Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Nerd Alert II

Or Contemplating Contemplating Music. See also here and here.

I have no excuse for writing about this. By all means please skip this.

I love reading books about music and the brain because it is our brains that create the music. The only theoretical analysis that means anything is the one that our brains do all by themselves. We can help it along, but the brain does all the heavy lifting.  This is why the case of tonality is so interesting.

What is tonality? It's the idea that at every point in the phrase, on every chord in the phrase your ears hear the pull to the tonic or key note. The English invented it. Dowland's music is fully tonal. 

Anecdote: At a Mu Phi meeting one of the members played a piece by Froberger. At the end another member said, "Interesting chord progressions." They would be interesting because they weren't chord progressions at all. Though he was after Dowland, Froberger was still pre-tonal. It is tonality that creates the idea of a chord progression. Froberger just wrote triads that didn't go in any particular order except at the end.

Dowland spent time in Italy, and once the idea of tonality had taken root in Italy, it quickly spread to all of Europe. Arcangelo Corelli was the first Italian to immerse himself in the idea. With their dominant position in music at that time, the Italians carried the concept everywhere. By 1700 everything was tonal and pretty much still is today. Bach's understanding of tonality as reflected in his music may have been the most sophisticated of his era, as is the case with most features of his style.

This idea swept Europe entirely without the benefit of a theoretical explanation. Composers of the Baroque understood harmony as it was outlined in the figured bass, but clearly chordal function and not the bass note creates the sensation of gravity toward a single note. It wasn't until Rameau in the 18th century invented the fundamental bass concept that we understood how tonality actually works. Or at least were able to explain it to our verbal brain.  This idea of Rameau's, after a lot of tweaking, is what is taught in theory class.  (Later came Schenker, whom we will ignore.)

Theory is basically just verbal explanations for musical concepts.  The musical concepts do not actually require any verbal explanation. The brain forms its own explanation, and this explanation is not expressed in words.

The thing we are trying to communicate here is that the idea of tonality was created in the minds of people who were creating and hearing music. It existed for 100 years entirely without the benefit of a theoretical explanation.

I suppose I'm a radical. I kind of think you must create the music in my brain using nothing but the sound of notes in the air, and that it doesn't matter how you explain it on paper. Music never becomes words.  Teach me how to understand your music with the music itself, and my brain will do the rest.

Theory is lots of fun but basically irrelevant.  I think it's relevant to training musicians.  It helps you think about things you wouldn't necessarily have thought of without it. The problem comes when you get so caught up in it you start to think it actually explains music.  It doesn't.  Your brain does that.

Carry on.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

Thanks Dr B. I enjoyed reading your explanation - it's obviously how I have managed to love classical music all my life even before I "knew" about music theory.

That Rameau was a bright boy, as well as composing some stunning operas.