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How Music Is Like Architecture | Birmingham Architects

Music, in many ways, is like architecture: both are journeys and experiences. Both can start out in an unfamiliar place, only to end up with something profound and, in many cases, beautiful.

The idea of a relationship between music and architecture isn’t new; it has been around for hundreds of years. Andrea Palladio, the master Renaissance architect from Italy, wrote a treatise comparing the shapes and sizes of rooms to harmonic ratios in music. Countless architects since have found the same timeless elegance in music as in design, and it’s no wonder that many are also musicians in their spare time.

As architects – and occasional musicians – we understand how the creative process in both mediums is very similar. For example, in both music and design there is the ability to do two things at once, to both hear and respond. In music, sometimes it is with other musicians; in design, sometimes it is with the client or with other designers.

The Role of Improvisation in Music and Design

In both music and design, intuition plays a major role. It’s key to know something is “right” without being able to put your finger on it. When creating a design, just like when creating a piece of music, it is critical to be able to experience and empathize with the person or project you are designing for – to be in tune with the project and its needs.

Any musician knows that intuition is a big part of improvisation, of coming up with what’s next without stopping to think and plan. The great improvisers in music all have the ability to create out of thin air – but it’s not just random creation. It’s instead borne of intuition, of a feeling that something is “right”, whether it’s the next series of notes or a new chord.

As a result, great designers and musicians all develop a similar ability of improvisation. Musicians develop the ability to take notes and chords and work within them, carrying the listener on a journey from point A to B in the song. Sometimes, a design client is willing to allow you to take them on a journey. They set parameters, but they’re looser. You can allow the creative process to flourish, to create the melody and form. Like in jazz, there is no set melody. The soloist is going to generate something new, raw, something unique that is difficult to reproduce.

In jazz when the song begins, nothing is to say, “In 100 counts, from this beginning, the song ends.” You can play the same song with different musicians and everything will be different. What the musicians end up doing is a response to each other, and not a preconceived idea of “We’ll play this note at that moment”. You’re listening to the environment, which is being created by musicians, and creating your own notes – which then allows other musicians to feed off of you in turn and create their own contributions. The result is a cacophony of influences from musicians that replicates how designers feed off each other’s talents and contribute to the piece as a whole.

Creating with a Formula

There is a baseline structure in music, just like in architecture and design. You have to leave room in the work for creativity to occur.

Certain types of music ride the success of a certain formula, and the same can be said for architecture. The creative process isn’t involved because the parameters of the formula are already set. Some clients want the pop song – the tried and true method – and they don’t want the creative aspects. They just want the formula. There are certain elements they want to see, and if the elements aren’t in there, it’s unsuccessful.

The mindset in this situation is “This is what works, so this is what we will do.” This is the similar mindset seen in much of mainstream music, and why it all seems to sound the same. In both cases, they aren’t finding opportunities in the song to do anything different or unique.

However, in good design, it’s all about seeing good opportunities and taking advantage of them. The process involves taking risks – to say that this works, and this doesn’t. To suspend expectations and see what unfolds as we go.

Thus, improvising within a set of parameters can create stunning work, just like it can create a piece of music you want to listen to again and again.

Playing and Designing with Feeling

Music is supposed to give you a certain feeling, just like architecture. People who are just churning it out are just playing the notes, like a piano that plays itself and just hits the notes that are programmed into it.

We want architecture, like music, to play on the emotions of a visitor.

As a soloist playing in an ensemble, you’re always looking for the opportunities within the parameters set forth by the song, to do something unexpected. It’s in that moment that causes you to go back and listen to it again and again. The moment itself created a response, a musical response. A flourish of notes, a play on melody; these moments of genius bring us back. They’re what we’re listening for. In design, that’s what we’re searching for when we see a structure, or a space – that hint of improvised genius.

Another way we invoke feelings is by adding depth. Music is often made better by greater depths of understanding. There are songs that you can listen to over and over again, because of the layering and depth of the elements. Design is made better by this cognitive depth, too. It makes the experience continually good. It doesn’t rely on cheap tricks; it relies on sophisticated elements that, when put together, give you a reason to think about how they all relate to each other. This creates a wonderful sense of discovery.

Putting It All Together

All of this is to say that music and architecture are intertwined. At bDot, we use the same creative process that we would use in music in our designs – to create works that have a sense of harmony and curiosity.

We created a piece of music to share and articulate just one such link between music and architecture. Check out this video highlighting our music and designs. Let us know what you think.

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