Like many other areas of life, musical space is a scarce resource in which trade-offs must occur when one is creating music. A healthy young person who has good hearing can hear a range from about 20 Hz (cycles per second) to 20kHz. Speaking personally, my own hearing range in my left ear goes up to around 3500 Hz or thereabouts myself, as I have some high frequency loss related to years of playing the viola. But even so, the space that exists here can be filled by vocal or instrumental parts when one is creative music, and one of the more important tasks that occurs in concert or especially in the studio is apportioning this space wisely. As one might imagine, this task can be the source of a great deal of drama and difficulty between people, and there are a few choices that must be made when it comes to fairly apportioning the space of a song to the various voices and instruments that use it.
Let us first examine the various dimensions of musical space that exist in a song. We have already mentioned the way that the human ear has a hearing range from 20Hz to 20 kHz under ideal circumstances (assuming no hearing loss or damage from the person in question). This can be taken as the y-axis of a cartesian view of musical space, determining whether the pitch is a high-pitched instrument or voice or a medium or a low one. The second axis that must be considered is that of time, which we will picture here as the x-axis, as the space is apportioned out over time. In this particular dimension we can note that space that one (or more) vocalists take up during most of the song can be apportioned to a lead guitar part for an impressive solo on the bridge or coda. The amount of time that it takes to satisfy those who enjoy having the freedom to jam and make solos depends, of course, on the individual musicians in question. A third dimension relates to where a given voice or instrument is in the mix, and we can consider this the z-dimension, or dimension of depth. A voice or instrument that is pushed to the front is going to take up a lot of musical space, while one that is pushed to the back of the mix is only going to be able to make itself heard when there is nothing interfering with it from more forward in the mix.
Who divides this space? This depends on what sort of musical act we are dealing with. An a capella vocal group has no instruments but will generally have four or more parts in vocal harmony, with occasional solos by one of more voices. Here the relationship in the vertical direction is of the utmost importance to support the lead melody when in homophony, although the voices may sing more in madrigal style in polyphony as well where no one part has a dominant melody. In Bach trios, for example, there is a particular order of opening parts so that each part is either the highest or lowest when it makes its entrance, as a way of making sure that the musical space is properly apportioned to make the melody as clear as possible. A string orchestra is similar in having four instruments that divide the musical space in all dimensions as well. It should be noted that in life performance, the dynamic level is the way that one ensures the right voice or instrument is highest in the mix at one time or another, which is one way that one can recognize cases where different parts have the melody at different times. And in rock and roll bands, there is a similar sort of space to divide, with pianos/keyboards, flourishes of string instruments and souring guitars taking the middle and higher end of the space and drums and bass anchoring the song in place.
How does this process of apportionment work? Most of the time it is so implicit of a manner that we do not notice it. The composers and songwriters who create the music we sing or play in choirs or vocal ensembles or orchestras have done the work of apportioning musical space through time with dynamics to mark where each voice or part is in the mix. Here we have a nice harmony, here a part needs to sing or play louder to really shine through, and here we have a place where the accompaniment can play for a few measures. There we have a flute or violin part helping to introduce a vocal piece, for example. We do not consciously have to think of the apportionment of musical space because the person or people who made the music have already made those trade-offs and decisions, and we are simply called upon to follow their instructions. At times the apportionment of musical space becomes a source of humor for various people, as in the humorous “Alto’s Lament,” which is explicitly about the malapportionment of musical space that leads to altos having such dull parts. The same thing can often happen in tenor parts in hymns found in the hymnal, where several bars can follow one after another where an A-flat or C is to be played over and over and over again.
There are situations, though, where the apportionment of musical space is a conscious matter, and it is potentially the source of a great deal of musical drama. Let us take a band like Fleetwood Mac, for example. There is a lot of musical space with a band like that which has to be apportioned. With three talented and prolific songwriters, namely Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Christine McVie, there were only so many songs to go around on each project. It is little wonder that all of these artists have had enough songs to keep compelling solo careers in addition to their work with the band as a result. Even after one takes into consideration the division of songs on an album between different songwriters, one has to deal with the question of the role of each musician within each song. Mick Fleetwood’s drums (along with whatever other additional percussion is present) and John McVie’s bass are going to be holding the songs down with high levels of skill but not a great deal of flashiness. That is because Buckingham’s guitar and Christine McVie’s piano/keyboards and the three vocalists, sometimes in backing harmony of each other, are taking up the majority of space in the mix. Given this dynamic, it is not surprising that fairly apportioning this musical space and ensuring that no one feels left out has not been an easy task for the band, even apart from all of their personal drama.
Nor is this an isolated example. Semisonic, one of my favorite power pop trios of the mid-90’s, had a design where, at least according to the drummer’s book on the subject , the band members all received an equal share of the songwriting money even though band leader Dan Wilson wrote the vast majority of it. What Wilson wanted in exchange for that bold generosity was creative control, and he got it. In many other cases, the process is less equitable. The 70’s rock band Supertramp was broken up by disagreements between its two lead singers and songwriters, leading one of them to a premature solo career while wrecking the band’s prospects as a whole since he wrote the most appealing songs the band had. Likewise, John Fogerty’s efforts to be the only singer and songwriter for Credence Clearwater Revival eventually led to a conflict with the other members, and the resulting effort where he (perhaps a bit petulantly) sought to enforce equality in the work that was done on the album produced a rather predictably bad album in the disastrous “Mardi Gras,” which had two hit singles and only one really compelling song in “Someday Never Comes,” both of which were predictably written by Fogerty himself. And so it goes.
What does it mean for us? Most of us will never be a part of rock and roll bands that have to make people happy by giving them a chance to shine. Some of us may be a part of choirs and ensembles and orchestras of various kinds where the apportionment of musical space has been done by others and we can enjoy the result or not as we seek to follow the instructions provided in the music that we are learning and performing. However, knowing that musical space is a limited space in several dimensions that requires a diplomatic touch in order to handle correctly reminds us that the same is true about other resources as well, like our attention and praise, and that we must be wise to apportion the resources and space that we have so that it can create beautiful art as well as build up our relationships with other people, be they members of our family or coworkers or other musicians we may perform with. Becoming skilled at apportioning musical space can help us to become skilled at dealing with other tasks that require vision and diplomatic finesse, and opportunities to develop those qualities should be taken advantage of with alacrity.