Tag Archives: Classical Music

Wrong Notes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Fidelity to the score is a defining characteristic of classical music. Pitches, values, tempi, volumes, and articulations are clearly written for meticulous enactment. In translating these symbols into sound, the musician ensures the piece’s survival even centuries after the composer’s death. There is, of course, room for (slight) variation. Because elements such as dynamics and tempo markings are at least moderately open to interpretation, no two performances will be exactly the same. Still, the faithful and accurate rendering of notes is key to the integrity—and the very existence—of a classical piece.

The foregoing outlines the nominalist theory of classical music, which defines a work in terms of concrete particulars relating to it, such as scores and performances. Because a musical piece is an audible and experiential phenomenon, which is symbolically represented in the score, it can only truly exist in performance.

This position raises two issues. The first concerns “authentic” performance. Is it enough to simply play the notes as indicated, or do those notes have to be played on the instrument(s) the composer intended? Does a cello suite played on double bass or a reduction of a symphony played on the piano qualify as an instance of the same work? How essential is the use of appropriate period instruments? These questions look for elements beyond the written notes.

The second issue centers on the notes themselves. Most performances of concert works include several wrong notes. However, we generally do not discount these performances for that reason (and we may not register the wrong notes as they are played). If all of the notes are wrong, then the work has not been performed, even if the intention is sincere. But what percentage of the notes can be wrong for the performance to qualify as the work? We might argue that the work is independent from any performance of it; but that does not satisfy the nominalist’s position.

Most discussions of musical ontology—addressing the big question, “Do musical works exist?”—are confined to classical music. Score-dependent arguments do not lend themselves to jazz, for instance, where the improvising performer composes on the spot, or certain kinds of folk music, where embellishments are commonplace and written notation is absent.

Questions about music’s ontological reality do not have easy answers, and the various philosophical camps have their weaknesses: nominalists, Platonists (who view musical works as abstract objects), idealists (who view musical works as mental entities), and so on. Whatever fruits such discourse might bear, it points to the uniquely “other” nature of music, which is both recognizable and ineffable, repeatable and singular.

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

The Limits of Transmission

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Since at least the Romantic period, musicians and theorists have argued that musically expressed emotions cannot be fully or adequately conveyed in words or rational concepts. Instead, music is understood as a mode of communication that bypasses ordinary language and speaks directly to the ineffable realm of the “inner life.” This emotional conveyance is typically regarded as both cultural and highly personal: conventions within a music-culture determine the generalized impressions of musical qualities, such as mode, pitch range, and tempo, but specific interactions between those qualities and the listener are not predetermined. A wide and highly variable range of factors, as unique as the listener herself, fundamentally shapes the experience.

Deryck Cooke’s influential treatise, The Language of Music (1959), proposes a more systematic approach. Through an examination of hundreds of examples of Common Practice tonality (Western tonal music since 1400), Cooke developed a lexicon of musical phrases, patterns, and rhythms linked to specific emotional meanings. In his analysis, recurrent devices are used to effect more or less identical emotional arousals, thus yielding a predictable, idiomatic language.

This theory, while helpful in identifying and organizing norms of Western music, has been criticized for omitting the role of syntax. There might be a standard musical vocabulary, but without rules for arranging constituent elements into “sentences,” there can be no consistent or independent meanings. For even the most over-used idiom, the performance and listening contexts ultimately determine the actual response.

This observation casts doubt on another of Cooke’s central claims. If, as Cooke argued, musical elements comprise a precise emotional vocabulary, then a composer can use those elements to excite his or her own emotions in the listener. This is achievable in emotive writing, such as a heartfelt poem or autobiographical account, which uses the syntactic and semantic structures of language to reference ideas, images, and experiences. However, because music lacks these linguistic features, direct emotional transmission is hardly a sure thing.

Philosopher Malcolm Budd adds an aesthetic argument to this criticism. By locating the value of a musical experience in the reception of the composer’s emotions, the piece loses its own aesthetic interest; it becomes a tool for transmitting information, rather than an opening for individually shaped emotional-aesthetic involvement. According to Budd, Cooke’s thesis, which he dubs “expression-transmission theory,” misrepresents the motivation for listening: “It implies that there is an experience which a musical work produces in the listener but which in principle he could undergo even if he were unfamiliar with the work, just as the composer is supposed to have undergone the experience he wants to communicate before he constructs the musical vehicle which is intended to transmit it to others; and the value of the music, if it is an effective instrument, is determined by the value of this experience. But there is no such experience.”

