Music and architecture both establish a rhythm; a pace is needed to keep order
It was one of those days when everything went wrong. I threw myself on the bed and mindlessly scrolled through my phone. I stumbled into a video that had the most captivating song. I googled a part of the lyrics and listened to it about 15 times. That one song, those few vibrations, found a way to travel through and sneak into my little eardrums. Somehow my brain interpreted those signals as a happy emotional outlet, and my whole mood changed, my mental state reshaped. Music, at those moments, almost occupied a space of its own in my consciousness.
A spectacular song never fails to hook us in with a haunting sonic aspect that poses as an acoustic landmark. Similarly, architectural monuments are called landmarks because they are distinctive and defined in specific ways that hook us; very triangular like the Louvre, tall and pointy like Burj Dubai, or having a series of arches like Sydney’s Opera House. Visual and aural landmarks are easy to re-gain mentally, as they constantly find their way back into our minds.
Music follows a pattern of notes. Meanwhile, architecture follows a pattern of volumetric shapes. Thus, music and architecture both establish a rhythm; a pace is needed to keep order.
One can’t place the bedroom right at the entrance door or put the main bathroom in a garage.
A particular sequence and rhythm (a functional diagram in architecture) hold a house together. But as there are repetitive forms in a plan or a facade, there are repetitive beats in a song. A song is made out of a chord progression. That is why architecture and music, if unmelodious and incongruent, can be unpleasant sensory experiences.
Music moves people passively as they listen, while people move into architecture actively to experience it visually. Music shapes a sonic experience, while designers shape a spatial experience. In return, music and architecture stir our emotions.
Architect Steven Holl puts a nice formula to explain music and architecture. He believes that Music = Material x Sound /Time, whereas Architecture = Material x Light /Space.
Music arranges sound in time, whereas architecture arranges building components in space. When architecture uses various materials such as timber or basalt, the texture appears in music as the range of instruments and sounds. When architecture gets executed on a piece of land, a song is executed as a live performance on stage (or on Spotify’s online stage).
Frank Lloyd Wright also had his say on music. He revealed that: “It is perfectly true that music and architecture flower from the same stem...My father...taught me to see a great symphony as an edifice, an edifice of sound.”
Nonetheless, an astonishing thing about music is that it somehow diverges from the other arts in the sense that it isn’t much imitative of nature. One may see cats or dogs, for instance, eating and taking shelter, but not so much composing melodies and beats.
Music is more like liquid architecture. Whether on a piano key or a guitar string, sound vibrations vary from low to high pitch sounds (slow to faster beats). Similarly, in architecture, volumetric shapes and structures involve variations, from those most protruding to those further from the observer. They create this element of layering and depth between “pitches.” The difference is that in architecture, the orchestra is frozen and solid.
That song that I listened to made me land a foot on the floor and get up. As usual, I decided to go to a nearby café and grab a snack. It was a very well-lit café with lots of bookshelves. It felt calm, and the music was so as well, almost aligned with how the interior felt. I realized that music and spaces could help sustain each other at times and “play” at the same frequency. I could even affirm that the music in that café matched the green color of the plants in the inner garden that it had. It felt like the music was green! In the same way, I would associate rock music with red, gothic music with black, and pop music with lively colors.
Music and architecture have attitudes as well. A song or a building, generally speaking, can make you feel good (Happy by Pharrell Williams/ a simple house in Venice), sad (Endless Love by Jackie Chan & Kim Hee Seon/ People's Park Complex by Design Partnership), angry (The Search by NF / Luma Arles Tower by Frank Gehry), or nostalgic (Omoide by Tsunekichi Suzuki / Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa).
Sometimes a pause in a song acts as its most significant part! Similarly, in architectural composition, after moving through a set of heavy volumes, one may find themselves relaxed, almost set free, in an empty space; light, void, and absent, releasing the tension of prior 3D volumes and the overall presence of matter.
I love how everything appears to be connected once we take the time to look at it from an objective angle. Conditions of rhythm and space in architecture are equivalent to those in music. Nevertheless, music is more spontaneous and impulsive, so architects and designers can learn a great deal from its brash parades.