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Music for Non-Musicians

A number of years ago, I became curious about why I was affected by certain combinations of musical tones, played either in sequence in a melody or simultaneously as a chord. Having practically no musical education, I asked friends and searched the library, without finding an answer. Eventually, I stumbled on something that led me into the mathematical relationships of music, and then spent the next twenty years, on and off, developing my own answer. I assumed that the information was "out there, somewhere," but it became a personal project to learn it for myself. When I finally finished, no one was startled or impressed by my results, mostly because few people were interested in the questions, so the answers werenít exactly spellbinding. Still, for me, it was an achievement.

Although I didnít know at the time, someone was writing a book that would have answered exactly my questions, plus a lot of things I didnít know enough to even ask. John R Pierce is a scientist who has written extensively on music, technology and electronic communications. Heís been involved in research at Bell Telephone Laboratories and Stanford University. I recently happened on his book, The Science of Musical Sound, first published in 1983. His chapters on harmony, consonance and dissonance addressed in detail the physical relationships of musical tones.

What he didnít address in any depth was the human aspect of music, the question I began with. Most people are moved by some kind of music, even if they donít all respond to the same music. An adagio movement in Brahms or even Stravinsky can leave me in tears, while someone else might simply be put to sleep. My curiosity in the beginning of my project had to do with psychology and maybe physiology, but my research took me into mathematics and physics. I think Iím satisfied that I learned what I sought. I donít think Iíve ever been able to put it all into words, not the part about how it feels. Maybe someday.

This morning I participated in an email conversation about photography with several people on an Internet mailing list. Someone had posted a portrait that she had taken of a young girl, and others had commented on it, mostly in terms of getting more realistic colors or a pleasing composition. What struck me was the human quality of the portrait, an expression of something that went far beneath the surface, and the feeling I got of being touched by a human being. Itís so easy, sometimes, to talk about the superficial and the theoretical, when really weíre moved by something deeper that doesnít fit the words we have at our disposal. I was moved by that portrait in a way that I often am by music. Itís probably true in all art, that the deeper meanings are beyond words.

A musician has to learn the practical part of music, how to get the tone one wants, and how to handle an instrument skillfully. If one is to play with others, the ear must be trained to hear what others are playing as well as oneself. If one is to play what others have published, the eye must be trained to understand and sight-read musical notation. To create truly sublime music, one needs something more: a feeling, an intuition, a level of hearing that is closer to the soul. That deeper hearing has to be translated into muscular skills.

Those of us who donít make music have an easier time of it. All we have to do is respond. Our response may be tears or it may be boredom, but it doesnít require much skill. And yet, the more we know, at least about the context of the music weíre listening to, the more we can bring our rational mind into the response and come to understand the subtleties of what we hear. The result of this integration is that we learn to hear more.

Every time I listen to a piece of music, I am apt to hear something new in it. If it is great music, of any idiom, my discovery process continues almost indefinitely. (If itís not so great, Iíll find out much sooner that itís no longer interesting. I may have reached its depth.) Itís like the difference between "pretty" and "beautiful." Those of us who havenít yet learned how to tell the difference must continue, must pay attention, and allow the truth to emerge inside us. As it will.

Thereís an assumption to all this, of course. That is, the deeper we go into our psyche in order to hear more, or see more, or feel more, the greater our appreciation. The closer to our soul that we live, the more intensely we experience. And we can do that whether we produce music or simply enjoy it. For unlike music, our souls have no limit. We can probe ever more deeply, and live ever more fully, as long as we live.

 

Donald Skiff, November 6, 2003

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