The Space Between the Notes


Improvement — a process of subtraction.

Music is the space between the notes.

This well-known quotation attributed to the Impressionist composer Claude Debussy can have many different meanings.

Beethoven’s Fifth

Take for example the famous opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:

More often than not, at least one of the two fermatas are followed by a pause. In this space, the huge orchestral sound reverberates in the concert hall.

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It is in this moment that the listener truly realizes the intense gravity of the drama that is unfolding before their eyes and ears. This moment is one of the major elements that makes this famous composition so memorable and powerful.

Blank space is good

This concept of space is not necessarily limited to music of course. In visual design — web and graphic design, and paintings for example — the blank space is what helps to define the picture as a whole.

This is one reason that I have a personal disliking for the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. While his creative process is completely fascinating, the end product always feels jumbled and claustrophobic.

While I can appreciate his works from an intellectual standpoint, that is as far as my appreciation goes. Pollock’s works gasp for air; there is no breathing room.

A process of subtraction

Many times when blogging or designing a web site, the final process for me is to go back and subtract superfluous or redundant text to give the work some space.

In a quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

The big reveal

In an abstract sense then, intense practice sessions might be better thought of as a mindful process of subtraction, rather than as a series of tedious repetitions.

A master sculptor patiently chips away at a large block of marble, letting the detail slowly reveal itself over time. Forcing the final work into view would impede the artistic process and might even ruin the entire sculpture.

Imagine what a mess Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling might have been if he had tried to paint it in weeks instead of years! One imagines too that he occasionally had to take a break, step back and objectively judge his progress.

A passive approach to problem-solving — trying softer, not harder — can be very productive and fruitful; more so than blindly tackling a task at full steam.

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