Category Archives: instruments

Ignoring Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As a rule, musical sounds are more clearly distinguished from non-musical sounds (the sounds of “reality”) than visual arts are distinguished from the shapes and colors of the visible world. What makes a photograph, abstract painting, or found object distinct from non-art is more difficult to pinpoint than what makes music sound like music. Satirist Ambrose Bierce addressed this in The Devil’s Dictionary, which defines painting as “The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.” The viewing venue, in other words, plays a central role in the creation and perception of visual arts. (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt,” is an extreme example.) Contrastingly, music is invisible, and thus cannot be confused with visible forms; it has no direct analog in the physical world.

Music is a culturally defined sonic phenomenon that, while impossible to define universally, is immediately recognized when heard in its cultural setting. Historically in the West, this has included a division between “pure” tones and “disordered” or “unwanted” sounds, generally called “noise.” Physics seems to support this bifurcation. While the various sound waves produced by music can be isolated into individual frequencies, with some being more dominant than others, noise contains jumbled frequencies of sound without a dominant frequency. However, ambiguity lurks beneath this observation. Despite Western music’s self-perception of “noiselessness,” such sounds do exist within the organized matrix of frequencies.

Performers, scholars, and aficionados have long understood Western music (esp. concert music) as purified of noise. This assumption surfaces in descriptions of non-European musics. As Dena J. Epstein chronicles in her book, The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History, European travelers and missionaries regularly described the timbres of African vocals and instruments as “crude,” “wild,” “peculiar,” strange,” “weird,” or “noise.” Contemporary ethnomusicologists credit “ethnic” musics for retaining noisy elements, and eschewing—or never developing—the Western affinity for “pure” tones. The African mbira, or thumb piano, is a favorite example. Bottle caps and snail shells are attached to the soundboard and resonator, creating a buzz that muddies the otherwise focused timbre of the plucked idiophone. Efforts to reintroduce “noisiness” into Western music, notably with fuzz and overdrive guitar distortion, is sometimes heard as an aspirational return to naturalistic sound, albeit through electronic means.

All of this overlooks the presence of noise in even the most cleaned-up Western musical forms. The scraping of the bow against a violin string; the clacking of the keys on a clarinet; the sliding on the fingerboard of an acoustic guitar. According to filmmaker and composer Michel Chion, author of Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, the Western listener tends to “scotomize,” or mentally delete, these sounds. Moreover, studio recordings tend to minimize or mute out such idiosyncrasies. “On the other hand,” writes Chion, “recordings of so-called traditional musics are often made by and for people who find something charming about such noises, and such documentations strive to preserve them and even to emphasize them in the recording process.”

Chion’s compositional medium, musique concrète, places all sorts of sounds into a musically organized framework. Compositions consist of multifarious field recordings, which are modified by altering pitch and intensity, extending or cutting off, adding echo effects, playing backwards, and so on. [Listen to Chion’s Requiem]. The finished piece is an artistic unity that challenges standard ideas about music. It can also train us to hear assembled noises as musical, and to listen for noise elements in conventional music.

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

Whence Came the Musical Bow?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A note of caution should be added to any discussion of musical origins. Musical history predates recorded history. Practice comes long before theory. Current forms mask a gradual evolutionary process. Using the present to reconstruct the past is as tempting as it unreliable. As ethnomusicologist Klaus Wachsmann related, “Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from ethnological studies is that argument based on plausibility can be dangerous.”

Wachsmann’s warning came in a 1962 article, “The Earliest Musical Instruments.” A pioneer in the study of African music, he learned firsthand the fallibility of “practical” assumptions. These include hunches concerning the musical bow, one of the oldest known instruments. “What for instance could be more plausible than that the shooting bow and the manipulation of its string led to discoveries in the sphere of harmony?” British archaeologist Henry Balfour proposed such a timeline in his 1899 treatise, The Natural History of the Musical Bow: the shooting bow was emancipated from hunting and warfare to become a musical instrument, in the process accumulating modifications.

