Friday, September 9, 2011

The 'Language' of Harmony

Somewhere I made the claim that music is not a language despite many assertions that it is. I think there is at least one book titled The Language of Music. But, as with phrases like "the language of love", this is just a metaphor. As someone once said, if music is a language, what are the words and where is the dictionary where I can look up what they mean?

But that being said, I was musing over a comment and my response to the last post on cadences and I realized that, while music is not a language in the sense of being able to communicate specific concrete meaning, it does have language-like aspects. Music has a 'vocabulary' that is learned. Harmony, especially, is something that one only becomes familiar with over time. Counterpoint is another. Melody and rhythm do tend to have a more direct impact, but it is perfectly possible to listen to music having only the sketchiest notion of harmony and counterpoint.

One implication of this is that music is not a 'universal' language. Even Esperanto has to be learned. If you want to really appreciate the drum music of Ghana or the gamelan music of Bali or the mbira music of Zimbabwe, then you need to learn the 'language' just as you need to learn the harmonic 'language' of Haydn to really see what he is up to in a sonata movement such as the one I put up in the previous post.

That being said, it is also true what my commentator was mentioning, the fact that consonance and dissonance are related to certain acoustic properties. The relation between the frequencies of C and G is a simpler one than that between C and F# which is why the interval C-G sounds 'pure' while the interval C-F# sounds harsh. But the fact that harmony is based on certain acoustic properties does not mean that all the possibilities and developments are perfectly obvious. The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde is based on simple acoustic proportions, but it extends and expands the implications to an amazing degree. For many minutes it simultaneously implies a tonic chord, while doing everything it can to avoid it! Enjoying and understanding this takes quite a bit of exposure to harmony as practiced in Western Europe for a few hundred years.

And here is a little mbira music:


Anonymous said...

You make a very important point. To appreciate music does not require learning the rules. To compose music does, but that's a different matter.
I believe that any good music must be possible to appreciate with no learning and not even any social contacts: just exposure. I can't remember ever disliking Bach and Beethoven. But bebop, a music genre I absolutely worship today, left me cold for years. I made a conscious effort of listening to a lot of it -- even though it bored me -- and then after a year or two (it took that long), something happened, and I began to "get it" and my musical life was never the same again. But exposure is not the same as learning. I didn't learn the rules of jazz and then decided I liked it. In fact, I did the opposite. I learned the rules only once I was sure I liked it.

I could read an obscure Russian novel my whole life and still not understand a word. To learn a language, exposure to it is not enough. You need feedback in the form of social interaction or textbooks and dictionaries. You need a sort of Rosetta Stone. But that is absolutely not true with music. Sure, on the margin, you can teach someone to listen better. For example, I often advise people new to jazz to tune out the leading voices in their minds and focus on, say, the bass. Same with Bach. It pays to listen attentively to the other voices, so trained we are at focusing on the leading ones. But these are all second-order effects. At the end of day, it's just a question of listening, listening and feeling the joy and the emotion. It's magic because there's really no way to explain why certain sequences of notes create such deep feelings inside us. But I do believe listening is the key. Learning the rules comes after. Re. the universality, my own experience with jazz tells me that musics we do not grow up with (and I didn't grow up with jazz) might take longer to enjoy. I've been to several concerts of Indian music. While I was always in awe of what I heard and the extraordinary musical sophistication, dexterity, and erudition that came with it, while I enjoyed large chunks of it, usually after two hours I would become a little restless and start looking for the exit sign. If I spent years listening to it (again not studying it) I might begin to feel differently.

One last point. Even with music one is intimately familiar with, one always gains from repeated exposure. When I hear a new piece, I rarely reach my peak enjoyment level before I hear it maybe half a dozen times. In fact I would speculate that one has to have internalized (memorized is too strong a word) some of the music to enjoy it to its fullest. One might be able to spot obvious greatness the first time around (every composer present at the premiere of Carmen knew the world of opera would never be the same again). But in my case anyway my fullest enjoyment of any reasonably sophisticated music (rock doesn't count here) will require several passes. I suspect I am not the only person like that.

Bryan Townsend said...

So much to agree with here! Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You are making a distinction between exposure and learning. You can appreciate music with no learning whatsoever, this is true. But I wonder if all music is accessible in this way? I also wonder if exposure means that you soak up the 'vocabulary' of the music in an unconscious way, as you did with be-bop? Not all learning need be conscious. A composer makes many decisions in a piece based on certain notes just 'feeling' right.

One quibble: the opera Carmen at its premiere was denounced rather widely. It wasn't until it was produced in Vienna several months later that it was a success.

Now I should go listen to some be-bop to see if I can 'get' it!