October 20th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Internal strife at Fortress ABC by Peter Westmore

EDITORIAL The state is separating children from families

CANBERRA OBSERVED Liberals are bare favourites for Wentworth

DEREGULATION Sugar growers are getting burned on churned-up playing field

EUROPE Attempt to discipline Hungary divides the EU

CHINA Social Credit System gives complete control of every citizen

EDUCATION Curriculum refinements will not fix schools

BANKING ROYAL COMMISSION Banks' failures are a symptom of social malaise

HISTORY Moby Dick and American exceptionalism

SHAKESPEARE Tick-tock: clues to the timeless appear of the Bard

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Trump to UN: we'll do it our way; you do it yours

MUSIC Well-tempered scale: might put an alien in a bad temper

CINEMA Alpha: Beautiful beginnings

BOOK REVIEW Essays towards reconstruction

BOOK REVIEW Can society survive the decay of religion?


CLIMATE CHANGE Hockey 1, hockey 2: Good science contradicts IPCC's two-degree alarmism

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Well-tempered scale: might put an alien in a bad temper

by David James

News Weekly, October 20, 2018

If humans were trying to explain themselves to visiting aliens from another planet, music would perhaps prove to be one of the hardest things to elucidate.

Why is it that arrangements of sounds within a structured system have become so central a part of the fabric of societies for thousands of years? Why does something so artificial as music seem so natural? For that matter, why does music differ so much in different parts of the world? And above all, why can music inspire such emotions when it is a wholly created system; it does not really mirror the external world?

True, there are some natural elements in music. The pulse of rhythm matches humans’ actual pulse; it is related to movement and dance. There is a strong link between speech and singing.

The potency of singing often comes from its theatrical quality; it is in some ways a more heightened version of dramatic enunciation. This is perhaps why some pop singers with awful voices, such as Bob Dylan or Neil Young, attract big audiences. What they are doing may be jarring, but it is dramatic. They appeal as actors in the first instance, not musicians.

Temper, temper

Most of the elements of music are artificial, however. Western harmony, for instance, is neither universal – it is not replicated in other cultures – nor is it based on acoustics. The well-tempered scale is a deliberate approximation of true tuning – the upper harmonics of the notes are evened out – allowing such complex harmonies to be used. In what is something of a contradiction, if the tuning of each foundational note and its upper harmonics were exact, the whole thing would sound out of tune.

In other musical traditions, such as in China, India and the Middle East, the main emphasis tends to be on using modes, which do not lead to jarring dissonances. But it is more difficult to achieve the kind of tension and resolution that is available in Western harmony (at least after Bach). Listen to music from these regions and the sounds and expression tend to be more linear; there is not the same light and shade, or buildups to a crescendo, that routinely occur in Western music.

It is these artificial elements that would be the most difficult to explain to our aliens from another planet. Take, for example, the liquid, elegiac harmonic progression of the Adagio in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, which is perhaps the only piano concerto in the corpus to match the beauty of Mozart’s glorious sequence of piano concertos (in this writer’s opinion the greatest series in all classical music). It was perhaps not entirely accidental: Ravel thought Mozart was the greatest of all musicians.

The composing is simple, featuring guileless melodic development and a straightforward left hand accompaniment. It exquisitely hovers between dissonance, which hints at resolution, and the slow development of the line that creates an extraordinary bittersweet effect, as if the resolution is always slightly out of reach, and the tension is progressively rising.

The stately introduction of melodic themes, sometimes from the piano and sometimes from the orchestra, is used to break up the tension, to provide a kind of pause. Modulations are also used to elongate the passages, preventing resolution. Yet such delaying only augments the tautness. The interplay of slight discordance and concord leads to what is surely one of the most beautiful sequences in classical music.

All this would be all but impossible to explain to our alien from another planet, and unless the extraterrestrial creature had been exposed to Western musical tradition through some hitherto unknown technological mechanism, the chances are that it would not be able hear the beauty of Ravel itself.

Nature plus nurture

There is a lesson in this. Because music is an artificial, even in some ways arbitrary, arrangement of sounds, then it follows that we must be trained in such artifice to appreciate its effects. Music is, perhaps more than any other art form, a learned thing.

Such learning need not be direct. If someone grows up listening to American country music, for example, they still could, without ever having been exposed to classical music, be bowled over by the Ravel Adagio.

Yet it seems clear that “learning” music is necessary to appreciating its power. And it may be the case that the more we learn about it through listening, the more powerful is its effect on us.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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