User:FloraC/Fundamental principles to musical sense

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One of the problems I cannot help but confront is to answer why I approach music composition this specific way and what sense it even makes – even though it has not been made explicit by virtually anybody. This little essay explains what is meant by my use of the term "musical sense", and I would also love to share a few principles I tend to follow as a composer and music theorist.

Chapter I

Ideally, music composition or any artistic creation is characterized by a series of conscious choices, by which the unique identity of a work is determined. The choices, set aside if there exists anything known as free will, is a full exposition of the author's agency. That was much the case in the past. With advanced technology, however, the nature of composition nowadays appears to shift, as algorithms and artificial intelligence play increasingly significant parts in composition. That apart, everybody is augmented with at least some sort of technology. It follows with the importance to understand composition in this condition, and evaluation of real works must also be taken with care.

It is intuitive to assert that technology tends to "invade" the author's agency, for which it often acts as a substitute. Using AI to generate music pieces results in the author making fewer decisions and having less control of it, notwithstanding the huge difference between composition which involves consciously selecting the generated result and that which do not. Yet actually, agency has always been central to composition that no pieces can be completed without exposition thereof. It cannot be waived either, because that practice per se is such an exposition. The choice to take whatever the AI generates is still a conscious choice, after all. Therefore, difference of musical sense only arises in how the composer exerts their agency.

We have seen that the major concern is how one decides to control the music pieces. Some modernist composers valued it so much and even acted such that full control of their musical materials is an achievement to be very proud of. However, such impression of controlling may well be but an illusion. What is the subject that controls? What causes the piece to be what it is? The truth is in musical feelings.

Musical feelings are feelings invoked from an understanding of musical experience, which are fundamentally musical with no verbal counterparts in any existing natural language. For example, experiences of the major key and of the minor key invoke feelings distinct from each other. One may be tempted to signify those feelings by "majorness" and "minorness", respectively. Unfortunately, that not only misses the point but also stereotypes them with oversimplified invoking sources. The necessity to verbalize musical feelings should really never be found, as beautifully put by Felix Mendelssohn, "the music fills the soul with a thousand things better than words"[1].

So why would one feel like composing in the first place? It is important to point out that musical feelings lie just in the composer's conscious mind. As one sets out to compose, the musical feelings emerge and flow with tremendous driving force like a defrosting river. As a necessary consequence, the exposition of the composer's conscious mind, or an exposition of controlling if we will call it, entails shaping music following musical feelings. That is exactly where the maximum of musical sense consists.

In contrast, what is sometimes referred to as "control" by the modernists is the scheme where the subject is deliberately departed of musical feelings, an exercise to feed the mind with less relevant materials as they are not rooted in an understanding of musical experience, with its driving force derived from nowhere else than superstition. So we see how those modernist's concept of control alienated the subject. There is no surprise those modernists only produced craps with no musical sense.

Of course, as a listener, agency is no transparent, and the composer's intention is not revealed by simply studying the work. That is the reason why it is important to live in a society.

Chapter II

The sensual limits to which we human beings are subject do not further help to determine musical sense in any constructive way.

Many a listener, for example, struggles to hear a pitch difference of a couple of cents, on which basis they believe such pitch materials make no musical sense. Obviously, they may reason, if you cannot sense the music, it does not make musical sense.

It turns out that the premise is false. Actually, in order for that reason to hold, the scope of sensation has to be dramatically dwarfed. Now suppose I cannot see a piece of hair, should I say hair makes no artistic sense because I cannot see a single piece of hair, anybody would deem it ridiculous. You will find the assertion about the pitch difference of a couple of cents is not anything different.

Furthermore, it is totally reasonable to make sense of what we literally do not sense. Did Beethoven quit composing since his hearing collapsed? He did not! With grace and courage, he embraced the destiny and thereby carried on with some of the most exciting and inspiring creations of all time. That only tells us: the sensual facticity imposing on us by sheer contingency is hollow and absurd. Our mental capacity i.e. the capability of apprehension extends well beyond what we sense.

Another mode quite harmful to musical sense is to take certain instances of homo sapiens as the projected audience. Hence they worry about the audience not taking the opportunity to hear all the subtleties in their works. In fact, the audience is a historical being, whereas music is "absolute sonic phenomena", said Kyle Gann[2], and musical sense does not depend on the very presence of audience. Au contraire, it does harm to shy away from what we presume the audience cannot grasp. Most materials, techniques and cultural gestures demand certain level of knowledge or training, and it is fine. Their nominativity is evidence of their feasibility. A composer sticking to musical sense always remains faithful with the audience.

That said, mental capacity is the only hard limit of musical sense. In the Matrix, the Oracle said to Neo, "We can never see past the choices we don't understand." I find it a perfect verse to conclude this article.


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© 2021 Flora Canou

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