A hunter happening upon a bow’s musical qualities is not the only possibility, nor is it the most likely. Musicologist Curt Sachs, writing twenty years before Wachsmann, declared the idea “plausible but wrong, like many plausible explanations” (The History of Musical Instruments, 1940). According to Sachs, the false assumption hinged on two biases: the practical (hunting) always precedes the aesthetic (music), and similar forms necessarily point to a shared source. He asserted that the oldest musical bows were ten-feet long, and therefore useless for shooting. Other early designs were idiochordic, with the bow and string cut from the same piece of cane and still attached at either end—an equally ineffective hunting tool. Moreover, to make a clearly audible sound, the bow needs a resonator, usually a hollowed-out gourd or the player’s mouth. This effect does not come about naturally by simply shooting an arrow.

The musical bow’s cultural meanings are similarly mixed. A cave painting at Trois Frères, dating to about 13,000 B.C.E., apparently shows a bison-man playing a hunting bow, and Plutarch described Scythians playing music on their hunting bows. Yet, Wachsmann considered the cave painting too ambiguous to be conclusive, and cautioned that a hunter plucking his bow tells us nothing about which came first. Complicating the matter, Sachs noted several customs unrelated to war or the hunt: “among many tribes only women play [the bow]; in Rhodesia it is the instrument played at girl’s initiations; and the Washambala in eastern Africa believe that a man cannot get a wife if a string of the musical bow breaks while he is making it.”

Absent a time machine, it is impossible to know for certain if the musical bow derived from the hunting bow, the hunting bow came from the musical bow, or the two emerged independently. When an instrument’s lifespan extends so far into the unrecorded past, it is perhaps unwise to disregard any plausible theory. Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to refute a simple, mono-directional development from hunting to music. Resemblances between the modern-day weapon and instrument could reflect later interactions, rather than a conjoined evolution. After all, just because we can set up pots and pans in a drum set configuration does not mean the cookware gave rise to percussion instruments, or vice versa.

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

Sousa’s Menace

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.” These dire words begin John Philip Sousa’s 1906 article, “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Riding on anti-modernist sentiments and fears of cultural degradation, the March King warns against the nascent technologies of phonograph recordings and piano rolls (for player pianos). He predicts the demise of amateur music-making and the deterioration of human intimacy: “When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same sense that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?” “In the prospective scheme of mechanical music, we shall see man and maiden in a light canoe under the summer moon upon an Adirondack lake with a gramophone caroling love songs from armpits. The Spanish cavalier must abandon his guitar and serenade his beloved with phonograph under his arm.”

Sousa abandons his usual charm for a prophetic voice calling out on behalf of the populace. Without the impulse to sing or play instruments, the nation’s throat will weaken, its chest will shrink, and its soul will recede. Modern critics have noted Sousa’s cultural nearsightedness and hypocrisy (his band was among the early recording ensembles). Others have shed light on personal interests underlying the essay. Among other things, Sousa worried that recordings would adversely affect ticket sales, decrease royalties and threaten composer’s rights (concerns still relevant today). The old business model relied on amateur musicians, who would purchase sheet music, learn it, and go see it performed in concert, or attend a concert and rush out to buy the sheet music. Both of these put money directly into Sousa’s pocket. Not so with the record industry’s corporate-controlled mass production.

Setting these observations aside, it is worthwhile to return to Sousa’s surface argument. Like most alarmists, his prediction was overblown. One hundred years later, the United States is home to thousands of amateur choirs and orchestras, and music teachers can still find work. Yet, although the “menace” was not as severe as Sousa warned, homegrown music-making has been in decline. Access to recordings, glitzy concerts, and aggressive promotion of selected performers have made consumption the norm. Why make music if others can make it for us (and do it better than we can)? It seems that the more technologically advanced a society is, the more passive its music culture.

In contemporary America, there are only a few social contexts in which ordinary people are expected to contribute musically. These include preschools (where song is a pedagogical tool), karaoke bars (where liquor drowns inhibitions), and houses of worship (where singing is a form of devotion). It is important to note, too, that in many (most?) congregations, the harmonized notation of hymnals has been ditched for unison song—yet another sign of dwindling musical literacy.

