Wednesday, March 23, 2011


                One of my minor pet peeves is when I’m taking a test that requires short answers; the teacher has typed a question and then left a few clicks of the Enter button for the answer, and there, right after a sentence that starts with “When,” “Why,” “Who,” “What,” they forgot to put a question mark. It isn’t something that drives me to rip up the paper and storm out of the room, but the lack of that one symbol annoys me—if I were to read the question to myself, my voice would want to drop to a lower pitch to signify a statement, when a question mark would prompt a rise in pitch. Even though I know the question is a question, the symbols on the page still mess with my mind.
We experience linguistics like these every moment of every day. When speaking, these subtle changes in pitch come out naturally because of constant exposure. When writing, unless a mistake is made, cough cough, we know that certain punctuation marks can result in changes of tone. These rules are present in music, too. I spent part of my morning reading the harmony chapter of Robert Erickson’s The Structure of Music. Although the idea was not new to me, the way he described it was perfect:

“At cadence points, those ‘sensitive’ areas in the musical organization, the effects of the harmony, and the character of the relationships between melody and chord are most easy to grasp. The tone relaxation or relative rest in the melody is supported by a chord of rest in the harmony…Language has a variety of cadences, too. At the end of a sentence, the voice falls; to express a question, we use a rising inflection. We have evolved written symbols, commas, periods, semicolons, question marks, etc., to designate these inflections, in order to articulate both spoken and written words…It is not the final tone by itself which makes for the feeling of finality, but its relation to the other musical tones… The sentence does not end because of the period—the period is there because the sentence has ended.”

And there’s where yet another intricacy of music/life comparison came into my mind. Like speaking, music flows naturally if the composer lets it. A talented composer knows where the music is going and can easily allow it to run in its natural progression. By no means is Erickson saying that all music should go by these standards of inflection, but he is saying that the tones of cadences, the intensity or calmness, are affected by the exact type of symbols that are used. One of the most definite ways a composer can control the emotion evoked from a phrase of music is the placement and length of the notes and rests he/she use. Carefully placed tension points can make all the difference. These are the periods, question marks, colons, and commas (and I suppose the dynamics are the exclamation marks and parenthesis).  
For example, in Bach’s Two Part Invention No. 13, not too many dynamics are suggested—all the emotion comes from the tension points and the length of these points.

In this melody line, I have marked in red what I believe to be the tension points of the phrase (I’m no theory expert, but this is what I hear) and in yellow the brief resting points before the next exerpt. Because he chose to make these notes eighth notes instead of sixteenth notes like the rest of the notes around them, Bach creates tension through isolation as well as pitch. In this case, these down-stepping red notes act as commas, eventually leading to the resolving Cs.
The yellow notes are the lift-off point for the next section of the phrase, much like a trampoline that a gymnast uses to reach bars. With out these notes, the phrase would lack dimension because it would be quite more monotone than its current state. The yellow notes allow a definite place for the phrase to reside--without these places, the cadences would be hanging in space. In terms of phonetics, these notes (in my opinion) are like the words used to start long explanations, quotes, or ideas. To quote Walt Whitman:

"Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not           speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?"

The yellow notes are like the word "stranger." Without it, the sentence would mean nothing. It introduces the idea. Perhaps the red notes are the "whys?"
In our lives we have learned to bend our voices up at the end of questions. Society has taught us that we are more understandable if we lower our voice slightly at the end of a sentence. And Bach (as well as almost every other talented composer) has taught us that music isn't so different from what you just finished reading. 

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