal response as yet undeveloped. Equally important, the mastery of a natural, logical approach enables the teacher to respond with an instant, well-organized answer to many unexpected questions in the classroom.

Any such framework must take into account the dual aspects of musical shape and movement (form and process); the division of musical events into large and small dimensions (the whole and the parts); and finally the strands or elements in the musical fabric—the familiar categories of sound, harmony, melody, and rhythm. The separation of these individual strands often permits a more consistent and insightful observation of style characteristics than a more generalized approach would produce.

A decade ago I made an attempt to construct just such a comprehensive framework for music in the Guidelines for Style Analysis (New York: Norton, 1970). In the ensuing years, experiences of colleagues who have used the Guidelines as well as many generations of students and a Summer Seminar of teachers supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities amply justify one conclusion: the framework suggested by the "cue-sheet" has been highly successful in stimulating researchers to develop their own faculties for observation—sometimes accumulating even more details of style than can be effectively used.1 The next step, however, proves to be more difficult and did not receive sufficient consideration in the Guidelines: How can one arrange these "raw" stylistic observations in a set of convincing conclusions that in turn can be presented in prose or lecture form? In the course of many experiments to develop a new framework that would carry through from observations to a "prose-ready" outline, a four-section or quadrant configuration has emerged as the most effective solution. This easily remembered framework, which can be used in an extremely simple version or elaborated to any appropriate depth of sophistication, makes sure that observation and conclusion run parallel to the musical process, the unfolding of shape and movement in various dimensions according to the composer's choices of musical elements.2 The quadrants of the new comprehensive framework—large shape, large movement; small shape, small movement—can be arranged concisely on a basic chart as follows:

I. Large-dimension shape III. Large-dimension movement
Main divisions of a piece es- Broad changes in activity of
tablished by punctuations in SHMRG.
III. Small-dimension shape IV. Small-dimension movement
Lesser structural units Detailed activity from ten-
formed by changes in sion and release cycles in


The distinction between shape and movement that is central to comprehensive style analysis can be more easily understood if we realize that it closely parallels the course of life itself, again a duality of actual happening blending into memory, as passing events change into our personal history. Though at any particular moment the borderline between movement and shape may seem hazy, at the end of a piece and often at points of significant punctuation, the relationship of these two aspects becomes clear: shape is the memory of movement. By constructing a framework for analysis that reflects this fundamental duality we conserve in part the creative flow of experience that may otherwise be endangered by theoretical abstraction.

A few illustrations may serve to clarify this often elusive duality. Change of key, for example, contributes to shape when it punctuates the musical flow and makes us aware of the segments of a piece; it contributes to movement in our sense of progression and accomplishment on reaching a new harmonic area. Changes of texture, such as the shifts between tutti and solo in a concerto, obviously create strong punctuations and consciousness of the "building blocks" in the shape of a piece; at the same time, however, we also feel a clear difference in movement between the broad, generalized gestures of the tutti and the more elaborate line and nuance of the solo. More elusive, perhaps, but equally important is the contribution of rhythm to the shape-movement duality: for shape this concerns questions such as the proportion of sections and the large-scale contrasts created by changes in meter or rhythmic texture (think of the striking differences in motion between homorhythmic chorales and contrapuntal choruses in an oratorio). For movement the contribution of rhythm emerges in the immediate changes in activity, noticeable most directly in the changing density in the actual number of notes that we hear in each bar.

The essential process of shape is punctuation; the essential process of movement is change. Here again duality is inescapable—these essences both derive from the same experience: there can be no punctuation without change, which at the same moment creates movement. Yet for shape this change defines the parts of a whole, while for movement change defines new sources of activity. One heartening thought: if these distinctions seem unduly elusive, a decision in either direction cannot go far wrong. The important analytic achievement lies in the perception of stylistic events; once recorded they can be (and should be) interpreted in many ways, like music itself.

As a final, concrete example of the shape-movement duality we can study the end of the exposition of the first movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 88 (Ex. 1).



Ex. 1 Haydn, Symphony No. 88: I, bars 97-115

Sharp punctuation: tutti followed by rests Texture change: tutti to duetting strings
Long chord-rhythms Dynamic change: forte to piano/pp
Double-bar (mainly visual and psychological) Unresolved harmony
Surprise modulation

Here the punctuations of the double-bar and rests indicate the end of an important division of the piece; but even while obviously determining shape in these respects, the same characteristics also produce movement, the rests prolonging and heightening the tension of the seventh-chord just before the double-bar. Furthermore, while the changes from tutti to various partial textures and from forte to piano or pianissimo all emphasize punctuation, the tension of uncertainty created by these changes confirms the irresolution and implied forward movement of the final chord. Similarly, the contrast between the stability of the D major chord before the double-bar and the ambiguity of the following incomplete chords can be heard as punctuation; but the ear will tend to identify this contrast even more as a source of movement, particularly since the surprise modulation to A-flat (bars 108-13) lacks full conviction because of the unresolved E-flat in the bass. Finally, the blocky, homorhythmic texture of the tutti forcefully terminates the shape of the exposition, but at the same time it erects a heavy background against which the quick interchanges of small groups after the double-bar can create a new, light-footed feeling of movement. Almost every observation, then, can be interpreted in two functions; and the separation into the two aspects of shape and movement enables us to understand the sources of the musical happening much more effectively.

