The emotion within every chord
There is an emotion that can be unlocked by the sounds of every chord, in fact by any combination of tones.
It is for philosophers to argue whether this emotion is already in the soul waiting to be triggered by the sounds, or is a new ‘effect’ dependent on the presence of a ’cause’ that lies in the sounds. The important thing is that emotions can as varied in quality as there are ways of combining sounds, and our job as pianists is to search for that emotion.
Summary of what follows:
The type of emotion I am talking about isn’t the common type of emotion with reference to which saying someone is playing “with feeling” is at best a semi-compliment and at worst a put-down for one who indulges in bathos instead of pathos, melodrama instead of drama, or who uses too much schmaltz (excessive sentimentality).
Emotion of a single chord:
If our internal emotional resonators are sensitive enough, then every different version of a chord or every different type of chord will evoke a different shade of emotion. In the first case, every position or inversion, every registration (in what octaves the notes are sounding), every spacing of the chord (what are the intervals between adjacent notes in the chord) yields a different mood.
This next sentence needs to be long, so I give it first in its entirety and then parsed into parts.
Here is the sentence in one continuous glob of words:
Is it possible that the complex matrix made up of the many consonances and dissonances produced arising out of specific pairs of overtones* of the notes in a chord, being too complicated for consciousness to keep track of, combine and are unified in our affective system as a feeling or emotion generated by that chord instead of as an arrangement of pitches.
Here is the sentence parsed:
Is it possible that …
… the complex matrix
… made up of the many consonances and dissonances
… produced among specific pairs of overtones** …
… of the notes in a chord, …
… being too complicated for consciousness to keep track of …
… combine and are unified in our affective system …
… as a feeling or emotion generated by that chord.
… instead of as an arrangement of pitches.
Statistically, no two chords would have the same exact arrangement of internally generated consonances and dissonances (degrees of agreement and disagreement) among its overtones.
It is through this matrix of overtones of each different chord that, if we train our aesthetic sensitivity, we can become aware of a unique feeling-tone generated by the sound of that chord.
Taking the conclusions of a previous blog a step further:
In a previous blog entitled “Sound, Hearing, and the Brain“, I spoke of certain conscious illusions without which we would have no perception or awareness of music.
One illusion was that what we perceive as a steady and continuous pitch, is the result, in the physical world, of a rapid series of separate puffs of air.
A second illusion had to do with the fact that what we perceive as the tone quality of an instrument playing one steady pitch is in fact the result, in the physical world, of many different pitches sounding at once. Instead of hearing a chord, we hear a single note with a certain tone quality (clarinet, oboe, violin, voice, etc.).***
It would seem then that philosophically as well as musically, the illusion is far more important aesthetically than the objective reality. The sensations of the objective reality are related to discontinuous puffs of air, and different instruments all sounding to us the same. In contrast to the former, the latter seems impoverished of qualities (though replete with measurable quantities).
Is there also an emotion of how one chord changes to another chord:
In my book “The Spectrum of the Arts,”
I talk about the difference between the literal shape or form of a single and static image, and the more figurative ‘shape‘ or ‘form‘ that underlies or explains how a shape changes shape through time.****
A similar distinction can be made about chords. The feeling-tone of one chord is one thing, the feeling-of-the-progression from one chord to the next is another thing. We can be aware of one, or the other, or we can be aware of both. Both are there to attract our aesthetic souls. Regarding the more figurative usage of shape or form, here is an example: “How a C major chord changes to a G Major Chord” has a different aura of feeling about it than “How a C Major chord changes to an E Minor chord.” Progressively adding silence between the end of the first chord and the beginning of the second gradually diminishes and finally eliminates this aesthetic effect.
Here is another spatial analogy to this musical effect in time: putting a patch of blue next to a patch of green produces a different aesthetic effect as putting a patch of blue next to a patch of red.
*the different overtone pitches have to be related in a certain mathematical way
** Each musical tone, though recognized in consciousness as being what we call a ‘single’ pitch, is in fact the result of an amalgam of different ascending pitches or frequencies. These are called ‘partials’ of the sound. The first partial is called the ‘fundamental frequency’ and the others the ‘overtones’ of the fundamental frequency.
If two sounds are close to each other in pitch, they produce a noticeable dissonance, something we might call an aesthetic interference pattern. The intensity of this effect varies with how close or far apart the pitches are from each other. When we have a chord of notes sounding at the same time, each one produces its own overtone series. Any one of the overtones belonging to one note of the chord might be close in pitch an overtone of one of the other notes of the chord. If so, the result is dissonance. We are likely to find such dissonances between overtones even in the most ‘consonant’ sounding of chords (like a Major or Minor chord).
