Does anybody care about tonal organization anymore?

Every composer has a different answer


Atonality, as a replacement for tonality, I consider to be a failed experiment for the most part. Today for someone to criticize music as atonal seems rather archaic. It’s not that composers are writing more music that is tonal or atonal (though some indeed are doing so), but it is more that composers are just no longer very interested in that sort of organizational manipulation. Composers organize their music, of course, but not in the same way as composers writing in the great age of tonal music, or atonal music for that matter. In general, music today seems less linear and more environmental. Composers still tell stories, but it is usually done more as background music rather than with an interaction of musical characters.

Tonality developed at the beginning of the Baroque Period in response to the need for a way to organize instrumental music. Until then, written music was primarily vocal and was organized around the text. Though Renaissance music was tonal “sounding,” its sense of key (and musical structure) was entirely based on the emotional (and sometimes literal) impact of the text. Baroque composers writing instrumental music decided, with no words to fall back on, to make the music about the key and gradually developed a large interrelated structure of key relationships. Then they also borrowed from Classical Rhetoric and created “musical subjects” upon which they could expound.

Though the Rhetorical characteristic has remained nearly to the present day, the tonal aspect was challenged early in the 1900’s and remained a source of contention among not just composers, but all musicians. Though composers were at first interested in finding a replacement for the system of tonality, gradually the approach to pitch became just another original aspect of how an individual composer would organize his or her music. Often the approach would vary from piece to piece by the same composer.

But still, the way we listen to notes and their relationship to each other has not changed much, even if composers are using and organizing them in different ways. I believe it is possible to treat pitches as sounds, in the same way you would write for a percussion ensemble, for instance.   But the composer must be careful to keep the pitches identified as individual units, which is not easy. The (pitched) music of Edgard Varése is probably the best example of this that I can think of, but still, you hear a (tonal) relationship between the pitches he uses, even if they are treated as static sounds. I don’t think you can change the way people hear the relationship between the notes themselves.

Serialism, music using the twelve-tone method, tried to organize music in a different way. It tried to replace a tonal relationship with one based on order. I have no problem with the effort; I just don’t think it worked. It was a very versatile technique, and fed directly into the creative imagination of several composers, but it now seems rather dated. Its problem was that it was, at best, only barely detectible in the music. Because you couldn’t hear the ordered relationships of twelve-tone rows, you tried to hear the music the way you normally would.  Listeners still try to hear tonal relationships.  If the method was more obvious that might not be the case, but it just isn’t.  You can take tonality out of the music, however, you can’t take it out of the listener.

In many pieces, serialism seems to neutralize tonal relationships with speed. The composer seems to circulate through the twelve tones so quickly as to cause the listener to experience tonal vertigo. I think it is this overloaded tonal dizziness that most listeners associate with atonality. It is like a cat in a speeding car; he is born to detect motion, but the whole world is moving!

An interesting and somewhat quaint description of tonality and serialism appears in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by the Czech author Milan Kundera. A character in the story, who happens to be a pianist, relates how his father had taught him tonality. The tonic was the king, and the dominant and subdominant are his right-hand men. All the other notes were members of the court, and each had its own relationship to the king. But each note also had its own court, with its own relationships. A composition, therefore, was a drama played out among all these players with intrigue and romance, and even occasionally the threat of treason. He then goes on to criticize twelve-tone music as being like Socialism by trying, and not succeeding, to make everybody the same. Kundera was not a big fan of Socialism.

It’s my opinion that one of serialism’s fatal flaws is its blind acceptance of enharmonic equal temperament as truth. Declaring all F#’s and Gb’s as identical severely restricts the variety and scope of tonal possibilities available. It also clearly ignores how Western ears hear tonal color.

Even on an equal-tempered piano, we hear pitches as being a sharp or flat based on the context in which they appear. This is often demonstrated melodically (C# moves to D, Db moves to C, etc.), but is also true harmonically. If you play the two chords below, alternating back and forth, the F# and the Gb are clearly different notes, even though they are exactly the same frequency!

2 chords2The first chord opens outward as the resonance and surrounding notes create a clear F#. In the second chord, however, the Bb and Eb clearly redefine the target note as a Gb, which seems to contract back toward the same C major chord in the left hand, creating a completely different effect.

