Monday, December 29, 2008

Musical Innovation: Devotion or Deviance?

  In order for music to be understandable by the human mind, it's been argued that the mind needs melody as the most important aspect of music. But at the same time, for innovation to exist in any field, there needs to be some form of deviation from the tried-and-true. The idea of "thinking outside the box" has been explored extensively, from religious rebels whose suffering is rewarded with sainthood to books such as The Deviant's Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets. Ayn Rand herself created Trickster-like heroes who constantly redefine the world's standards and values.

  The field of music, known for its ethereal nature, is probably the most fertile area for creative deviation. Without a common agreement of what music even represents, it is perhaps the human endeavor, along with philosophy, most resistant to boundaries and limitations. Appeals to the nature of the mind are only helpful up to a point, since the mind, another ill-defined concept, is not static, but also open to growth and change. It's been said that good science fiction is not about the future, because if it were, there would only be one book: the right one. So Platonic notions of "the music of the spheres," and dreams of "metamusic" will always be unattainable fantasies. (This is why I fear a film version of Atlas Shrugged; the description of the "Concerto of Deliverance" defies any actual realization.) And although music can be said to be a recreation of the tension and release manifested through the physical world, it ultimately creates an emotional response, which requires the unique experiences of the listener, creating not a universal experience but myriad possibilities of reactions.

  Melody is said to be the most important aspect of music, and many have tried to define what makes a good melody. We know that the integral component of melody is the scale and intervals employed, and have identified common archetypal emotional reactions for each. ( Whether they are cultural or biological is another matter.) Robert Jourdain lists 8 main principles of a successful melody in Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imaginations:

-Nearly all the notes in the melody are to be chosen from the seven-note scale upon which the melody is based. When any of the remaining five chromatic notes are used, they generally should appear in positions that are unaccented and unemphasized so as not to undermine the prevailing harmony. (Suggests the need for hierarchy.)

-Most of a melody's notes should be adjacent scale notes. Jumps should be few; and large jumps rare.

-To avoid monotony, individual notes should not be repeated too much, particularly at emphasized positions in a melody.

-Harmonic resolutions...should occur at points of rhythmic stress in a melody.

-Similarly, rhythmic accentuations should highlight the melody's contour. Changes in melodic direction should generally fall at rhythmically important junctures.

-A melody should have only one instance of its highest tone, and preferable also of its lowest tone. The highest tone should never be a tone that naturally tends toward a higher one (such as the seventh note of a melody's scale.)

-Jumps should always land on one of the seven scale tones, not on one of the five chromatic tones. The ear always hears a jump as emphasized (that is, the brain is more attentive to jumps, since they define the boundaries of submelodies), so jumping to a chromatic tone violates the rule about never emphasizing these tones.

-Conversely, a melody should never leap from a chromatic tone. The dissonance of a chromatic tone creates tension in need of release. Yet jumps increase tension, and so contradict this need.

  This would seem like a recipe for "the perfect melody," but it is not so. Jourdain recognizes that many memorable melodies do employ these rules, and that many awkward, ugly melodies break them. (The reader is invited to test this on their own favorites.) But he points out that "while rules can point out bad melodies, they can't predict good ones. Many a drab melody observes every rule. Others break an important rule and somehow gain by it.

  Jourdain uses the highly recognizable "Pink Panther" theme as an example. The theme is meant to invoke the stalking motions of a predator (in this case, a comical one) and contains many starts and stops presented by clustered rhythms and a disjointed sliding scale. The piece observes most of the rules but deviates by emphasizing non-scale chromatic tones. 

  Jourdain says that "'The Pink Panther' represents the need for deviation in music to fulfill a need. There are surely better melodies in the world that are more beautiful or inspiring, but they could not have conveyed what this particular piece does." If one believes that emotions are not moral or immoral in themselves, then we need a musical vocabulary that expresses a wide range of emotions. One could probably find reasons to break the rules many times. Large, frequent jumps may not be suitable for wedding music, or requiems, but could make a perfect soundtrack for a gymnastic sense of life. ( Immediately I think of the leaps and bounds of West Side Story). A person's sense of life and philosophy is probably MORE important in determining a succesful melody than adherence to the "rules", anyway. Considering that much of the rules of Western music come from a religious mentality, we shouldn't be surprised that many notions of "ideal music" are a picture of a non-corporal afterlife that shuns earthy rhythms. ( And just compare the solemn singing of the Protestant hymns to the "joyful noise" of the African American churches... a prime example of deviance in action based on a sense of life! And not unlike the ground-hugging, this-life affirming temple designed by Howard Roark, a deviation from the sky-reaching churches of tradition.) A one-size-fits-all approach does not do justice to the possibilities of the human imagination. 

 Without falling into the post-modern trap of relativism and denying that some melodies are better than others, the rules, once known, are begging to be broken. If one wants to see innovation in music, one needs to engage in the dialectic of devotion and deviation. 


  1. I may as well post something brief related the first of the criteria.

    I've been wondering for a while what exactly makes those seven-note scales significant. The history of the seven "church modes" is rooted in ancient Greece, and involves putting diatonic tetrachords together in different ways. But that only really matters for modal (pre-1600) music, not so much for tonal music, which is built around the way that harmonies and keys lead into each other.

