Announcement: new book being written (by me!)


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Folks, some of the fall-out from the Jan. 14 LAON meeting is that a comment by Nathaniel Branden triggered my resolve to begin work on a book on music aesthetics. Or, some mixture of the music theory, music psychology, and music aesthetics.

The book is based on a lecture I gave in San Francisco in March 2004, and its title is "Serious Schmaltz and Passionate Pop: are there objective indicators of emotion in music?" (That's the subtitle from my talk, but the subtitle for the book is a carefully guarded trade secret. Sorry. :-)

I have decided that I need to data-base the great American standard songs as well as the best-loved classical melodies and do a lot of study and generalization, as well as relating my observations to the Objectivist ethics and aesthetics.

It will be a lot of work, but it should be great fun. I will be finding out what makes the hit songs work -- i.e., what musical factors enable the song melodies (and lyrics) to convey a particular emotion and/or present a particular view of life and the world.

I'll give you one out-of-context snippet of the kinds of things I will be looking at. Songs can be categorized in terms of their form. One very prevalent song form is AABA, with the B section called the "bridge." A good example is "Take the A Train" by Duke Ellington. Another very common song form is ABAB' (or some variation thereof). A good example is "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

One salient difference between these two forms is that AABA form usually has the melodic peak in the bridge, while the ABAB' usually has the melodic peak in the last section (B'). These are just general observations, but are part of the preliminaries that have to be done to establish conceptual groupings of kinds of melodies.

I just can't resist one other tidbit. :-) Norah Jones' big Grammy hit song, "Don't Know Why," which is in AABA form, has been characterized by some wags as being about sexual dysfunction. (One lyric is "don't know why I didn't come.") Well, as sweet as the song is (kinda Karen Carpenterish), there's some ironic truth to the facetious description. There is NO MELODIC PEAK in her song. All the phrases move downward. There is NO CLIMAX! Now, this kind of laboratory specimen doesn't come along every day -- and yet, there it is, top dog in the pop song world. Go figure!

Well, enough teasers. I started writing last Sunday, and so far I'm about 2000 words into the Preface, with no end in sight! (Just kidding. I sense that it is going to wrap up with some acknowledgements shortly. :-) This project feels like a culmination and a new beginning, all at once, and I anticipate being able to work on it and applications of it for years, maybe decades. (And I ain't got that many left! :-(

Can you tell I'm excited? :D/

REB

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Wow, that is really great news. I raise my coffee cup to you once more and wish you the best of luck with your book. I'm so proud that real writing projects are getting off the ground, because one of our main goals here is to produce published works. Roger, you are are a star!

Cheers,

Kat

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Hey, Roger-

I heard a piece on NPR a few months ago about a guy who developed a program that accesses some kind of giant song database, and it works like this: If you put in the title of a song you like, it will spit out other songs that you would like because they are similar on some plane- he's using a pretty complex algorithm, it appears, and it accounts for overall tonal/timbral "feel", from what it seems.

I'm trying to find out where his site is, but no luck so far. Interesting stuff.

Have you heard about this?

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Roger,

The book sounds like an interesting one -- and one you'd probably find fun to write. Best wishes for the project.

I once sketchily worked out some thoughts about music along similar lines to those you're exploring. This was back in 65-66, when I was taking a number of music history courses at Northwestern and was alerted to Langer's work by one of the other students. I wrote a letter to AR about some of these thoughts, using them more or less as a springboard for a subtle attempt at encouraging her to re-listen to Beethoven (I illustrated my thesis by applying it to several of his compositions). About the time when I finished the letter, I decided to move East to live and work in New York City for awhile. Thus I waited to send the letter till after my move. Of course, upon arriving in New York City, I learned of the split -- and decided the timing was poor. It was about the time of the Ford Hall Forum story which I told earlier today that I finally sent the letter. She didn't read it. (The vast majority of the stuff she was sent got no further than her secretary's desk.) But Allan Blumenthal did. He said he agreed with my thesis but that unfortunately I hadn't proved it. (I think he was hoping to be provided with an "ironclad" argument he could use to stop her needling about his tastes in music -- not that he shared the extent of my enthusiasm for Beethoven, but he thought she wasn't right in her views; and there was the issue of his love of Mozart and Brahms and...)

Considering the extent of your musical background, I think you could bring a wealth of reflections to a book-length treatment. You might even come up with something which would succeed at capturing AR's attention were she around to read it. ;-)

Ellen

PS: I tried to use the "applause" emoticon, but it didn't work.

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Thanks for the encouragement, Ellen. You're right about it being fun -- but on a deeper level, very fulfilling and integrative, because it unites a number of my serious interest areas: philosophy, psychology, music, and mathematics -- and it has practical applications beyond theory and pedagogy.

If you look over in the Aesthetics folder, you'll see that I too tried to contact Rand about my hopes and ambitions regarding explaining music, but got no further than her secretary either. <sigh>

I'd like to think you're right, that my approach would have gotten Rand's attention and perhaps even support. I tried to get a foot in the door with Peikoff by offering him one of my jazz CDs (the one of me on trombone with a pianist partner), but he (amazingly) said he only likes jazz with piano. (Too much demand upon his abstractive capacity, apparently.) But it probably wouldn't have worked out anyway, since he would have found out soon enough that I've been consorting with the "enemy" in JARS.

However, for what it's worth, I did run my approach and projected book by Nathaniel Branden yesterday, and he said he thought it sounded fascinating. I discussed several examples with him, and he responded exactly as I would hope thinking music lovers would respond. Which gives me hope that I'm on the right track, and that I am up to the task of communicating this stuff in a clear and interesting way.

So, onward!