*** An “oscilloscope” is a device that depicts a sound as a wave shape in space. A clarinet playing middle C produces a wave of a certain shape on the oscilloscope. A bassoon playing middle C results in a wave of a certain, but differently shaped, wave on the oscilloscope.
Here is where it starts to get interesting. A clarinet and a bassoon both playing middle C results do not display on the oscilloscope two different wave shapes, but just one shape, one whose spatial appearance is different than that of the clarinet alone or the bassoon alone.
Something even more interesting occurs if we examine just the shape of the clarinet sound alone, as shown on the oscilloscope screen. We have already said that what we perceive as a single pitch on a single instrument is actually the result of many different pitches sounding all at once. Each pitch would produce its own wave shape on the oscilloscope, but the shape would be much simpler than that of the clarinet.
If we could sound each of these separate partial sounds, but cause them all to sound all at the same time, the result would once gain be the more complex shape of the clarinet’s wave on the oscilloscope.
Four clarinets playing four different pitches will result in our hearing a “chord”: the simultaneous presence in our consciousness of four different notes or pitches. In contrast to this, when we the clarinet produces the various, different component pitches within the sound of a single note, we will not hear a “chord”, instead we hear a single pitch or note – but, importantly – it will have a unique “tone quality”. We can change this tone quality by changing how “loud” each partial pitch is relative to the others. Make certain adjustments of this type and we may hear the same pitch but with a new tone color, for instance that of a violin, an oboe, or a human voice.
**** A triangle can gradually morph through time until it appears as a square. But it can do so in many different way. Perhaps a baby fourth side appears in one of the three sides of the triangle and then gets larger. Perhaps the triangle first morphs into a circle and then the circle gets pinched into a square.
Quality distinguished from quantity
Quantity versus quality, the immeasurable versus the measurable.
Non-typically, Irving has chosen to start work on a piece by Debussy.
This affords an opportunity to revise his customary way of approaching a new piece.
Part One: Keeping score on the number of wrong notes.
Usually, when Irving begins a practicing session, he measures his improvement in direct proportion to the increasing percentage of right notes that he plays and the decreasing number of errors.
This means he is devoting his conscious effort to ‘measurable’ quantities (the pitches of notes) rather than other things that are, in contrast to quantities, best termed qualities that are evoked in his playing.
How do we sidestep his “pointillistic” application of correct notes to the piece?
The first step was a bit drastic. I asked him to leave the right pedal down until a large group of notes were all swimming around in a common and confusing sounding tonal pool.
We then refined this so the notes that were thrown in the pool were only those that were chord-tones according to the current harmony. By doing this, a chord was being gradually built up, one note at a time, until all the notes of the chord were sounding together.
Now came the leap of musical imagination together with a slight derailing of the forward arrow of time. “The sound of this chord-cluster in its entirety,” I said, “should be in your imagination from the moment you play the first sound of the group that is going to form the chord at the end of the process. It is like a magical pedal that not only combines the sounds left in the wake of each sound, but can also summon up the presence of the sounds that remain to be heard.”
Once this effect is achieved with regularity, the next step is to re-create that feeling at will, with or without relying on the literal application of the pedal.
Part Two: Some other the desirable ‘qualities’ to evoke in the Debussy.
One note then the next:
A new note doesn’t always ‘eclipse’ an old note. The new note should not be opaque, in time, to the memory of the previous note. Let each note blend into the next, yielding its essence as an inheritance to the next note.
Melodies should seem to leave thick ‘trails’ behind their advancing wave front in time. The combined presence of their notes persists in time. Even without the pedal, the melody should sound in the imagination as if it were sounding in a perfect echo chamber; each part of the melody is inseparably bound to the overall shape of that melody.
Even in the early stages of reading a new piece, the pianist sometimes should try to play a passage in the intended final tempo. Otherwise the pianist who is interested primarily in right notes will automatically exclude from his consciousness the unique musical qualities of the piece that will animate and give life to the performance that will only become manifest in the piece’s proper tempo. Make the piece yield up its secrets before all the notes are learned.
Quality is so fundamentally different than quantity that the notes, if they are merely correct, eclipse the ability to modulate and shape sound, create tonal imagery, and release – as a flower giving off an aroma – all that is non-quantitative and miraculous about the piece and its sound.
