Harmony

Bob Borson —  February 2, 2011 — 23 Comments

Harmony – it’s a nice word.

It’s nice to say because it has a hard consonant sound and the beginning and a soft vowel sound at the end. That resonates with me because the word sounds like what it means – a pleasing arrangement of parts. That could mean building massing, the colors in a painting, a combination of notes within a chord, etc. Harmony is a word I rarely use but if I slow down enough to think about it, it might actually be the most appropriate word that describes my life.

I am an architect – but more specifically I am a designer and a communicator. I rely on my ability to find harmony and balance in the relationship of things, whether it is the shape of buildings, the open space around those buildings, material choices, patterns, etc. and on and on. I literally deal with harmony all day, every day. When I sat down to write this post, I sat here looking at the blank screen and started to process my thoughts, think about how much I should write, how the text would sit on the page, what images would I use, how those images could pause the story, interrupt the block of text, etc. and on and on. After a while, I started to think about harmony in a different way, one that doesn’t have anything to do with what I do as an architect. This brings me back to my childhood and to musical things.

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Music has been a significant contributor in my life – particularly during my formative years. My mother was a music teacher, sang in a group that recorded some very famous and well-known songs, and we had musical instruments literally in every room of  our house. At one point, we had the following:

Upright Piano
Baby Grand Piano
Three-Tiered Organ
French Horn
Oboe
Clarinet
Bass Clarinet
Tenor Saxophone
Baritone Saxophone
Marimba
Loads of percussive instruments

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My mother had perfect pitch at one point in her life and her overwhelming musical abilities were delivered into her three children. I was able to play every one of those instruments except for the french horn and the oboe, although I was never very good at the piano. I am surprised looking over that list as I typed it that it included so many instruments … and I hated playing them. HATED THEM. I am a little ashamed to admit that now but at the time, it wasn’t very cool to be in band and I did not want to be labeled by the other kids. So at one point, I told my mom – the music teacher – that I did not want to be in the band anymore. This declaration stung her and she responded by saying I could never go into a room that had a musical instrument in it if I did decide to quit.     What?!     Sounds harsh and she denied saying it when I brought it up years later but I think I understand the message she was trying to make. It wasn’t music or band that I hated, it was the stigma that came along with being in the high school band that I hated. So what does this have to do with harmony? I’m getting there, just setting the table a bit.

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I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t listening to music . I grew up listening to jazz standards recorded from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. It was complicated music – not easily processed, didn’t have a “hook” that was easily reproduce. Have you ever tried to whistle Miles Davis, Charlie Parker or John Coltrane? It’s impossible. Listening to that type of music, and playing music for as long as I had, taught me how to critically listen to music – a combination of notes. I would break apart the different instruments and focus on the line the bass was playing, mentally recreate a drum beat, how the different musical instruments had their own special parts. Then I would reassemble them all in my mind, putting them back together one at a time and see how they complimented one another … how they fit, matched, or contrasted with other specific parts. The parallels between music and architecture isn’t lost on me. There is very little difference between the two

massing = music

open space = sound or no sound

materials = instruments

patterns = rhythms

Being able to assemble parts musically and architecturally is a process and harmony is the artistic interpretation of that process – clearly there is good harmony and bad harmony. It is interesting to note that I knew I wanted to be an architect when I was 5 or 6 years old, about the same time I started playing on the instruments laying about the house. Did I know how large a role the concept of harmony would play in my life? No, but maybe my mother did. She always wanted me to become a musician but I think she was proud that I became an architect.

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  • mel

    i love both music and architecture too! i play the piano and guitar, and am currently doing my final year of master of architecture. the final year project i’m working on is a music centre and i’m in the process of integrating music metaphorically in my spatial organisations. also used it for form generation. I really enjoyed reading your article! :) have you integrated music in your designs while working as an architect? how were the clients’ responses?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I’ve never literally incorporated music into my designs, haven’t ever considered it to honest. This for me was more about making connections and drawing parallels between the two and looking to see if others felt similarly. It looks as though I am not alone.

      Cheers

  • Ctodd1000

    Great article. I love music and architecture and do some of both. I have described database programming, which I did for 14 years, as a “symphony of silence and sound.” I have often described the architectural pieces that I’m drawn to as “movements” in music and a “symphony of silence” as I didn’t know what else to say. You mention:

     

    the Goethe quote “Architecture is frozen music”. … It was
    instilled in me that “Music is the space between notes”

    This is the first time I’ve ever had anyone make the connection with music and architecture so clearly in words. Thank you! CatherineTodd2 at gmail dot com

  • Aschechter

    This article spoke to my own life as a band nerd and then a Juilliard musician who became an architect (which was what I wanted to do originally but was scared off by my Dad’s constant stress as an architect). I use music all the time in design, especially polyrhythms and syncopation. It’s an incredibly inspiring force! Thank you so much for writing this wonderful article, Bob, and for letting some of the rest of us musical architects know we are not alone!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Clearly you have abilities far exceeding my own. What instrument was your focus on at Julliard?

