Play this!

March 5, 2007 | By | 10 Replies More

I know.  You took lots of lessons and you therefore know how to read music . . .

So play any of these, then.  Delightful and impossible.


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Category: music, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (10)

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  1. gatomjp says:

    Amazing scores! Unfortunately they all sound like crap when played!

  2. Devi says:

    feverishly authored (as the link suggests) is right!

  3. gatomjp says:

    FYI and IMHO:

    I am a fan of "classical" music, which is to say, orchestral music throughout the ages. ("Classical" actually refers to a specific period of orchestral music.)

    Over the course of centuries the development of music, from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Stravinsky and beyond, had been a progression away from the relatively rigid tonality of Baroque music into ever murkier realms of slippery key changes, "wrong" notes and ambiguous chords.

    Much of this is delightful! Beethoven's key changes in his Emperor Concerto were startling in its time, but our ears fully accept them now. No one would disagree that the floating, ethereal harmonies of Ravel and Debussy are beautiful, even though they seem to defy our Western sense of tonality. Stavinsky and Bartok pushed the human ear even further, sometimes playing music in two keys and multiple rhythms all at once…and still it worked!

    That's when everything went horribly wrong. Composers in the first half of the last century began to believe that we no longer needed tonality at all and musicians like Arnold Schoenberg helped kill the concert hall and the public's love of orchestral music by taking it beyond what the most of the audience could enjoy. The musical atrocities commited for the sake of being "modern" has since relegated the symphony orchestra to the dusty confines of the museum.

    The average person used to look forward to a new symphony the way we look forward to a new Coldplay album. But by the 1950s, orchestral music had been pushed into the realm of academia and no longer communicated to most people. Even though there has been a backlash in the past few decades, as with the pleasing, although repetitive harmonies of the likes of Philip Glass, the damage had been done.

    The point of all this rambling is that these scores (once again, IMHO) are an attempt to legitimize this so-called "modern" music. The composers are trying to notate what to our ears would sound like random cacophony and thereby give their music the legitimacy it needs in order for them to continue to get government arts fund grants. The scores look beautiful, but you'd better hope you never have to hear a performance of these pieces!

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    gatomjp's opinion is self-contradictory. On the one hand, gatomjp applauds classical music that was "startling in its time;" on the other hand, gatomjp deplores modern music that possesses exactly this same property. The only difference between them is that classical music has had several centuries to grow on us, whereas modern music has not. This is not the fault of the composers, it is merely a reflection of the passage of time. Great composers do not necessarily write music for their own time; they write it to challenge their audiences, recognizing that their music might not be appreciated for many years to come. Indeed, if classical composers had been unwilling to "take it beyond what most of the audience could enjoy," we might all still be listening to 14th century Gregorian chants.

    With this in mind, I reject the suggestion that music should consist of what "most of the audience could enjoy." How vacuous our music libraries would be if all music consisted only of popular music that appealed to the lowest common denominator of a mass audience. Will today's "Top 40" be played with reverence 300 years from now? Unlikely. Indeed, one of the many criticisms of Stalinist Russia was that it demanded that state-sponsored music be free of intellectualism, so that it might appeal to a peasant audience…and how much of that music do we now consider great? Yet, this appears to be exactly the outcome that gatomjp proposes. Who knows, perhaps music lovers, a century from now, will fondly listen to the music gatomjp criticizes, just as we now fondly listen to classical music that was once "startling in its time."

  5. gatomjp says:

    You're absolutely right Grumpy. My opinion does seem to be contradictory…until you dig a little deeper into the physics of sound itself.

    What is tonality and why does something sound good to us when it's in a “key”? Most of Western music begins at a certain place (tonally and metaphorically speaking) goes somewhere, and then comes back home. From symphonies to Sinatra this holds true. Why is that?

    Because chord progressions mimic the physics of sound.

    A vibrating string vibrates in more than one way. If you hit an A on a piano, a properly tuned string will vibrate at 440 times a second, thereby producing the note A. But it is also vibrating at 220 times a second and other smaller multiples each fainter than the last. It is the relative strength of these multiples (called overtones) that give a sound it’s particualr character and enables us to tell the difference between a piano, a flute and a violin.

    What is significant is that the first interval, half the note value, is also what is called the fifth. The interval of the fifth in music (in the case of A would be E) is the interval that most naturally and satisfyingly resolves back to the original. In other words, a song in the key of A feels like it is coming to a satisfying conclusion when we play an E chord and then back to the A.

    This is no accident nor is it cutural. The chord that most satisfyingly "wants" to move back to the root of the key is also the first harmonic of that root note. The organic relationship between the physics of sound and what humans like to hear extends to all of music theory and influences what "sounds good" or right. What makes music interesting however is how composers toy with this, delaying and teasing us before getting to that final resolution.