Researchers who have used the Guidelines will immediately miss the rubric of "Middle Dimensions" in the quadrant scheme. The omission is intentional, since the experience of day-to-day analysis in recent years has shown that this third level adds complication to the whole framework without full justification: a sizable number of pieces simply do not contain any middle-dimension organization; and the search for a possibly non-existent level of structure can create unnecessary confusion, especially in the early stages of learning to use a style-analytic plan. For these reasons it now seems better to begin stylistic examination of any musical work from the easily distinguished perspectives of large and small dimensions. Fortunately, no serious omission can result: it is impossible to overlook the signs of middle-dimension organization, which becomes obvious as soon as we find composers going beyond the linkage of phrases to a higher level, usually by grouping sentences into recognizable, independent sections. If continued, these groupings justify consideration of the middle-dimension characteristics as a separate level of structure, a necessary step in studying sonata designs, for example. However, any less consistent middle phenomena can often be included as temporary extensions of small-dimension procedures.

The clarification offered by the quadrant framework lies not only in this dimensional simplification, but even more in the pre-structuring of observations in four functional groups that follow the most helpful order for discussions of style, proceeding from the whole to the parts while at the same time reflecting the musical duality of movement becoming shape. Previously, by using the Guidelines cue-sheet, researchers tended to generate a large number of isolated observations arranged only by the SHMRG categories, leaving the functional significance for shape and movement still to be determined. Thus while it may seem easy to compile a long list of observations, the task of establishing priorities among these points of style often appears insuperable. As a result researchers may simply follow the original SHMRG order for conclusions as well, ignoring many important questions about function. The quadrant framework insures a fuller interpretation, since its four divisions provide specific locations for recording the shape/movement and dimensional functions of all the observed characteristics. Also merely by organizing observations in four separate quadrants, the mind-boggling process of sorting out a long list is automatically quartered by the more easily arranged small groups of observations.

The development of the quadrant framework brought forward one other improvement in style-analytical procedure, helpful in drawing up an effective final outline of conclusions. As we have seen, the SHMRG order used for observations should be changed in making conclusions to an order that properly reflects the composer's priorities in treating the musical situation. Thus if harmony and melody determine the large shape in a piece, the order of conclusions in this quadrant should be HMSRG instead of SHMRG. The following procedure for recording our impressions of priorities among observations has been found distinctly helpful: assign a letter grade of A, B, or C opposite each SHMRG observation as a general estimate of its significance to the piece. Then where more than one A, B, or C occur, they may be differentiated by an added numerical priority: A1, A2 and so on. Finally in constructing the outline of conclusions one need only recopy the observations in the ABC rather than the SHMRG order. This procedure assures that the order of discussion will reflect the functional importance of each observation to the piece, rather than some less relevant or predetermined order (such as SHMRG) that may misrepresent the actual stylistic priorities.

By way of illustration let us examine a hypothetical array of SHMRG observations made in quadrant IV (small movement) concerning a Debussy prélude for piano, with an approximate evaluation of functional importance at the right:

Evaluation of
stylistic importance
IV. Small movement
Initial Final
S Wide selection of textures C C1
Low-level dynamics: pp to mf B B3
H Large, non-tensional chords (m3, m7) C C3
Parallelism B B2
M Modal and pentatonic lines B B1
Motivic unfolding of intervals A A2
R Short, repeated motives, often action-rest A A3
patterns or syncopation
Ties over barlines: weak continuity C C2
G Coordination of crescendo with expanding A A1
textures and unfolding lines

Note: The schematic list above is necessarily incomplete, selected merely to illustrate a method of rearranging observations according to relative importance. Recopied in the approximate order of functional importance for creating small movement, the SHMRG observations now yield an outline for conclusions about Debussy's stylistic priorities:

IV. Small movement
A. 1. Coordination of crescendo with expanding textures and unfolding lines
2. Motivic unfolding of intervals
3. Short repeated rhythmic motives, action-rest and syncopated
B. 1. Modal and pentatonic lines
2. Parallelism
3. Low-level dynamics: pp to mf
C. 1. Wide selection of textures
2. Ties over barlines, weak continuity
3. Large, non-tensional chords (including m3; m7)

Certainly the outline above will help to focus some light on one corner of Debussy's style. And with a list of characteristics in order of priority we can be sure that any resulting prose comment will maintain a consistent point of view. But we can go further: in the final stage of constructing an outline it will often be possible to trace a conceptual thread among the stylistic observations that will tie the analytic process more tightly together—potentially a panoramic flash of insight. In searching for such integrative concepts one normally anticipates two possibilities, coordination and contrast: either several ideas group naturally around a single theme, or they diverge to form contrasting themes. In the listings above, for example, we can trace two threads, Debussy's constant striving for fresh motivic variants and his preference for understatement. The motivic quest leads to highly individual rhythmic sparks, imaginative unfolding of intervals, and craftsmanlike coordination of ideas toward points of intensity (from A above). Partly opposed to this vividness of motivic expression is the conscious restraint implied by his low-level dynamics, avoidance of tonal scales and tension chords, evasions of metric regularity, and simplification of texture by reduction to parallel chords (from B and C above). By spinning these style-strands together in characteristic conceptual threads, we approach closer to an understanding of the composer's original synthesis.

With the increasing availability of scholarly editions and the impressive sophistication of bio-bibliographic control, style analysis can now proceed on a firm foundation as the next great emphasis of musical research. No contribution is too small—the work has just begun. We need to know as much about music as we know about its sources, to put music back into musicology.

1A necessary caution here is supplied by the Penguin Syndrome, a story told somewhere by James Thurber about the little girl whose teacher asked her to write a book review of a monograph about penguins. The wise child's one-sentence report: "This book told me more about penguins than I wanted to know."

2In practice it has been found advisable to provide for combinations of elements in the growth process by adding a fifth element, growth, to the four basic elements mentioned above. For convenient reference the five elements (sound, harmony, melody, rhythm, and growth) have been reduced to the acronym, "SHMRG," used in the chart below. The SHMRG order of observation has emerged as the sequence that will generate the most reactions in a listening situation.

9550 Last modified on October 25, 2018