The emotion within every chord
August 4, 2018
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.