[Smt-talk] Symmetry and Musical Aesthetics

Thomas Noll noll at cs.tu-berlin.de
Sat Dec 11 16:13:03 PST 2010

There is a book by Michael Leyton (1992): "Symmetry, Causality, Mind" which is neither centered on music nor on aesthetics (although there is a chapter on visual art).
Nevertheless I think it offers an interesting point of view under which the subject "symmetry and beauty" can be approached. The book centers around the idea that the mind has the drive to explain asymmetries as traces of processes. The author studies the concepts of time, shape and memory in tight connection and reinterprets facts from several domains of perception and cognition under this perspective. One can ask, for example, whether a suitable amount of symmetry may serve to suppress the normal acting of this drive. In a quite elementary interpretation the construction of highly symmetrical buildings can be seen as a cultural technique for the creation of eternity. 
I find it challenging to use this observation as a point of departure into more sophisticated situations in musical analysis. A composition such as "regard du temps" by Messiaen thematizes (and exemplifies?) eternity in opposition to human time. But the story is not about the "absence of asymmetry". At least not at the level of the score. Maybe one can say that the rhythmic canon is a potentially infinite texture which is built on potentially all augmentations of the palindromization 1 2 1 of the pair  1 2. Thus the full symmetry is only indicated in the score, where it is limited to "only" three registers and only to very few augmentation factors (3, 4, 5).      
best wishes
Thomas Noll    

> Dear colleagues,
> An upper-level undergraduate student at our liberal arts and sciences university is embarking on a long-term interdisciplinary study of the relationship between symmetry and beauty.  She is an accomplished violinist, but is not a music major and has no post-tonal theory background as yet; however, she is both well-versed and interested in calculus, statistics, and other mathematical forms so could pick it up fairly easily. While there are hundreds of scholarly articles on various kinds of compositional symmetry in the music of Western composers to which I could refer her, I'm wondering if anyone can recommend:
> 1) a good historical overview of how symmetry has been used in Western music, and/or
> 2) scholarly writing that addresses the aesthetics of musical symmetry rather than (")simply(") the compositional mechanics of its usage in the works of specific composers.  
> Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
> Best wishes,
> Laurel Parsons
> -- 
> Laurel Parsons, Ph.D.
> Co-ordinator, Humanities Division
> Quest University Canada
> 3200 University Blvd.
> Squamish, BC
> VB8 0N8
> laurel.parsons at questu.ca
> www.questu.ca
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Thomas Noll
noll at cs.tu-berlin.de
Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya, Barcelona 
Departament de Teoria i Composició 


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