    Major keys are easy. A major chord is built up of overtones from a common pitch; in the same register, you have the 4th, 5th, and 6th overtones of the tonic pitch two octaves down (octaves, of course, being functionally equivalent 'pitch classes'). For historical reasons (i.e. because of the pitch's cardinal number in a scale), the 5th and 6th overtones are called a third and a fifth (even though, harmonically, it would make more sense for the names to be reversed). The tonic is the fifth (i.e. the third/sixth/twelfth/etc. overtone) of another pitch, which becomes the subdominant pitch. Another major triad is built off of it, and the tonic chord naturally leads into the subdominant chord. Likewise, a major triad built off the fifth (third overtone) of the tonic chord (the dominanc pitch) leads into the tonic chord, and this becomes a dominant chord. So you have three fundamental triads in tonal music, and seven tones, which make up the major scale.

    [And, of course, this can be extended to the seventh overtone as well. You'll get a harmonic 7th from the tonic chord (representable Bb in the key of C major), a septimal minor third (representable as Eb in the key of C major), and a rather ugly-looking frequency ratio to the tonic pitch (21/16, which lies between E and F in C major), which lies between the third and subdominant of the major scale. Since the two notes are so close, however, it would be difficult to hear the difference between this new pitch and either of the old pitches, so one of them is used. Of the two, the subdominant note is used as an approximation, since the dominant chord (which contains the approximated pitch) leads into the tonic chord, and it would make better voice leading to have the pitch change from subdominant to third when the V->I progression occurs than for the pitch to remain the same (especially considering they were never supposed to be the same pitch in the first place). Now you've got I7, IV7, and V7 chords, and a nine-pitch scale, containing two blue notes. (The other blue note, the tritone, I think was really just put in for the dramatic, uneasy effect it creates.) And the blue notes as used as freely in blues for melody lines as diatonic scales in classical.]

    As for the minor scale, its pitches are the 10th, 12th, and 15th overtones of an underlying pitch, which is actually not what's considered the tonic of the key. If the chord is A minor, the underlying pitch is F, not A. There's a "utonality" explanation, but it seems unsatisfactory and ad hoc, since I don't think people hear "undertones"--only overtones. I'm thinking it's just a historical invention--since minor triads were considered consonant, a contrasting sort of key was created in which the fundamental chords were replaced by minor triads. And since minor triads weren't fundamental, a Picardy third was used to resolve into a fundamental, major key at the end of early pieces.

    I was wondering if you had any insight into this, the reasons for the significance of the scales.

  2. "I was wondering if you had any insight into this, the reasons for the significance of the scales."

    Well, that's really the topic of a full-blown post, isn't it? :)

    I don't have my own original insight to your question, but in keeping with the theme of the blog, I'll offer Rand's reasoning, which jives with what I know from music theory class. (This is all in "Art and Cognition," from ROMANTIC MANIFESTO, highly recommended if you haven't read it).

    "Now observe that the modern diatonic a product of the Renaissance...This scale permits the greatest number of consonant harmonies-i.e., of sound-combinations pleasant to the human ear (i.e., integratable by the human brain)...Integration is the key to more than music; it is the key to man's consciousness, to his conceptual faculty, to his basic premises, to his life."

    In other words, it's not arbitrary that the diatonic scale developed as it did, but that it works with the brain's cognitive abilities, including the limits of perception and the expansiveness of concept-formation.

    To go deeper as to what Rand was getting at, you'd have to look at her source, Herman Helmholtz. But here's a lead to her reasoning:

    "The fundamental difference between music and the other arts lies in the fact that music is experienced as if it reversed man’s normal psycho-epistemological process.

    The other arts create a physical object (i.e., an object perceived by man’s senses, be it a book or a painting) and the psycho-epistemological process goes from the perception of the object to the conceptual grasp of its meaning, to an appraisal in terms of one’s basic values, to a consequent emotion. The pattern is: from perception—to conceptual understanding—to appraisal—to emotion.

    The pattern of the process involved in music is: from perception—to emotion—to appraisal—to conceptual understanding."

  3. Hm... the diatonic scale has: 2 minor seconds, 5 major seconds, 4 minor thirds, 3 major thirds, 6 fourths, 1 tritone. 8 dissonant intervals and 13 consonant intervals. And that's using any pitch as the tonic; locrian mode is just as valid as the ionian that way.

    Mela Gayakapriya, a seven-note gypsy scale, has notes A A# C# D E F F#: 4 minor seconds, 2 major seconds, 4 minor thirds, 6 major thirds, 4 fourths, 1 tritone. 7 dissonant intervals and 14 consonant. It has more consonant and less dissonant intervals than the diatonic scale.

    I don't think the number of consonant and dissonant intervals matters so much as the context in which the sonorities appear.

  4. Trill, all this is food for thought. Rand makes a disparaging remark to contrast the Western scale versus Oriental music, but it wasn't an argument as much as an assertion. Your last comment "I don't think the number of consonant and dissonant intervals matters so much as the context in which the sonorities appear" is also an assertion, but put the two assertions together, and we have a debate!

    Unfortunately, I'm not so savvy with Indian scales, all I know is that they have a lot more frets on the sitar...;). Well, I know that the scales are divided with more notes than Western music, unless you consider the "string" bending of guitarists...Anyway, something to chew on, thanks.