To be sure, consumer culture is not totally to blame for declining musical activity. There are other factors, such as the high cost of lessons and instruments, the elimination of music programs in many public schools, and the increasing value placed on specialization. Music as a hobby is no longer a cultural expectation. Still, listening to recorded music has stunted amateurism in two important ways. First, high quality recordings are intimidating. The unfiltered sounds of our own making seem inferior in comparison, and thus not worth attempting. Second, it is well established that music satisfies fundamental emotional, psychological and social yearnings. How and by whom the music is produced can have varying degrees of impact, but what is important is that music is being experienced. Thus, given the convenience and capabilities of mechanical devices, it is only natural that we gravitate toward them. We need music and they give it to us.

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

The Timbre Effect

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All melodies are the same. This provocative overstatement should not be dismissed out of hand. Although there are diversifying options, such as meter, mode, note density, and rhythmic values, the fundamental shape of melody is remarkably consistent. When the sonic fat is trimmed away, what remains is a typical melodic line. This mainly owes to the powerful force of convention, which (un)consciously shapes musical patterns in more or less uniform ways. Culturally conditioned ears tolerate only a limited spectrum of choices; the more divergences, the less the general appeal. At the risk of being tautological, melodies are recognizable because they sound like melodies.

Gary Ewer, a songwriter and creator of Easy Music Theory, identifies what he calls “5 Characteristics of Any Great Melody.” His summation is not as boastful as it might appear, though these key ingredients are found in most Western melodies, great and not-so-great. The five characteristics are: restricted range (an octave-and-a-half); repeating elements (intervals, rhythms, motifs); stepwise motion (moving by scale steps with occasional leaps); movement in relationship with the bass line (parallel, similar, oblique or contrary); and a climactic point leading to a cadence. Other building blocks not on Ewer’s list include four-bar phrases and predictable chord progressions (both simple and complex).

These ingredients are present in all idioms of Western music, from Baroque to reggae to bubblegum pop. Of course, some melodies are more adventurous than others, and some manage to buck a few norms while staying within the requisite parameters. Yet, without blurring the countless tunes that have been offered to the atmosphere, the fact is that differences between melodies lie in nuances rather than in fundamental structures.

Given this basic homogeneity, why do certain melodies rise to the top? The answer rests partly in extra-musical factors, such as lyrical content, the look of the performer(s), promotional efforts, and inclusion on a soundtrack. But musical qualities also contribute to a song’s popularity (or unpopularity). These aspects are not necessarily located in the pitch, dynamics or durations, but in the less tangible realm of timbre: distinctive and recognizable sounds.

This is particularly true of recorded songs, which reach audiences via specific timbre mixtures of vocals, instruments, and production signatures. Attraction to a song is really attraction to this global sound—a reality accounting for the frequent failure of covers and remixes. A Katy Perry song in someone else’s mouth does not have the same effect, just as Tom Petty minus the Heartbreakers lacks a certain something.

A historical case in point is The Paul Simon Song Book (1965), a solo album Simon recorded after Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, Simon & Garfunkel’s first studio recording, received a discouragingly cool reception. The record includes several songs that would become hits for the duo, such as “I Am A Rock,” “Leaves That Are Green,” and “The Sound of Silence.” But the timbre is off. Without Garfunkel’s harmonies and other additive sounds, the impression is one of raw incompletion.

Popular melodies sometimes find their way into song anthologies and fake books: collections of lead sheets with melodies, chord markings, and lyrics. These are “standards,” or tunes of established popularity from a period and/or style. The minimalistic presentation suggests that melody, apart from audible textures, is the source of a song’s popularity. However, the very reduction to soundless notation exposes the crucial role of timbre in creating hits. Without that tapestry of sounds, a melody is just a melody like any other.

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

What You See is What You Hear

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Much has been written on the role of paralinguistic gestures in communicating linguistic content. Hand movements, postures, facial expressions and the like give context to spoken words and shade their meaning in significant ways. The non-verbal amplifies the verbal, conveying emotional information that may or may not be overt in the language alone. Something similar occurs in music performance.