The enduring appeal of musical language is its multivalence. Idiomatic figures may be commonplace in tonal music, but their appearance and reappearance in different pieces does not carry definite or monolithic information, whether from the composer or the vocabulary employed.

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

Timeless and Time-bound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Western classical music, as a generic term separate from the segmented musical chronology, has a quality of timelessness. Works spanning more than three-hundred years—from Bach to Stravinsky and beyond—are grouped together in concert halls, radio programs, and the public’s imagination. Judged as outstanding specimens of their kind, they exhibit wide stylistic variations and expressive techniques, yet reside comfortably side by side as “classics.”

Leonard Bernstein, speaking at a Young People’s Concert,  pinpointed key contrasts between classical and other types of music: “The real difference is that when a composer writes a piece of what’s usually called classical music, he puts down the exact notes that he wants, the exact instruments or voices that he wants to play or sing those notes—even the exact number of instruments or voices; and he also writes down as many directions as he can think of, to tell the players or singers as carefully as he can everything they need to know about how fast or slow it should go, how loud it should be, and millions of other things to help the performers to give an exact performance of those notes he thought up.” Contrastingly, Bernstein argued, “there’s no end to the ways in which [a popular tune] can be played or sung.”

Variations in classical performances stem not from self-initiated diversions, but from trying to interpret what the composer meant as closely as possible. Despite nuances of tempo, mood, and accentuation, the notes and instrumentation remain largely intact. These stabilized traits departed from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, when instrumentation was flexible, improvisation was integral, and notation was under-prescriptive. The meticulous directions and normalized expectations of classical music have ensured its transmission as a repeatable and recognizable art form.

Such timelessness comes into focus when confronted with its opposite. Beginning in the late 1960s, several attempts were made to “update” classical music for contemporary audiences. Switched-On Bach (1968) by Walter Carlos (now Wendy) initiated the trend with ten Bach arrangements for Moog synthesizer. Carlos followed it up with The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969), featuring electric versions of Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Handel, and Bach, and her soundtrack for Clockwork Orange (1972), with synthesized renditions of Beethoven’s Ninth. Part of the appeal of Bob Moog’s instrument was its contemporariness. Space Age listeners resonated with its “future is now” aesthetic and “orchestra-in-a-box” convenience. Elites were equally enthralled, handing Switch-On Bach three Grammies in the classical category: best album, best performance, and best engineered recording.

Meco’s disco album Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, released in 1977 (the same year as the film), is an illustrative offering from that era of classical retooling. Its showcase piece, “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” topped  the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks, owing to the popularity both of the film and of commercialized orchestral adaptations. Ironically, with his scores for Star Wars and other pictures, John Williams spearheaded a resurgence of classical film scoring, which had largely been replaced by pop soundtracks in the 1970s. Yet, as much as his writing convincingly retrieved an earlier genre of film music, it could not evade the sonic stamp of its age.

What unites these examples—and all pop treatments of classical music—is their time-boundedness. That which is “up-to-date” only remains so until that date has passed. The Moog sound is passé, disco is dead, but classical music is timeless. Its preservationist ethos—of instruments, interpretations, substances, and forms—has ensured its survival against the vicissitudes of taste.

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

Is Anything Frivolous?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

From the critic’s perspective, the world of music consists of three parts: art, folk, and popular. This distinction is sometimes shortened to “serious” (art music) and “popular” (popular and folk). Precisely what makes some music “artistic” and other music something else is not always well defined, but minimum requirements usually include the use of written notation and sophisticated structural and theoretical considerations. The borders are blurred in some technical forms of jazz, and reinforced when classical composers adorn folk tunes with orchestral arrangements (as Aaron Copland did), or pop musicians conspicuously quote classical repertoire in their songs (as Frank Zappa did). These combinations are appealing largely because they represent an almost taboo juxtaposition.

