I’m going to continue along the trajectory I began out last week, prefacing with some thoughts inspired by some conversations I’ve had this week. I’m an avid fan of the Platonic/ Socratic dialogues and I often find that there’s few better ways of exploring ideas than a good discussion/ argument.
I was speaking to a good friend of mine about some of the ideas that have been snowballing in my mind since last week’s episode concerning approaching music study from a purely experiential/ aural angle. This friend happens to be an extremely gifted classical pianist who, although agreeing with my premise that the absoluteness of the music itself alludes pen and papers best attempts, he ascribes more to the legitimacy to the process of harmonic analysis than I do.
Our conversation rested on the subject of harmonic analysis for a good stretch of time and never really resolved to any tangible answer that could satisfy us both (as most often such conversations go), and I think herein may lay the greatest split between the two ‘poles’ of musical thinking. The improviser and the prescriptive thinker.
Blog #2 A Brief Look at Harmonic Analysis
Briefly, here are some my honest thoughts on harmonic analysis:
Firstly, it’s worth noting that I used to ascribe plenty of value to harmonic analysis and only really effectively abandoned it after I was quite familiar with it and had used it for some time. One could easily say that my current perception of music is in part thanks to traditional harmonic analysis, which may have acted as a place holder until I was ready to come up with a more refined, personalized way of mentally categorizing sound.
If this is the case, it should be fairly easy to make a strong argument in favor of harmonic analysis, at least in so far as its use as a starting point. It certainly acts as a good placeholder, considering that being able to ‘just hear things for what they are’ takes plenty of time and focused practice. This idea seems to coincide perfectly with the usual tried and true building block approach to learning. Start with a simplified picture of what is going on, and then slowly expose yourself to more and more layers of complexity. That sounds good right?
The existing problem (for lack of a better word), from what I can see, is that it is not usually framed in this manner. It’s usually framed as the standard to which you must conform if you wish to understand music in any objective sense. I don’t deny at all that focused analysis is a path to understanding a piece of music deeper, in fact quite the contrary, I think it is necessary and all the more reason to question and to reassess the way it has traditionally been done thus far.
“No god limits man. It is man who limits man” – Pan (pagan deity). So many musicians see people like Chet Baker or Paul Desmond (perfect pitch, ect.) and chalk their abilities up to a deviation from the norm to be admired and revered, maybe even feared.
This may be true to a certain extent, there is after all, great variety in human psychological make-up. However, beyond those things which elude our control, it is exactly this kind of thinking wherein lies the seeds of mediocrity. Ones very perception of their inability – which is rarely based in objective fact and is more often related to the workings of the ego – is the very foundation on which ineptitude is built. The person who is irrationally critical of themselves may have an even more inflated ego than those whose confidence outweighs their merit; at least these whom we would categorize as supercilious can disassociate from their ego enough so as not to take their shortcomings and conversely their talents too seriously.
Don’t’ get me wrong, of course over-confidence is a wholly unsavory by-product of the ego. However, an excess of humility doesn’t differ too greatly in this respect.
This obsequious, ostensible humbleness (or diffidence) is not based in selflessness, as it may often appear – and as its practitioner may wish to convey -, but rather in taking oneself too seriously. The overgrown ego cannot withstand failure or criticism and thus won’t be able to express itself without rigorous and suffocating restraint. Reality itself is too imperfect a vessel for these super-egos’ dreams to be rendered into. Both of these excesses of consciousness are delusions of grandeur expressed in polar ways.
One argument put forward by my friend which I see as being particularly strong is that ‘often someone needs to know that something is there before they can actually perceive it.’ A thought which has specific relevance to the last blog, where I talked about people who weren’t fortunate enough to have intertwined musical language into their linguistic framework in their infancy; and consequently, how they are not able to perceive certain things which other ‘musically gifted’ people may take for granted as obvious or self-evident.
I realized that this assertion may be a point at which the two ideological poles can meet.
It is true the someone may not be able to perceive things ‘as they are’ without the aid of a simplified model to lay the groundwork.
This is a testament to how we take for granted the way that humans perceive reality in general. It would appear to us that we take in information from the world outside our bodies and that we are given a more or less ‘accurate’ mental image of the world as it is, considering physical limitations of the human body, arrow of time, etcetera.
This however, has been found not to be the case. The fact is, we are evolutionarily tuned to ascribing utilitarian value hierarchies to the visual stimuli which, to a non-human (or even non-animal) observer would ascribe no mode of differentiation.
For instance, there is an infinite number of definable features between any individual doors under the category; door. Upon seeing a door, we are able to instantly recognize it as such without the aid of any conscious deduction. We don’t take into account the numerous things which could render every door as a completely dissimilar object from the one previous or to follow. Instead we perceive them under the one idea – or ‘form’ to get Platonic about it - of ‘door’. Which saves us a lot of mental processing power.
The utilitarian value of an object is to human perception, the foremost defining feature and therefore simplifies reality into something that we can better digest. In this case, it’s so much the better as it saves us the time and energy of having to mentally reinvent the door at each new encounter with a door-like object. It uses too much of our attention to process infinity, attention needed for survival. So, your brain must play the part of a limiting mechanism; favoring stimuli which relates to survival or otherwise and categorizing objects starting from that basis.
*It’s interesting to note that that which we perceive as being mundane is often something to which an ‘slightly above subconscious’ amount of processing power is given, with little ‘reward’. Reward being, things and concepts understood/ accomplished. *
This is all stuff that is heavily expounded upon by Aldous Huxley in “The Doors of Perception” and “Heaven and Hell”, highly recommend reading, they’re usually published in the same volume as each other. I’m definitely going to have to revisit it before the next one of these blogs, where I’ll go even deeper into this.
