Sunday, October 22, 2017

Notes on Aesthetics

Ok, the title contains a pun. Apologies! I just want to collect here a few observations about musical aesthetics, some from Beardsley's book, some mine own. Previously we mentioned that the basic categories of analysis should be the part and the whole as this is probably the most fundamental distinction possible. Beardsley says (p. 98) that "the totality of all audible tones [is] a four-dimensional array that contains within itself all the elements of all music." The four dimensions are duration, intensity or dynamic, timbre and pitch. Within this array, there are intrinsic relations between the tones themselves. For example, of any two successive tones, they will either be the same or one will be higher.

Beardsley points to one essential quality of music that he calls "auditory movement" or the characteristic of sound-complexes to point toward other sounds to come. You could call this the directionality of the music. This is managed through the creation of expectations or anticipations. Though it is done in a thousand ways and quite difficult to describe in words, anyone who is an experienced listener will recognize this phenomenon. Sometimes this quality is described as an "inevitability" to the progress of the music. This might give the wrong impression, because, in fine musical compositions, there is no repetitive dullness as you can listen to them many times with enjoyment. The music seems to go where it has to go, but with spontaneity. Hard to describe, but just listen to some Bach for an example.

Not all composers or schools of composers would agree with the above. The Italian futurists of the first part of the 20th century were happy to include random noises in their compositions and John Cage avoids creating any kind of expectation or anticipation by choosing notes randomly. I'm not sure that those kinds of music need any aesthetic analysis, though, so perhaps we can just leave them to one side.

A lot of musical direction or drive comes from the structure of pitches called "melody." Melodies have a contour and direction or goal. In tonal music the goal is usually a cadence of some kind. "Melody" is a term that might include, at one end, the very brief motif that is the germ of the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven:

And at the other end, one of those endless melodies of bel canto:

Click to enlarge
Perhaps the most interesting theory course I took in graduate school was one based on the notion of "theme types." This theoretical model comes out of the study of the Classical style. In compositions of that period, roughly 1760 to 1830, there are a number of theme types that are constructed through the very close integration of melodic and harmonic principles. Typically melodies are built around chord tones and cadences. In the Classical period phrases, the basic sentences of music, were handled in some very typical ways. I have written about this in this post. Here is another post on harmony and phrase structure.

I guess that the point I am wandering towards here is that the aesthetic impact or quality of a piece of music is closely related to the way the piece is structured. And it is the details that are important. Sorry for the vagueness, but this is just a general observation.

As a palate cleanser, let's listen to one of the most Russian movements written by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is the third movement of the String Quartet No. 3 played, in very vigorous fashion, by the Emerson Quartet.

1 comment:

Will Wilkin said...

Thanks for this brief stimulation to thought on what gives music a motive force or integrity as a living thing with an organization through time that has a logic and coherency. I also appreciated the links to your previous articles on this subject of themes and their development, from which I eventually ended up at Amazon and enjoyed many reviews of William Caplin's "Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the InstrumentalMusic of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven." Since that book is presently not attainable for less then $40, I put it on my Wish List and may someday get it.

Bryan I'll never be a schooled composer or a player good enough to be classical, but I will set poems to music I compose, and may end up a garage-band version of classical or, more likely due to my new lira da braccio, garage-band "renaissance" music. More about chords than melody in the instrumental part, as this is really a continuo instrument, but in my lyric melodies there will be melody and the elements of theme and phrase and structure will seep into my brain in some humble way.