However, the aesthetic divide between serious and popular is not simply a question of musical attributes. It concerns the values ascribed to the respective music. Sociomusicologist Simon Frith sums up the underlying assumption: “Serious music matters because it transcends social forces; popular music is aesthetically worthless because it is determined by them.” In other words, art music stands apart from our basic human needs, thereby attaining sacredness, whereas popular music reflects everyday life, thus reaffirming mundaneness. The book from which Frith’s comment derives marks his position on the issue: Taking Popular Music Seriously.

An even stronger defense is found in Johan Huizinga’s classic tome, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, published in 1950. Huizinga sees play as simultaneously superfluous and necessary. Superfluous because it is irrational and entails a stepping out of “real life,” and necessary because it gives meaning to human existence.

Huizinga does not distinguish between types of play—games, sports, arts, entertainment—nor between its forms—professional, amateur, individual, group. He avoids equating “only pretend” with frivolity, noting that players can engage in the activity with utmost sincerity and determination. Most provocatively, he characterizes religious ceremonies as obligatory play. Like a game of soccer or hide-and-seek, a sacred ritual is a temporary and repeatable departure from ordinary life that operates according to its own guidelines. This is not meant to belittle religious rites, but rather to emphasize the potential for seriousness in all play.

Music, as a type of play, resides outside of normal time and space. It abides by its own logic, and the enjoyment of it makes it a human need. The labels “serious” and “popular” have little bearing on the experience itself, which can be taken lightly or seriously. As Huizinga’s reminds us, “The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid.”

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

The Invention of “Art”

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Marxist philosopher Paul Mattick, Jr. once remarked that “art” has only been around since the eighteenth century. On the surface, this audacious claim seems to dismiss the creative impulse evident in hominids since the cave-painting days and probably before. But, really, the idea of art as something abstract or “for itself” is a Western construct with roots in the Enlightenment. That era gave rise to the notion of “the aesthetic” as a stand-alone experience, as well as individuals and institutions that actively removed artistic creation from organic contexts: critics, art dealers, academics, galleries, museums, journals, etc. Terms previously used in other areas, like “creativity,” “self-expression,” “genius” and “imagination,” were re-designated almost exclusively as “art words.”

Prior to this period (and still today in most non-European cultures) art was not a thing apart, but an integral and integrated aspect of human life. Sculpture, painting, ceramics, woodwork, weaving, poetry, music, dance, and other expressive mediums were more than mere aesthetic excursions. They beautified utensils, adorned abodes, demarcated rituals, told stories, and generally made things special. Skill and ornamentation were not valued for their own sake, but for their ability to draw attention to and enhance extra-artistic objects and activities.

Eighteenth-century Europe witnessed the extraction of art from its functionalistic origins. It was segregated from everyday life and displayed as something of intrinsic worth. With this program came the panoply of now-familiar buzzwords: commodity, ownership, property, specialization, high culture, popular culture, entertainment, etc.

In the world of music, the contrivance of “absolute art” is even more recent. As New Yorker music critic Alex Ross explains, the “atmosphere of high seriousness” that characterizes classical concerts—with the expectation of attentive listening and quiet between movements—did not take hold until the early twentieth century. When public concerts first became widespread, sometime after 1800, they were eclectic events featuring a sloppy mix of excerpts from larger works and a miscellany of styles. Attendees chatted, shouted, scuffled, moseyed about, clanked dishes, and yes, even applauded (or booed) between (or during) movements. The performance was less a centerpiece than an excuse for a social happening.

As concert going morphed into a refined, bourgeoisie affair, the rigid format we are now acquainted with became the norm. Hushed and immobilized audiences sat in specially designed symphony halls and opera houses, which allowed composers to explore dynamic extremes hitherto impossible. “When Beethoven began his Ninth Symphony [1824] with ten bars of otherworldly pianissimo,” writes Ross, “he was defying the norms of his time, essentially imagining a new world in which the audience would await the music in an expectant hush. Soon enough, that world came into being.”

The impact of this development was wide-ranging. In no small way, it signaled the birth of music as an attraction in and of itself—a brand-new conception in the history of human culture. Like other artistic tendencies filtered through the Western consciousness, music was artificially detached from activities with which it had always co-existed. The radical break paved the way for the more general phenomenon of “music as entertainment” (highbrow, lowbrow and in between), and the commercialization and professionalization that came with it.

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