REB

P.S. -- Interestingly, there are two aspects of music, even in popular songs, that convey a sense of mechanism vs. teleology. Or, if you prefer, determinism vs. free will. The one that has caught my fancy during the past week is rhythm. End-accented rhythms (iamb = da DA, like a hearbeat and anapest = da da DA, like a horse's canter) connote end-oriented or goal-oriented action (teleology). The anapest is used (hell, beaten to death) by countless 19th century overture composers, notably, Rossini (William Tell Overture) and Von Suppe (Light Cavalry Overture), but also Rachmaninoff (e.g., the accompaniment figure of the front section of his G minor prelude, as well as accompaniment figures in his 2nd piano concerto finale and his 2nd symphony finale). In all cases, the listener gets a sense of something heroic happening, though exactly what is left to the imagination, of course (except where the program notes tell us that we're supposed to be hearing horsies :-) An amusing personal anecdote: the Disneyland Band every winter does local concerts for 2nd graders in conjunction with the Orange County Philharmonic Association, and when we do the W.T. Overture, the roomful of several hundred kids spontaneously start "riding their horses" -- and not one of them had the benefit I did of hearing the theme as associated with "The Lone Ranger" back in the 50s. I think that rhythm is VERY strongly associated with the horse hoof rhythm...Anyway, on the other side of the ledger is the front-accented rhythms trochee (Da da) and dactyl (Da da da), which have a very different character and connotation, one which I think is very mechanistic, obsessive, rigid, almost fatalistic or driven -- pushed rather than pulled, in your lingo, Ellen. :-) One of my favorite examples is the Tarantella which is practically pure dactyl meter -- also the Jewish Hora dance. Also, the middle section of the Rachmaninoff C# minor piano prelude. I like to think of that as like a locomotive train, as if it were the soundtrack to the running of "the John Galt Line." :-) It's about as unvolitional a sense as you can get from music -- like it's inexorable, rather than deliberate.

Naturally, many pieces don't have such clear-cut examples to point to. Instead, they have much mixing of rhythms, more subtle shifts between the driven and the aspiring. But that doesn't take away from the blatant character of the pure cases. It just means that to dig out all the subtleties, you need a lot of musical vocabulary and tools (as Rand said), more fine-tuned analysis.

And this doesn't even mention the enormous suggestive power of melody, of rises and falls of pitch -- as well as the harmonic framework, with major vs. minor tonality, and the way the progressions (or lack of same) between harmonies is handled. These convey a lot about processes of goal-directedness (volition, value-seeking), too -- again, in musical terms, very general, and often quite capable to "telling a story" without needing any literary text attached to it. The challenge and delight for music analysts is to be able to outline a strictly musical plot with strictly musical characters (themes), so that the listener is able to grasp why there is such a strong sense of drama and conflict and resolution and value-seeking in music. Some music. Other music is relatively static and non-teleological. That music is good, too. But it's so amazing to me that the same kinds of things show up in the homely little 32-bar songs that constitute the Great American Songbook as show up in long-winded symphonies and sonatas and concertos. Not everything that the longer forms are able to do, of course. But so much of the really good popular songs of the 20th century are just serious 19th century music "writ small," so to speak. And that is why my own research and lecturing strategy will be to focus on a digestable unit: the popular song and the classical theme, rather than 30 to 60-minute long pieces. It may be catering to the impatience of our age, the desire to have everything compressed into 3 minutes (or 20 seconds!) -- or it may simply be a recognition that with music being aural, there is a real crow epistemology problem in enlightening people about how it works. In any case, I have a lot of very fascinating and fun work ahead of me -- and thanks again for your interest and support!

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Roger, I'm sorry, but I think that your theory of {iamb, anapest = goal oriented, heroic} & {trochee, dactyl = fatalistic, driven} is a dead born child. No doubt you may find examples to illustrate your hypothesis, but I think it's not difficult to find as many counterexamples.

One of my favorite examples is the Tarantella which is practically pure dactyl meter -- also the Jewish Hora dance. Also, the middle section of the Rachmaninoff C# minor piano prelude.

I think that the Tarantella is rather pure trochee, instead of dactyl. About Rachmaninoff: do you mean the Prelude op. 3 no. 2? Although the middle section does contain some trochees, it's hardly the dominant rhythm, in fact it's rhythmically rather flat. In contrast, the 4th movement (Presto ma non tanto) of Chopin's 3rd Sonata is dominated by the trochee, but there's nothing fatalistic or mechanical about the music! The rhythm works here no less horsey than the anapest. The trochee as part of the main theme is also an important element in Chopin's Polonaises in A and in A flat, heroic themes par excellence. In contrast the main motif of the gloomy Polonaise in e flat minor is a repeated anapest, and it sounds very fatalistic, while the enormous heroic drive of the f sharp minor Polonaise is based on the dactylus rhythm. And so I could continue for hours, but I think you'll get the idea.

Another point is that when the rhythm is repeated, the difference between the two classes of rhythm becomes rather academic: Da da da Da da da Da da da Da...

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Dragonfly, how can the Tarantella be a trochee rhythm? Trochee is a two-beat rhythm -- ACCENTED, unaccented: Da-da. The Tarantella is a three-beat dance pattern: Da-da-da, ACCENTED, unaccented, unaccented, which is by definition a dactyl meter.

And begging your pardon, but the middle section of the Rachmaninoff C#minor piano prelude is virtually non-stop dactyl meter. Look at the figures in the right hand part, for Pete's sake!

I'll address your other examples some other time, but unless this much is clear and agreed, I don't think further discussion would fare any better!

REB

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Dragonfly, how can the Tarantella be a trochee rhythm? Trochee is a two-beat rhythm -- ACCENTED, unaccented: Da-da. The Tarantella is a three-beat dance pattern: Da-da-da, ACCENTED, unaccented, unaccented, which is by definition a dactyl meter.

I was talking about the (triplet)dotted rhythm that is so characteristic for the tarantella: (12)-3 (45)-6, not the standard 6/8 or 6/4 metre.