Like verbal interaction, musical communication is a complex activity engaging multiple sensory modalities. Listening by itself does not extract all that a performance can disclose. This is especially so with instrumental music, a category of performance unaided by the (usual) clarity of words. No matter how formulaic or accessible, instrumental music is at best an abstract language. Thus, the full message and impact of a performance often relies on accompanying gestures, body movements and other paramusical signals.

It should be noted that research on music and emotions typically falls into three main categories. The most regularly explored is the influence of culture in shaping emotional responses. Schematic expectations and tonal patterns trigger stereotyped reactions among participants in a specific music-culture. The second most widely explored area is the effect of listening conditions. Settings and circumstances in which music is heard, along with the listener’s mental and physical states, contribute to how sounds are emotionally received. The third most commonly examined aspect is the impression of movement, form and imagery in musical passages. Such symbolism evokes emotions through mimicry, with slow phrases suggesting lethargy, ascending sequences implying elation, etc.

Visual cues deserve a place beside these conventional explanations. Cognitive studies have exposed the limits of emotional conveyance through strictly auditory features, like vibrato, tempo and dynamics. By itself, aural processing can and does open the pathway to music-induced emotions. However, the strength of music’s effect increases considerably and assumes added dimensions when a performance is both heard and seen.

Jane W. Davidson, a musicologist at the University of Western Australia, has examined the extent to which visual communication affects emotional perception. For a 1994 experiment, she had musicians play a piece in three distinct manners: restrained, with little to no physical expression; standard, with natural body and facial movement; and exaggerated, with effusive movement and facial cues. Just listening to the audio of these performances, participants were unable to detect which was played in which fashion. But when the performances were viewed, the intensity of emotional responses was proportional to the amount of gesturing, postural adjustments and facial signals observed. The more demonstrative the playing, the more emotional it seemed. A similar study conducted by Bradley W. Vines, et al. (2011) concludes that emotional ambiguity in atonal music can likewise be resolved through a player’s mannerisms.

Two additional observations deserve mention. The first is that musicians and non-musicians are equally unable to detect changes in performance manner when music is only heard, and are equally swayed by physical displays when performances are both heard and seen. The second is that the less familiar one is with a composition, the more one relies on sight in determining its emotional content. The grand takeaway is this: visuals are an underappreciated and immensely potent medium for enhancing, complementing and clarifying emotions in music.

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

Absolutely Not

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

German Romantic authors introduced the concept of “pure” music, or music without extra-musical meaning. They conceived of instrumental music as the language of a higher realm—a language transcending anything that could be said about it and any link that could be made between it and the things of this world. Richard Wagner was an early critic of their proposition. To him, music without signification was as impossible to create as it was worthless to consume (he coined the term “absolute” music to mock the very idea). Even when devoid of words, subject matter and programmatic purpose, music is intertwined with the environment in which it is heard and the images and feelings it induces. Its message might be abstract and open to interpretation, but it is not absent.

Life occurs in context. Being alive means being engaged in a perpetual and usually unconscious process of amassing observational input, experiential data and sensory information. Nothing that we taste, touch, smell, hear, see or think can be divorced from prior experiences, and all of it is present when we encounter new stimuli. We cannot help but make connections between incidents current and past, and the lens through which we perceive reality is modified with each passing moment. We are swimming in a stream of constant accumulation.

Our relationship with music exists in this perceptual complex. Aesthetic tastes and artistic meanings are influenced by factors like culture, environment, schooling, philosophy and politics, not to mention the settings and situations in which listening takes place. It is possible in a lab or study hall to reduce music to an organized composite of pitches, intervals, alignments and values. But music is not received in this mathematical manner. It comes to us as a container brimming with associations, the contents of which are the by-product of our unique life experiences. It triggers a varied assortment of memories, visuals, sensations and sentiments. In short, we derive meaning from it whether we intend to or not.

The same is true for the music’s creator. Composers tend to work within inherited rules and conventions, or actively reject those norms. Either way, they situate themselves in relation to other styles and composers, and cannot escape the connotations they carry. As much as they might desire to write music for its own sake, it will always be about something. Absolute music—or, better, music that pretends to be absolute—may be vague in purpose; but neither the composer nor audience hears it as purposeless.

