[Smt-talk] Harmonics

JAY RAHN jayrahn at rogers.com
Thu Jul 24 19:07:09 PDT 2014

I have to agree with Andrew Milne's general outlook (below). I would go farther and say that much discussion about relationships between music theory and music cognition would benefit if one replaced notions of constraint with notions of capacity and/or resources. And one of the best indicators of musical capacity or ability is what musicians have actually done.

Jay Rahn, York University (Toronto)

Andrew Milne wrote:

There are many aesthetic decision to be made in art. Given the psychoacoustical qualities of a major triad — which include low roughness and a strong virtual pitch (root) — a musical culture can “choose" to privilege such sounds and the qualities of order, clarity and hierarchy (privileged root) that they manifest. Alternatively a musical culture may choose to privilege the more dissonant intervals favoured in the music described by Ambrazevičius. 

Common practice harmony, with its insistence on asserting a strong tonic, establishing hierarchies, moving away from them and then reasserting them is perhaps a reflection of the culture in which this music developed. The revolutionary — and highly rule-based — serial method of imposing different organizational principles onto all twelve chromatic degrees without favouring any of them is perhaps a reflection of its time. And what about recent pop music, which commonly uses triads but connects them in ways that don’t seem to assert such a strong sense of a tonic — it uses modes, ascending fifths progressions, repeating cycles of harmony, and softer IV-I and modal cadences (e.g., bVII-i). This harmony is arguably a reflection of our more democratic, less hierarchical and more ambiguous age.

This is just a long way of saying that acoustical properties matter (and structural properties too — e.g., evenness of scale pitches and pulse). Under the control of an artist or cultural tradition, they can be organized so as to produce a compelling aesthetic form. But there is no single “right” way in which the precise palette of such properties is chosen, and the method by which they are organized. However, if we subscribe to the Russian formalist belief that the purpose of art is to make the familiar unfamiliar, then novelty is hugely important — we can’t just carry on doing the same old thing over and over. The last thing I am attempting to suggest here is that we return to the past.
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