Category: Sound

“I don’t get this piece of 20th century music”

I sent my friend Roy a recording I made ages ago with the Polish violinist Hanna Lachert.   Among other things it contained the three “Myths” Karol Szymanowski*.  Part of his response was:  “What’s the structure of these pieces?  They seemed episodic, and I did not recognize the music as being in any traditional form.”

I responded:

I once read an article by Sir Donald Francis Tovey*, about the first movement of Beethoven’s “Arch Duke” trio.  He compared “side by side” a phrase taken from later in the movement with one taken from near the beginning of the movement.  At first they seem totally unconnected: different number of notes, different rhythm, etc..  However, Tovey demonstrated that if you connected the two phrases with a series of in between phrases heard during the interim in the same movement, they form a chain in which each link in the chain was clearly related to the link before it.  If you skipped from the beginning to the end of the chain, the ends seemed to have nothing to do with one another.  But if you followed the chain one link at a time you could always see, going on, a process of gradual transformation, or morph-ing.  Each link “developed” into the next.

If we let the links of the chain be made out of statements of the same musical theme, each next version of the theme brings out things that were more hidden in earlier version of the theme, though, ‘in retrospect’, were clearly based on what was latent or implied in the earlier version.

Something that was potential in the previous version the theme, had become actualized in the next version.  Tracing the history of these statements of the theme, from one version to the next, you would discover that each next step has kept something essential of the spirit of the preceding manifestation of the them, and so on all the way back to the beginning of the movement.  When looked at from this perspective, one not only grasps intellectually, but literally ‘hears’, the later material as a true derivation of the beginning theme.

The above process is contained within a single movement of a piece. What if we extend the process to one composer and the another through the span of a century?  In the case of Szymanowski the links  were forged from the eve of  the nineteenth century through the early twentieth.

We would witness the analogous process at work.  Each next, great composer, more fully developed something that was lying there in the previous composer, but now developed more fully.

One of the things that makes it harder to see this relationship over decades or even centuries is from our standpoint in the 21st century, what Brahms or Mahler realized out of the essence of Beethoven or Schubert, we now take so for granted, that we “see it” already when we look or listen to Beethoven or Schubert.

If we arbitrarily pick three times: Beethoven’s, Brahms’s and our own era.  The quality that was first fully exposed in Brahms’s works we attribute it “backwards” to Beethoven.  We hear things in Beethoven that he would not have heard.  This leads to some odd observations.  Due because of the order within my personal life in which I got to know, let us say Beethoven and Brahms, I would say: “how clever of Beethoven to have stolen this idea from Brahms.”

I think the way to understand the structure in a work like that of the Szymanowski, is to conceive of a process that begins historically with a very clear structural ordering of parts in a movement, perhaps that of a late Haydn Symphony.  That the next step in this process takes place a number of years later, say at Beethoven’s time.  Comparing the Haydn with the Beethoven we see that the latter has changed the way one of the structural parts of the Haydn evolves into the next.  Same two parts, but differently connected.  Or the greater or lesser aesthetic significance one of the structural parts has for Beethoven than for Haydn.

Then another decade or two goes by, and similar transformation takes place to the Beethoven.  And so on.  We continue this process until there is a linked chain of developments from the structure of Haydn to that of Szymonowski, with the latter being simply the “latest” but probably not the “last” state of the evolution of the structure in a movement, a process continuing in our day.

I got this response back from my friend***:

“What a great reply!  This explains to me, actually, why a work like Szymanowski’s Myths seems so familiar in its structure, but when your mind tries to analyze what your ears receive, it’s difficult to understand the form.  The listener’s emotions flow right along with what’s happening, indifferent to any question of logical process, because, I feel, that that historical underpinning, as you so eloquently have said, is there, even though it’s so difficult to pinpoint.  This seems like an In Medias Res kind of issue.  Whereas in the Beethoven, as Tovey points out, there is a beginning and a conclusion, both related to and supporting one another, in these Szymanowski pieces, he starts in mid-historical stream, so to speak, and then has a problem about how to conclude.  In popular recorded music, they just do the “fade out”, where the music just gets softer and softer, until it disappears.  Szymanowski does something similar, sometimes concluding pianissimo, but with a short little epigrammatic phrase that is really quite clever and surprising.  In a sense (or so it seems to this musically uneducated mind), he is able to enact a temporary resolution to the piece.  You’re mind says, this is the conclusion, but your emotions tell you that nothing really ends, and the music is still going on, but inaudibly, awaiting another composer or composition to revive it.  Schubert often does something like this  in Die Schone Mullerin (sorry no umlats) by creating a running figuration in the piano, which breaks right through the last sounded note, and keeps going as an earwig in the listener’s mind.   Feel free to post this on your site.