Even though the pitch is the same, how we perceive the pitch is different because of the surrounding environment. Most atonal writing either ignores this, or tries to neutralize it by making the music so dissonant that the relationships are of little consequence. Making tonal relationships moot can be very effective, in, for instance, the early music of György Ligeti or Krzysztof Penderecki. But writing tonal relationships and then ignoring them is a questionable compositional practice that promotes listener confusion and frustration. It is a practice that a composer uses at his own peril.


Changing music from events to processes

It changes the way music is organized and experienced

I first became aware of the role of emotional oscillation in music sometime around 1980, through the work of Manfred Clynes. (See my blog post on Music and Emotion.) His research suggested emotion was expressed through music using very specific oscillations of intensity and release. After becoming acquainted with his work, I challenged myself with the question of how this was accomplished in music.

Oscillations, or waves, form the very basis of music through sound, but how the music is performed or created to convey a specific emotional oscillation is a little different. Sound by itself does not possess these qualities though, of course, the voice, for instance, is very inflective. I had to examine the relationship between sounds to find the amount of motion necessary to express waves of emotion, which can vary from less than a second to over five seconds. To express these relationships you need at least two dimensions. One is of course time, but the other would need to be a musical field or parameter which has defined polarities, i.e., high and low registers or loud and soft dynamics. Oscillations could take place on single notes (i.e., crescendo/diminuendo or a glissando) but would primarily take place through the comparison of the relationship between separate events. This is not usually perceived consciously by the listener, and often falls more into the realm of performance rather than composition. But still, there are oscillating parameters that are commonly manipulated by composers. In fact, once I started to look for them, I found so many that it quickly became apparent I would not be able to keep track of them all at any given moment.

I began to think about the possibility of creating music using verbs instead of nouns.

Music is traditionally analyzed and organized according to its identifiable items: Keys, chords, motives, rhythms, etc. These items are given status or function (i.e., primary, secondary, cadential, etc.) and are often organized into hierarchies. Some hierarchies are traditional and enveloping, such as tonal and metric hierarchies, and others are set forth by the composer relating directly to the structure of a specific work. But my search for oscillating parameters had me now looking for processes instead of items. I began to think about the possibility of creating music using verbs instead of nouns.

If you are organizing music around specific items, you must of course play and use those specific items. Oscillating parameters, however, are in use all of the time. Sometimes they are prominent, sometimes they are more neutral, but they are always available! A structure using these parameters would consider which ones are being used prominently and when. It would also keep track of the types of emotional content being expressed. This is not only a very broad spectrum of possibilities; it is also a very different kind of spectrum. The expressive parameters will be changing quite a bit, but the structural parameters will likely be those that remain static for a while (i.e., upper register, very soft or loud, all the same articulation, all the same color or chord or scale). In a structure of this type, the actual items of musical material carry less importance, though they can be organized traditionally, if that is preferred.

I also turned to improvisation because it is honest! The music I am playing, and emotions I am expressing, are actually being experienced.

My interest in musical processes eventually led to my exploration of process in both philosophy (i.e., Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne) and Eastern Religions (Buddhism and Taoism). I don’t profess to have learned a great deal about any of these subjects, but my inquiries did turn my artistic activity in a different direction, namely, toward improvisation. Improvisation, being a realtime activity, allows for a much more acute awareness of these emotional oscillations. In fact, they are a constant source of inspiration. It also allows for continual exploration of identified oscillating parameters. The realtime free flow of ideas itself is the epitome of process and the artistic antithesis of constructivism. I also turned to improvisation because it is honest! The music I am playing, and emotions I am expressing, are actually being experienced. Not every musical listener will be necessarily interested in the emotions I am expressing, no matter how well they are expressed. However, I am much more comfortable expressing real emotion than conjuring up a contrived feeling through the manipulation of a musical magic show.

Listening to music as a process allows you to focus on small-scale momentary expression and yet make a note when new parameters come into play. You become more aware of increases and releases of intensity and their interplay, expressed often simultaneously in different parameters. In fact, music allows for multiple expression of the same parameter in different voices. There is never a lack of things to listen to, but it is not the same kind of listening. It is not a matter of keeping track of ideas and their manipulations; it is a continual unfolding of expressive creativity. It is not the usual intellectual exercise; it is a sequence of emotional experiences. It does not always have a point, but it is often well worth knowing.