    For those of you desiring a more thorough scientific explanantion please see these links…

    It’s a shame that Schoenberg always gets the blame for this but he is the one most famous for creating the “12 tone series” which is a method of composition that deliberately avoids any feeling of a key by requiring that all the 12 notes of our chromatic scale be given equal time. The best word I can use to describe this kind of music is “random”, even though it is far from it. These are highly composed, well thought out pieces that wear on the ear from almost the first bar. Grumpy, do you listen to Schoenberg? Do you enjoy it? That music is 70 years old already and I don't yet hear the kids on the streets (or anyone else for that matter) whistling 12 tone serial tunes.

    I am not a musical Luddite. For 20 years I was a professional musician and I know that I listen to more varied and unusual music than most people. I love music that is pushed to the limits of tonality. The piano music of Ginastera teeters on the edge of chaos and is thrilling to me…unlistenable to everyone else I know. I am not someone who insists on a “pretty tune” although there is something very special about that as well. What I am suggesting is that there is a physical limit to what the human ear can enjoy.

    It's as if I asked you to watch a slide show and then sped it up faster and faster. Pretty soon your eye wouldn't be able to take in each image and everything would become a blur. The same with music IMO. There comes a point when the rootlessness of the kind of academic, “modern” music exemplified by Shoenberg and his disciples simply doesn't have any relationship to the organic way that sound works and the human brain perceives it.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    gatomjp's explanation is only partly true, because it discusses only Western music and ignores the long history of atonal music common throughout Asia. Thus, atonality is *not* universally unpleasant to the ear; even though it might be widely displeasing to most Western ears.

    In any case, the point of my previous comment was not to discuss the theoretical merits of 20th century orchestral music (some of which does, indeed, sound like rubbish to me); my point was that gatomjp's analysis is not valid, because it applies different standards of beauty to classical and modern music. Namely, only one of those two categories of music has had several centuries to become pleasing to a large percentage of Western ears; the other, being only a few decades old, has not. Thus, it is unfair to compare them as directly as gatomjp has done, because they do not stand on equal footing. The true measure of modern music (or, at least, the one that gatomjp applies to classical music) will be whether it is still appreciated several centuries from now. Only from that perspective could we evaluate the two genres equally.

    Moreover, we should not forget that classical and modern music was written for entirely different purposes and for totally different audiences. Classical music was primarily party music, written to please and entertain royal (rich) audiences. It was pop music, intended to be pleasing and popular, and to make its composers the rock stars of their time. By contrast, modern (20th century) orchestral music was often what we might call protest music, written to symbolize the chaos and disorientation that is common in modern, mechanized, urban society. Visual artists were doing the same thing with paint, clay and architecture, which is why 20th century artistic movements — expressionism, surrealism, cubism, dadaism, fauvism, etc. — look nothing like artistic styles from the classical era. Even French impressionism — art that today draws record-breaking audiences to art galleries — was considered rubbish by the established artists of that time. Likewise, modern music, like modern art but unlike classical music, was often never intended to be pleasing and popular; often, just the opposite.

    I'll go one step further. gatomjp's previous comment blamed modern music for the decline in popularity of symphony attendance since 1950. Again, this conclusion is unsupported. Before 1950, people had far fewer entertainment options to choose from than they do today. Therefore, although there might, in fact, be a *correlation* between the arrival of modern music and a decline in symphony attendance, we cannot automatically assume there is *causation* by the former to the latter. Many other factors might have caused a decline in symphony attendance, not the least of which being the arrival, during the 1950s, of both television (which distratected people from previous forms of entertainment, such as attending the symphony) and high-fidelity phonograph recordings and home stereo equipment (which gave people the ability to listen to high quality orchestral music without attending the symphony). Still more entertainment options arrived in subsequent decades: rock music and rock concerts in the 1960s and 1970s, VCRs and CDs in the 1980s, PCs, video games and the Internet in the 1990s, etc. Since 1950, there has been an explosion in the variety of music available, thus making orchestral music just one of many, many choices for music fans.

    In sum, I agree with gatomjp that the style of 20th century symphonic music probably has played a role in the decline in symphony attendance, but I disagree with the assertion that it is the sole cause, and I also disagree (for the reasons I stated in my previous comment) with the assertion that composers and their funding sources should only develop music that appeals to a mass audience. Music has served different purposes at different times, and it will continue to do so in the decades and centuries ahead. Accordingly, to apply a single standard of popularity, by which to directly compare the different styles of music as gatomjp has done, is simply not meaningful.