Sir Donald Francis Tovey (17 July 1875 – 10 July 1940) was a British musical analyst, musicologist, writer on music, composer, conductor and pianist.

***  Please search for Roy Doughty’s poetry on line; you won’t regret it. Here is a link to some older poems:


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3 Brief Blogs: Technical Situations That Seem the Same But Aren’t; Counting Out Loud; Sustaining a Dying Note

Three brief blogs:

#1 . Two similar technical situations – with an important difference.

#2.  Difficulties encountered counting out loud while playing.

#3. Rekindling a note (“geriatrics” for old notes


#1 . Two similar technical situations – with an important difference.

Two similar technical situations – with an important difference.

Sometimes what appears to be a single technical difficulty, in need of a single solution. resolves upon closer inspection to involve a rapidly succeeding series of moments in time, during which one and then another technical issue arises.  As if performing cognitive therapy upon ourselves, what had seemed an instant becomes filled with a number of separable events, one leading to the other, each one dependent on the one before.  We have to disentangle the chain of events before we can understand how we got from place A to place B.

Related to this is when what appears to be one technical issue preventing a certain spot in the music from sounding its best, turns out to be affected by several, often unrelated, technical issues.  In such a case they each needs to be addressed, before the passage as a whole works well.  Initially, the pianist may be aware of only one of the issues, and when the pianist solves this issue, they are surprised that passage has not sounded any better. The other technical issues that affect that spot, were hiding in the wings, and now come to the fore.  They all must be solved, even if they seem dissimilar to each other.  The passage will not be executed as the pianist wants until they have successfully identified and, in turn, solved all of the technical issues affect the sound of that passage.*

* This reminds me of the long process by which a mountain builds up from the floor the ocean, getting taller and taller over a prolonged period of time, but is not seen by the sailors until its top just appears over the water’s surface.  Everything leading to that moment is important even if it doesn’t get the credit it deserves.  It is always important to recognize your success as each step is accomplished while trying to sort through a tangled maze of issues.

#2  Difficulties counting out loud while playing.

Some students have a difficult time counting out loud while playing.  It is not hard to understand why.  The counting is done in one rhythm (all be it a simple one) but nonetheless a different rhythm than being executed by the figures.  So counting is actually a ‘duet’ between two drummers, all enacted by the same person within the same body.

Rachael was playing the slow movement of K 488 in A Major.  When she tried to count with her playing, her voice abandoned the counting-rhythm and followed the rhythm of the music, which is also to say the gestures of her body.  The result was sometimes the counts were made with succeeding eighth notes, sometimes with sixteenth notes, and sometimes with notes longer than an eighth.

We tried a bunch of things all of which were designed to take the initiative and the control away from her ear and body and place it, somewhat arbitrarily at first, into her voice.  So, often, the speed of her counting suddenly doubled or halved.

I played the first four measures.  She sat next to me, turned off all her musical instincts, and robotically counted 1 2 3 4 5 6.  This act was done impassively, as if daring me to throw her off course by my playing.  Then we switched roles.  I counted and she played.  It was successful, in large measure I think to the close proximity between trying it one way and then trying it the other way.  It became mostly about continuing a known experience.

I had her try to develop an alert ‘sense’ of when her counting might be going off.  And, if she noticed it happening, then we made the default reaction be to stop in her tracks and make no further sounds, no matter where she was in a phrase.  In so doing it required her to abort the inevitable forward flow of the music which was so instinct within her body.  We then found a neutral starting point that preceded the moment when her counting diverted from the music.

The next step was far harder.  We played together at the two pianos.

I played some of the orchestra part but mostly I played in unison with her.  This time, as soon as she noticed that we were out of step with each other, I kept on playing and she had to find some way get back in step with me.  Sounds simple; but it is not.  What made it possible for her was letting go of having to go on to the next notes following the moment she became aware of the problem.  Once her will was no longer committed to going on, she could assume a more reflective and listening posture, figure out where I was, and be able to skip the notes in between and start up again with me from the new location.

Often, when doing this together, the student will stop if they make a mistake, and attempt to play the note over again.  But that would have simply triggered the condition of our not being in step with one another, which in turn meant she should stop playing and figure out where I was now.  Sometimes she would know within an instant, sometimes it took more than a measure or two.  What was important wasn’t how long it took her to re-synchronize, but that her default reaction to being out of step be not to continue on any further (until she deduced her whereabouts).