And begging your pardon, but the middle section of the Rachmaninoff C#minor piano prelude is virtually non-stop dactyl meter. Look at the figures in the right hand part, for Pete's sake

You mean that you consider every triplet to be an example of a dactyl only while the first note (the melody note) is held? That is no dactyl in my opinion; that would be the case if it was a half note followed by two sixteenths. Now the rhythm is completely regular: dadada-dadada-dadada-dadada. Moreover, in the tempo in which it's played the rhythm you hear is essentially daa-daa-daa-daa, with an occasional triplet trochee: daada-daa.

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I'm with Roger on this. Dactyl and Trochee are pretty simple descriptions.

Dactyl is three (only), the first of which has an accent (whether it is held or not doesn't matter). OOM pah pah

Trochee is two (only), the first being accented. Da-da

Michael, you're a conductor, I'm just a composer (and worse yet, one who plays guitar). What do you say?

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Thanks, Rich. Honestly, Dragonfly, I don't understand half of what you're trying to say, and the other half I disagree with! (So, I guess we're even.)

My understanding of how the poetic feet relate to rhythm is drawn from Grosvenor Cooper's and Leonard B. Meyer's book The Rhythmic Structure of Music, published about 1960. Notes are rhythmically grouped together, and they usually fit one of the main patterns. (Occasionally, they are hybrids or elisions of the main ones.) And the notes can be of the same length or different lengths; all that basically matters is that they are heard as being grouped in one way rather than another way. There are ambiguous situations. But the oom-pah-pah pattern of ACCENT-unaccent-unaccent is not ambiguous!

Dragonfly, you didn't say anything more about the Rachmaninoff C#minor piano prelude's middle section. But what you did say was pretty puzzling -- I mean, about it not being very rhythmic. What recording are you thinking of? That section is pretty pell-mell in most recordings. My favorite is the one back in the 50s by Leonard Pennario. It sounds almost like a demonic machine running at breakneck speed! And the pulse (with two unaccented beats) is relentless! Dactyl, I say!

Now, rhythm is hierarchically structured -- at least, often it is. The rhythm on the level of the measure (2 or 3 or 4 beats) is not always the same rhythm as when two or more measures are considered together as a higher-level rhythmic grouping.

For instance, in the Rachmaninoff prelude, the meter is 4/4 (four quarter notes per measure), but each beat is subdivided into three eighth notes, the first one of each beat being accented or stressed, and the other two unaccented. Thus, each measure is in effect four measures of a waltz-like or tarentella-like pattern.

So, the basic rhythm (of each beat) is dactyl, but when you group two beats together, the rhythm is Da da (accent-unaccent), or trochee. So, each measure of the Rachmaninoff prelude's middle section is like two "feet" of trochee rhythm. (This may be what Dragonfly was getting at.) Then, on the third level of rhythmic organization, taking the measure as a whole, the first trochee rhythm is heard as stressed, and the second is heard as unstressed -- which means that the first measure is heard as a trochee rhythm at the third level. When you take the first and second measures of the middle section together, since the second is a repetition of the first, they are heard as stressed/unstressed -- again, trochee on the fourth level. However, the stress pattern for the third and fourth measures is unstressed/stressed -- which means those two measures function as an iamic pattern on the fourth level. This means that, on the fifth level (which spans the first four measures of the middle section), the pattern is two measures unstressed and two measures stressed -- i.e., iambic. So, with three levels of solidly beginning accented rhythms (dactyl and trochee), there is a mixing of beginning and end accented rhythms on the fourth level, and a solid shift to end-accented on the fifth level.

This overall end-accented thrust on the 5th level of organization is what gives this section such a goal-directed character, even while the first three levels are beginning-accented (dactyls and trochees). And if end-accented, goal-directed action isn't characteristic of Romantic music, I don't know what is!

Ooops, I sense that some eyes may have glazed over during this discussion. I will need to contextualize and concretize this a lot better in my book, I realize. But I have been thinking about this stuff for 35 years, and I think it's about time I get it out to an interested audience. :-)

BTW, there are recordings of the Rachmaninoff prelude that really butcher the middle section, playing it extremely rubato and almost dirge-like to start with. It should be perhaps not totally strict, but at least largely so. That's how it's marked, and so that's how Rachmaninoff intended it. (My nightmare is to hear a recording by him playing it in the "modern," "emotional" style with much rubato and bending of the tempo in that middle section. Ech.)

REB

P.S. -- Anyone who read this post before 11:55 PM Friday may be puzzled on re-reading it now. I made a technical goof earlier, which I had to correct. I mistakenly thought I remembered the Rachmaninoff prelude's middle section being in 3/8 meter, with the basic rhythmic pattern stretching over a whole measure -- when in fact the section was in 4/4 meter, with the basic rhythmic pattern occuring within a single beat! I know this is technical stuff, but I had to make a correction and 'fess up in case someone who knows the music thought I was daft and/or trying to pull a fast one! (And thanks to my dear wife, the piano player in the family, for digging out her Rachmaninoff preludes so I could check the source!)

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I listened to performances of Rach's prelude in C#minor by Alex Weissenberg (1970) and Rachmaninoff himself (1919). and I found that both of them played the middle sections with much gusto and rhythm. I was somewhat chagrined at the fact that both of them started off so slowly, but they quickly accelerated and played the bulk of the section "hell bent for leather," as I remembered Pennario doing in my favorite recording. Rachmaninoff did throw in some ritards that are not in the music, but basically he was storming along.

One thing I will acknowledge -- the triplet DACTYL rhythms are performed SO quickly that they are submerged by the second level of rhythmic groupings which are mostly TROCHEE. But both are beginning-accented, and both contribute to the very mechanistic, driven quality of the concrete action level of the music. It is only on the 5th or 6th level of organization that the broad goal-driven thrust of the section is evident. Reminds me a bit of how you have to step back from the concrete actions in a novel in order to see the big picture of the plot, of where the story is going. :-)

REB

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P.S. -- Anyone who read this post before 11:55 PM Friday may be puzzled on re-reading it now. I made a technical goof earlier, which I had to correct. I mistakenly thought I remembered the Rachmaninoff prelude's middle section being in 3/8 meter, with the basic rhythmic pattern stretching over a whole measure -- when in fact the section was in 4/4 meter, with the basic rhythmic pattern occuring within a single beat!