  7. gatomjp says:

    Grumpy makes several good points. But he also has several common misconceptions that I’d like to clear up, most notably about atonal music.

    Grumpy reveals his very Western bias when he characterizes Asian music as atonal. He is confusing microtonal for atonal. Microtonal music separates the octave into more than the twelve steps we Westerners have settled on. It sounds strange to our ears but it is decidedly tonal, in fact often more tonal than the music we listen to because non-Western music often eschews chord progressions and modulation entirely and centers on a root drone, as in Indian Ragas.

    Truly atonal music, music that favors no root key whatsoever, is somewhat rare. It is also difficult to produce because the human tendency is to find a resting place for the ear. Schoenberg himself recognized this and had to devise his rigid 12-tone system to combat his own inherent desire to write tonally, which further supports my theory that atonal music is…let’s say, unnatural and therefore ultimately unsatisfying.

    There is never only one cause of anything and those factors that Grumpy mentions most certainly were more responsible for bringing about the marginalization of the symphony orchestra than bad music. But it didn't help that composers were writing music that was not relevant to many people. If you read essays on music from that time (the 40s and 50s) lack of relevancy was a common theme.

    Not everyone was creating unlistenable music, however. Aaron Copland was at that time developing a style that he felt was distinctly American AND accessible AND relevant. Though his pieces seemed more simple than much of the orchestral music of the time, Copland's work was quite daring, tonally speaking, and still communicated to many people which, if I'm not mistaken, is the purpose of art, is it not?

    I believe my opinion is valid because I was not separating music into two categories, “then” vs “now”, as Grumpy contends. Rather, I was expressing my feeling that the progress of formal musical development was a continuum which had been moving away from classical tonality and reached a point, just before the midpoint of the last century, that went beyond what the human brain was able to enjoy. In fact, much of the music that was written during and after this time is some of my favorite in the world.

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    I appreciate gatomjp correcting my misconceptions. Indeed, I was unware of the details of Asian music, and gatomjp's explanation is both clear and helpful, even to someone like me who knows almost nothing about the subject.

    The one point upon which gatomjp and I still seem to disagree is over the question of whether art should communicate to multitudes or elites. It seems to me that art (aural, visual, kinetic, etc.) usually obeys an inverse function: the more daring or provocative its message, the fewer people it will communicate this message to. This is unfortunate, but apparently unavoidable. gatomjp proposes that music should be at one end of this curve, while I prefer the other. Ironically, this blog through which we are having this discussion is an example of my preference: messages that lean (heavily) toward the provocative at the expense of reaching a relatively tiny audience. Magazines such as "People" occupy the opposite end of the curve. Neither extreme is better in any absolute sense, but I am pleased that gatomjp, by participating in this blog, believes that literature, at least, should err toward the provocative. Accordingly, I will hold out hope that gatomjp will someday also feel the same way about music.

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    Art is one category of vectors of communication. That is, the arts collectively make up a series of approaches to media (painting, dance, music, sculpture, etc) that are intended to evoke an understanding or appreciation of something, from one individual or group to another.

    Pop music (such as Mozart, Elvis, or AC/DC) communicates to the masses. Elitist constructions such as abstract art or "modern" symphony are intended to push the edge of understanding of the cognoscenti. Both are viable forms of expression when viewed in the right cultural matrix.

    The scores underlying this post are an in joke for that portion of humanity that can read music, with some scatter to those who just know about reading music. The gag is probably best if, on hearing the cacophony these scores produce, one can see the score in one's minds-eye.

    For every thing there is a season, and an audience. Eventually.

  10. gatomjp says:

    Now that we have dispensed with some of the more esoteric minutia of music theory in particular, we get to a debate about art in general that has always been near and dear to my heart, namely…

    Is it better to make art that communicates a bland message to many…or create art that communicates a pointed, perhaps controversial message to few?

    Obviously, the best would be a work of art that does both…communicates a provocative message to many, but that's rarely possible.

    In my lifetime I have been on both sides of the fence with regard to my opinion about mass communication. When I was younger and a budding, angry musician, I favored Grumpy's stance, that of strong controversial messages delivered to only those who could appreciate and understand it. In those days I created unorthodox, personal music that no one wanted to listen to.

    Now I find that I want my current art (videography) to be more accessible to more people and it does seem that I have been more successful than I was with my music. Does this reflect a more mature attitude or am I now a sell-out? I will not deny that it simply could have meant that I was a bad composer but a good videographer! In either case, that's where I am now and that attitude has certainly colored this debate with Grumpy.

    I would like to state, for the record, that I never would want to discourage any artist from making his art in the way that he sees fit just to satisfy a quest for mass appeal. In fact, quite the contrary. If an artist is not true to her vision she is sure to fail.

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