#3. Rekindling a note (geriatrics for old notes)

If, when a long held note held and gradually loosing its loudness, you choose a specific moment somewhere between its start and its finish, and listen to it anew, a curious phenomenon happens.

Sometimes I think of conscious attention as having entered a dark room, unable at first to see any of the objects that are in it, and then turning a light on and seeing those objects for the first time.  We know that they were there all along, just minus the light, but the light is a necessary condition for our seeing them.   Extending the analogy, when we turn the ‘light of  consciousness’ on something it shines with a renewed brilliance.

If we apply this to listening to a long held note, updating our consciousness awareness that we are hearing the note, we seem to notice the sound having suddenly got a little louder; after which of course it continues to get softer.  It may indeed have been present up to this point in time, but suddenly instead of decaying further it comes back to life, it seems to shine a little louder than it did an instant before.  We have momentarily changed its course of getting softer.   It is similar to that when we blow on a dying flame, it gets momentarily brighter.

One may well object that the sound doesn’t really get louder, only appears so to us.  The listener does not hear the change, so of what use is it to the performer.  But how I hear the in my consciousness in turn effects how I connect that note to the next note, and how I do that is something that the listener does notice.  If I keep on doing it, the listener may turn to their companion in the concert hall and say “how marvelously that pianist connects her sounds, one to another; there is almost something magical about her sound – it doesn’t sound what I think a piano normally sounds like.”

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An Unending Flow of Glowing Sound

Fauré made a solo piano arrangement of the first movement of his “Dolly Suite” better known in its incarnation for piano four-hands.  The glowing sound that is so easy for the two pianists to achieve with their control over at least four octaves at once, is very difficult to evoke and sustain for long in the solo piano arrangement, limited as it is to the pianist’s two hands.

At her lesson today, I wanted to show Rachael that even though one couldn’t be “all places at once” (or all octaves at once), there was nevertheless a way for creating an ongoing sound that is infused from all those octaves.

As an illustration I asked Rachael to put the right pedal down, leave it down, and then slowly play the notes of an extended E Major chord, starting with e1 in the bottom octave of the piano, then using both e2 and b2 in the next octave, and from then on proceeding in closed-spacing with e3, gs3, b3, e4, until gs4 (it could just as well have continued higher).  After sounding the last note, the gs4, I asked her to wait a second or two, and then concentrate on what she heard coming out of the piano (the pedal still being depressed).  After completing her examination of the sound, she could release the pedal at any time.   Like a camera set to a prolonged exposure time while focused on an area in space in which there are objects moving about, what Rachael head was a stable, lasting, ‘large’, resonating, eight-note, overarching chord that spanned several octaves and derived its tone quality from all those octaves at once.

One noticeable quality of this sound was that it could be described as ‘glowing’.   It glowed in a way not normally heard by the pianist when playing.  I said to Rachael, here is a “model” for what you could hear coming out of the piano at all times.  What we did was just to isolate it in time, but that potential is always there with every note we play.   We may fail to “complete” it when we don’t take the time to accumulate it and then listen to it.

I called her attention to the fact that, in the order we did things, this glowing quality to the sound didn’t become obvious until a moment or two after completing the chord.   This is because our habit is to listen to one note at a time when they are played sequentially and not concentrate on their overall effect.   But the sound, the glowing sound, is always there, ready to speak back to you if you stop and listen.   As you play each sound, almost  pause and listen to listen for it to speak back to you.   This requires a very active mind which can oscillate rapidly between “doing” or “making” sounds and, passively, “listening” to what was just “made”.  The trick is to go back and forth between the two states.

If we see a picture that includes a circle, part of which has been cut off by one of the boundaries of the picture, but which, nonetheless complete in our mind.  We complete the form.  When we play piano, and especially this piece by Fauré, take any sounds that are part of a chord and complete the chord in your ear.

Afterwards, as Rachael played piece, I no longer heard bumps and zigzags between octave ranges.   Nothing seemed to my ear to be missing or incomplete.  There was a sustained glow to the overall sound

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Advantages of hearing over seeing.

The miracle of the octave, and the richness and variety of structure in music:

In the domain of colors, red is very close to violet in appearance.   Similarly, in the domain of sound, two notes that are exactly one octave apart bear resemble each other more closely that any other two distinct pitches.  The only interval that can sound more similar  is the perfect unison, when two strings, instruments or voices sound at the same pitch.

