Tag Archives: Franchinus Gaffurius

Gestural Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Gestures should be minimized during training in order to heighten awareness of interior, involuntary muscular movement.” Thus reads the entry on “Gesture” in Cornelius L. Reid’s A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology. As a Western vocal pedagogue, Reid was ever concerned with the aesthetic standards and norms of European classical music. His recommendation is in keeping with a long-held view that music should speak for itself. An early example comes from Franchinus Gaffurius’ Practica musicae (1496). The chapter on “How a Singer Ought to Behave When He Performs” warns that an “extravagant and indecorous movement of the head or hands reveals an unsound mind in a singer.”

These rules of conduct have been reiterated in various ways within the “proper” world of European classical music. However, they do not apply to the opera subgenre, where theatrics are essential, or to many music-cultures outside the classical sphere. A global view of gestural aesthetics would place subdued movement alongside two other options: ritualized gesture and free bodily expression.

The union of gesture and melody is normative in many cultures. Melodic knowledge is embodied in gesture, such that one reinforces the other. For instance, Hindustani khyal singers incorporate stereotyped and quasi-spontaneous hand motions resembling the tracing of lines in space. Mothers in rural Uganda sing and sway ritualistically during pregnancy. In these and other public and private settings, vocal action is “co-performed” with bodily action. It would be improper and unnatural to sing the repertoire without the accompanying physical display.

In the less regulated arenas of popular music, there is an array of genre/style-specific singing movements, both spontaneous and choreographed. These include rock and roll gesticulations, punk aggression, pop diva arm flails, funk dancing, and many others. Audiences expect such exhibitions, which provide a visual analog to the audible content. The absence of visceral antics would be perceived as inauthentic.

The three gestural options—minimal, ritual, and freewheeling—engage musical expression in different ways. For the classical purist, expression is housed in the music alone; unimpeded inward focus is central to a song’s interpretation. In settings where gestures are traditionalized, song and movement act as mutually reinforcing modes of expression. In the heterogeneous realm of popular music, movements are employed to complement and enhance musical expressiveness. The contrasting conventions also imply differing ideas of what constitutes music—specifically, music as sound, sound plus choreography, or sound plus free (or seemingly free) bodily expression. What is crucial in all cases is that the performance conforms to expectations.

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

The Original Musicology

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musikwissenschaft, the historical study of European art music, began in nineteenth-century Germany and Austria. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s biography of J.S. Bach (1802) set the tone for the field, which focuses on musical rules, periods, pieces, and personalities. Two more branches of musicology were added during the twentieth century: ethnomusicology, which examines socio-cultural dimensions of global musics, and systematic musicology, which engages the sciences and humanities in investigating musical phenomena.

The three sub-disciplines of musicology have matured and diversified over the decades. Systematic musicology has an especially modern feel, with its interest in acoustics, neuroscience, psychology, and social theory. Guido Adler laid the groundwork for this interdisciplinary approach with his 1885 essay, “Umfang, Methode und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft” (“Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology”), which divides musicology into historical questions about the development of musical conventions and the succession of “great” composers, and systematic questions about the nature of music and human responses to it.

Today, systematic musicology is itself divided into two areas: empirical/scientific and social/cultural. Its tools of computation and theories of analysis are decidedly twenty-first century, integrating lab studies, computer data, semiotics, and the like. However, the questions it pursues are much older than even Adler’s seminal essay.

Centuries before receiving its proper name, thinkers were systematically assessing music in human life. Around the third century, Greek theorist Aristides Quintilianus was already categorizing musical studies into theoretical/speculative (systematic) and practical/didactic (historical). Franchinus Gaffurius (fifteenth century) examined how musical sounds achieve specific ends. Marin Mersenne (seventeenth century) scrutinized acoustics and the speed of sound. As a rule, European scholars prior to the nineteenth century were preoccupied with the big picture. And, even as music history became the dominant focal point, scholars continued to ponder the larger cognitive and spiritual aspects (see my edited collections, The Value of Sacred Music: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 1801-1918 and Music, Theology and Worship: Selected Writings, 1841-1896).

Systematic musicology has benefited from the growing sophistication of the diverse disciplines it draws upon. Yet, underneath its contemporary garb are questions that have attracted thinkers throughout the ages: What is music, how does music work, why does music move us? Although the sub-field is relatively new, its questions long predate interest in historical periods and cultural practices. For this reason, it can be called the original musicology.

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

The Rise and Fall of Melody

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music exhibits the human propensity to imitate nature and the delight we take in that imitation. Rhythm is a stylization of natural motion. Beating hearts, falling rain, rustling leaves, prancing animals and other organic patterns inspire rhythmic mimesis. Birdsong has influenced musicians throughout history, from indigenous folk singers to classical composers like Mahler and Messiaen. Harmonic dissonances and consonances are unconsciously sensed as simulations of human passions. Since the beginning, natural forces have molded and been woven into music’s very essence.

The bond between music and nature did not escape Italian Renaissance composer and music theorist Franchinus Gaffurius. A noted humanist and personal friend of Leonardo da Vinci, Gaffurius was keenly interested in how people derive musical sounds from their environment and utilize those sounds to achieve specific aims. Among his contributions to the naturalistic conception of music is the notion of “musical gravity,” which he introduced in his major treatise Practica musicae (1496): “A descent from high to low causes a greater sense of repose.” With this simple statement, Gaffurius encapsulated the instinct of tonal music to resolve in a cadence to the tonic, or first scale degree.

This movement is imitative in two important ways. First, the downward movement of the musical line resembles forces that regulate motion in the natural world. The descending pull reinforces our orientation toward the tonic and causes us to feel as though we have arrived at the ground level. Second, it simulates a sense of emotional resolution or closure. By bringing us back to the home or tonic note, melody gives a sensation of gratifying release.

Acknowledging the tendency of musical phrases to descend and rest at the tonic, composers of tonal music employ various methods to protract the time leading to the inevitable conclusion. What often results is a series of ascensions, which generate tension and energy, followed by the much-anticipated resolution, which bestows satisfaction proportional to the duration the listener has waited for it.

Music theorists since Aristotle have recognized tension as one of music’s fundamental properties. Like a coiled spring that is pushed and pulled, musical passages portray a cyclic dance, passing through increases and decreases in intensity on their way to a resting position. Human beings seem hardwired to perceive this musical interplay. We feel musical tension on a primal level, as if it were a visceral or kinesthetic experience. When musical suspense reaches its height, our muscles tighten, and with musical resolution, our muscles relax. Of course, no tone, interval, or harmony is intrinsically tense. The impression of tension stems from culturally derived expectations, which may differ from place to place. But, regardless of cultural variation, musical gravity almost universally wields its power on melodic structure, alleviating tension through downward movement.

The mutually reinforcing elements of musical gravity and tension and release go a long way toward explaining our affinity for melody. These forces are an imitation of nature, both in terms of mimicking the rise and fall of objects and in terms of replicating emotional life. Moreover, the usual melodic path toward repose appeases our longing for closure. Through a succession of notes, melody creates and resolves drama in a clean and logical manner that is a human ideal.

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