Music and structure


The other day, a neurobiologist (who had recently published a book, doing away with the ‘romantic notion’ of ‘personality’ and ‘soul’), accused me of being merely a bag of neurons. ‘Speak for yourself’, I reacted, since her happy smile betrayed her accusation to be perfectly referring to herself, and went out for a walk to the stables.

Why are there so many people around with the burning wish to put the fluent, immaterial aspects of life down to physical phenomenae? As we know, the radio set is for the programme, not the other way around, and understanding the working of the human brain does not reveal anything worth knowing about the personality using this organ to interact with the world. Why are there so many musicologists, music theorists, composers, music aestheticians, pursuing the goal of explaining music in rational, scientific terms?

Does the order of the notes of a Beethoven string quartet say something about its musical meaning and its emotional effect? Does the explanation of formal properties of a Wagner opera contribute to its mesmerizing power over audiences? Debussy had nothing but contempt for music science which he compared to ‘mandarin work’, i.e. totally useless exercises in theoretical analysis that don’t relate to reality, like medieval discussions about the question of how many angels could sit on the point of a needle. But musicological analysis which described the psychological level, i.e. how music is experienced and how it creates meaning, he welcomed wholeheartedly. Wagner had been accused again and again of being an amateur, misunderstanding the ‘laws of music’, accusations which were – of course – coming from the classicist factions of music life which saw in Wagner’s musical continuum a threat to the ‘stable’ structures of classical music. But in Meistersinger Wagner proved to be able to handle traditional technique perfectly well: after the emotional and chromatic excesses of Tristan he returned to tradition in an attempt to explain the relationship between tradition and innovation, which is the subject of the work: opera about opera, like Strauss’ Capriccio. Since audiences do not listen analytically but emotionally and aesthetically, structural aspects are not relevant to them – although these aspects do, of course, play a crucial role in the composition process.

Since music is such an ephemeral art form, a ‘non-conceptual communication’ of emotional experiences, a lot of abstract thinking is needed to write an effective, good piece of music. But all technical considerations are merely the means to an end: the musical vision, which has to be communicated. This vision, which takes form in the composers’ mind, can only be communicated through the receptive framework of a musical tradition, which informs composers, performing artists and audiences alike. A tradition consists of conventions, like a language rests upon a body of rules and agreements, forming a bridge of understanding from one person to another. And as in language, there is a difference between the level of words and grammar and the message which makes use of the words and their structuring. The same with music: what is ‘said’, cannot be ‘explained’ by analysis of the means: the combination of notes, tempo, colour etc.

It goes without saying that a musical ‘language’ is not literally structured like a real language, since music does not posses a grammar in the same way that language does. There are many different idioms in music, all of which – if the music is good and effective – are characterized by any kind of intrinsic logic, which may differ considerably from each other. But this logic is of a different nature than the logic of linguistic grammar. The notion of a ‘musical language’ is a metaphorical one, not a literal one. (An extensive analysis of the relationship between music and language can be found in Roger Scruton’s ‘The Aesthetics of Music’, Oxford University Press 1997, chapter 7.) Any grammar, be it in language or in music, has rules, which are there for supporting the means of communication. But these rules are sprinkled with exceptions, so that overall the rules form a flexible and often complex context. ‘I like rules, because one can move so freely within them. But I don’t want to be constricted by them’ (as said sister Wendy Becket, the famous British art nun who made such brilliant BBC documentaries about painting). Deviations from rules for expressive reasons are only possible if there are rules to deviate from; an art form without rules cannot be expressive.

The art of composition is the art of psychology expressed through tonal combinations and structures. Also the structure can be the ‘message’ as with, for instance, Bach’s Kunst der Fuge, which is – like Meistersinger and Capriccio – music about music. But it is in the movements which leave the dry scholastic exercises behind and take-off into the free realm of creative fantasy, that the poetics of order create an emotional experience which can rightfully be called superior music. The misunderstanding of the structural aspect of music has led, in the last century, to the idea that (metaphorically speaking) the radio set has a value and meaning in itself apart from the programme. I cannot imagine a more pointless exercise than sitting still in front of a silent radio set and admire its construction, thinking that it is THIS where the thing has been invented for.

If the universe is meaningless and merely a void filled with dumb matter here and there, what a gift it is that on this planet there is meaning and beauty to be found in the arts, and especially: in serious music. A bag of neurons would be completely oblivious of it.

John Borstlap / 2013

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