When Improvising, Music Theory Becomes a Verb

Relational structures are the practical choice for music improvisation

I knew I wanted to be a composer when I was in Junior High School. My parents found me a couple of teachers my last couple of years of high school. They were both well respected composers. The first teacher showed me Hindemith’s Theory of Interval Hierarchy on the first lesson. The second teacher waited until the second or third lesson, but then brought me a short treatise on Information Theory. Though I was totally baffled, these two events were actually a pretty good introduction to how many composers think about music.

Music composers and theorists have riddled music with a litany of systematic hierarchical structures. Tonality and key, harmony, meter and rhythm, form, and many more complex all-consuming theories are all systems of organized structures meant to impart logical meaning to emotional content. It is an idea borrowed from writing, and it is a visual concept. A large written work is organized into parts, chapters, sections, paragraphs, sentences, words, and finally letters. Each letter and word has its own function and meaning, and this becomes extended to sentences, paragraphs, etc., until every part has its own place and role. Most composers think of their music in the same way, with each note, phrase, or layer having a special function and meaning, and playing a part in a larger whole.

brush-portrait3-fb-banner-copyBut it is impossible to retain this kind of detailed attention to multiple levels of musical structure while improvising. You can keep track of what is going on for a while but at a certain point you reach the Too Much Information point and things fall apart. With no pre-planning, the amount of information, levels, and functions add up until you are overwhelmed. At that point, you just give up and think about something else, because, after all, you are creating everything on the spot, not just the structure.

So when improvising, the amount of actual musical information you can pay attention to is limited. This is why many improvisers prefer to improvise on given themes or motives, because when doing that, the emphasis shifts to creative manipulation for which improvisation is excellent. But all of traditional musical theory treats music as information, so when freely improvising, you have three choices: 1) limit the amount of information you keep track of, 2) not care, or 3) keep track of your music in a different way. Choice No. 1 very quickly becomes a precondition. Limiting means making choices, usually in advance. This is how most of the world improvises, with limits of key or mode, tempo, meter, harmonic choices, etc. It narrows the playing field so that the improviser can concentrate on expression and creativity. Choice No. 2 pollutes the imagination and eventually becomes a choice. I believe that a lot of Free Jazz or Improvisation has become like this, where making an organizational choice of any sort becomes taboo.

It is not the music itself but its relationship to the surrounding music that gives it meaning.

I found that, as a composer, the only choice open to me was Choice No. 3 because I didn’t want to make pre-conditions and I did care. So instead of treating bits of music as information, I started treating them as relative values on the sliding scales of several simultaneous musical “fields” or parameters. Every bit of music I improvise is louder or softer, higher or lower, faster or slower, darker or lighter, more or less resonant, more or less dissonant, denser or more open, flatter or sharper, etc. than the music which is sounding simultaneously or adjacent to it. It is not the music itself but its relationship to the surrounding music that gives it meaning. Because emotion is perceived as a specific oscillation of intensity and release, and oscillation in many forms is a fundamental component of music, these relationships make excellent expressive tools while improvising. Most importantly, because their focus is very specific, they become tools that are actually possible to use while improvising in an intelligent way.

Because music has multiple dimensions, and these dimensions can be creatively manipulated simultaneously, the creative possibilities are nearly endless. An improviser can also create his or her own expressive parameters just by juxtaposition (i.e. more temple block and less triangle). Thinking about oscillating parameters encourages an improviser to concentrate on what he or she is doing at any given moment rather than creating the mental distance it takes to keep track of specific information over a longer period of time. This is exactly the mental attitude it takes to improvise well!

Of course, identifiable ideas do emerge. But instead of treating them as informational Legos to build things with, I treat those ideas as relational focal points that are altered and changed at every appearance. The information relates to itself. Large-scale structures do emerge too, but I don’t often think about them consciously. Sometimes I will deliberately bring back an idea from earlier within an improvisation if it is particularly prominent (and I remember it). Sometimes I will bring up an idea from a different improvisation or even another piece. But I seldom find that when I do it has any real or special impact. I find I can use and trust my musical instincts to control large-scale shape, contrast, and function. In other words, I play it by ear. It usually works. If it doesn’t, oh well, I’ll try again next time.