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Relationship Between Music and Architecture


Research Overview

There have been some efforts that were made by a number of researcher vis-à-vis looking at the parallels of architecture and music in terms of rhythm, harmony and the inherent ability to provoke emotional responses of each discipline; however, those researches have not covered all genres of music. One of the types of music that have not attracted a lot of architectural critics, cabaret music, has captured my interest. Given the limited research in the area, this study intends to achieve a better understanding of the relationship between cabaret music and architecture.

Statement of the problem

Towards the end of the 19th century, Romanticism reached its limits of expression. Consequently, diverse and experimental music forms began to emerge, which broke away from the mainstream of Romanticism. These included the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, and the surrealism of Erik Satie. The emphasis on irregular rhythms within Stravinski’s The Riot of Spring caused its first audience to riot in 1913. These followed the experimentation in scales and rhythms of Bartók. In the performing arts, cabaret songs were intentionally naturalistic in language, theme while certain of its devices, such as the shadow play, were both decadent and symbolist in their use of light, colour and evocative suggestion. Simultaneously, in this period, architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier experimented with new approaches in composing architecture.

Purpose and importance of the research

This study is valuable in that it might contribute and add to the existing body of knowledge that has drawn out the parallels between architecture and music.

Structure of the report

The remaining of the report is organised into four chapters that will start from the known intersections between music and architecture to more specifically, the parallels between cabaret music and architecture. The report will then move to discuss the relationship between architecture and other related music disciplines like dance and Non-western musical.


The Chapter focuses on analysing selected architectural work that has used music as design inspirations as a way of introducing the topic.

Alberti, Palladio and the application of music in architectural design

Historically music was thought of as a mathematical science. The idea of harmonies sprung from the process of division. A string that produced a certain tone could be divided along exact proportions to create a note that would resonate in harmony with the first note, creating an overlapping of tones that could be considered beautiful both aesthetically and mathematically. These ideas were developed by the ancient Greeks, but brought into importance during the Renaissance. It was during this time that architecture was thought of as an art that needed a mathematical and therefore scientific basis to be considered objectively.

Palladio often looked to musical proportions as a means to achieve ideal proportions in his designs. Basic harmonies such as octaves and fifths were applied to room sizing in all three dimensions, and were also often overlooked to as ornamental guides.

The Palladian practice of applying basic harmonic ideas to basic room proportions is a starting point with what can be achieved by translating tonal ideas into the practice of architecture. Renaissance thinkers placed importance on the translation of audible proportions to the visual arts partly because they viewed musical composition as a mathematical science whereas architecture was thought of as a liberal art. In an attempt to give architecture a system of design method, it had to be referenced to a mathematical framework. Leonardo Da Vinci once said that music and painting are sisters, and both are used to convey harmonies. According to him, music achieved this through the use of chords and painting through the use of proportions.

Palladio noted within his illustration ideal proportions for room dimensions and other architectural devices. The numbers within the ratios are carefully chosen and are the result of his attempt to fulfill Vitruvian principles. The principle in question has to do with achieving an ideal design. The artists of the Renaissance believed that it was possible to obtain an absolute beauty by following the proportional principles found in nature. In the practice of architecture, this was achieved by allowing specific geometries to define certain forms. These forms then would act as modules that would define and govern the development of the entire structure. Palladio even stated that it was possible to achieve a harmonic building through the use of proportional principles and that it would be possible to explain and evaluate the success of the building using the terms of musical theory.

Leone Battista Alberti had taken the music scale and noted that musical theory is important to the practice of architecture because the numbers that are responsible for pleasing harmonies also evoke delight from man’s eyes and mind. Palladio took this idea and used this harmonic scale as a proportioning system in his buildings. He focused on the relationship found between four strings with lengths in a ratio of 6:8:9:12. When these strings were placed under equal amounts of tension and then vibrated they produced wavelengths of consonant tones, most importantly an octave, fourth and fifth. These proportions are noted in his plans published in the Quattro Libri.