No wonder that I had already concluded that we were talking about two different pieces, as I didn't recognize anything in your description that matched the music of op. 3 no 2! To make this discussion more accessible to other people I reproduce here the first 6 bars of that middel section of Rachmaninoff's Prelude:

rachmaninoff.jpg

The blue commas denote the articulation, the red comma the end of the first phrase (what you call higher level rhythms are in fact articulation and phrasing).

I know this is technical stuff, but I had to make a correction and 'fess up in case someone who knows the music thought I was daft and/or trying to pull a fast one!

It wouldn't have escaped my scrutiny...

One thing I will acknowledge -- the triplet DACTYL rhythms are performed SO quickly that they are submerged by the second level of rhythmic groupings which are mostly TROCHEE.

Well, that was my point (apart from your terminology), the triplets have no rhythmical significance.

But both are beginning-accented, and both contribute to the very mechanistic, driven quality of the concrete action level of the music.

That "very mechanistic" quality only exists in your imagination, I don't perceive anything mechanical in this music!

It is only on the 5th or 6th level of organization that the broad goal-driven thrust of the section is evident. Reminds me a bit of how you have to step back from the concrete actions in a novel in order to see the big picture of the plot, of where the story is going

But now you're undermining your own theory (that rhythmical structure determines the character of the music in terms of goal-oriented vs. fatalistic), and you admit that even when the base rhythm is "fatalistic", it is the total structure, with its articulations, phrasings, dynamics, harmonics, that ultimately determines the character of the music. And that is exactly my point. The rhythm-character theory is far too simplistic, it reminds me of Rand's idea that an artist with a positive sense of life will necessarily use bright colors and that the use of "muddy colors" indicates a negative sense of life. Neither paintings nor music can be caught in such overly simplistic formulas.

Let me finish with another counterexample to your theory: Des Baches Wiegenlied, the last song in Schubert's cycle Die schöne Müllerin. The poor miller is lying dead on the bottom of the brook. The only movement is the slow passive movement to and fro caused by the water flowing through the brook (the lullaby of the brook). Schuberts rendering of this sad scene is masterful, and he captivates this fatalistic passive movement by using the anapest as basic rhythm! One of the great performances of this song (and of the complete cycle) is by Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore. It's amazing how Moore can make each of the 5 stanzas sound different and fitting to the text, even while playing exactly the same notes. Great artistry!

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Dragonfly,

The way you accent the 4-measure phrase is almost the way I hear it also, except with additional relative accents: I hear the first and third beats of the third measure and the fourth measure as stronger than the second and fourth beats of those measures; and I hear both of the accented beats in the third measure as somewhat stronger than those in the fourth measure. Thus the strongest emphasis, as I hear it, is on the first beats of the first and second measures, the next strongest on the first and third beats of the third measure and the next strongest on the first and third beats of the fourth measure.

(Added: And the overall structure of the phrase is two emphasized measures -- first and second -- followed by two softer, answering measures.)

Gee, it's been ages since I've played that. My reach isn't quite wide enough to do Rachmaninoff justice, and I never feel really satisfied by what results when I try to play his music myself. But now I have that composition going obsessively in my head.

Ellen

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Ellen:

The way you accent the 4-measure phrase is almost the way I hear it also, except with additional relative accents: I hear the first and third beats of the third measure and the fourth measure as stronger than the second and third beats of those measures; and I hear both of the accented beats in the third measure as somewhat stronger than those in the fourth measure. Thus the strongest emphasis, as I hear it, is on the first beats of the first and second measures, the next strongest on the first and third beats of the third measure and the next strongest on the first and third beats of the fourth measure.

I had first also put accents on the first and third beats of those measures, but later I removed them, as I don't perceive them as real accents - you also have to make a crescendo in the third bar. About the overall dynamical structure: in the first bar there is no dynamic marking indicating that there is a change from the ppp at the end of the first part, so I think it should also begin with ppp; the 4th bar is marked mf, so the theme should be stronger than in the first two bars. This is a logical progression, as theme is marked ff when it appears for the third time. This whole middle section is an overall progression from ppp to fff.

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Oops. There's an error in the quote from me which Dragonfly picked up. I wrote "second and third beats" meaning "second and fourth beats" -- which is apparently what Dragonfly understood me to mean. I've now corrected the original post.

Ellen

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Dragonfly:

I had first also put accents on the first and third beats of those measures [third and fourth measures], but later I removed them, as I don't perceive them as real accents

I think you're probably right that they aren't real accents. I, too, debated about whether or not they're real, which is why I wrote "the way I hear it." I think the effect is because of the melodic shape and the respective pitches. A lot of times when there's a higher pitched note falling on the opening beat of a measure echoed by a lower pitched note, the higher pitched note will sound as if it's accented. But I think that if one were actually to play those measures using more pressure on the first notes of the first and third beats, this would sound false, exaggerated.

you also have to make a crescendo in the third bar. About the overall dynamical structure: in the first bar there is no dynamic marking indicating that there is a change from the ppp at the end of the first part, so I think it should also begin with ppp; the 4th bar is marked mf, so the theme should be stronger than in the first two bars.

Yes, but even though the dynamics go like that, the structure of the phrase is statement (first two measures) and then reply with less drive (second two measures). It's forward, then relax, though the volume is increasing.

This is a logical progression, as theme is marked ff when it appears for the third time. This whole middle section is an overall progression from ppp to fff.

Yes, the dynamics are a progressive increase from start to end of the section.

