Melodic Variability and Aesthetic Development – Applying von Humboldt to Musical Composition

As an animal species, the human being is the singing creature, but he combines ideas with the musical sounds involved.

Language is the structural organ of ideas.

– Wilhelm von Humboldt

Humboldt’s profound study is one of the classics of linguistic theory, a work of great insight and originality, of deep significance for the study of language and of human psychology and culture. His concept of linguistic form and his ideas concerning linguistic creativity are particularly fascinating and provocative, and of great contemporary interest.

– Noam Chomsky

Frank Lerdahl’s ideas are fairly sophisticated, and my understanding of them quite limited. But the essence of his presentation, adopted from linguist Noam Chomsky, was that the human brain has evolved in such a way that it is able to produce a vast variety of meaningful patterns through the application of a very limited number of rules instinctively governing selection and combination, which is to say, composition. All this is based on the notion that there is a elementary abstract anatomy, a deep structure, which shapes the surface structure all human utterances, each individual utterance being a more or less complex manifestation of that underlying form.


Lerdahl’s insight is to see an important analogy between the linguistic sentence and the musical phrase. His generative technique of composition allows him to use construct an array of simple passage which have a high probability of being recognized as intrinsically musical. These basic motifs he will begin to develop into increasingly complicated variation of the same basic theme, while respecting in each new iteration the fundamental requirement that all passages much possess a musicality; they must be felt, recognized or understand to be music.


The study and classification of basic forms given structures can adopt, whether they be evolving species or evolving musical composition, is known is morphology. To restate this simply, Lerdahl’s intention in not to write a piece of music so much as literally to grow it, and to grow it in such a way that its shape is structurally suited to appeal to the capacities of the human brain. At least that’s what he theorizes in his first book.


But all that academic talk aside, I greatly appreciate the work you do and your determination to participate in the literal growth of new music. If the human species is evolve, not just biologically but also cognitively and culturally, we need people to lead the effort. It is not easy or popular work, but it is necessary work, and I congratulate you for having the courage to be a part of it. It’s work like your that keeps a teacher like me encouraged about the future of learning.

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