Author Topic: Understanding Music  (Read 634 times)


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Understanding Music
« on: March 09, 2016, 03:38:25 PM »
Some guy (I can't recall exactly who) said that "music is just sound." That's pretty Zen! It's also a way, and to a point, and in certain cases...

 Remember that music is a language of sound.

 It would be somewhat disingenuous to say that "The English language is just sounds."

 "But," you retort, "the English language is more specific in meaning than music; music is vague, more abstract, etc."

 That's true, but music, tonal music specifically, is a certain kind of sound. We understand music, generally, ans as distiguished from noise, as being sustained pitch. This is what distiguishes talking from singing.

 Singing, and music, are sustained pitches.

 Talking is sibilance, noises, short bursts of vocalizations; not music, in other words.

 So, music is a sound language of sustained pitches of certain frequencies, which sustain, and are recognized as notes, or musical pitches.

 This 'sound language' is based on the way our ears hear. In almost all music, this is tonality, where our ears hear tone centers, because of the way we perceive pitch; based on a harmonic model, where we hear a fundamental note with higher partials, and the partials are all related to that one fundamental pitch: this is the tonality of music, in hearing tonal centers.

 So, if it is "music," it is a certain kind of sound; and almost all music is based on hearing natural tone centers, which is a manifestation of what our ears tend to hear. In tone-centered music, which almost all music is, even folk and ethnic musics, the 'structure' of the sound is audible, and makes sense to our ear/brain, because that's the way our ears hear things: with a bass note on bottom, and higher notes above it. We tend to hear the higher notes in relation to the bass note; the bass note becomes a 'fundamental pitch' or tone-center, to which the higher notes refer to in a less dominating way. This is the 'usual' way music is made and perceived. It seem to come naturally to people the world over.

 Ok, now that we've defined the norm, here are the exceptions. We have expanded the notion of what music is, from the 'natural' paradigm described above. Electronic music is 'just sound' in many cases, Wendy Carlos and Tomita being notable exceptions. John Cage wants his music to be 'just sound,' so he has devised all sorts of ways of structuring it. Lots of percussion, which is not sustained pitch, but can be done very musically. This brings us to the point that music is not "all pitch." It can be dominated by the other elements: rhythm, and timbre, if we wish.

 Serialism is not 'just sound,' because the organization of the pitches is arrived at using a hidden process, not audible 'as a process' of structure. True, it ends up being, ultimately, 'just sound,' but unlike the 'natural' paradigm of music explained above, the structural elements are determined by a mathematical process which is in its essence not related to the ear or the way it hears. The ear will ultimately determine its 'sound meaning' when it is ultimately heard as 'just sound,' but that is a secondary effect; the true structural essence of the music is abstract, and separate from the sound aggregate it ultimately produces.

 So, sometimes "music is a certain kind of sound in which the generating principles are based on natural principles of pitch perception;"

 sometimes "music is just sound in which the sounds are unrelated to the natural music paradigm and are just sounds;"

 and sometimes "music is based on mathematical or geometric structuring principles which are not as directly related to the natural principles of pitch perception as the original music paradigm."

 This leads to the conclusions that:

 Tone-centered music based on natural principles of pitch perception is "understandable" in a universal and self-evident way; because of our ears;

 Music based on "sound being just sound," even if unpitched or exclusively rhythmic or based on noise, is understandable in a universal ans self-evident way if it is conceived of and perceived as music;

 But music in which pitch material is generated using geometric/mathematical procedures, and is not based primarily on natural pitch perception, and in which the resulting pitch structures, as sound, are separated from their generating principles and are not direct manifestations "in sound only" of these generating principles (i.e., a 'hidden' process), is not music that is universally "understandable' in a self-evident way.

 Note that these conclusions do not contradict the fact that "sound is just sound" or "music is just sound;" nor do these conclusions contradict that music can be liked, regardless of whether we understand it.

 The conclusion is that "understanding" music is not necessarily conveyed by the sounds themselves, but is sometimes a 'hidden' process.
"In Spring! In the creation of art, it must be as it is in Spring!" -Arnold Schoenberg
"The trouble with New Age music is that there's no evil in it."-Brian Eno