Ellen

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Man, I am doubly frustrated. First, by being misunderstood by Dragonfly, and secondly, by having nearly finished my reply when my computer crashed. That’ll teach me to compose long replies in the ObjectivistLiving text windows!

Anyway…I want to start by saying I appreciate Dragonfly’s comments, even though I don’t agree with all of them. It’s good to have input that reminds me that clearly explaining my theory about the rhythmic character of music will not be easy. But I’m also frustrated that Dragonfly could so misunderstand my views as to think that 40 years of musical training would produce nothing more valuable or valid than Rand’s notion that vividness of color in painting reflects one’s sense of life!

As for my view about the rhythmic character of the middle section of the Rachmaninoff C# prelude, I’m sorry I ever used the term “fatalistic.” (Actually, I used the phrase “almost fatalistic,” along with other words like “mechanistic,” “driven,” and “obsessive,” most of which I used in preference to the single, modified use of “fatalistic.” Actually, I think that a sense of fatalism comes less from rhythm than from the melodic/harmonic aspect of music, though I am open to seeing how the former might be the case. (I am not familiar with, nor do I own a recording of the Schubert you referred to, so I can’t comment one way or the other about whether the rhythm contributes to a sense of fatalism – or even whether I’d agree that there is such a sense to be gotten from the Schubert. That is a task for another day.)

I realize that you do not hear the Rachmaninoff C# prelude’s middle section as mechanistic either. But I do. I have heard numerous performances of it, by those who play more faithfully to the composer’s markings, as well as those who do not. And it always comes off sounding like “a machine that is going somewhere” – unless the pianist is playing it too slowly or with too much rubato (as though the music said “espressivo” instead of “agitato”). Leonard Pennario is my favorite for bringing out the pell-mell, hell-bent character of that section, but Weissenberg is pretty good. Interestingly, Rachmaninoff himself took several bars to shake off the rubato and get down to business.

And I do experience groupings of notes as being stressed or unstressed, even if the pianist is not deliberately accenting them. For instance, it seems automatically the case that the repetition of the first measure of the Rachmaninoff C# prelude’s middle section by the second measure amounts to an “echo,” and thus a stressed-unstressed or trochee pattern on the third level of rhythmic organization. This is so even if the pianist does not play the second measure softer than the first, or with less emphasis. The stress pattern could only be reversed or negated if the pianist deliberately played the second measure louder than the first, which would not be in keeping with Rachmaninoff’s intentions.

On the basic rhythmic level, that of pairs of notes that descend in pitch, I also automatically experience the pattern as accent-unaccent, even if the first note of each pair is not deliberately stressed by the player. Again, the second note would have to be deliberately played more loudly and/or emphatically to reverse this impression that the first note of each pair is the more important note, the “mover” of the grouping.

However, when I say this section sounds “mechanistic,” I thought it was clear from my multi-level analysis that it was mechanistic on the more concrete levels of the music, and that as the piece unfolded through time, it took on an overall character of goal-directedness. These are both real aspects of the music, and one does not cancel out the other. I certainly never meant to imply that the rhythmic character that predominates on the more concrete level of a piece of music is all there is to the piece of music. Nor do I agree with the idea that the character that predominates at the broader level of the section or piece as a whole is all there is to the piece of music. They characterize each other.

All I meant to convey is the idea that what initially strikes you about the passage (especially if the pianist does not dally in hitting high gear is the driven quality of the music, and that only gradually does it dawn on you that the music is going somewhere, that the driven-ness is being put into the service of a grander purpose.

When I first thought about what I would say in reply to you, I thought of the analogy between the multi-layered rhythmic structure of a piece of music and the hierarchical structure of a living organism. There are different organizing principles and patterns that operate on the level of the molecule, the cell, the tissue, the organ, the organ system, and the organism as a whole – and none of them is by itself what the organism is all about. They all interact with and characterize each other. But then I realized that a living organism, as dynamic as it is, is too static to help me get across my point. Instead, music is best seen as similar to an enacted drama or a novel. The events unfold through time, and what is happening on a concrete level can come to take on a different significance than what is apparent at first, once the events sum up to a certain point.

I’m reminded of how, in Atlas Shrugged, the initial gloom that attaches to individual acts of going on strike gradually is transformed as the broader pattern of action that is generating the strikes is revealed. The individual events are still the same kinds of events, but they are integrated into a different overall perspective, one that puts a new light or significance on the individual events. It doesn’t negate them or make them not-strikes. They are still painful, but they are seen as pain (leaving one’s project or career) for a good purpose. Similarly, mechanistic rhythms and patterns on the lower levels of a musical piece’s structure can be seen as building blocks of teleological patterns on a higher level.

I’m the first to admit that my approach to analyzing rhythm is not new. It is basically the approach presented 45 years ago by Cooper and Meyer. And they made many of the same kinds of observations about different levels of musical organization that I have made. What I add to the discussion (and which I’m not aware has been said before) is the idea that beginning-accented rhythms lend a more mechanistic, driven, cause-effect character to a passage, while end-accented rhythms lend a more teleological, value-drawn, goal-directed character to a passage. But as fascinated as I am by this aspect of music, and by the insight that comes with taking this perspective on a piece of music, it is only a part of the whole picture.

In fact, when I started working on my “Serious Schmaltz…” talk two years ago, this whole rhythmic focus was a minor point of my overall presentation, so minor it had to be cut for time. My major thrust then was to analyze melodies in terms of their melodic contour, tonality, and energy level, and that will continue to be a major emphasis as I write my book. But I see now that rhythmic analysis is a vital, dynamic part of understanding a piece of music, and that it very well may have the kind of multi-level philosophical implications or causal connotations that make it similar in a very general way to the other great temporal art, literature.

