Monday, September 17, 2007

Harmonic tension as meaning

A study published in Cerebral Cortex may be of interest to those who followed the recent harmonic theory bruha. The junior research group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences measured the electric response potentials of listeners' brains when harmonic expectation was violated, combined with another factor of syntactic or semantic language violation. They found that both types of language violation affected different locations of brain waves, a strong argument that harmonic tension-resolution is a grammar, but also has associated meanings. The study does not reveal whether these meanings are universal, merely that individuals do interpret harmonies beyond a syntactic level. The authors presented preliminary research of this at the Neurosciences and Music conference I attended in 2005. And Dave Munger has written about this line of research.

Steinbeis, N. and S. Koelsch. "Shared neural resources between music and language indicate semantic processing of musical tension-resolution patterns." Cerebral Cortex 2007 (eprint).

14 comments:

composerBastard said...

What? No Steve Reich?

Kraig Grady said...

I have to pick up this thread late here. One can have chords without functionality but maybe that is understood. In the previous posts the word evolution has been thrown into the mix and i find this troublesome. With species there is a movement toward more differentiated parts and music has not always moved that way. There is an underlying conceit that is implied that western music might be more evolved. In its defense along these lines one can say that it might have a greater vocabulary, yet few would propose that Ezra Pound was a more ‘evolved’ poet than Pablo Neruda. Yet we can argue that the later invoked more differentiated “energies”. But such ‘intangibles’ are where language breaks down.
I think music grows more wider than vertically. Western music has been constantly changed due to its encounters with other “foreign“ music. From Debussy and Indonesian music, from Cage and the Japanese use of silence, To Reich’s use of African Rhythm.
It is these very elements that have kept it alive, and we know what happened to royality when it insulated it gene pool among a tight little group. Not much evolution there and the whole kitchen had to be thrown out..

fredösphere said...

Scott, I'll bet you've covered this elsewhere in your blog, but some of us non-specialists would appreciate it if you explained a bit more the implications of music having semantics versus mere syntax.

Everything I know about musical syntax and semantics I learned by watching DVDs of Leonard Bernstein's Harvard lectures ... and I'm pretty sure that means most of what I do know ain't so.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Fred, I'll try to write about that soon.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Oh, and I completely agree with CB and Kraig. Chords can absolutely be nonfunctional, such as some minimalist music. I also agree with Kraig that any use of "evolution" should not connote "better" or "more complex." I do like using the word to show how changes are influenced by outside pressures.

james cook said...

While it's true that this research may be of interest to those following the discussion about harmonic theory, I would hasten to point out that it does not actually contribute to the substance of that particular debate -- certainly not in any direct way.

On another point, here's a challenge that Scott or anyone else should feel free to take up: give a definition of what it means for a chord to be "nonfunctional". I think I have an idea of what is meant by this, but since I've never seen a rigorous definition, I can't be too sure. In any case, the word "nonfunctional" can't possibly be meant to be taken literally -- whatever it means, it must mean only that the entity in question has a different function from that of some other class of entities. (Wouldn't it be nice if people would actually say precisely what they mean?)

How would you explain the meaning of "nonfunctional" (or "functional") to someone who hadn't been exposed to harmonic theory? (Let's say the person knows no more music theory than what is required to read musical notation.)

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Functional: The chords progress in the standard phrase model of Tonic - Predominant - Dominant - Tonic functions, or as elaborations of these functions.

Nonfunctional: the chords do not progress in the standard phrase model of Tonic - Predominant - Dominant - Tonic functions.

Tonic: harmonizes our home note, the most stable, though the typical I chord can be substituted with other chords that share several notes in common, VI being most common.

Dominant: harmonizes the leading tone, which has a powerful pull back to tonic. Usually accompanied by the fifth above tonic to create the V chord, as the descending fifth motion from V to I is a very satisfying resolution. But VII and even III can substitute as dominant functions.

Predominant: chords which lead towards the dominant. II is the most powerful predominant, as it allows the satisfying descending fifth motion in resolving to the dominant. But IV is also very common, particularly as all of its chord members are single steps away from V chord members.

