Monday, January 4, 2010

Towards Defining Great Music, Part Three: What is Music?

What is this thing, this music, after all? There is perhaps nothing more pervasive to our culture that remains so unexamined by so many. Music surrounds us, especially in this era of iPods, the iTunes store, and online radio like LastFM and Pandora. Without music, what would our movies be? Without music, how would be punctuate our joy, our sadness, or our desire?

At the beginning of the school year, a fellow student of mine described her first time in an MRI as a musical experience. The whirring and throbbing of the machine struck her as a kind of new age techno beat. The ancient Greeks thought that music was present in the stars and planets themselves, as they revolved in perfect musical intervals. If the solar system hums, what is its melody? Its harmony?

Are those things - an MRI, or the sky - music? I fear I've started us down a bit of a mystical path, rather than resolving the basics (harmony, melody, rhythm). The mystical path, however, might be the right one here. In trying to find "Great Music," ought we not define music in such a way that it might be great? Ought we search not for its formal constraints, but for its spiritual ones?

Of course, we ought to do both, and I intend to try a little of each. Nevertheless, I want the reader to keep in mind, throughout, the words of Beethoven: "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." In what sense this is true is a question, but there's something about that quotation that seems right. Why? What is this music?

Traditionally, music is broken into three key components: melody, harmony, and rhythm. None of the three has particular precedence, necessarily, but the argument is that all three must be present for music to truly exist. That, ultimately, is not truly the case (a great many pieces were written before harmony - in the modern sense - came around), but it is a fair enough assessment.

Melody, quite simply, is the tune. The progression of notes that constitutes the part that you hum to yourself. Melody is also where most musical variation occurs. Even in highly sophisticated harmonic music - like that of the Classical Era - there were really only a handful of acceptable harmonic progressions, with melody doing the heavy musical lifting. Indeed, melody is, in some sense, the essence of a piece. Take away harmony and the piece remains recognizable. The same cannot be said of melody.

That said, harmony is also vital, albeit in a less obvious way. Most melodies - at least those written in the last 500 years or so - are written with harmony in mind. Indeed, modern harmony is so entrenched in our experience of music that, if you ask a beginner to compose a melody, he will almost always compose something that fits into, for example, a modern, 12-bar blues harmony. Without even trying. How much more, then, do the professional musicians and composers of our culture tend towards harmonic regularity?

Even music written before "harmony," however, takes a kind of harmony into consideration. To our modern ears, we give precedence to vertical harmony: the concurrent sounding of notes. Historically, horizontal harmony - or the succession of notes - was also important. Now "the horizontal succession of notes" may sound a lot like melody, and in some sense it is. That's an oversimplification, however, because it ignores the relationship of one note to another in that succession. Sure, a good melody may also be harmonically cohesive, but it need not necessarily be so.

To highlight this concept, consider Gregorian Chant. While certainly devoid of harmony in any modern sense, there was an overarching harmony dictated by the "mode" of the chant. That is, the scale available to the composer of the chant was determined by the mode he was writing in. Some chants might be in what we now call a "minor" key, while others would be in a "major." This is a purely harmonic distinction, of course, but it pervades even an ostensibly melodic form of music. One might say that the melody is minor, of course, but that is saying that the melody has harmonic qualities.

The point being, harmony is just as big a part of music as melody. Our modern ears, of course, reject music without the more complicated, vertical harmony (even if we tend to prefer a narrow selection of vertical possibilities), so perhaps its not worth even arguing against the notion that harmony might not be essential to music. But we still sing to ourselves or each other without accompaniment from time to time, and we still enjoy those moments in rock songs when the background stops and the singer belts the line without the band. Even at those moments, however, there is a kind of harmony.

If melody and harmony make up the "what" of what is said in a piece of music, rhythm makes up the "how." Rhythm without harmony or melody could hardly be called music, but it is rhythm - beyond anything else - that separates all other noise from music. All sounds have a pitch, and any two concurrent or successive pitches make for harmony. It is the rhythmic intent of sounds that makes them strike us as music. In some sense, rhythm is the most important part of music, though certainly not what we think of first.