Moving along in a similar vein, I was recently informed by someone I know that many of the problems that the people building AI are running into stems from trying to get it to perceive objects in a way similar to humans, that is, categorically. But they’ve apparently found that this isn’t as simple as making it able to simply visually calculate its surroundings in way which resembles human vision.
From what I understand we tried to make AI without completely understanding our own sub-consciousness. As a direct consequence, we are unable to render a surface-consciousness, or even a basic perception of reality as effective as our own. This is however, something I know little about so let’s get back to what I can talk about with confidence.
To return to the original subject…
If it’s true that one must use mental categories with which they can differentiate between the slushy chaos that is absolute reality, then it would follow that in order to perceive specific musical phenomenon, one must first have categories within which one can place aural phenomena.
Here, we can contrast our previous examples of ‘doors’ with musical phenomena such as the tonic, the sub-dominate minor, the dominant, ect. Like the door, or a Euclid, or like the color blue, there are infinite gradations of difference between objects which fall into the borders of any given category.
What do we mean when we say tonic? Aside from the technical answer, I would generally understand it as being something still, unmoving, a final place of rest, a constant/ common denominator.
At base, in harmonic analysis we are attempting to document the momentum, trajectory strength, the ‘pulling power’ of each sonic event to the next.
It only makes sense that we would, using a building block pedagogical approach, begin with the simplest and lowest resolution image of sound; namely the relationship between the tonic and the dominant. The yin yang, the left right hemisphere. Most still and most momentous. Rock and water.
We then continue to add further levels of gradation between all the previous poles – subdominant being between tonic and dominant – subdominant minor being somewhere between subdominant and dominant, etcetera.
I prefer to think of harmonic analysis like this: as a means of quickly attaining pragmatic harmonic sensibility which would otherwise take large amounts of time to develop organically.
*Organically meaning in the way similar to how a child learns language, not by studying grammar and spelling but by listening and participating. By osmosis, if you will. *
It’s a convenient way of building off of previous knowledge without having to go through everything that our predecessors went through in order to acquire it. It’s really a gift from the past with which we can either; choose to build beyond in order to leave even better gifts for our heirs, or we can treat it as holy truth thus limiting us from going beyond the imaginations of our great-grandfathers... to the likely scorn and distain of the future generations.
I have to make a point of clarification here, because it usually comes up in these kinds of conversations and it’s indicative of a common misunderstanding when it comes to this topic.
Traditional harmonic analysis is often conflated with being one and the same as ‘scrupulous study of musical material’. A common defense of harmonic analysis; “But what’s wrong with learning more about something and studying it deeper?” The critical error in this question is the underlying assumption that in rejecting harmonic analysis, one rejects the process of deep musical study. That there is no way beyond the established and published means. Of course, a conversation with any great master of improvising would quickly set one straight however we don’t all have that opportunity.
There is of course, the undeniable element of Eurocentrism here; especially considering the wealth of different approaches and conceptions of music found in cultures all across the world which have been swept under the rug in academia in favor of this European system.
If anything, harmonic analysis can surely be a useful foundation. But this could be true in as much as any foundation can serve growth. Plants can grow from soil as well as through concrete, including the varying gradations of density in-between. Is traditional harmonic analysis concrete or soil, or something between? I happen to think it’s not the most effective but rather it is the most pervasive because it conforms conveniently to our prevailing superficial view of reality. That is, we firstly accept our narrow view of reality as truth and then go on to treat the very words and symbols which we use to portray this narrow view as reality itself. We don’t appreciate the underlying pervasion of metaphor in all of our linguistic renderings, and so treat our abstractions as the things-in- themselves. We refuse to see the raw being, the Istigkeit, so much so that most people need chemical assistance in order to peel back only a small portion of their default, narrowed-down-for-the-sake-of-survival sense of reality.
We should allow ourselves to think with our bodies again. In your pinky finger is more wisdom than the entirety of your conscious ego - to crudely paraphrase Nietzsche.
I’ll leave off with a thought which I’ll pick up from in the next blog:
A contextual example…
The Microphones released an album earlier this year, and there is a moment where, after having rested on a ‘home’ or ‘tonic’ harmonic territory for so long, we are suddenly taken to what we would in common musical parlance call the four chord (the major chord based off of the 4th degree of the major scale) accompanied by some other artful changes in texture. This event, when listening, washed over me and made my skin prickle up, a long-anticipated breath of fresh harmonic air. The four chord is, of course, not without its spiritual connotations in our cultural associations with it – which brings up another dimension to contend with in addition to harmony and rhythm. The dimension of cultural baggage. This dimension is not only obviously present, but at each closer look, seems to increase in its omniscience. One could be brought to view music solely as a process of systematically gratifying, defying and toying with the (expected) expectations that the listener brings along with them.
Harmonic analysis would be content to ascribing the feeling of this moment solely to the fact of the long awaited four chord. This in itself should be a demonstration of its glaring limitations as a totalizing model. It either denies or ignores much of what is obviously present.
It’s a fine tool but let’s not use a hammer to fix everything in the house. We have many tools at our disposal and the fact that our universities only recognize (or rather legitimize) a singular tool is their own failing. Of course, things are changing and I think right now we’re experiencing the soft rumblings of much larger things in the decades to come.
I’ll leave it here for the time being. Thanks for reading, if any of you have any cool ideas or disagreements or whatever, feel free to contact me. Like I said earlier, the dialogue aspect of playing with ideas resonates with me so I’m very interested in hearing what other people think about these kinds of things. Of course, I didn’t go as deep as I wanted too, or didn’t elaborate on certain things as much as would have been ideal, but hopefully we’ll get there soon. There’s a lot of ground to cover and I don’t want these to ramble on for too long because they most certainly could. See you next time.