Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Rhythm Vs. Melody, or, Extensional versus Intensional Music

There’s an ongoing debate about which is more important to music: rhythm or melody. This dichotomy is most highlighted by the differences in emphasis between European music (melodic) and African music (rhytmic). There is one theory that argues that the differences are "extensional" and "intensional."

Predominately rhythmic music is said to be “intensional”, where tones are “not combined through space and time as simple elements into complex structures. The simple entity is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony, and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes, and by the infliction of the basic beat.” Emphasis is on timbre and variations in single tones instead of relations between tones.

European music, is melodic and “extensional.” Tones are “combined through space and time to form huge, complex structures.” This requires integration between tones in the mind of the listener, heirarchy must be established. Less emphasis on repitition than rhytmic music. More "intellectual."

Many conclusions have been drawn from this simple differentiation, some on a social level. European music, with its emphasis on heirarchy, mirrored the social structure of monarchy, with the dominant key as king. Some socialist thinkers have derided western music based on this comparison, instead celebrating “primitive music” as being more socially healthy because of its supposed all-inclusiveness. Some of the more post-modern theorists took this idea to the limit with the development of atonal and pantonal music, and serial composing, where all tones are equal, and no note can be used until the others in the series have been given a turn.

This would ignore the fact that rhythmic music is also based on heirarchy, with downbeats given more emphasis over other beats. But more importantly, it ignores that the knowledge is heirachal. Withing context, some facts are more important than others in grasping ideas. The fact that heirarchal systems of government have been used to justify tyranny doesn’t destroy the fact that heirachies are essential, which is why businesses still use such a model, and that communes don’t work for very long.

On another note: If there is any validity to the “Mozart Effect”, it’s that a listener increases his capability by grasping the complex relations between tones in complex extensional music. The question is, does the mind grasp these relations passively, by mere hearing alone? Or is it a result of active LISTENING? Calling it “the Mozart Effect” suggests that one need merely to sit back and get smarter by osmosis. If only it were that easy! How automatic a process is it? Music does not increase I.Q., a listener has to CHOOSE work at the more complex types of music (unless he’s a prodigy?). The intensional type of music is immediate, emphasis on pleasurable sensory qualities that come more immediately. If it were a food analogy, it would be similar to developing one’s palate. Sweets are immediately tasty, but one has to work to appreciate the complex recipes.

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