And yet, when you hum a tune to yourself, do you always hum the melody correctly? Do you hear the harmony in your head? Could you sing the parts of every instrument? Often we get the words, melody, and even harmony wrong for a piece, but the piece remains recognizable. On the other hand, almost everyone who hums the Star Spangled Banner - even if they change keys, get half the notes wrong, and make the whole thing minor - will get the rhythm right. What's more, we recognize songs by their rhythms. My piano teacher showed me something once that I have in turn done for all (what, 5?) of my piano students.

One of the earliest fears of any musician is the fear of messing up. When we make a mistake playing music, our tendency is to stop and start over, or to muddle through the piece, making sure we get the melody and harmony right at the expense of any semblance of coherence. Early piano students are notoriously bad for this reason, especially because they don't yet have the skills to "make it up" for a time until they recover the piece.

Even so, it's important for early students to learn that they can make it up, so here's what my teacher showed me. You sit down at the piano and play the melody of the Star Spangled Banner, but play it without any real sense of time. Accelerate certain notes and slow others, and generally muddle it up. Many students will recognize it, but most will actually not. On the other hand, if you just pound out the rhythm, without any regard for playing the notes correctly, you'll see a knowing smile. "Oh yeah, that's the national anthem," you'll hear.

Which just goes to show: rhythm is truly at the core of what we experience when we hear music. My classmate in the MRI machine was having a rhythmic experience, more than anything else, with only a vague sense of harmony or melody, but yet she felt it was musical. I would argue that it wasn't, strictly speaking, actually all that musical. But I understand the sentiment, and I acknowledge that it gets to the heart of the matter.

As for the Greeks and their spinning, musical toy box of a solar system, that's a more complicated matter. They were speaking of harmony, and not rhythm, but really they were speaking of none of the three components of music that I've covered.

The notion that the stars behave in some kind of musical pattern is nonsense to us today, but I think that the sentiment here was that music occupies an almost magical place in human experience. The Greeks believed - as did Beethoven - that music stood somewhere beyond human experience, whilst remaining a part of it. It was certainly communicative, powerful enough to warrant special attention in Plato's Republic, and profoundly mysterious. In advanced musicians, it is the same part of the brain that most of us use for language that initializes when looking at a musical score - which lends itself to the "music is a language" notion - but that does not mean that music can speak.

Even our modern music, which in many cases gives preference to lyrics over melody, harmony, or rhythm, cannot avoid the mute but powerful conversation that music has. Music theory can only go so far in explaining what and why music does what it does to our minds and hearts. Certainly that does not mean we should abandon the study of music, letting it affect us however it affects us, but it does mean that we have to be careful with our formal definitions. How much do harmony, melody, and rhythm really matter to our experience of a piece? Are they none of the story, part of the story, or the whole story?

For my part, I think they are a significant part, but not the whole story. As we search for "Great Music," it seems to me that the mark of greatness in music comes from some combination of expert use of the three more comprehensible aspects of music so as to make a piece with a profound meaning that is, alas, nearly inexpressible. Arthur Schopenhauer argued that music was the only way to see the world objectively; music is the mind unconsciously performing metaphysics. Beethoven would approve.

In my next post - on modern music - I'll try to confront this metaphysics in popular music. I don't think that popular music need be disparaged as worthless, but I certainly am wary of it as being great, and I believe there is a great deal of dangerous music (not in a "get off my lawn you stupid kids!" way, but in a more spiritual way) in the world. The purpose of that post, however, will not be to assess modern music so much as to better establish criteria for greatness in music. Since we're mostly more familiar with what's around today than with what is generally considered canonical, hopefully I'll be able to provide some concrete examples that are familiar to all.

No comments:

Post a Comment