Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Not Quite Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Tonality but Were Afraid to Ask (but I’m Going to Tell You, Anyway)

Whenever I start off talking about how music is “put together,” whatever level of student I’m dealing with, I usually begin by making some obvious analogies.

When we talk about learning a language – and we all speak or read a language or two – I start by saying, We have
letters which we combine with other letters to form
words which we group together to form
sentences which convey ideas or thoughts or observations or whatever it is we’re talking about.

We can take these sentences and combine them in ways to create
paragraphs which, given the flow of those ideas or thoughts or whatever, form perhaps some kind of
conversation or, in the larger sense, a chapter in a book, perhaps, or maybe sub-sections of some kind that, strung together, form longer and longer units until, eventually, we might have a
short story, a novel or some kind of book whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Once we start getting into larger groupings of these letters, we have more options as to what they can become or how they become something.

For instance, the idea of putting words into sentences requires some kind of logical way of conveying sense, and so we have singular and plural forms of nouns, tenses of verbs, agreement between nouns and adjectives; we have pronouns and adverbs and adjectives and prepositions. And how they’re used we call grammar.

So the same kind of thing – being careful not to be too literal – exists in music. We can start with a tone which we call a
pitch which we can combine with other pitches in a linear way to create a
melody which, depending on how we shape it, can be grouped into larger units called
phrases which can also be grouped into larger units comparable to a sentence which can also be grouped together to form the equivalent of musical “paragraphs” until we have
sections which might be identifiable by different ways to create larger and larger units until we’d have something more or less complete which might be a
complete piece of music or, if not quite so complete but leading on to more, would be called
movements which, in their totality, would form larger and larger pieces of music, compositions that might be called
a minuet or a sonata or a symphony or maybe a song, or an opera.

We can also take another pitch and add it on top of our original single pitch to create an
interval and then, by combining two intervals or more on top of each other, you create a
chord which can be played in succession, one after the other, to form a
chord progression which then, depending on how we group them, can form
phrases and larger units until we have sections and movements and eventually a complete composition, whether it’s a song, sonata or symphony.

There are of course many other things these units can form: like leggos, these blocks of melodies and chord progressions are the building blocks any composer would use for any piece of music, no matter what it’s called, no matter how long or short it is, no matter when it’s written but speaking primarily in terms of standard Western Classical Music between, say, 1600 and the present.

Another aspect of organizing pitches, intervals and chords into a series of chords called a “progression” is what we call
harmony which is the equivalent in music of grammar in language.

We can take phrases and put them together and they have a kind of “musical punctuation” with something called a
cadence which can mean one thing to somebody in marching band (a repeated rhythmic pattern you march to) or in the military (“sound off!”) but in classical music, it refers to the “point of repose” at the end of a phrase, how it comes “to rest.”

So, like a comma, you can have a “half cadence.” Or, like a period, a “full cadence.”

There can also be something that might be the equivalent of a semi-colon which continues the sentence with another phrase in order to give you more information or possibilities of understanding, and this might be a “deceptive cadence,” one that doesn’t go where you expect it (it deceives you by going someplace unexpected).

In the simpler music of the late-18th Century, for instance, these cadences can be fairly obvious. This is a fingerprint of the “classical” or “left-brained” style.

But in more complex music – for instance the first half of the 18th century or the second half of the 19th Century which we might describe as more “right-brained” – these phrases can run together and sound like the musical equivalent of a run on sentence which seems to never stop, where the cadences may blend together in such ways you have these long strings of phrases, perhaps taking you into different directions – and maybe digressions like, for instance, pointing out somebody’s expression or how the sun glinted off the new-fallen snow – before taking you back to the original intent of the thought and getting it bloody well finished. End.

(See? That’s two sentences of 26 words in the simpler style as opposed to one sentence of 108 words in the more complex style.)

Now, expectation is something very important in music: a composer sets up certain expectations and if those expectations are satisfactorily met, the piece (or example) could be satisfying – or, if it’s too predictable, it might be unsatisfying or not as satisfying. So, composers like to throw in bits of things that might not be expected – a note in the melody that might raise an eyebrow, a chord that might make you (even minutely) sit back a moment, a resolution of a chord that… well, just wasn’t what you expected.

These may be emotional responses and they have ways, in varying degrees, of turning the unexpected into some form of
tension which then requires, sooner or later, some form of
release or resolution.

This tension could be a kind of dissonance if only because it’s unexpected and requires it to be resolved. When it resolves, it resolves to something expected but maybe overdue… and we sit back with some kind of “sigh of relief.” We have arrived at the expected and this would be a consonance.

You can read more about consonance and dissonance at this earlier post.

I often describe something that is entirely consonant as the musical equivalent of plain oatmeal, perhaps not very satisfying in the long run. While we often think of dissonance as something ugly, it can be a carefully placed chord that spikes your interest – and, given our bowl of bland oatmeal, might be the addition of maple flavor or raisins or a dash of cinnamon which can be very pleasant. Of course, you could also add, say, cayenne pepper a dash of Mongolian Throat-Burning Sauce and the response might be not so pleasant (though there's probably somebody out there who’d like it).

