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If you like fireworks shows, you can love classical music. Here’s why.

I don’t remember the last time I saw a high-quality fireworks show, but I decided on a whim to check out the first show of the Honda Celebration of Light international fireworks competition in Vancouver this summer. As the crowd counted down, I overheard two women sitting in front of me say “It’s just fireworks–it’s not like we haven’t seen them before” and proceed to chat together through the whole show. And that’s honestly the experience I had expected for myself.

But I quickly realized I had no choice but to see I all three shows: I was literally dumbstruck by the experience. My life is based around composing and loving “art music,” and as I sat on the beach, staring open-mouthed at the endless explosions, all the connections between the fireworks and art music just kept streaming at me. I even got the “tingles” (or chills, or frisson, or ASMR) that I often have when I’m having a great art music listening experience. Two girls sitting behind me seemed similarly enthralled. They “oohed” and “aahed” at the same time and extent that I did; maybe they got the tingles too. So what’s up with this? Why does fireworks have to do with art music, and why can they both give us such intense experiences?

Both fireworks and art/classical music are temporal arts; they unfold across time.

Each fireworks event that unfolds is like a musical phrase or gesture, and it comes out of more or less darkness (in fireworks) or silence (for music.)

Each event has color –-in music, this is timbral or instrumental color — and a dynamic shape. In music, the dynamic shape is the loudness of a gesture and how it changes over time. A fireworks event has a shape and size and position changing over time, and across the entire “canvas” of the sky. In music the canvas is the entire “pitch-space” of all the instruments being used, from the lowest to highest possible notes. The exact timing of the events produces a rhythm, which may be more or less regular.

Events are often combined together to make an endless variety of textures, including counterpoint. Musical melodies may be composed to sound at the same time, just like fireworks events that fit together simultaneously.

In most art music and fireworks shows, the events are abstract and non-representational. They aren’t meant to look or sound like other things; their meaning just comes from the end effect of all the choices. And I’m not even going to talk here about the psychological effects of specific melodic or harmonic choices, which can add a whole other dimension of meaning. Even in musical pieces that don’t work with these aspects, or fireworks that might have no equivalent, meaning can arise from all the other choices.

Being temporal arts, the exact pacing of events in fireworks and music is critical to the audience’s experience. Skilled choices can set up audience expectations, delay and tease them, and then ultimately fulfill them with something even more gratifying. The choices of what happens and when makes a structure or form to the whole work that can only be fully experienced by following it all attentively as it unfolds.

Music meant to be followed in this way is what I’ve been calling “classical music” or “art music”. What I’ve been describing is not what makes a masterpiece (that could not be done a lifetime of posts) but just the choices that could be used to create one. In fireworks or music each choice can be done more or less artistically, resulting in more or less ecstasy for you, but only if you follow along closely.

I could analyze this year’s  fireworks competition shows the same way I would pieces of music, but let’s just say they did it for me. Maybe the two women in front of me could have got the “tingles” too if they followed along closely enough, and maybe the two girls behind me could fall in love with a symphony by following it the same way. What do you think?

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