To listen

21 Jan

There are pieces of music that we love. There is probably a single piece that is our favourite, whether it be anything from the baroque to the romantic eras of music, the twentieth century art-music, as it has come to be called, or of the vaguely “popular”, or popular-derived types. It could be anything from a frenetic statement of technique or an equally impressive expression of control at a slow pace, to a tremendous display of emotion, whether overt or covert. We like to listen for things in the music we hear, and sometimes we get caught off-guard and are (hopefully) pleasantly surprised. There is at least one piece of music that you love, and at least one piece of music that I love.

So what is it that we like about whatever we like? For the most part, this is a simple question to answer. “I like the poetry in the words”; “I like the sound” (which is probably not as vague as you’d think); “I like the mood the music creates”. I think that in a lot of ways, these reasons can be appreciated more fully – and thus expanded upon or explored more deeply – by examining the purpose behind music. There is a lot to talk about, and I couldn’t hope to cover it all, but we can begin simply. I will be talking mostly from a Western perspective of music, given my familiarity with it, and beginning with pre-twentieth century music.
There are five broad styles of music, each corresponding to an era of music. These are, in order, the Mediaeval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic, the last ending at roughly the end of the 19th century. They followed each other, largely supplanting their predecessors, but they each had their time in the sun. Mediaeval music originated in part in the Church, though troubadours had their own form of troupe music, and it lasted until the mid-15th century, when Renaissance music turned up. Mediaeval music, especially church music, was generally characterized by monophony – a group of singers singing a melody in unison. Renaissance music began to introduce polyphony, where many melodies are present, and homophony, where a harmony supports a leading melody. Madrigals and motets appeared in sacred music, having developed from the Mediaeval period, and instrumental music began to take more formal shapes.
Baroque music arrived at around 1600, and this featured a rich variety of music, as technology for instruments developed further and small concert orchestras came into being. Solo concertos – sets of music where a soloist performs a piece of music with an orchestral accompaniment – and concerto grossi (grammar?), which featured a larger group of “soloists”, appeared; opera and its sacred cousin, oratorio, became common, and the progress of music continued onwards. As I said, this music tended to be very polyphonic, at least in comparison with the neighbouring eras, and could at times be very complex, with much care taken in its construction. The era pretty much ended with J.S. Bach, in the late 1700s.
Classical music, by contrast, showed a much more coherent approach, featuring nearly entirely homophonic music, and it was in this era that Mozart wrote his music. It was again very mathematical in construction, though the rounder form allowed by the still-developing instrumentation may have given more freedom in expression than previously. The piano was developed at this time.
And finally, romantic music appeared. This era was notably codified by Beethoven, and developed further over the years, with sweeping orchestras, large, virtuosic concertos, blockbuster operas, and harmonies became more and more free, breaking more boundaries than ever before. The waltz as a formal music type came in at this time, with its wild charm of country living thrilling audiences.
As you can see, there is a progression in style. It is very tempting to say that the earlier periods of music were stiff, ordered, with no place for emotion, where mathematics reigned, while later periods broke free of the constraints of formalism, indulging in romance and stormy emotion. Everyone tends to have one they listen to more, because they prefer the musical style. But there are key things to keep in mind regarding these musical styles.
The thing is this – style does not define the music. It gives a framework within which the music exists. It sets the musical scene to some extent, but it doesn’t explain it. It’s like a dialect – it has its sounds, and these have their origins, but the sounds do not dictate the subject matter. Indeed, there are two further variables worth considering in listening to music:
  • What is the musical temperament?
  • What is – what we’ll call – the aesthetic presentation of the music?
Temperament could be summed up as the “emotional” nature of the music, and a musical teacher of mine referred to it as existing on a continuum between classical temperament on the one end, and romantic temperament on the other. These are not references to the styles, but to the nature of the music.
An example of music with a classical temperament is the baroque-style “Prelude and Fugue No.1” by J.S. Bach, which has been likened, under certain performances, to listening to a typewriter. You could also say that the first movement of Spring, of the Four Seasons by Vivaldi – a baroque composer – is rather classical. The music is presented in a straight-forward manner, not aiming to draw an emotional response from the listener. Much of Mozart’s music is classical in temperament as well as style.
In contrast, romantic temperament engages the listener more closely. Bach’s St Matthew and St Mark Passions are extremely emotional, carrying the pain of the Crucifixion in their music. Mozart’s Requiem cries out in anguish, fearing and loving and worshiping all at once. Speaking of which, I’ve wondered about this requiem for a long time. It seems strange that having written such classically-temperamented music all his life, his last work was this outpouring of fearful music.
These examples are from the baroque and classical periods – to show that music can exist at either end of the temperamental continuum regardless of style. Similarly, romantic-period music features some classical-temperament music, such as Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, or Strauss’s famous Blue Danube waltz (hilariously so, in my opinion, considering how a waltz is a whirling, cheerful, romantic dance), as well as the more emotional stuff.