Dissonance is like adding spice to food: it enhances everything around it and makes it more interesting. The degree of dissonance and how it’s handled makes the difference: a badly plunked chord where it doesn’t belong or doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do can ruin it, expectations or not.

What is your emotional response to the cliff-hanger ending of a chapter or a story: will the wedding be postponed? Will our hero, knocked unconscious in that bomb-blast, revive in time to rescue his abducted partner? This is what makes a novel a "page-turner:" to find out what's going to happen next, you keep reading. I hate May in television season when all my favorite shows end in cliff-hangers: I have to deal with this tension all summer long until we find out “how it works out” in the fall! Yikes! Talk about waiting for the tension to resolve! But they make sure you're going to tune in to that first show of the new season.

So this “play of tension/release, consonance/dissonance” is very important to the organization of music and becomes a very important part of something we call
Harmony, which doesn’t necessarily imply something that is merely “harmonious” (as in peaceful).

Harmony, in this sense, is the study of the grammar of music – what makes chords work and how they work together, moving from one chord to the next. This hierarchy of chords is similar to the hierarchy of pitches in a given scale (see below). There is a perceived logic to the way one pitch moves to the next and the way one chord moves to the next.

Music students take courses in theory which, unlike science where a “theory” is something that’s not yet proven, is regarded in music as a collection of “rules.” And we’re not supposed to break these rules until we’ve figured out how to use them (some teachers say “never”) – and then we do so with the caution that a badly broken rule is not the same as a “well-broken” rule.

In other words, there’s a logic to the rules of Harmony but if we apply a similar (if different) kind of logic to breaking them, then we can create a different sound out of our chords with new expectations and perhaps new ways of applying the same old concepts but with a new sound.

This is how we’ve gotten from monks singing Gregorian Chant in 900A.D. to orchestras playing a Beethoven symphony in 1803. It will also become more important as we work our way through the rest of the 19th Century toward the 20th Century when many traditional classical music lovers would think “there are no rules, any more! They don’t write music like they used to.”

There are not the same rules any more, just like they weren’t using the same rules they'd used in 1775 to write a symphony in 1875.

If everybody kept writing music like they used to, we’d still be a bunch of monks singing Gregorian Chants.

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One important thing to realize is that “theory” (or the study of these musical rules – “harmony” is only a part of this) comes after the fact. It analyzes what’s been done and codifies the rules into some kind of awareness of what’s accepted and not accepted.

Keeping that in mind, if we’re talking about the rules that Haydn and Beethoven may have lived by, it’s unfair to criticize composers like Bach in the early-18th Century or Josquin des Pres in the 15th who came before them for not following the rules. They had their own rules – but very often, these rules (at least early on) were not written down: they were understood. You did it this way because that’s how it worked.

Bach learned how to write music by doing two things: he studied other composers’ music and he wrote lots of music to both imitate those composers and find out how – and more importantly why – these things worked. He didn’t read text books. There was no “Idiots Guide to Writing a Fugue.”

Theorists, long after Bach died, examined the fugues Bach wrote and came up with different ways of codifying the rules of fugue-writing. This meant composers in the 19th and 20th Centuries could read these books and no longer have to “reinvent the wheel.” But it also turned fugue-writing into a kind of musical puzzle which often left the final product sounding a bit too academic.

When we take our single isolated note and play it on a piano, we can create a scale by playing the successive notes on the keyboard, moving upward till we’ve reached that same note an octave higher than our original pitch.
This is called a scale and the pitches within the scale follow certain patterns of whole steps (here, shown by slurs underneath the notes) and half steps (the thingee shown above the notes) that can become major or minor scales – there are others and variants of these, too, but these are the most important ones for music between 1700 and the present day. In the illustration, it's a C Major scale. C is the primary pitch generating the scale, so it's called, for some reason, the tonic.

You can call them by their pitch names or, if you were European, you’d use syllables that had been applied to them since the 1400s – do (rhymes with “doe”), re, mi, fa, sol (pronounced “so”), la and ti before we come back to “do.” Now I have that song from The Sound of Music running through my head… But still, it’s not a bad introduction to what we call “solfege” (SOUL-fedzh)…

The notes in these scales have different roles, for lack of a better idea: the main pitch – in this case, the C – is called the tonic so when a piece is called “Thing in C Major,” that means the “key” of the piece is C Major built on the tonic, C.

A key is basically the set of pitches in that given scale. The key could be G Major or F Minor and the scale would be the appropriate pattern for that scale (major or minor) starting with that tonic (G or F). It can also imply other pitches in relation to it, pitches that are not in this particular scale but may be more or less related to it.

