Music Theory 000.1 – Part 4: Pattern-Recognizers and Meaning-Makers

This is part of my series on Understanding How Music Works. If you haven’t yet, you may wish to start at the beginning. In my last post I said that this post would be about how two or more notes interact within a piece of music – “what happens when there’s more than one note?” But I have one more digression to take before I do. There are some ideas that form an important context to any meaningful discussion of how musical sounds work together. I’m going to try to cover them here, in just enough depth that we can get back to talking about pitch-classes and harmonies.

Human beings, you see, are pattern-recognition machines and meaning-makers. It’s not just how we understand music; it’s how we make any sense at our environment at all. So let’s be more explicit about what it means to be pattern-recognition machines, and what it means to be meaning-makers, before we talk about the patterns we observe in music and the meanings we ascribe to them.

Pattern-Recognition Machines

We humans are excellent at seeing patterns. We’d have to be; it’s an essential survival skill, one that I’m sure is not unique to humans.

We have to be able to recognize that a bush with such-and-so a shape (compared to a shape that we have in our memories) with berries of such-and-so a size, color, and shape can provide a meal, while another of a different shape might be poisonous. We have to be able to look at a field of grasses and see where there might be a trail that belongs to an animal that might be hunted for food, or a dangerous animal that must be avoided. So it only makes sense that we’ve developed this capacity.

We see patterns everywhere. In the passage of night and day; in the passage of the seasons; in the layout of the trees in a patch of woods; in the trees themselves, and their leaves; in animals (left eye, right eye, left foreleg, right foreleg, left canine tooth, right canine tooth – or perhaps the spiral of a seashell) and in the structures they make (honeycomb, anthill, bird’s nest); in the hills, valleys, rivers, and oceans of the world around us.

We even see patterns in places where they don’t actually exist. We look into the night sky and see points of light with differing brightness, distributed at random. But we pick out brighter points that seem to be grouped together, and see in the grouping a hunter, or a crab, or a lion, or an enormous ladle. We look at clouds and see recognizable objects; we look at the moon and see a face.

Patterns are everywhere. We seek them out, and we’re enormously sensitive to them. And we use this sensitive pattern-recognition capacity to find patterns in music, too.


We recognize patterns, but we create meaning. There’s something in the human animal that gives us the tendency to make one thing a symbol or stand-in for the concept of some other thing.

It started, I’m sure, with sounds. At some point, the animal cry for help – or a warning shout – turned into more specific noises that represented specific objects and actions. The sound of the words “me” or “I” came to represent something different than the sound of the word “you”; when you hear the word “eat” you envision a different action than when you hear the word “run”; when you hear the sound “apple” you see a different thing than when you hear the sound “lion.” In each case, the sound is a stand-in for a concept. The sound of the word “run” is not running, and the sound of the word “lion” is not a lion, but when you hear me say them, you know what I mean.

It gets more convoluted when we start talking about written symbols, because (for example) the lines and curves of letters are stand-ins not just for the sounds that they make, but also (when used in combination) for other concepts directly. When you saw the word “lion” on this reading surface, you may not have heard the sound “lion” in your head, but from the shapes of the lines and curves in combination, you knew just what I meant.

This, again, is a good survival skill for humans. The ability to specifically say to someone “quick, this man is dying, run to the tree and get the red apple” versus “walk to the bush and get the green berries” can make the difference between the man choking on poisonous berries and surviving to produce meaning-making children of his own.

What does this have to do with music?

All this patterns-and-meanings stuff came up because I wanted to start today’s post with a discussion of the concept of “tone-centeredness” and how the various notes in a piece of music relate to a “home base” pitch. But I realized that those, too, were abstractions. I believe it’s important to get at the root of why we use these abstractions to describe what’s going on. And the root of it comes down to who we are, as human animals, and how we perceive things.

When we hear sounds, our ears and brain start searching for some kind of pattern or organizing principle with which to understand what we’re hearing. Sounds occur over time, so short-term and long-term memory come into play as well. As soon as we hear something that sounds like it forms part of a pattern with something else we just heard, we latch on to it.

If what we’re hearing is anything like this thing we call “music,” we might latch on to a repeated pitch, or a repeated short string of pitches, or a rhythm. (Rhythm is too important to be ignored, and too often ignored. I want to get into that immediately after my upcoming post on tone-centeredness and basic harmony.) Maybe the repeating thing gets varied or transformed somehow, but we’re good at picking that out too. Pretty soon we’re listening for how larger patterns are repeated, varied, contrasted with different sets of patterns, and repeated again in variations that are somehow finalizing.

And while spoken language is a great auditory tool for being able to communicate very specific meanings with determined interpretations, music is by its nature an auditory tool that communicates non-specific meanings that are open to interpretation. That’s where music gets its power and endless fascination, if you ask me. Somehow we relate what we hear to things we’ve heard before and what they meant to us at the time, whether a baby’s cry or a celebratory whoop or our favorite song from when we were in High School. We hear non-specific, individually-interpreted meanings in the musical sounds we hear.

That, right there, is the magic alchemy of music. You don’t need to know anything more about the tools we’ll be discussing – pitch, rhythm, harmony, form – to understand what’s goes on with it, and sit in wonder of it: someone, somewhere transmutes their experiences into some kind of organized (i.e., patterned) sound experience, and when somebody else hears it they transmute it back into experience and meaning.

Implications for Beauty?

Lately I’ve had the thought that perhaps, just perhaps, “beauty” is achieved when there is a correct balance between symmetry and asymmetry, and between similarity and dissimilarity.

The thought occurred to me when I was looking at some house designs, and was asked to put into words what I liked about the designs I preferred. Too symmetrical and self-similar and the structure looked plain, boring, perhaps utilitarian but certainly devoid of character. Too asymmetrical and with too many dissimilar elements and it just looked like a chaotic mess. Somewhere between those extremes was a sweet spot.

What would this mean for an experience of sounds and silences occurring over time? In what ways can a stream of noises exhibit similarities and contrasts, symmetries and asymmetries?

I’ll leave you with that thought to ponder in the Comments, and we’ll take that up in some future post. For next time – no matter what! – we’ll talk about the fairly fundamental organizing tools called tone-centeredness and pitch classes, and a few basics about harmony.

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