Friday, January 27, 2006

Into the Ears of Babes

Today being Mozart's 250th birthday, I thought it would be an opportune time to reflect on the cultural phenomenon of music. Why is it that babies like Mozart?

I've commented that a musician shouldn't been seen as a philosopher, nevertheless music does have philsophical and ethical implications. As Plato reflects in Book IV of the Republic,

When modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.

Music forms the soul and human souls are the foundation of the state. Note that it is the music, not the lyrics that form the soul. Many American conservatives get caught up in disputing the decadent lyrics of today's music (half the time you can't make out what the singer's mumbling anyway) and completely neglect the actual music, which has a far more formative effect on the listerner's soul.1 In sixth century A.D. the Christian philosopher Boethius wrote The Principles of Music in which he said,

music is related not only to speculation, but to morality as well, for nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites. Thus we can begin to understand the apt doctrine of Plato, which holds that the whole of the universe is united by a musical concord. For when we compare that which is coherently and harmonious joined together within our own being with that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together in sound—that is, that which gives us pleasure—so we come to recognize that we ourselves are united according to the same principle of similarity.2

In other words there is an analogy implicit in the music itself with which the soul resonates. And it is not a purely conditioned response. In some sense we emerge from the womb ready to receive such beauty. This is why babies like Mozart.

Is Our Tonal System Arbitrary?

Another question occurs to me: is the Western musical scale unique or an accident of history? Did Pythagoras in the fifth century B.C. construct an arbitrary harmonic system or uncover a fundamental cosmic reality, something as objective as math or physics that springs out of the very nature of the universe (or at least human nature)?

Some modern composers have claimed it is arbitrary and attempted to replace the traditional scale with their own creation. For example, as Robert R. Reilly writes,

In the 1920s, Arnold Schoenberg unleashed the centrifugal forces of disintegration in music through his denial of tonality. Schoenberg contended that tonality does not exist in nature as the very property of sound itself, as Pythagoras had claimed, but was simply an arbitrary construct of man, a convention. This assertion was not the result of a new scientific discovery about the acoustical nature of sound, but of a desire to demote the metaphysical status of nature.3

The product was of course atrocious. Perhaps it was popular among the educated (read: indoctrinated) elites, but didn't catch on with the "uneducated" many, let alone with babies.

From this historical failure, it might be concluded that any departure from the traditional tonal system is bound to fail. The argument is less than mathematically (ala Pythagoras) convincing. A musician and student of mine observed that he has heard traditional gypsy music that uses half-tones similar to twelve tone, and that it "works." I wonder if the problem with Schoenberg was not so much his system, but the rebellious spirit that animated it. As Reilly observes, his "assertion was not the result of a new scientific discovery about the acoustical nature of sound, but of a desire to demote the metaphysical status of nature."

It seems to me mathematically possible to change the tonal system in obedience to the tradition. For example, why is middle-C the frequency it is? It could theoretically be shifted without destroying the proportions on which Pythagoras built his system.

Not being a musician myself, I can claim no authority on this matter, but I would be fascinated to hear from anyone who knows more.


1. Hence the rather oxymoronic character of "Christian" rock.

2. As quoted in Reilly, p. 14.

3. From Reilly, p. 15.

Robert R. Reilly, "The Music of the Spheres, or the Metaphysics of Music," Intercollegiate Review 37:1 (Fall 2001), 12-21.


Steve said...

I've often wondered about how human capacity for making and perceiving music evolved. What evolutionary value created it?

I was driving through LA 22 years ago listening to an interview on a classical music station, don't know why I still remember it, and this English musician comments/laments on the the state of 20th century music (Schoenberg et al) and says "Now we know what 17 harps sound like, so let's get on with it."

Godfrey Miller said...

William Sethares has done work in psychoacoustics that sheds light on precisely the questions you raise here. A friend of mine recommended his book, Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale, and it revolutionized my understanding of music. If people pay attention to his work, people like Schoenberg will be relegated to the dustbin of history.

In short, our harmonic tonal system is neither arbitrary nor unique. It is well-suited to the patterns of consonance and dissonance generated by stringed instruments like the guitar, because strings when plucked generate harmonic overtones. It is less well suited to instruments like the xylophone (blocks of wood vibrate like strings only to first order), and even more poorly suited to bells, for no other reason than that the overtones of such instruments do not follow a harmonic distribution.

The pattern of overtones generated by an instrument determines its pattern of consonance and dissonance, which in turn determines the optimal tuning scheme. If you measure the overtones carefully enough, you can even tune rocks.

Check out Sethares' Homepage for more information.

Steve said...


Looks like an interesting site. I will follow up.

I found myself inside a factory a number of years ago, filled with rotational machinery. There were all kinds of hums and resonances and throbbing as sounds beat against one another. I had a few moments to appreciate it. That was music too. Of a different kind of course.


Bonnie said...

I can comment briefly as a professional musician who's done very basic study in the physics of music. It's true, there are fixed mathematical relationships between pitches that result in either harmonic consonance or dissonance, as well as unalterable physical properties of instruments that result in certain tambres of sound. Natural harmonics (Pythagoras' system) are not perfectly consonant (to the ear) past the 6th partial, however, and frequency of pitches must be adjusted in order to be in tune depending on how they function in a chord or melodic line. So really, music is about the tension between dissonance and consonance, involving matters of taste when it comes to nuances as well, and tonal (Western) music has made use of this.

BTW, tunings have shifted over time, though only slightly.

It is fascinating to learn the mathematical and physical basis of what makes things "musical" and why; not just tonally but rhythmically as well.

Oh, a note on Plato -- the modes he (and Boethius) referred to were specific scales. He believed that certain scales produced certain aspects of character. I don't completely buy that, though; I think that a person's response to various tonal patterns is somewhat arbitrary and subjective. Associations made between certain types of music and certain things during the formative years especially (also culturally influenced) have a lot to do with it. In general, though, consonance is consonance and dissonance is dissonance, because of their unalterable properties. It's the way they are used, and the human response to them, that is variable.