Le Corbusier and the Phillips’s Pavilion

The growth of subjective judgment slowly did away with the Renaissance search for an absolute beauty, but this did not stop the intersection of musical and architectural ideas. It did change them, leading to new investigations and ideas. Of particular importance is the work of Le Corbusier on the Phillips’s Pavilion. He investigated both the translation of musical proportions to built form, but also the use of acoustics and sound to generate and convey a sense of space.

In 1958, Phillips Company, a producer of electronic speakers, hired Le Corbusier to design and build a pavilion for the Brussels World Fair. The Phillips Company’s goal was to show off the capabilities of their latest speakers and filled the pavilion with three hundreds of them. Le Corbusier proposed to give the Phillips Company an electronic poem with which to showcase their work. He worked with a team of Phillips’ engineers and two modern composers: Iannis Xenakis and Edgard Varase. Xenakis’s role in the Phillips Pavilion was focused on the exterior shell of the building. His task focused on translating the sketches and abstract ideas of Le Corbusier (mainly dealing with geometry and proportions) into a buildable, architectural form. The end result, a curved, hyperbolic not only fulfills the mathematical ideals of Le Corbusier, but also evokes the glissandi of Xenakis’s 1953-1954 composition Metastasis.

Steven Holl and the Stretto House

Steven Holl took the investigation of a more complex musical idea that of stretto, as a departure point for a house built in Texas. This project focused on using both the compositional and experiential qualities of a particular piece of music as a means to solve the architectural problems presented by the site and the client.

The Stretto House, a project by Steven Holl located in Dallas, Texas exemplifies a modern approach to marrying the ideas of architecture and music. While there is more to the project than just this aspect the ideas of music played an important part in the development and implementation of the design. The name of the house comes from the musical term ‘stretto’. ‘Stretto’ is most commonly used in the fugue and in this context it refers to the theme of the piece being repeated and overlapped by different voices. The decision to explore this musical idea as a mode of design occurs during the initial sketching phase. This phase explored some of the vernacular materials of Texan architecture, specifically metal roofs and concrete blocks. This combined with the need to create shade and producing this via overlapping led to the exploration of the overlapping that occurs in stretto.

Holl narrowed the study of stretto to one particular piece of music, Bela Bartok’s Music for strings, percussions and Celeste. The feature of this work is the distinct separation between heavy and light by carefully dividing the percussion and string sections. Holl literally took the basic composition of the music and composed his building in the same way. Bartok’s work is divided into four movements and its most compelling feature is the aforementioned division of instruments into two models. Holl designed his structure to have four distinct spatial sections and focused the work on two distinct elements: masonry, which mimicked the heavy role of the percussion and curved metal, which played the light nature of the spring section. The result is an overlapping and intersection of several elements. The curved metal roofs overlap with the heavy masonry structure, referred to as spatial dams. The different planes of the building, roof, floor and wall, pull space from each other to continue the overlapping effect. The materials of the building follow suit, as do the actual design drawings. The orthogonal plan of the main house drawing stands in contrast to the curvilinear section while the drawings of the guest house reverse this pattern, mimicking the inversion found in Bartok’s composition. This project was designed around a cohesive idea that can organize and guide the experiential qualities of the space. Holl notes that ‘the concept that drives a design like the Stretto House disappears completely in the phenomena of the physical reality and yet intuitively the abundance of the idea may be felt’.

By combining the ideas of music and architecture Holl was able to create an analogue between the two practices. By treating music as something that has a materiality, one gained from its instrumentation, he was able to synthesize it with architecture through his use of light and space. The equation that Holl himself writes to explain this is ‘material multiplied by sound and divided by time equals material multiplied by light and divided by space.’ The key to success of this lies in the distinction that both architecture and music have a material aspect, and this common factor allows parallels to be drawn.

To summarize, the practice of architecture and the practice of music have intersected and impacted each other in a variety of ways throughout their histories. These instances can be divided into two distinct categories. The first category involves architecture taking proportional and compositional principles directly from musical theory. Palladio’s villas ?t into this category as many of the proportions that guided the design were taken from their era’s understanding of music and the nature of sound. The second category involves architecture learning from the experiential qualities of music and trying to replicate them in built form.


Writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe is famous for describing architecture as ‘frozen music’ in the 19th century. Music and architecture also share similar experiential aspirations. Architectural historian Sir John Summerson notes in his essay ‘The vision of J.M.Gandy’ that architecture is an art that is ‘constantly attempting to realize in solid, stable form those effects which music is able to conjure up in an instant’. He goes on to point out that music and architecture even use a similar vocabulary, specifically the use of mass, rhythm, texture and outline to achieve similar effects such as the colossal.

It was Pythagoras who discovered that a vibrating string, stopped at its centre, produced the ‘octave’; at two thirds of its length the ‘fifth’, and at three quarters, the ‘fourth’. From this he developed the series of ratios that result in the twelve tone scale used in western music today.

The ratio between the full length of the string and the length stopped, or the ratios between the lengths making different notes have their direct equivalents in the ratios between the sides of the rectangles that have made up much of western architecture in the intervening centuries.

Numerous aspects of this relationship between the underlying ratios of music and architecture have been developed and discussed and in this chapter we shall consider the aspects of rhythm, improvisation and emotional response in the light of some of these discussions, and the architecture of Palladio, Le Corbusier, Schindler and Holl.


Many architects have developed theories of proportion with which to govern and explain their work. These have generated in their turn a significant body of critical analysis and comment.

Palladio, like Alberti a century earlier, expounded theories which took up and developed those first proposed by Vitruvius in the 7th Century BC. These were particularly attractive to the spirit of the Renaissance.

‘To the minds of the men of the Renaissance musical consonances were the audible tests of a universal harmony which had a binding force for all the arts.’

In the 1930s R M Schindler, developed the ideas of module used by Frank Lloyd Wright in his Usonian houses. Here not only the architectural plans, but also the concrete floor slabs were inscribed with grids derived from the sizes of the materials to be used. Schindler took this pragmatic idea and incorporated it into a system of proportion which he described as ‘Reference Frames in Space’.

The appreciation of this relationship between the mathematics of the ratios and proportions that underlie both music and architecture is of course a purely intellectual exercise.

‘The analogy with music simply amounts to the transference of an established convention in one art to the purposes of another’

It does not help explain or evaluate the emotional responses that these media can evoke, which is a factor of how the underlying principles are used and manipulated to create the final work.

Stretto, the musical term for the overlapping of subjects, and the only strict rule in the formation of fugues, provided Steven Holl with the basis to explore the relationship beyond this intellectual analogy in his ‘Stretto House’.

The house is directly inspired by Music for Percussion, Strings and Celesta by Béla Bartók, in which stretto is used extensively. It is a choice which is particularly apposite as ‘… the chief feature of his [Bartók’s] chromatic technique is obedience to the Golden Section in every element.’


In music improvisation is the impromptu or ‘in the moment’ creation and performance of music as well as spontaneous response to other musicians. It is distinct from untutored or casual composition, in that it requires discipline and a rigorous understanding of the forms and rules in order to be sufficiently coherent to evoke an emotional response.

‘… improvisation is a performative (sic) act and depends on instrumental technique, improvisation is a skill.’

Because the creation of a work of architecture requires rigorous planning and control of all its elements, improvisation is not usually associated with it. The usual view is that architecture cannot be impromptu, it must be planned, detailed and explained thoroughly if all those involved in its production are to collaborate effectively.

In his BBC Proms lecture in 2002 Daniel Libeskind confirmed that it is difficult to have improvisation in architecture “ ‘to have rotating players, to have players interpret’. He suggested, however, that if the spatiality and materiality is open, then the public can ‘… form its own operation on the building.’ This being, perhaps, the closest that architecture can come to improvisation.

Certainly the villas of Palladio, with the proportions of their components controlled by a strict series of ratios, and their spaces assembled according to harmonic sequences, must be considered as careful exercises in composition rather than improvisations.

Le Corbusier’s villas too are compositions which follow a set of rules governing their proportions; Le Modulor. Within these cool, intellectual compositions, however, there are elements which are freer in form and which play off against, and highlight, the orthogonal correctness of the remainder.