Nonfunctional chords do not follow these expectations, nor do they generally set up these expectations. They often do set up different expectations, such as in the blues language. So James is correct that these chords are functional, just not in Common Practice tonality. Thus "Functional tonality" is short hand for "Common Practice Functional tonality," as any good theorist would make clear when teaching this material.

james cook said...

Functional: The chords progress in the standard phrase model of Tonic - Predominant - Dominant - Tonic functions, or as elaborations of these functions.

So, then, to show that a chord is "non-functional", one would need to show not only that it doesn't itself fall into any of those three categories, but also that it it is not an "elaboration" of anything that does. How would one do this? (In particular, what are the criteria for determining what is an "elaboration"?)

Tonic: harmonizes our home note, the most stable

By invoking an undefined theoretical term ("harmonization"), this definition violates the rules -- unless we take "harmonize" merely to mean "sound simultaneously with". But in that case, any chord containing the "home note" is a "tonic", which I don't think is what you meant. (Note that I'm ignoring -- very generously -- the problem of what the terms "home note" and "stable" mean; technically these should also disqualify the above definition.)

Dominant: harmonizes the leading tone

Same problem as above (even assuming we have defined what a "leading tone" is, which we haven't).

Predominant: chords which lead towards the dominant.

Since we haven't defined what it means to "lead towards", this doesn't qualify either. However, I'll be generous again and try to guess what you mean by this phrase. I'll assume you don't just mean "precede". What I suspect you mean is that a "predominant" chord is one that causes a listener to expect a "dominant" chord to follow. Now, here's the problem: Let's suppose that I'm trying to show that a certain chord is "non-functional". In particular, I need to show that it is not a "predominant". This means that it doesn't cause me to expect a "dominant" to follow. But our theoretical inventory thus far does not contain any tools that would allow me to demonstrate such a proposition!

The point is that the concept of "predominant" isn't a concept at all -- its purpose is only to cover up for the fact that we haven't introduced the concept of "causing a listener to expect some future event". (Close examination of the above attempts at defining "tonic" and "dominant" will reveal something similar in those cases.) Evidently, the hope is to escape from having to deal with such complex and abstract matters by the device of creating a "taxonomy" of surface events that will allow one to substitute the easy problem of describing the internal structure of a chord for the harder one of determining the syntactic functions of individual notes.

This hope is in vain; such cheating will eventually catch up with you when you try to analyze a passage by Reger, Schoenberg, or even Chopin. The resulting analytical difficulties have caused theorists to throw up their hands and invent the category of "common-practice functional tonality" for music that is tractable with their crude theoretical tools, while resorting to ad hoc theories for the rest. All this is nothing more than to perpetuate the theoretical laziness of an eighteenth-century Frenchman.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

James, I thought your question was an honest one, which I answered in good faith, albeit briefly. A real explication of functional tonality to a neophyte takes place over weeks to define the various terms you point out. I certainly was not going to try to condense this material into a blog comment. Your response is highly uncharitable, showing you were looking for a stalking horse rather than an attempt to enrich your mind.

I will not reply to any of your posts or comments until you demonstrate that you are willing to engage in civil discourse.

james cook said...

James, I thought your question was an honest one, which I answered in good faith, albeit briefly.

It was an honest question. I wasn't lying when I said I had never seen a rigorous definition of "functionality". (I still haven't.) Did you really think I was unfamiliar with the standard "definition", and not realize that I was criticizing it for lack of rigor?

Your response is highly uncharitable, showing you were looking for a stalking horse rather than an attempt to enrich your mind.

Again, there was never any justification for the condescending assumption that I was unfamiliar with the concepts involved. You already know that I am a critic of harmonic theory; being a critic of something of necessity entails that one knows something about it. What I was doing with my question was giving you (or whomever else) the opportunity to improve upon the traditional concepts by making them more rigorous. In this context, when I say I don't know what a term like "functional" means, that should not be taken to imply that I don't know what people say it means; the point is that their definition is insufficiently precise and therefore inadequate. I don't understand why this wasn't perfectly clear.

I will not reply to any of your posts or comments until you demonstrate that you are willing to engage in civil discourse.

You are free to reply or not reply to anything you wish. However, to suggest that I have been in any way "uncivil" is uncalled for. I have done nothing other than to engage in intellectual arguments about music theory. I have not personally attacked anyone, or refused to listen to reason. In fact, I would like nothing more than to listen to more reason from the other side.