This discussion is summed up in the words of musicologist Nicholas Cook: “Pure music, it seems, is the aesthetician’s (and music theorist’s) fiction.” Music is never just sound. It is everything the sound evokes.

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

Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer (Book Review)

Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer, edited by Yale Strom, Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2012. 153 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The past decade or so has witnessed a flourishing of books tackling various aspects of klezmer, a term referring both to a style of Eastern European-born Jewish folk music and the musicians who perform it. Growing interest in the centuries-old genre has spurred the printing of a variety of songbooks, fake books, instrument-specific collections, historical analyses and ethnographic studies. All of these areas find a home in Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer, a slim yet information-rich volume edited by accomplished klezmer violinist and ethnographer Yale Strom. Filled with historical details, practical advice, technical instruction, musical examples and illustrative anecdotes, this all-in-one book gathers the wisdom of renowned klezmer performers, specifically Peter Stan (accordion), Jeff Pekarek (bass), Norbert Stachel (clarinet), David Licht (drums), Yale Strom (violin) and Elizabeth Schwartz (vocals).

The book begins with two chapters of condensed history from the Middles Ages to the present. These introductory surveys, written by Strom, ease through the somewhat disjointed development of the genre, from the dance halls of twelfth-century Germany, to the Hasidic ecstasy of seventeenth-century Poland, to the army bands of Czarist Russia, to the immigrant ensembles of the United States, to the Yiddish theater, to the modern revival and profusion of the art form.

In the limited space of roughly thirty pages, Strom manages to lay a solid historical foundation while sprinkling in several amusing vignettes. For instance, he includes a story of a man who grew up in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. During his childhood, a fiddler would come through his neighborhood around seven a.m., just after the men had gone to work. As he played a slow waltz, the wives would lean out of their apartment windows. When the music finished, the women clapped in appreciation and threw down money accompanied by rolled-up pieces of paper. The papers contained numbers corresponding to horseraces, which the fiddler brought to a bookie on the women’s behalf (p. 18).

The other chapters continue in this vein. The well-chosen authors elegantly combine the performance history of their instruments, profiles of legendary masters, insights about style and technique, stories from their own experiences, and a handful of musical illustrations. Though they are presented in unique authorial voices (Stan, Pekarek, Stachel, Licht, Strom and Schwartz) and profile unique instruments (accordion, bass, clarinet, drums, violin and vocals), they do address similar issues. It is therefore possible, if not entirely fair, to generalize their content using a few examples.

The topic of stylized embellishments appears throughout the book. This is to be expected, as the use of specific ornaments is largely what defines klezmer playing. Roughly half of Stan’s chapter on the accordion is devoted to this subject (pp. 35-39), and Strom describes the nine core embellishments, or dreydlekh, of the klezmer violin: glitshn (portamenti); mordent; krekhtsn (“moan”); kneytshn (“fold”); tshoks (“bend”); turn; harmonic; trill; and ponticello (pp. 100-101).

The authors also stress that klezmer is a lived heritage, and one rooted in a vibrant and still expanding continuum. As Stachel writes in his chapter on the clarinet: “folk music such as klezmer is a living testament to the history and collective emotional experiences of that culture and its people. It has been passed down from one generation to the next; and that transcends any professor’s attempt to mechanically and coldly ‘explain’ in a theoretical way the essence of Ashkenazi music” (p. 64).

Another theme is the influence of Eastern European cantorial music on klezmer playing and singing. Instrumentalists emulate cantorial adornments and phrasings, and vocalists cannot help but pay homage to chazzanut (cantorial art). As Schwartz puts it in her chapter on vocals: “To sing klezmer in the folk style, one must . . .  harken back to the vocal traditions of the synagogue—not because the songs are liturgical, but because these ornamentations have become an indelible part of the music’s performance” (p. 129).

Many more subjects are addressed in this useful and readable volume. Of course, as with any book, there is room for criticism. For instance, some familiar klezmer instruments were omitted—like the mandolin and members of the brass family—and some chapters offer more technical insights than others. But these objections are minor. Performers, scholars and fans of klezmer music will benefit from the book’s informative discussions, pedagogical elements, personal stories and enthusiastic tone.

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