If we relate these two similarities to the frequencies of the light waves on the one hand and the sound waves on the other hand, it turns that violet as about twice the frequency of red, and the note an octave higher than a second note has twice the frequency of the lower note in the octave.

Is this a coincidence?  We are often too tempted to make comparisons between a physical cause of a sensation with the way we experience that sensation in our consciousness.  Certainly, when we look at red and violet side by side, the number 2.0 (two times) does not occur to us as being relevant to what we are seeing.   When we hear consonance of the octave in our consciousness,  as in the case of the other sense, the number two does leap to mind.

However, just to indulge myself, I would like to conjecture further about this coincidence.  The spectrum of sound frequencies includes many octaves: about seven octaves on a piano, and basically an unlimited  umber of octaves in principle, only we cannot hear most of those.  The electromagnetic spectrum of frequencies, which includes visible light and colors, has many more “octaves” of frequencies as well, except that we cannot see them with our eyes.

At the “high” end of the visible spectrum, the frequency of light wave causing us to see violet is almost twice that of red, red notably being approximately at the extreme low end of the visible spectrum.  Unfortunately we cannot see “colors” when they are higher than violet or lower than red.

What if we could see other octaves-worth of visible light?  What would these new colors look like to us, and perhaps more interestingly, if there were, would the ‘color’ of ‘light’ we experience that has twice the frequency of violet, resemble violet in a way how violet resembles red.

Perhaps in our galaxy there are creates who could answer this question for us.  Meanwhile, I just have an analogy between the senses, and it only holds for one octave.

However, there is magic enough in the phenomenon of just the octave in sound:

For instance, with colors and light, we cannot see, at the same time, two different colors as well as automatically also seeing the third color that represents the mixture of both.   Of course there is such a third color, but it doesn’t spring to life automatically, we would have another splotch of color separate in space, a third one, next to the original two.

Let’s compare this with sound.  When we hear two sounds at once, we are aware of two very different types of things, both at the same time:


That there are two distinct sounds, and each one, if we concentrate, can be heard “separately” (as if it were ‘alone’ and apart from the other.  Except not alone in space, but simultaneously in time.   With colors, we can only see two different colors, if they are in different places in space in our visible field.


The other, which is also true of sound but not of sight, is that at the same time that we can hear two sounds, we can hear something else that is neither the one sound or the other, but a new an unique sound quality that is the result of the combination of both.  And this isn’t limited to two sounds an octave apart, but of any number sounds, at any distances apart from each other*.

In fact, music seems to be the only art that has been created by homo sapiens that is in time alone but is richer for that reason.


The octave is a miracle.  It is a  pristine example of something that is equally the same as, and yet equally different than, something else.

As much as space may have the seeming advantage of three dimensions while time may have no dimensions whatsoever (or some say just ‘one’ dimension), time, hearing, and music have an advantage over space.   If we consider the possible of forms in structure that exist for the composer, we find that, because of the phenomenon of ‘octave’, its forms can be more endlessly evolved, forms that are both various and complex, and with more emergent forms** arising out of it, than any art.

* … at least until the frequencies of the sounds become too close together, at which point the separate sounds become inseparable to the ear and we are left just with the effect of their combination.  A Perfect example is “white noise” when it is composed at the same time of many different frequencies and those frequencies are “spaced” close together.

** Wikipedia’s (cc) article on emergence begins with these words: “emergence occurs when “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

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Where Does Sound Come From?

Stranded on a dessert island.

Imagine a person born blind, living alone, on a proverbial deserted island, out of touch with society, surviving through what she can grasp with her hands.  Sight has never had an influence on her notion of reality.

From a hidden vantage point we notice that a bird is singing near where she is standing.  We assume she hears it; but cannot see it.   For her there is only a certain quality of sound, to which only we can give the name bird.  For her, it never gets beyond being just a sound, although she can distinguish one sound from another on the basis of its quality.

Thus she is someone who 1) has never seen, 2) never seen a bird, and 3) wouldn’t be able to conceive that there is something called a bird.  There are simply no past connections between the sense of sound and the sense of sight.  There is nothing linking the sound of the bird with the sight of a bird.

If the question “why” arises in her mind, probably in the form of “why this sound and not another sound”, the question can only be posed by her within the domain of time and not space: “why do I hear that sound now and not at another time.”

At this moment, a miracle occurs.

Our subject can now see.  One of the first things that happens is that she sees a bird, although it is not at that moment singing.  Thus at this point  there is no reason for her to form any sort of link between the sound of the bird and the image of the bird in front of her.

