Tag Archives: Alfred Einstein

The Evolution of Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The earliest rudiments of musical expression were most likely vocal. This basic premise connects diverse speculations about music’s origins. Whether music—broadly defined as structured, controlled, and purposeful sound—began with grunts of aggression, wails of pain, mating howls, or infant-directed communication, the vocal instrument was the source from which it sprang. Despite the lack of records stretching back hundreds of thousands of years, speculative musicologists have sketched cursory evolutions of vocal music. According to Alfred Einstein, the eon-spanning process had three stages: pathogenic (emotion-born), logogenic (language-born), and melogenic (melody-born). This hypothesis, presented in his 1954 essay “Word and Music,” is unique for its qualitative editorializing. In Einstein’s view, the combination of voice and music becomes increasingly problematic as the stages unfold.

The first stage, pathogenic music, represents the “starkest expression of pure emotion.” Einstein viewed the spontaneous, wordless tones of so-called “primitives” as the most pristine type of vocal music. Beyond romanticizing the “noble savage,” he argued that “the meaningful word weakens rather than strengthens such pure expression, since convention tends to attenuate it.” The union of word and music pollutes the original purity.

The degrading effect is less pronounced in stage two: logogenic music. In word-born song, melodic shape, movement, phrasing, and cadences are directed by the ebb and flow of a text, rather than a consistent beat or meter. It is a form of musical grammar—sometimes called speech-melody or stylized speaking—wherein accents and inflections are stressed through unobtrusive, arhythmic, word-serving melodic figures. Such is the mode of Greek epic poetry, Gregorian plainchant, and Jewish scriptural cantillation. Logogenic music has its own disadvantage—namely, the neutralizing of emotion. Because the music serves the text with formulaic motives (described by Einstein as a “minimum of music”), the same sounds are invariably used to transmit texts of varying thematic and emotional content. In this sense, it is the opposite of pathogenic vocalizing.

The third stage is song proper: a short poem or set of words fitted to a metrical tune. By and large, musical considerations, like rhythm and melody, outweigh textual concerns. Although songs often grow from or reflect upon emotional states, the rules of style and form tend to restrain raw feelings. The structure limits the amount of syllables available, and the measured phrases reduce word options. The result is filtered sentiment—a contrast to both unfettered pathogenic music and text-first logogenic music.

Without doubt, Einstein’s scheme has its weaknesses. Not only is the evolution of song non-linear (all three forms still exist today), but blending is also not uncommon. For instance, blues singing, which adheres to highly conventional forms, is known for its “pure emotion.” Within a strict melogenic framework, short phrases and repeated words convey rich layers of emotional content. Even so, Einstein’s three-stage outline raises awareness of the potential impediments of the various types of vocal music. Knowledge of these built-in barriers can help the performer or songwriter transcend them in their own musical quests.

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

Nature’s Soundtrack

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is conventionally portrayed as a reflection of life. This is understood both in the inward sense of expressing an artist’s feelings, and in the outward sense of depicting the world in which the artist lives. No matter how abstract the design, art is thought to be an analog of reality. This conception has obvious limits. While it is true that the creative process is frequently sparked by life situations and environmental influences, momentary concerns and artistic output are not always in alignment.

In his 1937 essay, “Fictions That Have Shaped Musical History,” Alfred Einstein deconstructed the old canard that art must mirror life. Art, he reminded us, is just as likely to reflect the times as it is to flee from them. He proved the point with Renaissance music, which exudes an aura of balance and harmony without any trace of struggle or discord. It is easy to forget that this musical style developed against the backdrop of an agitated world—a Europe that saw feudalism give way to the middle class, religious reformations and counter-reformations, and political powers vying over the New World. Rather than record this unrest, Renaissance polyphony projected a mood of order and peaceful resolution. It was an artistic ideal fundamentally at odds with reality.

Einstein tied this phenomenon to painterly portrayals of the natural world, which typically imbue the environment with an idealized essence. Our view of nature is powerfully and unconsciously shaped by such art. Rembrandt’s attention to half-lit rooms heightens our focus on the half-lit rooms around us. Constable’s English landscapes inform how we see real-life countrysides. Einstein went so far as to claim, “We become aware of natural things only when a great artist has first seen them for us and has given them the form that we see” (emphasis added).

This observation is, one would hope, overstated. We assume we can appreciate nature without the guiding brushstrokes of the painter. Still, we cannot deny art’s potential to color our vision.

Musical examples of this are plentiful. Generally, nature-inspired pieces translate stereotyped features of the natural world into abstract sounds. Sometimes, the impressionistic tones become so ingrained that gazing upon a scene brings the music to mind. Sunrises stir the “morning” theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Falling snowflakes evoke Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” The American wilderness conjures passages from Copland’s oeuvre. Flowing rivers call up Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” (as do floating spaceships, thanks to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Likewise, hearing these pieces can immediately trigger the associated images.

Importantly, such music is, by definition, additive: it does not actually exist in the phenomenon it depicts. Thus, more than simply mirroring reality, it sways our perception of it. In this subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) way, our awareness of nature is at least partly in the hands of artists.

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

The Rudiments of Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Alfred Einstein (1880-1952), one of the twentieth century’s most respected musicologists (and possible fifth cousin of Albert), wrote a daring and enduring book at the age of thirty-seven. A Short History of Music first appeared in print in his native German in 1917. The preface to later English editions includes this admission: “[The book] was written in a few weeks, at a time and place that precluded resort to any books of reference.” In Einstein’s view, this was a help rather than a hindrance. Rather than drown himself (and the reader) in a swamp of names and dates, he attempted a through-composed picture of the development of (Western) music as a whole. Some specialists have pounced on this approach, but the book’s resonance among lay readers is attested in the abundance of revised printings in German and English, each amended to include recent data (the last edition I’m aware of was published in 1954).

Naturally, Einstein gave greater attention to the area for which he was the primary authority: sixteenth-century music, especially of Italy. But no period up to his day was overlooked entirely. An intriguing case in point is the first chapter, which summarizes what was then known about “primitive” music. Aside from employing that now distasteful term, Einstein’s offerings remain the general hypotheses of the field. Indeed, while contemporary interest in the origins of music has produced fascinating details and possibilities, current research mostly complies with broad assumptions made during the first half of the twentieth century.

Einstein included seven hypotheses: (1) Singing has deeper historical roots than speaking (pre-linguistic music); (2) After singing came rhythm and percussion, which were explored in ritual dance (devotional music); (3) Song and rhythm combined to accompany labor (work songs); (4) Notes of definite pitch were used as signals in war (war songs); (5) The “easy” intervals of the fourth and fifth were the first preferred pitches (early scales); (6) Ancient songs were comprised of repeated patterns of a few notes (monotony); (7) The rudiments of harmony began with the “unintentional polyphony” of heterophony—what Einstein describes as the “arbitrary ornamentation of the same melody by several performers at the same time” (group song).

As mentioned, these premises are still foundational. Where contemporary studies have expanded upon them is in the aspect of motivation. Advances in anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology and other fields have added deeper perspectives regarding why our species began making music—the dominant theories being mating and cohesion (with variations of the two, like fitness displays, preparing for the hunt, and bonding between mother and child).

Such evolutionary theories, combined with Einstein’s strictly musical concerns of many decades ago, help us to ponder not only how the earliest music sounded, but why it was sounded at all. Fortunately, these central questions are currently on the front burners of researchers possessing great skill and imagination. And the more the topic is explored, the more interesting it becomes.

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