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Sunday, February 14, 2010

On music: meaning and experimentation

I've read suggestions that music has a vocabulary that has evolved in a way similar to that of natural (vocal) languages. The foundation has to do with proportionality; apparently a favorite topic of certain agean-dwelling people.

Its amazing to me that the Pythagoreans we able to discover the concept of octaves, perfect thirds, perfect fifths, and so on. If these were arbitrary designations they wouldn't be very interesting, but an octave (for instance) is an exact doubling of the frequency of the wave. How could early people have captured such an abstract concept? Is it really that easy to hear that A (440) and A (880) are the "same" note? Well, an octave is also produced by exactly halving the length of the string, which is probably why it was discovered and named. Whats intriguing is the connection between the doubling of the frequency, the halving of the length, and the subjective perception of "sameness". Its easy enough for us to see why that happens (except for maybe the last part), what with our understanding of sounds-as-waves; but I wonder what how the Greeks explained the phenomenon? I may have to do some more reading in that regard.

The point I'm getting at: there is meaning in the primitive foundations of music, and that suggests that there is meaning in the constructs that are derived from them. Is the meaning expressible in words? It seems that words are arbitrarily powerful so probably they can be; but perhaps whatever is being communicated in musical concepts is better suited to the musical medium.

It seems that music is taught as a pass-time, rather than as a language. Not being-well educated in music myself, I don't have much to offer by way of suggestions. But if a musical grammar exists, it seems that it would be a good foundation for musical creativity and exploration. Certainly grammar is a very useful tool for communicating verbal concepts; its useful because its an agreed-upon protocol between communicating individuals.

The "agreed upon" bit, I think, is a sticking point for artists. "Convention? Bah! I will cut my own path! I will make something entirely new!" Well and good, but don't underestimate the depth of conventional mediums, nor the difficulty of establishing new (significant) ones. Any jaded soul who quips "there's nothing new under the sun... anything creative's already been done" can look to combinatorics for assurance that there are very likely still undiscovered and significant pearls of beauty even in well-established mediums.