Tempo can be used generally as a tool with which to experiment for evoking the qualities inherent in a piece. Playing a passage in its final tempo* sooner rather than later in the learning process, including wrong notes, will bring us to a realization of the indefinable aesthetic essence of the passage, rather than repeating the passage over and over in a gradually increasing tempo. The downside of approaching the final tempo gradually and incrementally is that the desired tempo may never actually be reached. Why? Because the successful execution, in the final tempo, depends as much on a clear musical vision of the aesthetic qualities of the piece as it does on physical technique. We need the qualities of the piece to guide and lead the notes into yielding their musical essence that transcends the actual identity of the pitches.
* whether this final tempo is slower or faster than the initial practice tempo
Practice Procedures: Part 10: The Aesthetic Quality of a Chord By Itself Versus When Followed by Another Chord.
Putting the color blue next to the color yellow gives the blue a certain color ‘quality’, which can be different than if the same blue is put next to the red or green. Each single color, when it is by itself, has an aesthetic (a ‘feeling’-tone, or mood) that is distinct from that of other colors. But that quality is easily modified by it being put in an area of space adjacent to that of a second color. Then, the aesthetic as much results from the side by side of two colors, as it is from one color or the other by itself.
The same is true of chords in music. Only now there is no space in which to put the two chord-colors next to each other. They can only be sequential: first one then the other. Since both chords are not heard in the present tense combined, we are dependent on the ‘after image’ (sic) that memory provides of the previous chord when we contemplate the current chord.* A ‘IV’ chord ensuing upon a ‘I’ chord strikes the ear as having a different mood than a ‘IV’ chord coming after a ‘i’ (minor tonic) chord.
Two different ear abilities are required of the player. The ability to single out and pin point the exact emotional/tonal effect of a single chord. This effect enters the mind a moment or two after the notes of the chord start sounding. If no new chord comes after it, one can contemplate the current chord uninterrupted until its mood has taken root and blossomed in the mind.
Two chords, one after the other, must also be appreciated, aesthetically, by the ‘way’ the change of chord effects our feeling-system. The fact that in tonal music there is only a finite set of possible pairs of chords should not inure the ear to the distinctive flavor of each such pair.
Seeking out the ‘flavor’ of a chord is an important aesthetic ability of the artist.
- feeling the effect of an entire harmonic progression means the preservation in memory of some part of each chord into the remaining chords in the progression.
The Delayed Gratification of a Chord
Originally published on Facebook: 2/2/16
A student came today with a Liszt transcription of a Schubert Lieder. She said that dividing up the notes between the hands was short-circuiting her brain. I said, of course it is having that effect on you. There is an absence of consistency as to which hand is doing what and when. The piece is for a voice (in single notes) and a piano (with a left hand and right hand). One plus two is three. It would be easier to play if you had three hands. As it is though, the division of labor between the hands is more complicated, as well as more changeable from one moment or one measure to the next.
I suggested we make this issue easier to deal with by first making it harder. Often the route to a goal is through motion to an opposite goal. In this case mastering the most difficult case, makes the actual case no longer seem innately hard, but compared to the most difficult case, easier.
I picked a random location in the piece. There was an octave on the first beat in the bass, it was the lowest pitches. There was a single melody note together with it in the treble. Between these two pitches, and one half a beat later, while those first notes were still sounding, there was a group of intermediate pitches in both hands. This added up to a total of nine notes (5 written for the left hand and four for the right hand).
Start with the lowest pitch, and in ascending order of pitch, play first one and then another note. Keep the pedal down the entire time. The goal of the procedure was the postponed gratification of hearing all nine notes sounding together as a chord. We don’t get to that point until the ninth note adds in its sound to the other eight.
Redo this procedure. Start varying which hand and which finger plays each of the nine notes as they are adding up sequentially in time to a final ‘whole’ that is sounding simultaneously in time. You can use the same finger of the same hand. One can alternate a finger from one hand and then the other. Try this is a variety of permutations. Be creative. See how odd a sequence of hands/fingers you can create.
The goal of this repeating sequence of pitches, created in each instance with different physical steps, is to divorce what one is doing physically from what the resulting sound is. Eventually it becomes irrelevant which hand plays which note and which finger. The mind is fixed on the one constant phenomenon: hearing the effect of all the notes sounding together. If you reach this point, then it truly doesn’t matter how you divide up the responsibilities for the notes between the two hands.