Tag: Listening and Awareness

A “brief” note about sound and staccatos

This is a brief postscript to the blog entitled “Sound, Hearing, and the Brain” published in May.   In that blog I spoke of about how 1) our hearing sound as having a ‘pitch’ and 2) our hearing a sound as having a tone-color are both emergent forms added by consciousness to the physical vibrations in nature.  An emergent form is a more complex form that depends on the prior existence of less complex forms.

A danger in a staccato is that there are not enough fractions of a second during which the sound congeals in consciousness, to reveal more than the mere presence of generalized sound, but also awareness of its pitch, of timbre, and finally the overall harmonic context surrounding the note.  Presence of sound takes the shortest time to be recognized, followed by pitch, timbre and harmony.

If we want a staccato to give the ear more information than that there is sound present and it is very short in duration, then the duration of the staccato note can be no shorter than the minimum time it takes our consciousness to perceive its pitch, timbre, and placement in the harmonic environment.

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Connections between notes separated in time

Music and Memory: Connections between past and present.

Summary: The relationships that we notice most between notes are those between two consecutive notes in a melody or two notes sounding in the same chord.  If one tries to notice the relationship, for example, between the first note of a melody, and the fourth note of the same melody, it isn’t as easy to hear or be aware of.  In effect, we have to ignore the notes in between.  The first note has already happened; it has largely slipped out of memory.   To experience this relationship as sounds rather than merely as ideas requires that they be more proximate in time.

The most tangible form of connection in sound is that between two notes that come one right after the other in time, the second beginning as the first, ends.  In such a case the presence of the first note is still viscerally present in the finger and hand as the second  note begins.  We feel and hear how the second note changes, continues, distorts, deforms the first note.  These latter qualities are not exactly present in the sounds themselves, but hover as an emergent form just outside of the conscious embrace of the sounds.

In the space of a painting, two objects adjacent in space remain side by side regardless of when we choose to look at the painting.  In music, time defeats, or abolishes, space, because one moment in time eclipses another.  The longer we wait between starting the current note and the next note, the harder it becomes to make a tangible, felt, as well as audible, connection between the notes.

The relationship between two sounds is harder to grasp or feel when there is one or more additional notes in between the two sounds.  Physically, it is hard to make a connection or relationship between two such separated notes in time.

A simple example of this is the first entrance of the fugue theme in the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (the one Disney used in the first “Fantasia” movie and not the “Dorian” Toccata).  The sense of the melody “A G F E D C# D…” is present and clear although there an A is constantly being interpolated between each pair of melody notes: “a G a F a E a D a C# a D…”.

This is a case wherein it is relatively easy to connect the notes of the “hidden” or camouflaged melody, which our ear forges on the spot out of notes that are separated by the presence of other notes. In the case of the Bach, the interpolation of an A-natural.

If short term memory can create a tangible and sensual link between every other note in a passage, then why not between notes that are more remote from each other in time sequence.

A good friend or spouse may be currently wearing clothes of a particular color, when we next see them be wearing a different a color. When that happens, we know two things: 1) we are looking at the same person, and 2) the outward color is different than the last time.

It is the same with music.  At a later time in a piece we can hear something that we immediately recognize or, intuitively sense, as being the same or related to something heard before.  At that moment, the past is suddenly brought very close to the present.  This effect is fundamental to the creating a structure of sounds that exist in time only without space.

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Two or more notes from one physical gesture, case 1: the ratchet

The principle of the ratchet.

There is a general category of motions that is capable of producing a series of sounds from one and the same continuous gesture.   This is of special advantage when playing very fast.

One example of this group is when a motion, though single and complete, occurs in small segments.

We start with a gradual and uninterrupted forearm rotation.  This motion is then broken up into parts by suddenly forcing the motion of the arm to come to a temporary and brief stop.  The result of this stopping is that the inertia of the rotation,  like water accumulating behind a dam, increases rather than decreases the force bent on continuing the motion.

At each such stop, one note is sounded, and then the rotation is permitted to continue.   This sequence of stopping the motion and then quickly continuing it, continues until the full course of the rotation is covered.  Depending on how one divides up the motion, the overall rotation will produce a series of notes ranging from a minimum of 2 to 3 notes to a maximum 8 to 12 notes.

The virtue of this procedure is that instead of making one motion per note, we have something that is more like one continuous motion that we attempt to resist.*

Each time the overall course of such a motion is temporarily arrested, the forward momentum that has built up until that point is first diverted into the production of a new note or sound.  Once that note has begun to sound, there is no longer any need for the restraint of the continuation of the overall rotation.  The note itself has acted like a brake or stoppage of the motion.  The more this stoppage persists the more a force builds up, like water behind a dam, until the motion forces itself to spill over the blockage (the note) and continue.

I call this type of overall motion that is broken down into a series of interruptions a “ratchet” like effect, after the rapidly repeated sounds made by the percussion instrument of the same name.

In future blogs I want to discuss many other types of motions that fall into the more general category of obtaining a series of sounds from the application of one motion (a motion that is sometimes interrupted as in today’s example, and sometimes flows continuously).

If you would like a preview list of all these motions, just let me know and I’ll post them.

* Like “pumping” the brakes of the car instead of jamming the brakes to the floor.  Or like the escapement of a Swiss watch that temporarily stops the main spring from unwinding, creating the sound of a “tick” or a “tock” and then lets the unwinding of the spring continue.

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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.

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Complex counterpoint in Bach

Some of the most complex wonders of Bach’s counterpoint, such as the F minor Sinfonia or the first movement of the B minor flute sonata, result from a procedure that is structurally, surprisingly simple.

There are three voices in the Sinfonia and three in the flute sonata (two in the keyboard and one in the flute).   At the same time, there are several distinct motives present, any one of which can appear in one voice or another at any time.  There are often three different motives appearing simultaneously in the three voices.

This suggests a creative procedure similar to making a mosaic.  In a mosaic, there may be only several differently shaped pieces, or tesserae.  From these few pieces, the entire structure of the work is created.

Though there is great variety in the sound of the piece, the parts making it up at any one moment are just one of the severally shaped pieces of the mosaic.

The counterpoint is most effective when these basic pieces are as different from each other as is possible.  The F Minor Sinfonia is the perfect example of this.  There are just three motives:  one is a series of slow, chromatically descending quarter notes; the second is a series of three eighth notes, a movement up of a third and then down of a second; the last is faster, moving motive in sixteenths and thirty seconds.  Bach creates an entire universe, aesthetically full and complete, with these three motives that each take up abode in one voice and then another.  What genius!

While artists may follow the procedure of “separating” the voices in their playing, sometimes the greatest separation effect comes from following a single motive as it migrates from voice to another.  I first discovered this principle in the five voice fugue in C-sharp minor in Book One, especially after the eighth notes begin.

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