Sir Barken Hyena writes:
As a youngin’ I was first exposed to music theory in high school. I had a great music teacher, one of those rare souls blessed with contagious enthusiasm. I found, to my surprise, that I had a knack for it. It was the opposite of math: I got it instantly while everyone else struggled and lagged behind. Effortless A’s in a subject that was actually hard for once. I did my harmonization assignments in pen – no erasing! – and got 100%. Take that losers!
And yet, and yet…what did it all really mean?
I could hear that a Dominant Seventh resolved to the Tonic, and that same relationship could pivot to another key…but why? What forces were at work here? Where did these currents in sound come from? And, more mysterious, why did chords have emotional resonance at all?
Music Theory didn’t seem even to ask these questions. Now, at this time I was a devotee of Harry Partch. He was an early 20th century composer who threw the whole of western music out the window, along with it’s complex harmonic system going back to the Middle Ages. Instead of 12 tones per octave, he developed his own scale of 43, and an orchestra of instruments to play it. This led me to believe that music theory as I learned it was arbitrary, a matter of conditioning. We all grew up hearing the Dominant/Tonic thing millions of times (think 50’s doo-wop) and so it became implanted, and expected.
I gave up on music theory and hewed to the blank slate, as supplied by Brian Eno and others. (See my post The Brian Eno Disease). Having run that ship aground after rowing in circles, I’ve returned to the world of Dominants and Tonics and Modulations and all of that. But not Theory: I’m learning harmony by playing guitar and piano, empirically, with hands on and not a blackboard in sight. The right way. And I think I have a clue as to how and why those mysterious chords work their ineffable magic on us.
Here comes Mr Science!
To explain further, humor me while I put on my Mr Science hat. First let’s distinguish between noise and musical tone. Most natural sound is noise, which doesn’t mean unpleasant, only chaotic. Waves on the beach, wind in the trees, etc. But musical tone has pitch. And that sense of pitch comes from a defined series of tones hidden within that we don’t perceive outright, but the brain decodes. And it’s always the same: it’s called the Harmonic Series. Play a C on a trumpet, a piano, a flute, they all have this same series.
Now, why would we be able to hear this? It’s a complex process to decode sound, there must be some payoff or why would the ability have evolved? Because the series is also the key to timbre, or tone color, so it also helps us hear what kind of emotion is behind the voice: a growl from cooing, a cry from a shout of joy, and so on.
Thought That Was Dull? Now Comes the History
In the past, almost all music, all over the world, was monotonic: only one tone was sung or played at a time, no matter how many instruments. Harmony, or polyphony (“many sounds”), which is used in virtually every minute of music we’ve ever heard in our lives, had not been invented (I’m simplifying for the sake of clarity so hold your fire, pedants). No 50’s doo-wop for the Romans.
Harmony as we know it started to develop in the Middle Ages. Why would it take so long? Well, any non-musician who’s sat at a piano and made an awful cacophony can grok that there’s some secret knowledge needed to put tones together in a way that makes nice music. And bit by bit, the monks of Europe figured it out. Clearly, they had some time on their hands. Slowly they built a systematic method of harmonizing different tones that produced pleasing music. It was unlike anything heard before.
And the way they did it was to use the harmonic series, embedded in nature, to guide the placement of these new extra tones. Bit by bit the system was expanded, through Bach, Stravinsky and jazz to the deep complex harmonies we have today.
So Where Does The Brain Hacking Come In?
If the emotional content of a voice is imparted to us and decoded by the brain via the harmonics, perhaps chords work the same way? And that’s where the hacking comes in. Because the chords we use only approximate the harmonics of nature. The actual tones are rearranged in subtle and complex ways. When we go from simple sounds like our doo-wop to more complex harmonies like The Rite of Spring or Thelonius Monk, nature has been left far behind.
Steven Pinker in his fascinating book “How the Mind Works” speculated about the origin of the aesthetic response to visual art, which has no apparent evolutionary survival justification. Basically he described it as the equivalent of cheesecake. Cheesecake packs together dense flavors that don’t occur together in nature, which thus overwhelm the palette and make the pleasure meter go off the chart in a way that natural foods don’t. The visual senses are similarly overwhelmed by art.
As a theory of aesthetic pleasure I find this wanting, to say the least, but I’m not trying to explain pleasure but communication. Suppose that our modern chords plug into that part of the brain that expects to decode emotions from voices, but the sounds going in don’t quite fit the templates, and so it tricks out strange new sensations, never experienced in nature? The brain’s system has been hacked, and the internal workings exposed to the harmonic scientist now in control, who takes it where he will. That would make the polyphony of those ancient monks, and modern Monk, a form of low tech brain hacking, quite akin to the way graphical perspective tricks the eye in art.
If so, it makes me wonder what other strange sensations might be slumbering within us, just waiting for some genius to think of a hack to bring them to life?