Since the second most important pitch in a C Major Scale is G – it just is – it is, unfortunately, called the dominant. Doesn’t that imply it’s actually the most important pitch? Uhm… yeah, this is where that whole logic thing kinda breaks down? But that’s how the term is used in music.

The F in that C Major scale, one step under the dominant, G, is called the “subdominant” (well, that makes sense).

The Tonic, Dominant and Subdominant are the three most important chords to create a basic chord progression - going in reverse order from the weaker to the stronger: the subdominant normally leads to the dominant which eventually resolves to the tonic. Like this:

a basic cadential formula
Going back to the scale (above), the note D, one step above the tonic, C, is called the “supertonic” (though it does not have any particularly super powers: it comes from the Latin meaning “above”).

The third note of the scale – in this case, the E – is called the “mediant” as it’s in the middle, between the tonic and the dominant – and the interval of a third between them, at that. Consequently, going in the opposite direction, the note that’s a third below the tonic, not quite halfway to the dominant, is the pitch A which is called the “submediant.” The note directly beneath the final or upper tonic, the B, is given the unglamorous name “Leading Tone” which is not like a “leading lady” in the cast, but a tone that leads to the tonic… If you sang the scale only to the B, it would feel unresolved – and you’d have to resolve the anticipation by playing the next note to end the scale – C.

There are stories that Leopold Mozart didn’t need an alarm clock to wake up his sleepy son, Wolfgang: he’d play a scale and end on the leading tone. This would automatically awaken him and he’d run to the keyboard and play the tonic to resolve the unexpected tension caused by… waiting. Cute story, probably not true, but still…

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Now, the idea of a scale with all these “scale degrees” creates the “universal set of available pitches” called a key. There are then off-shoots of these sets related to the original scale degrees which could create new keys because, like consonance/dissonance and the idea of variety, things get pretty oatmeally if we stay only in the original key.

So we can move or “migrate” to a different key – this is called modulation and there are any number of ways we can move from one key to another and to which key we can modulate to.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, composers stuck to the basically closer keys – meaning those built on the scale degrees of the original tonic key (except for the 'leading tone'). And the two most logical were to the dominant for G Major and to the submediant if you wanted to go to a minor key, in this case A Minor. Now, I didn’t get into key signatures, here, but C Major and A Minor have the same key signature (no sharps or flats) – therefore, they’re closely related. Never mind that, for now, that’s just one of these rules.

But later, through the 19th Century, composers would become more adventuresome. Mozart in the 1780s was a little more adventuresome than most of his colleagues and it’s interesting that while we now consider Mozart one of the Great Composers from his era, he was not a typical composer from his era, and his sense of adventure often perplexed listeners who would often prefer something that was… well, a little more oatmeally…

Beethoven and Schubert (early-19th Century) and other composers like Brahms (late-19th Century) might just start moving to less closely related keys, in fact to keys whose tonic pitches aren’t even a part of that initial tonic scale. These, when first heard, would create that kind of raised eyebrow – what’s he doing, here? It created a sense of the unexpected – some tension – and the expectation was finally resolved when you’d come back to that original key.

This resolution of the dissonance – the statement of the initial key; the modulation away from it; the return to the initial key – became a hallmark of classical music between around 1700 to at least 1900.

Today, we call this tonality.

That initial tonic key now suggests a whole operation of rules that guide us in the control of expectations and how to treat the unexpected – the digression from the initial key to its inevitable return to it.

This began falling apart as music became more complex – again, the simplicity/complexity thing – when composers started going further afield for their digressions and the concept of the return was lessened because… well, sometimes you couldn’t recognize the initial tonic any more.

But more on that, later…

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So basically, the whole idea of tonality is music that is centered in a given key (the tonic scale is basically the universal set of available pitches; later, this would become a basic set which could branch off into other more or less related sets) and which is conscious of the importance of that tonic, the dramatic impact of getting away from that tonic (for variety, if nothing else) and the significance of eventually returning to that tonic.

You could do that in a phrase: the first half of the phrase (to a half cadence) might modulate briefly to the dominant, then by the time you reach the full cadence at the end of the next phrase, you've firmly returned to the initial tonic. And you can do that within larger units as well.

So in this extended view, the formula becomes something like:

statement + digression + restatement (or return) = Tonality.

Interestingly, though Bach and Mozart and Beethoven were all consciously working within the rules of what we call Tonality, the term itself wasn’t invented until the 19th Century by one or another French theorist (not composers, but people who analyzed composers’ music). Some sources say it was first used in 1810, others in 1821. Regardless, that’s a lot later than Bach writing in 1720!

So you see how “after-the-fact” theory really is, compared to the music it analyzes?

Now, this isn’t THE END, unfortunately… because this concept of tonality is the hallmark behind the idea of FORM in music, during this period of time.

The structure of a piece of music isn’t actually determined by the melody which you may think is front and center in your attention, but it’s determined by the use of tonality which is constantly operating in the background whether you’re aware of it or not.

But, for now, we’ll say “more on that, later…”

- Dick Strawser

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