Some scientists now enter the scene.

They introduce themselves, and present her with a series of pictures.  Included is a picture of the same species of bird that she has been hearing.  She is asked to choose from among the pictures the one she thinks would be most closely associated with the sound she already knows.

This request perplexes her.  She cannot even understand the general form of the question.  At this stage of the story, sight is still new to her.  She knows of no reason why a sight and a sound should be related to each other, even that they could be related to each other.   While the sound, for the scientists is the “sound of a bird“, she has no need to make, or even conceive, such a statement.

She has no grounds for choosing one picture as against another.  This makes it arbitrary which picture she chooses.  If she is “artistic” by nature, perhaps she may form an aesthetic comparison: which sight feels like it goes with this sound.

Her judgment in this matter cannot yet be based on cause and effect.  And even if she has a notion of cause and effect from her previous experiences in which there was no sight, sound as far as she can tell, needs no cause.

She expostulates.

“Excuse me”, she asks, “are you saying that a sound requires a sight to cause it?  That among all the random lines and shapes I see, which seem aimlessly distributed in space, there are certain lines and shapes that for a reason I cannot conceive ‘belong’ to each other, stand out from the other lines and shapes because of a mysterious relationship, which in turn you call the cause of the sound I have been hearing – not just now, but whenever I hear it.

When you speak of this mysterious connection between just certain lines and shapes, you use the strange word  ‘object’, as if by saying that word it should be obvious to me why just those lines and shapes clump together with each other.  And then, now that I supposedly believe in something called ‘the object’ whatever an object is, it is also the cause for the sound – something that never seemed necessary to me for the sound to occur.   Why should there be such a complicated and seemingly arbitrary way of connecting things in my mind, based on an invisible (at least to me) concept called ‘object’, without which, you say, I would not hear my sounds.  Furthermore that I have to choose among several of these objects, and pronounce the words ‘this object is the cause of what I hear?’  That sounds like an enchanter’s spell.  My universe was full and complete without sound requiring a cause.  Being sighted is sure a complex thing.”

At last she picks one of the pictures. “If I pick this picture today can I pick another picture tomorrow to be the cause of this particular sound in my head?  I ask you this because for now, none of the pictures that you show me bear any inner resemblance to the sound that I know.”  The psychologists say: “No, you must believe that a sound arises in your consciousness because of a certain event happening in space, which something has to do with a particular object that you see, and always that object and not another.”

She comes to her “senses”.

She is left alone for a few days to ponder this perplexing situation, a situation that until now, without sight, had no reason or necessity  to exist.

During one of these days she just happens to hear the sound of the bird at the same time that she is looking at a bird.  This may have happened on the preceding days, but this time she notices that the beak of the bird moves in tandem, in time, with the occurrence of the sound.  She knows this much more because of time rather than space.  The togetherness of the sight and the sound is based on a common moment in time.

This forms the basis of a series of ongoing experiences by which the sound of the bird is gradually linked in her mind to the image of the bird.

As with the pictures of shown by the psychologists to the girl, sights that are visible to a growing, young child at only at certain times, during for example a concert, are only gradually coordinated by that child with something seen in space in the concert hall.  It turns out that the people who are holding musical instruments in their hands seem to make motions that are most consistently synchronous in time with the changes of the qualities of the sounds.

Here’s the first important point.  Once such an association is made by the child, he or she forgets that there was a time when no such association had been made.

The second point is: was either the woman on the island, or the person in the concert hall, missing anything crucial when they was unable to relate the object ‘bird’ or the object ‘violin’ with a certain specific sound quality of sound?  I say no.  Nothing essential to our understanding and appreciation of sound is added to by the tacking onto the sound a relationship with sight.  And in the concert hall, it adds nothing important to essential qualities of the music as sound alone.*

For those of us who do not need such distractions as sight offers, and can remain glued to the sounds of the piece, we enter an ideal realm of pure relationships between pure sounds, closed off from everything else, and not lacking a thing.

* It is for some but not all of the concert goers, that visual impressions can serve as a distraction or refuge from just having to listen to sound from one moment to the next.  For them there are the distractions of the appearance of the concert hall.  For them, too, there is the all important information in the program notes, which they are relived to believe captures something essential that they miss in the progression of the sounds alone.  But thanks to the program notes, they are able to go up to someone at intermission and say, wisely: “wasn’t it wonderful how the composer used the brass section in the second movement of the symphony to create a delicate halo of sound around the rest of the orchestra!”.


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