Rand has been criticized by Torres and Kamhi and others for over-generalizing from her philosophy of literature, for trying to suggest that Romanticism is best in all the art forms. At the same time, she had very little to say about music that helped to make her case. It has been my continuing belief, the product of my experience of a great deal of music, that many of the same general kinds of dynamic structuring processes that generate emotions are taking place in music as take place in literature. And it is my intention to use my professional scalpels to pick apart music to show how those processes operate. People here are ObjectivistLiving are welcome to contribute suggestions for where and on what to perform incisions! :-)

REB

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Roger:

Man, I am doubly frustrated. First, by being misunderstood by Dragonfly, and secondly, by having nearly finished my reply when my computer crashed. That’ll teach me to compose long replies in the ObjectivistLiving text windows!

If I write a longer reply, I regularly cut and paste the text into a Word file, which I then save immediately, to prevent such disasters. About the misunderstanding: in your last posts you write something quite different from your first post in which you mention your ideas; now you're much less absolute in your judgement about the influence of the rhythm on the music. Let me refresh your memory and quote from that first post:

Also, the middle section of the Rachmaninoff C# minor piano prelude. I like to think of that as like a locomotive train, as if it were the soundtrack to the running of "the John Galt Line." It's about as unvolitional a sense as you can get from music -- like it's inexorable, rather than deliberate.

That's all you say there about the middle section of that Prelude, nothing about "as the piece unfolded through time, it took on an overall character of goal-directedness", what you mention in your last post. Sure, you mention in a general discussion such aspects also in that first post, but there is nowhere any indication that you think this might change the overall impression of that middle section. So I could only conclude that that middle section has in your opinion an "as unvolitional a sense as you can get from music". Similarly for your examples of the anapest rhythm, there you say: " In all cases, the listener gets a sense of something heroic happening". From that text I can only conclude that you think that the dominant rhythm determines the character of the music in the way you've indicated. And that is for me quite similar to Rand's statement that the use of certain colors is an indication of the sense of life of an artist. As the counterexamples keep jumping into my mind, I'll mention just another one: Schubert's Wanderer fantasy, you might say a fantasy on the dactyl. Listen how heroic and full of determination the beginning of the fantasy is, while it's heavily dominated by the dactyl rhythm! Later in the piece the dotted dactyl is the rhythmical basis of the lyrical theme, giving it an elegant dance-like character, which I can't associate in any way with "mechanical" of "fatalistic". I can only conclude that that whole idea of front-accented rhythms having a mechanistic, fatalistic character and the end-accented rhythms having a heroic, goal-directed character is dead wrong. Of course they can help creating such a sense, but they can as easily create the opposite sense, depending on all the other factors that determine the character of the music. I'm sorry if this means still more frustration for you, but that is how I think about it.

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Dayaamm!

I have so much else to write, but this keeps me salivating.

Roger, I'm going to weigh in on this later, however I have a couple of comments right now. The first is that I do not think a statistical approach seeking a thesis is the best one. I remember reading a wonderful book years ago on motives from Wagner's Ring trying to statistically catch the emotional tie-ins from the number of times and way the motives were used in the dramatic situations (I remember it being by Deryck Cooke.) However, he was hampered by the fact that the emotions came from the drama, not from the human mind.

To me, the correct approach is epistemological, then do the statistical stuff (which I believe will be fascinating at any rate, so please don't let these comments slow you down).

You used a word I have been using for years, yet I don't see many use it: "musical vocabulary." In order to acquire this vocabulary, there must be musical concepts. What is a musical concept and how is it formed?

For instance, rhythm (since this is strongly being talked about right now). There were some fascinating studies done by Gestalt psychologists I read about years ago where they monitored people listening to a steady metronome beat. After a while, the people would begin to hear a stress on the first of every two beats or the first of every three, despite such stress not existing. This shows that the mind automatically organizes sensory material in this manner.

After all these years, there are probably many more studies like this. I would be highly interested to see if any work has been done on mapping the effect of sound on the amygdala, for instance. (The amygdala is our emotion trigger in the brain.)

I will go into this a bit later, (I have oodles to say) but this discussion is fascinating to me. I once was going to write a book on musical epistemology, so I have been thinking about these things for a long time.

Michael

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Dragonfly,

You wrote this comment to Roger:

... in your last posts you write something quite different from your first post in which you mention your ideas; now you're much less absolute in your judgement about the influence of the rhythm on the music.

There is a context in these types of discussions that often gets overlooked, so matters can become a bit sidetracked. From what I see, Roger is writing a book and just now fleshing out and trying out new ideas. He is not trying to lay down the law yet. This is an insecure time for any creator.

You are trying to contribute in the best manner you know how, by providing well thought out observations that could save him weeks of work going off in a wrong direction. And obviously, you do not want to blow his high.

If this context is not kept in mind, he could easily start thinking that all you want to do is debunk him and you could start thinking that all he wants to do is to propose an idea that still needs work and stubbornly cling to it - simply in order to not be wrong.

Thus a fertile discussion like the one now going on can transform into a hostile contest.

I think of Roger's state of mind in creating a new work right now - and sharing the creation process with others - as sort of like fishing. If you make movements that are too abrupt and too loud, the fish get scared off and nobody catches anything.

Please understand that this comment of mine is merely an observation on style of discussion and not intentions. I know both you and Roger are high-level high-quality people, whom I personally admire, and I would hate to see a misunderstanding over something like this, especially as it would literally be a misunderstanding and nothing more.

Let's give Roger a hand and help his book become something very special, which it shows every sign of becoming. (I know that is what you are doing, too.) I am saying all this just to stay on track.

Michael

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Michael,

Your concerns about not scaring off the skitty "fish" of ideas-in-formation are especially important ones for a list like this, where fishing expeditions in thought are being encouraged. But if I might enter a concern from the other direction about interpretations of Dragonfly's remarks. Please keep in mind, people, that Dragonfly is not a native English speaker, that he has to translate his thoughts into a language which isn't his native tongue. Thus it's well not to take umbrage at details of nuance. I myself, on an earlier list, got into some crossed swords over nuance with Dragonfly, but I've been very impressed by what seems to me his effort at tactfulness here.