(If you really think I'm being uncivil, then please explain the "civil" way to make the points I am making.)

If you are not interested in the questions I am raising about the foundations of music theory, the proper thing to do would be to say so, rather than making me out to be some sort of troll.

ComposerBastard said...

My Dear Puppets Steve and James:

You have both been dancing for some time now, and I think this debate or game or whatever you call it is getting a bit well...downright ridiculous...for lack of a better word. Can we move on to something we can all just absorb without such debate? I'm as guilty as anyone else, but I'm not getting anything out of this...so I realize now.

Steve: I do not agree with most of your definitions or your knowledge or indeed your education. Mainly, from a creative artistic standpoint, it seems impractical and narrow in an open system of music. However, I respect greatly that you have the focus and the energy to pursue what you want to believe in it. And there it does seems enourmous.

James: To debate the value of one system over another seems meaningless and useless, especially in leui that there can never be any resolve or system of proof in such a broad topic as music. Functionality can be defined in many different ways and with many different words, and if we have to spend time here we cannot possibly move to more interesting topics. Whether you believe in it is a totally different subject.

There are many blind men and there are many musical elephants in this room...and all I see is elephants...all the way down...

paul bailey said...

i think there is a big point being missed here because this discussion is the tail wagging the dog. at the end of the day music theory is a attempt to describe and find similarities/connections/patterns of the performance practice of a group of composers who share similar aesthetics. theory describes performance practice. the se systems all quickly fall apart as you add more music and composers. doesn't it make sense that we approach each composers work as its own, noting the similarities and differences in (compositional tricks) and aesthetics?

for this discussion its as simple as this; if you think the composer is using harmonic planning then feel free to 'schenkerize' it however you wish. if he lives in the world of ferneyhough or nono. then maybe harmonic analysis is not for you. i think this this the same as me trying to apply a more modern of romantic love to the marinist poetry in monteverdi's book VIII madrigals. the original poetry was never intended to be taken literal and sometimes misconstrued when analyzed by modern sensibilities.

lets keep this in perspective, i think music theory is our attempt to describe how composers compose, organize and prepare their music for performance. i can understand how teaching using a single organizing theory makes it less confusing for our students. making the complex simple should always be a goal, but sometimes i feel the lengths many music theorist go to have a single unifying theory really makes the simple complex.

james cook said...

at the end of the day music theory is a attempt to describe and find similarities/connections/patterns of the performance practice of a group of composers who share similar aesthetics. theory describes performance practice.

I'm sorry, but this is incorrect. Theory does not describe performance practice or stylistic mannerisms; it describes listener psychology. What you are talking about is history, not theory.

but sometimes i feel the lengths many music theorist go to have a single unifying theory really makes the simple complex.

This would be true if you were trying to come up with a single unified description of the musical practice of all historical periods; but as noted above, that isn't what the goal is at all.

The goal is a unified metalanguage, not a unified description. Metalanguages are what descriptions are written in; they are what you use to talk about how musical works are similar and different. If you don't have a unified metalanguage, you can't properly discuss the relationships between different works; the musics are simply incommensurable.

Under the current theoretical system, it's as if whenever we speak about Bach we have to speak in German, while whenever we speak about Boulez we have to speak in French. We can't discuss what the two have in common; and all we can say about how they differ is that Bach-talk is in German while Boulez-talk is in French.

Peter (the other) said...

All very much later, I thought I'd chime in. Scott, I am a great admirer of yours, and your wonderfully succinct description of the basic concepts of tonal harmony are a joy to someone like myself, who cannot write my name with out obscuring something. But in James hard edged debate, I see a style that I both fear and yet understand. It is (if one can take the heat) a way to a truth, but one must fully engage, respond to each parry and give back. I think your instinct, that the comment section of a blog may be a bit tiresome of a place to confront such a task, may be right. Yet I found that Jame's statement:

"...a "taxonomy" of surface events that will allow one to substitute the easy problem of describing the internal structure of a chord for the harder one of determining the syntactic functions of individual notes."

refreshingly honest, stimulating and challenging, and that is something I think blogs are for. So I thank the bunch of you for this discussion.