An Addition to "Music: The Language of (My) Soul"

December 21, 2005

Since I wrote that descriptive piece, Iíve found a book that would have made the whole process of discovery much simpler and shorter: John R. Pierceís The Science of Musical Sound. It corroborates much of what I wrote there, albeit with some variations in emphasis.

One thing I hadnít even guessed at was how the traditional use of triads represents an extension of the basic relationships of notes. I learned about triads from a course I took in music theory, but did not relate them to my quest. A triad is, for example, C Ė E Ė G: the first, the third and the fifth note in the key series. And I knew that these three notes were pretty consonant; that is, they harmonize pleasantly. What I didnít know was how they relate to each other in a much more fundamental way. It was Jean-Philippe Rameau who, in 1722, first described their relationship. He attributed the distinct character of a major triad to a "fundamental bass." As Pierce describes it, the three notes of a major triad, with their respective partials (overtones), all are partials of a common note, which is one-fourth the frequency of the lowest note of the triad. Every one of the partials of all three notes of the triad is a partial of that common note (the fundamental bass). No wonder the triad has become the basic building block of Western music! Rameau insisted that he could hear the fundamental bass note when a major triad was played. Because it is two octaves lower than the triad itself, itís not always perceptible to most of us.

Weíve all heard the tinny sound of many cheap transistor sound systems and radios. Even though many of the lower notes in the music simply cannot be reproduced by these instruments, we have no trouble "hearing" the notes that are played as though those lower notes were sounding as well. We can follow the melodies and can identify chords even with those notes missing. The explanation is that a C major chord, for example, is recognizable as such even with the bottom note (C) missing. Itís probably a function of our brains, similar to that phenomenon in written language where a word, especially in context, can be recognized even with a letter missing or the internal letters scrambled. For example, the word "rcgzeoenid" in the preceding sentence could easily be understood by most people. We fill in gaps in our perceptual field in an effort to make sense of our world.

Another explanation for the ability to recognize chords even if the bottom note is missing could be from Rameauís observation of a fundamental bassóthe "hearing" on some mental level at least, of the note for which the partials of the remaining notes of the chord are commonly related.

My original question: Why do certain notes feel right together? goes far beyond the simple push-pull-on-our-ear-drum relationships, which explanation seemed at the time to satisfy my curiosity. I never thought that my discovery was anything but naÔve. Itís gratifying, however, to follow the trail begun there to understanding more and more of this experience I so value in my life: music.