Ellen

___

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I can't resist repeating here a story by Richard Feynman about the time when he was working in the Manhattan project (he was still a young student at the time). One day he meets the great Niels Bohr and his son Aage Bohr (using the pseudonyms Nicholas Baker and Jim Baker respectively):

We were at a meeting once, the first time he came, and everybody wanted to see the great Bohr. So there were a lot of people there, and we were discussing the problems of the bomb. I was back in a corner somewhere. He came and went, and all I could see of him was from between people's heads.

In the morning of the day he's due to come next time, I get a telephone call.

"Hello-Feynman?'

"Yes."

"This is Jim Baker." It's his son. My father and I would like to speak to you."

"Me? I'm Feynman, I'm just a-"

"That's right. Is eight o'clock OK?"

So, at eight o'clock in the morning, before anybody's awake, I go down to the place. We go into an office in the technical area and he says, "We have been thinking how we could make the bomb more efficient and we think of the following idea."

I say, "No, it's not going to work. It's not efficient... Blah, blah, blah.

So he says, "How about so and so?"

I said, "That sounds a little bit better, but it's got this damn fool idea in it."

This went on for about two hours, going back and forth over lots of ideas, back and forth, arguing. The great Niels kept lighting his pipe; it always went out. And he talked in a way that was un-understandable - mumble, mumble, hard to understand. His son I could understand better.

"Well," he said finally, lighting his pipe, "I guess we can call in the big shots now." So then they called all the other guys and had a discussion with them.

Then the son told me what happened. The last time he was there, Bohr said to his son, "Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there?" He's the only guy who's not afraid of me, and will say when I've got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we're not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we'll talk with him first."

I was always dumb that way. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried about the physics. If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy. If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition.

I've always lived that way. It's nice, it's pleasant - if you can do it. I'm lucky in my life that I can do this.

From: Richard P. Feynman, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" (the funniest book in the world)

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Please feel free to raise questions, make criticisms, etc....REB

=======================================

Serious Schmaltz and Passionate Pop

[subtitle to be added later]

by Roger E. Bissell

Preface

“…the great unanswered question: why does music make us experience emotions?” – Ayn Rand, “Art and Cognition,” The Romantic Manifesto

In college during the late 1960s, as I read various works on philosophy of art and aesthetics, I began to get a feel for the difficulty of the issue of emotion and meaning in music. Music was touted as “the language of the emotions,” and the challenge was to identify how this could be so – to identify how music conveys emotions and stirs them in us. At the time, it struck me as somewhat odd to grant this title to music, when it was obvious to me that the other forms of art also present and arouse emotions in the viewer.

In particular, it seemed clear to me that stage dramas were able to affect their audiences in much the same way that music did, the main difference being the means by which they did so. In drama – which, like music, is a temporal art, a process occurring through time – emotions are symbolized by gestures, tone of voice, posture, attitude, and actions by the actors. The parallel in music is melody – the phrases, motifs, intervals, etc., that occur in a way that seems similar to the actions of a dramatic character.

In drama, including dramatic novels and short stories, the overall progression of actions and interactions between the characters and circumstances draw us in so that we vicariously experience the expectations, frustrations, victories or defeats of the characters – and in that way, too, emotions are symbolized and evoked by drama, in this case by the plot of the story. Again, in music, something very similar happens in the unfolding of the progressions of harmonies.

While the parallels between dramatic music and literature are probably most obvious on the scale of the symphony, the concerto, or the sonata, a good number of similar observations can be made on the level of the popular song and classical theme. Indeed, the longer forms are, to a great extent, an elaboration upon the shorter forms, both in literature and music. So, it seems reasonable to me that there is much to be gained by beginning one’s quest to understand music’s emotional impact with an examination of popular songs and classical melodies.

This book, which attempts such an examination, is an outgrowth of a talk by the same name that I gave in San Francisco in March of 2003. The subtitle of that talk, “Are there objective indicators of emotion in music?” indicated that my purpose was to examine songs from the popular and serious repertoire for features that might explain our experience of and response to music. I specifically looked at the connotations of melodic contours, especially ascending and descending melodies, of major and minor tonalities, of faster and slower tempos, and of beginning- and end-accented rhythms. I continue to use those categories in this book, and I will expand upon them where appropriate to get at the subtleties in more complex melodies and themes.

When I gave my talk on this topic, my approach to understanding emotionality in music was mainly in terms of the melodies of cherry-picked examples of popular songs and classical themes. As noted, I already had some concepts – mainly, melodic and harmonic attributes of melodies – to apply in analyzing the emotional character of songs and themes, but I did not have a systematic approach. Above all, I did not have a data base from which to observe patterns and draw generalizations about melodies and their emotional qualities. My samples were drawn from my own experience, rather than from a comprehensive survey of the fields of popular and serious music. In this book, I aim primarily to make an attempt to remedy that lack, and then to show how the enormous task of mining this data base for enlightening and practical insights can be carried out.

The first task will be to gather a large pool of melodies and themes, then to measure their various aspects and enter those into the computer, then to analyze the data for additional aspects and patterns. Some mathematics and statistics will, therefore, be inescapable – but also invaluable, in managing and making use of the data. As a consequence, a new area of music theory will be established, ... and this book is the first attempt to organize and apply this approach to doing music theory and musical interpretation.

My “sample population” will be what is colloquially referred to as “the Great American Songbook” and “America’s Best Loved Classical Melodies.” The former will be gathered in a number of ways: culling most-recorded songs from the ASCAP and BMI websites, titles from recent “standards” albums (e.g., Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, etc.), and titles from a reference books for “casual” musicians (e.g., The Real Book). The latter will be gathered from printed and recorded collections of Classical and Romantic themes, such as those issued by Time-Life. Although my primary samples will be “favorites” or “hits,” I will also include other less popular melodies and themes mainly for use as “contrast items,” in order to illustrate what works emotionally and what does not – and as a suggestion as to why certain themes and melodies have remained popular and “stood the test of time,” while others have not.