      • Aschechter

        The pinnacle of all instruments….the bassoon haha! Actually, where would Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring be without it? Plus I always heard John Coltrane was learning to play the bassoon before he died…

        • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

          Out of all the instruments I learned to play, bassoon was the one that I wanted to learn the most but never did. It’s a hard instrument to play but if you ever saw how long my fingers were – particularly my thumbs – you would think I was genetically made for it. And the kicker is my thumbs are triple jointed (it’s a pretty freaky party trick making them snap around).

          I never heard that about Coltrane – now I feel like I need to do some research!

  • Cantilever

    Wonderful analysis, I’ve always felt I understood music with my ears, but there has always been a literal disconnect for me, since I never, formerly, learned to play any of them. Coming from the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, where music is thought of much as you have described, I think you have inspired me to finally start connecting. Thanks

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      You will have to let me know how that goes for you. I am about to go on a trip with another graduate of the FLW School of Architecture (small world)

  • http://www.flickr.com/photographyburns Brandon Burns

    Bob, it sounds like we had similar beginnings. I was in music classes WAY before ever walking into a classroom and I too knew by 5 or 6 that I wanted to be an architect. It was instilled in me that “Music is the space between notes” and I think this notion carries into my design work as well. Fantastic article.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Brandon,

      I wonder at times if this is all just an indication of the mind working a particular way and as a result, people with similarly functioning brains veer towards similar interests and items of appreciation.

      Thanks

  • Slipslider

    Here are two important references helpful in further exploration of this connection between music and architecture.

    Frank Lloyd Wright once put it nicely:
    “Music and architecture blossom on the same stem — sublimated mathematics. . . Instead of the musician’s systematic staff and intervals, the architect has a modular system as the framework of design. My father, a preacher and music teacher, taught me to see — to listen — to a symphony as an edifice of sound.”

    & then there’s Buckminster Fuller’s take, taken from his Dymaxion Chronofile, a whole piece linking architecture, frozen music, composing, live music, instruments, instrument-making, and living harmony.. as it’s some 8 paragraphs long, I’ll include an intro paragraph here and then off-link.
    “Architecture in the past has often been spoken of as ‘frozen music’. Now the
    architectural music is being unfrozen and is ultimately to be freed from its
    embodiment exclusively within the physical structure. The music of the emerging
    architecture is to be entirely weightless, abstract. It will be the sense of
    gratification and inspiration of living freedom and potential initiatives of
    the human occupants disembarrassed of their slavery to the production and
    maintenance of the buildings and emancipated from exploitation of land,
    buildings and occupants as ‘money makers’ etc. The architectural music will be
    the metaphysical regeneration of the spirit to be experienced by the
    buildings’ users.”
    full article here: http://nsfweratu.tumblr.com/post/3071069045/invisible-as-possible-environment-controlling

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Awesome references and article – Thanks for sharing! I had heard the FLW portion before but not the Buckminster Fuller one.

      Thanks again for commenting

  • Anonymous

    Sometimes I think we have the same life. Fellow band need here (I was band president in high school) and similar upbringing. I think I’ll have to space out my architecture/jazz post so it doesn’t look like I’m copying. ;) Great minds think alike…and play multiple instruments, apparently.

    -Brinn

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      you say great, I say deluded and narcissistic (at least where I am concerned, but I’m working on that)

  • http://twitter.com/arch_girl Jenny Roets

    I think this is very fitting for today, as I’m reminded of the Goethe quote “Architecture is frozen music”. I wrote a research paper and focused my M.Arch thesis on the connection of music & architecture – it’s not easy. I like that you keep finding ways to combine the two! I’m headed to community band practice tonight, but I gave up on playing clarinet for 5 years in college – you can always go back…

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I still have 3 of those instruments in my house, mostly because it pains me to think of getting rid of them. I tried playing again but after such a long break, what I was capable of then versus now makes it very difficult to go back to practicing scales for hours on end.

      • catherine todd

        I can’t do scales and never could… I played music as a kind of meditation that took me to the ends of the earth and back. Dipping my toe into the “Silver Stream” and eventually diving off the rocks and waterfalls all the way down down down the bottom and rising bubbles back up again… and in between all this were the scales which came “naturally,” I suppose.

        Going round the world into the deep emotional well and back again, rising up up and into the light. Flying with wings open and free. That’s music for me. Now to apply it to architecture and harmony in the buildings we live in. That’s “best practices” in the way of the world for me. Love your blog. Music and Harmony in all that we do. This is my goal no matter how long it takes me. Gracias, amigo!

        • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

          usted es agradable!

          • catherine todd

            Buenas noches, mi amigo!

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