Monday, October 14, 2013

I don't know how music works

What's with this guy, anyway?
A few weeks ago, I performed as a singer in four performances Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It's a long work, and the choir doesn't come in until close to the end, so I had a lot of time to sit and think about what was going on in the music. And with Beethoven, there's always a lot going on. As any regular readers of this blog know, I like taking music apart and analyzing it to see how it works. At the end of the four performances, what I decided was this:

I don't know how music works.

I know what pitches the open strings of a violin sound, how many times a second a string vibrates to sound an 'A' in Europe or the U.S., how to spot a second theme in the first movement of a classical sonata or symphony, how to lift my soft palate so that my vowels sound better, and how to sing beautifully in German.

But I don't know how this music made Beethoven, a middle-class German who lived centuries ago, a hero and household name for all the generations since.

I know how to analyze or write a four-part fugue, how to orchestrate, transpose, and balance a woodwind section, how to finger an Ab on a trumpet and what the same note would sound like if played on a bassoon. I know how to take apart a clarinet, how a baritone sax is different than a soprano sax is different than a bass clarinet. I know the German name for viola, how to dance an Irish jig, and the difference between a bulgar and a freilach. I know how to dampen an Javanese reyong, how to chant kechak, and how to count gong cycles.

But I don't know what about the music of 9th symphony made it a symbol of New Years in Japan or the reunification of Germany in 1990.

I know how to conduct music in 11/8, how to recognize a blues progression and improvise a solo over it, how to correctly voice and resolve a Neapolitan chord, how low a bass can usually sing and what happens to their tone above an 'A'.

But I don't know what about Beethoven's 9th (or any other piece of music) would make someone dedicate their whole lives (with minimal financial award) to studying a composer who died years ago. I don't know why some people decide to spend thousands of dollars on a music education with little hope of financial reward. I don't know why a few people spend millions of dollars to shore up the failing finances of symphony orchestras all over the world because those musicians hardly make enough money to buy their instruments.


When you get down to it, this symphonic performance is just a bunch of people waving their arms and moving their fingers and blowing, or shouting in a very specialized way, and vibrating strings and membranes and columns of air. And it's not just classical art music—all music is just
vibrating air molecules that we pick up with some very small bones in our ear and transfer into electrochemical pulses in our brains. It's not like art or literature, where pictures or words can represent tangible things in our lives and relationships (and by the way, many critics think that the words to "Ode to Joy" by themselves are pretty much drivel). How can a vibration be a symbol for joy or anger or pain or group belonging?

So how does it help me to know what I don't know? It's important because we need to know what we are assuming before we can move on. Take science—it starts with assumptions, or postulates. For instance, in Euclidian geometry we have to assume that there's such a thing as two parallel lines that never meet. But we can't really prove that, and in fact on the Earth, which is not flat, Euclidian geometry doesn't really work on a large scale, just as Newtonian physics doesn't work in large-scale space.

In music's case, we take as a postulate the transformative power of music. This assumption helps us move on to make some conclusions that in practice seem to work out. But I think we should never forget that it's an assumption. We don't know how or why music is or can become such a big deal, such an important factor for change in the world. And our lack of answers is one of the things that makes music so intriguing.

Vocab: theme, sonata, symphony, soft palate, fugue, blues progression, transposition, gong cycles

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