There are several things that this book will not try to do. This book will not attempt to accomplish an encyclopedic analysis of all aspects of all musical works. An example of that would be something along the lines outlined by Ayn Rand [1975 (1971)] in her essay “Art and Cognition,” in which she proposed that researchers carry out:

…a computation of the mathematical relationships among the tones of a melody—a computation of the time required by the human ear and brain to integrate a succession of musical sounds, including the progressive steps, the duration and the time limits of the integrating process (which would involve the relationship of tones to rhythm)—a computation of the relationships of melody to harmony, and of their sum to the sounds of various musical instruments, etc. [61]

As Rand notes (ibid.), “[t]he work involved is staggering” – much too daunting to attempt in the early, exploratory stages of ..., and largely irrelevant to the present project, anyway. Rand’s goal for such research is to develop a standard for evaluating music based on how much integration a given musical composition achieves. We will certainly consider how well the factors of melodies and themes work together in one piece compared with another, much as one considers which of two shades of orange are closer to red than to yellow. But the massive undertaking Rand suggests is neither possible nor necessary in order to get a very large foot in the door in understanding the emotional power of melody.

Nor, therefore, does this book aim at the musical equivalent of a “Theory of Everything.” The current quest in physics is to find a “Grand Unifying Theory” to explain gravity, electro-magnetism, and the nuclear forces and how the universe evolved the way it did. This is way beyond Einstein and his theories of Relativity, who went way beyond Newton and his Theory of Universal Gravitation, who went way beyond Galileo and his Laws of Motion and Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. I envision my efforts, certainly those in this book, to be on the scale of what Galileo and Kepler did. I am making a deliberately limited examination of certain features of certain aspects of a certain set of musical pieces, trying to find out what “makes them tick,” and specifically how they stir emotions in listeners.

Another thing this book will not try to do is to provide a set of standards for evaluating all music as to its worthiness. My own operating premise is that melody and harmonic goal-directedness are very important and valuable in providing “emotional fuel” to listeners of music, and I thus give them primary consideration in my book. However interesting it would be to argue the point, though, I am not saying here that dramatic music is better than music that functions similarly to landscape painting (“tone poems,” Impressionistic music) or poetry (Baroque dance forms, early Classical themes), any more than I am saying that a novel is better than a poem or a painting. To each his own.

Nor will this book try to argue the case for why purposeful elements in music are better than non-purposeful elements, or why music with confidently assertive melodies are better than music with wistfully resigned melodies, or why music with coherent melodies and harmonic progression are better than incoherent music, or why music with successful resolutions of conflict are better than music in which such resolution is avoided or denied. These are basically the artistic counterpart of the cardinal issues of ethics: Do you value purpose or not? Do you value self-esteem or not? Do you value reason and understanding or not? Do you value happiness or not?

I trust that my readers know where they stand on the basic ethical issues, one way or the other. It’s not my job, nor my desire, to convert anyone to my point of view on those issues. In point of fact, any of these perspectives can be appropriate in a given song or theme, depending upon the context. In literature, most people regard villains as evil, but they are a necessary evil in a dramatic story, as a foil to the hero, i.e., to serve as contrast and source of conflict so that the plot is more interesting. Or, on a deeper level, an author might use an unhappy ending (as Ayn Rand did in We the Living as a way of dramatizing how certain political or social situations are so inimical to human success and happiness that no other outcome is possible, despite the best efforts and struggling of the main characters.

Similarly, in music, contrasting themes are used to provide variety and conflict, which is developed and resolved in the course of the piece; 19th century sonata form is a particularly good example of this, though some popular songs also exhibit the pattern. Vigorously defiant pieces beginning and ending in the minor mode are an obvious parallel to the novel described above, and they convey the idea that there are no guarantees in life, that struggle can result in defeat. (All the more reason why it is so important that there are examples of vigorously defiant pieces that end triumphantly in a major key!)

Rather than speaking as advocate for any subcategory of melodies and themes, therefore, my mission, instead, is to lay out chapter and verse on how these different stances toward life can be embodied in the attributes of a melody, so that we all have a better grasp on why we are experiencing the emotions we do when listening to music. My aim is to help us understand the phenomena, to figure out how music conjures up emotions – so that listeners will have a better handle on why their feelings are being stirred by music, and performers will have more explicit means for optimizing the expressiveness of their playing, and composers will know in conceptual terms how better to tug at the heartstrings of their listeners, and teachers will have more ideas at their disposal in helping listeners, performers, and composers approach their musical experience with more success and enjoyment.

Having said that, I hasten to add that I do intend to compare, for instance, the songs that made the Hit Parade or the list of Best Loved Classical Melodies with those that didn’t. My goal in doing so, however, is not to prove which songs or themes were the best, in any philosophical sense. Instead, I will be trying to assess the relative effectiveness of the musical factors contributing to their emotionality, and whether that had anything to do with their relative stature and longevity in the public’s affections.

In other words, I will be aiming at an aesthetic evaluation of the melodies, at the effectiveness by which they conveyed their emotional meaning. (Rand [1975 (1971)] draws a clear distinction between philosophical evaluation and aesthetic evaluation of art, and I basically follow her guidelines in applying this to the identification and evaluation of the emotional effectiveness of music.) That presupposes an identification of their emotional meaning – which is, of course, the main point of this book: to pinpoint the objective indicators of emotion in music, which requires that we measure the attributes of music and identify the meanings they convey. Even delimited in this manner, the task will be a big one – one that I hope repays the efforts made with sufficient adventure and enjoyment for the reader!

[more to come]

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