Coming finally to Schindler, Sarnitz observes that as his work evolved ‘… the great importance attached to proportion in his early work gradually receded; he never repeats the complexity of the Lovell Beach House.’

This move away from strict adherence to the system of proportion that he himself developed, to more lyrical or spiritual values, is directly analogous to that of a musician who has learnt the disciplines of his instrument and the rules of music to the highest level but feels able to express himself more fully and coherently through improvisation. Schindler, having developed and established his competence in his early work, chose to follow this route after recognising the limitations that a purely intellectual approach can bring to a potentially lyrical art.

‘Most of the buildings which Corbusier and his followers offer us as ‘machines to live in’ … are crude ‘contraptions’ to serve a purpose. Mere instruments of production can never serve as a frame for life.’

Emotional response

The emotional impact of both music and architecture is generated not by the intellectual understanding and appreciation of the ratios and proportions that govern the relationships of their parts and overall composition. It is a response produced by the composer or architect or improviser by manipulating the ‘material multiplied by sound divided by time’ and the ‘material multiplied by light and divided by space’ which Holl proposes as the equivalent formulae for the creation of music and architecture respectively. The power of the piece to move the listener or viewer is in direct ratio to the skill of the creator.

Both music and architecture are immediate rather than mediate forms of communication. That is they do not require the intermediation of language. They affect the listener and viewer respectively, of all backgrounds and languages, directly with no need for translation or interpretation.

They also both have a physical element to their means of communication.

‘Music can recall the serenity and grandeur of a seascape; … so also, says Viollet, [le Duc] can architecture when it has occasion to give us long, unbroken, horizontal lines. Then he compares the emotional effect of a low broad crypt with that of a soaring knave; he notes the physical reactions of a man in these two settings, …’

And both directly affect the emotions and understanding.

‘The very same numbers that cause sounds to have that concinnitas [a certain harmony] pleasing to the ears, can also fill the eyes and mind with wondrous delight.’

The cool but powerful emotional response generated by the composed serenity and authority of Palladio’s villas is not simply the result of the principles of proportion that govern the elements of the elevations, but also the extension of these principles to the way that the spaces and volumes are arranged.
‘… the systematic linking of one room to the other by harmonic proportions was the fundamental novelty of Palladio’s architecture, …’

At the other end of the architectural scale, Holl’s fugue in the Stretto House generates a similar response in the viewer to that, which stretto in music evokes in the listener, namely ‘… excitement, acceleration, fuller realization, a certain indescribable ecstasy with the sensation of heightened simultaneity.’

Another aspect of emotional impact, which may be more mundane but is nevertheless worthy of consideration, is the cumulative effect of the music and architecture that surrounds us as distinct from the impact of a particular work. Emily Thompson posits the importance that advances in sound engineering made to the aural perception of life in the early years of the century, giving rise to the phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as the ‘soundtrack of our life’.

The idea of a parallel ‘stage set of our lives’ has been hinted at by author Will Self,
‘… if Brutalism is heavy metal, then what was Modernism, Schoenberg’s dodecaphony? … Clearly the Little Englander Palladian nostalgia of the Prince of Wales, the Quinlan Terry partnership, and even Barratt Homes, is of a piece with light classical music: Viennese waltzes, frozen in red brick, …’

Chapter 4: Improvisation after the Renaissance and after Modernism

In the earlier chapter I have established that improvisation in architecture can be considered as the departure of a skilled practitioner from the rules he has mastered in order to express himself more fully or to give coherent expression to new or developing ideas.

Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria (written about 1450) may be seen as the theoretical foundation for the re-establishment of classical order and proportion in the Renaissance. A century or so later Palladio’s Quattro Libri (published in 1570), re stated these classical rules, and his buildings followed them strictly. At the same time, however, other architects were interpreting these established rules with varying degrees of freedom.

In his two villas on the Capitoline Hill in Rome Michaelangelo took the conventional Corinthian order, enlarged it and ran it through two stories; something that the Romans had never done.

