Musical Characters

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musical expectations are formed at an early age. Infants begin matching pitches by six months. Acquaintance with modal structure occurs by year five or six. Basic harmony is grasped around age seven. Through passive perpetual exposure to musical conventions, culturally specific associations are attached to this or that pitch, sequence, scale or harmonic color. A listener born and raised in the West is accustomed to major and minor scales and their various ascribed connotations. When foreign modalities, say from India, cross the ears of the Westerner, they are heard through the framework and limitations of the familiar system. Thus, while “exotic” music may be enjoyed, it will not stimulate the same responses or convey the same meanings that is does for the native.

In a recent interview, novelist Ron Rash coined a phrase that speaks to this perceptual peculiarity. When asked why his stories take place in his stomping ground of Appalachia, he responded, “Landscape is destiny.” Like all of us, the place Rash calls home has an inescapable impact on how he perceives the world. Points of reference, sensory processing, linguistic choices, aesthetic appreciation and so on are largely tied to our environment. For Rash, setting stories in a location with which one is intimate is the best and only true way to write authentically. And, just as the characters in a book tend to derive from the author’s encounters and relationships, the perceived character of a musical piece stems from the listener’s prior experiences.

In music, character generally refers to the feeling or feelings communicated by a piece. Culturally trained ears are quick to decipher specific moods and nonmusical ideas expressed in familiar music. Listeners of classical music will recognize tranquility in selections exhibiting legato articulation, smooth and easy tempo, balance between bass and treble tones, and an absence of dissonance and metric instability. Such pieces will have a different effect on people outside of that music-culture; yet outsiders will find tranquility in music their backgrounds have conditioned them to sense as tranquil.

Detection of musical character occurs almost instantaneously, and subtle changes in one or more aspect of a piece—harmony, speed, volume, etc.—can radically alter our perception of it. A noted case in point comes from E. Janes’s classic essay, “The Emotions in Music” (1874). As Janes tells it, “an accomplished musician of our acquaintance was once challenged by a distinguished theological professor to make him weep, by the power of music. He soon brought tears to the professor’s eyes by a performance upon the piano, which consisted, in reality, of ‘Yankee Doodle’ in slow time.” The manipulation of a single element—tempo—was all that was needed to turn the playful “Yankee Doodle” into a melancholy tune.

On one hand, this is an example of playing against musical expectations: the melody is presented in the opposite manner than it is usually performed. On the other hand, it depicts a pianist playing upon musical expectations: he exploits the association of slowness with sadness, thereby bringing the professor to tears. The result is an illustrative demonstration of how cultural learning shapes our discernment of musical character. Landscape is destiny.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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