So that’s temperament, but it still doesn’t fully describe the picture. The music is also presented in a certain way, and there is generally a distinction between “absolute” and “programmatic” music. Absolute music is that which is presented on its own, not aiming to represent anything, while programmatic music “shows” something, describes something. Opera is by its very nature programmatic, since it’s essentially a sung story, while a typical baroque sonata is absolute. Bach’s preludes and fugues (in the Well-Tempered Clavier) are all absolute, since they really existed to show that a single keyboard instrument could be tempered to all of the 24 keys without needing re-tuning, while Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are programmatic, describing… well, the seasons! Beethoven’s piano sonatas are somewhere in the middle between classical and romantic in temperament, but are absolute, not programmatic, as is his very romantic fifth symphony.
How do we decide the temperament or aesthetic of a piece of music? Aesthetic appears obvious; music with lyrics most often describe something, and the music may be evocative of the mood the lyrics invoke. If the music is not evocative – say, if the music is very cheerful and bouncy to the plaintive words, then I think that is its own kind of program; it creates an effect on the listener because of that very dissonance. But music doesn’t need lyrics to be programmatic – Mendelssohn’s Hebrides suite was written when he was visiting the Hebrides islands off Scotland, and the music is intended to be evocative of those very islands.
This leads to an interesting question: Is aesthetic decided by the intent of the composer? Mendelssohn wrote the Hebrides suite in an effort to be evocative, and we know this, and so when we hear it we think of waving waters under a cold blue sky around lonely islands in the sea. But would we think this if we hadn’t known the circumstances under which it was written? What if it was presented to us “as is”, perhaps even without a title. Would we think “Ah, islands in the sea west of Scotland!” – or would we say, “Huh, that’s nice”?
There is an inverse problem – Beethoven’s famous piano sonatas; the Apassionata, the Moonlight, and the Pathetique. You can tell right away they’re programmatic – or are they? Beethoven didn’t give them those names; they are simply sonatas. Some guy probably listened to them and thought “ah, this makes me think of [say] moonlight!” and named them accordingly. And so today we see teenagers think that the first movement from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor sums up their misery just so, when, for all we know, Beethoven just had a great idea for a slow, thoughtful piece, exploring the qualities of – well, C minor. Is it right that these sonatas are named so, and thus become programmatic in people’s perspective? I don’t know, but it shows that there is a level of perception involved in defining a piece’s aesthetic.
I think that temperament influences this perception. An absolute piece of music, written in a romantic temperament, could easily have a mood or emotion applied to it, and thus begin a transition to program in the mind of the audience. It could be done by a different touch on the performance; Glenn Gould could draw out emotion from a Bach prelude and fugue, for example. On the other hand, it could be dependent entirely on the key or tonal mode for its aesthetic.
I started with the music pre-twentieth century because it’s so easy there to distinguish between style, temperament, and aesthetic. In recent times this distinction has to some extent become more fuzzy, but I think the elements are still quite clear if we look for them. A lot of – if not most – modern popular music is programmatic, telling a story – stories of love and loss, for example. But certain alternative music types like house or dubstep (ugh) are absolute; people don’t listen to them for the story they tell, but rather for the music itself. I think temperament is easily spotted too – I find Coldplay and Muse to be romantic, but the little I hear of Lady Gaga sounds to me more classical.
Thinking it over, I think those extremes should be given new names.
In any case, I think it is this combination of factors that influence how we like the music we hear. Style, temperament, and aesthetic. Some time ago I made a post talking about Christopher Tin’s album Calling All Dawns. The song is clearly programmatic, considered as a song cycle, but it varies a little between temperaments due to the different ways it uses harmony and texture. I love the music because it does it so well, and the melody and harmony work together in a way that brings me to tears. I like music that’s programmatic, and that uses its own harmony to evoke what words might otherwise do. I think music does a better job of expressing things like this than the meaning behind the words, and it’s doubly beautiful when the music itself and meaning of the lyrics work together – the whole is then truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Music from games and films are by definition programmatic, and I love listening to them – just imagining what the composer was trying to say, knowing what he or she was composing for. And I do like me some beats >.>
I like Bach’s music, because he obviously loved what he did, and he was really good at it. Here, his absolute music is great for its own sake, and because it doesn’t need that external projection. Maybe I want to think it’s programmatic, to think of how he liked writing it, and think of the music as an expression of his talent in a way he liked. I used to think it was because it was absolute, but I’m not so sure now.
Do you see what I mean? What do you like in the music you listen to? Have you thought about what elements in the music come together to give you what you like about it? Have you thought about what could be different about it, and that you would like? Have you thought of looking for music with the same aesthetic or temperament, but with a different style to what you’re used to? Why don’t you explore for a bit, and ask yourself what you like about music.
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Posted by on January 21, 2013 in Uncategorized


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