Vignola, in his Castello Farnese at Caprarola, designed an entablature that,
‘[I]s a departure from the strict grammar of the antique “ a departure in the direction of inventive modelling, of designing a façade as a pattern in light and shade, a pattern through which runs a play of meaning rather than any precise series of statements.’

Giulio Romano was even freer in his interpretation of the rules of antiquity. His Palazzo del Te, with its affected dilapidation and ‘dropped’ stones in the entablature and his Cortile della Cavallerizza with its extravagant rustication and twisted Doric finds its equivalent in the developing mannerism of the music of the time.

‘In the late 16th century, as the Renaissance era closes, an extremely manneristic style develops. In secular music, especially in the madrigal, there was a trend towards complexity and even extreme chromaticism (as exemplified in madrigals of Luzzaschi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo).’

Chromaticism in particular is an essential characteristic of the mannerist style at this time. It demonstrates a departure from the rules regulating the fundamental ratios underlying musical theory which is directly equivalent to that executed by Romano upon the rules of classical architecture as restated by Alberti and Palladio.

‘The Pythagorean tone, with a ratio of 9:8, consists of a minor and a major semi-tone; … But only the minor semitone … can be used in actual music. For this reason, progressions between Bb “ B natural or F “ F#, or any other equivalent intervals, are forbidden. When the chromatic madrigal begins to abound in such progressions, it raises a flurry of controversy.’

The relationship between mannerism in architecture and in music may be illustrated by comparing the use of chromaticism by Guesaldo with Romano’s use of rustication in the Palazzo del Tè.

On the one hand, Guesaldo’s madrigals are, ‘…full of unresolved dissonances, “illogical” modulations, and chromatic progressions’. These are used to powerful effect to create, ‘disruptive and restless changes of mood, so that the end result is rather like eavesdropping on some unresolvable, private agony.’

On the other, Romano’s use of rustication gives the impression that, ‘Everything is a bit uneasy, a bit wrong.’ It also ‘[R]ecalls ruins [and] ancient buildings left half-finished. But it has great power and this is very largely because of the dramatic use of rustication.’

Just as Schindler developed a more ‘improvisational’ style in his later works as he became disillusioned or cynical about the ethos of the ‘Machine Age’,[38] so Le Corbusier may also be considered to have undergone a major shift following the Second World War. This is exemplified by the chapel at Ronchamp, the monastery at La Tourette and the Courts of Justice at Chandigarh, all of which may be considered to be improvisational, with regard to the strict principles of Le Modulor. Charles Jencks observes that this perceived change in direction was seen to condone a new turn for modern architecture. He lists a range of diverse range of architectural movements that drew inspiration from Le Corbusier’s later works.


Architecture and cabaret music are closely affiliated, not least because both focus on creating unique atmospheres for a variety of purposes. During the early to mid twentieth century American architecture and cabaret were born out of and represented similar cultural concerns. This chapter considers some of the ways in which architecture and cabaret interact and how cabaret uses principles of architecture, such as the utilisation of space, the division of ‘stage’ space, the distinction between public and private space, and the use of synthesis in design. Examples of Modern architectural designs, including those of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, built during the thirties and forties will be considered with the aim of identifying shared cultural affiliation between cabaret music and architecture during the mid twentieth century.

Cabaret “ the trend of combining music, dance, comedy, and theatre in a public place “ was first established in France in 1881. Throughout both world wars and the Great Depression in America, Cabaret afforded a means of relaxation and the opportunity to celebrate, through shared performance, a variety of cultures, talents and tastes. Monmartre, in France, is recognised as the place where buildings were first constructed specifically for cabaret performance. The Moulin Rouge was built in Pigalle in 1889. At the time, the traditional Monmartre windmills were being pulled down at an alarming rate, which accounts for the construction of the large red windmill on the roof of the Moulin Rouge. The turn-of-the-century interior of Moulin rouge expresses the late Victorian Romantic sensibility, just before the introduction of the Modernist Art Nouveau movement. Elegantly and richly decorated, the cabaret setting was described in 1952 as possessing an ‘atmosphere of tawdry luxury [..] much like that of a bordello.’ At the time this would have befitted the styles of music which it was built to stage. Artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec recorded in paint various scenes from this early era of cabaret, such as music-hall singers, women dancers, and women preparing themselves to take to the stage. The flamboyance of early cabaret and the suggestiveness of dances, such as the can-can, paved the way for a relationship between the architectural setting and the music. In the late Victorian era, when more sensual forms of entertainment tended only to be considered as an underground activity, cabaret legitimised more diverse forms of theatre, music and dance, allowing men and women to mingle freely in a public space specifically designed for that purpose.

