Extensive vs. intensive expression

The study of phsyics contrasts physical properties as either extensive or intensive. An extensive property is dependent on magnitude (of either a material or a system), whereas an intensive property is not. An example would be a sample of water: the volume (say, 1 gallon) is extensive, and its density (about 1 g/mL) is intensive. If you add another gallon, the volume of the sample would change, but its density would not.

I like the terms extensive and intensive. I find them useful for describing situations where you have two related concepts, but one faces outward and the other inward. A good example of this would be two contrasting types of expression that occur in the process of writing music.

Photo credit: Andreas Tille

The first type is how the music makes use of the space of possibilities available. This includes:

From this point of view, expression is reaching into this possibility space to discover novelty and project it onto a blank canvas. This is what I would call extensive expression. I think of it as being more aligned with the early stages of writing music: brainstorming and digging around for good ideas to grow.

Intensive expression, on the other hand, is focused on understanding the nature of the music which is taking shape. You zero in on the specific musical statement you are making, and help the music to become more itself, more of “what it is”, so to speak. The wider space of possibilities gets progressively pruned off as your gut leads you to a distilled form. If extensive expression is about exploration, intensive expression is about receptivity.

Do you notice a parallel to these types of expression in your creative process? Do you think this interpretation of these terms is a stretch, given their meaning in physics? Do you have an alternative way of looking at musical expression that I don’t touch on here? Let me know your thoughts at my Ctrl-C email: gome ​@ ​ctrl-c.club.