At the time of the popularisation of Cabaret, the pursuit of pleasure had become a popular activity. During the twentieth century new dance halls were erected throughout Europe and in America in order to accommodate the rising popularity of the sociable and edgy form of cabaret entertainment. Cabaret music traditionally involves singing and orchestra, and American cabaret stars included artists such as Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone, and Bette Midler. However, as an art form cabaret declined in popularity during the sixties due to the rising popularity of alternative forms of music, such as rock. Due to the glamour of its beginnings the architectural setting of cabaret traditionally retained elements of luxury, wealth, and flamboyance. On the relationship between Romanticism “ which the late-Victorian introduction of cabaret was celebrating “ and the poetic sensibility, Geoffrey Scott observes that ‘Romanticism may be said to consist in a high development of poetic sensibility towards the remote,’ in that it ‘idealises the distant, both of time and place and ‘identifies beauty with strangeness’. The elaborate décor of cabaret stages, often including plush red or plum coloured velvet, idealise the sensual and were designed to encourage maximum comfort, pleasure and enjoyment of the entertainment. The designs of traditional cabaret stages were such that the audience area was only minimally lit, with the main focus being on the stage.

In Modernist architecture there is suggestion that the culture of cabaret at least crossed over into and was in part incorporated into design. With the introduction of jazz and Broadway style music, cabaret became recognised as being seedier than during the years of its Victorian beginnings.

We can explore the parallels between the responses of the two arts to the exigencies of the time by looking at three of the distinguishing qualities of cabaret music and architecture.

The popular appeal of cabaret

Cabaret deals with emotional or sentimental themes that easily evoke strong responses, rather than intellectual concepts that require esoteric knowledge to be fully appreciated.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes, built during the 1930’s and 1940’s, embody the cultural concerns and ideals of the Modern era, and reflect the complexities associated with the Great Depression of the thirties. During this time, many American families looked to cabaret and its music as the solution, albeit temporary, to the stresses of the quotidian drudge associated with the same economic, social and political forces.

Usonian houses were intended to deal with the day to day living requirements of the average American family. A large living room for family life, ‘with a big fireplace in It,’ a triplicate bathroom with sections for the man, the wife and the children and enough space for dressing rooms, closets and ‘perhaps a couch in each’, and airy bedrooms, all with easy access to a garden.

A significant aspect of popular appeal is the recognition afforded to the performer; the phenomenon of ‘stars’. In this regard Wright, at this time, was actively marketing himself as ‘the possessor of a unique, truly American architectural vision,’ and promoting his reputation as one of the great architects of the century.

Variations in cabaret

Cabaret offers variety. The subjects of its songs and dances range from tragedy to comedy and its forms from ballad to blues to jazz. It was popular for certain shows to be given to a select audience “ part of the growing consumer culture in which greater emphasis was to be placed on the needs of the patron.

In a similar way that cabaret performances were customised, Wright designed buildings with specific elements for patrons.

Scholars have already drawn parallels between the designs of Lloyd Wright and music. For example, as expressed by Brooks Pfeiffer and Nordland, Wright’s “unit system” was as an intrinsic part of the organic process of design and construction: ‘just as the warp is discipline for a woven textile, and as the scale and notes are disciplines for the composer of music, so Wright used the unit system as a discipline for design.’ The modular unit system, based on rectangular and square units, ‘unified’ and ‘simplified’ the construction process, and involved the repetition of components such as doors and windows, with an emphasis on geometric pattern and symmetry. Wright’s designs were remarkable for their unification of different component parts and ideas, whi

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