9. On the Physical Nature of Music

There are three important characteristics of music, which I think most people would agree with.

Music is for the ear. We do not eat music, nor smell music, nor see music. In our modern age we call what we see on paper, “music,” but it is not. What is on paper is in part a symbol of music, but it is a symbol of only the grammar of music. There are no symbols on the paper for feeling or emotions, which is the real role of music.

Music exists only in live performance before a listener. A recording is not music. The recording bears the same relationship to music as does a photograph to a real person.

The purpose of music is to understand and communicate emotions. While everyone understood this for thousands of years, it became clear with the modern clinical findings on our bicameral brain. The right brain, where the experimental and personal emotions lie, is mute. It cannot make a sentence. The left brain, a depository of secondary data, includes language, but when it comes to talking about music or writing about music, as is clearly also true with the emotions of love, the left brain is tasked with writing about something it knows nothing about. Thus the importance of music — a language of feeling which can be heard and understood by all.

In addition there are genetic parts of music which are as old as man. All philologists believe that “music” was present before speech, in the form of simple emotions expressed through vowel like sounds, much like the sounds a dog makes today. This is the reason that we find the five vowel sounds as an inherent part of every language on earth, for they are as old as man. No progress toward a syntactical language was possible until the creation of consonants. Even then, this had no impact on music until the age of notation, as the reader will see below.

All three of the above characteristics of music must have been clear and present for as long as there was some form of music, perhaps a million years if one considers the voice and also how easy it is to construct a flute like instrument from a bone or a piece of bamboo and percussion sounds from various objects such as turtle shells. It is quite interesting to note that a flute made from a bone which is dated thousands of years in age has holes made which form a diatonic scale. This documents another natural part of music, so old that it must have long ago passed into the genetic nature of man. These holes reflect the overtone structure, a natural law of physics, which was already in place as long as any creature had ears to hear.

I first began to give serious thought to these very ancient characteristics of music during 1966 when my wife, Giselle, and I were presenting recitals throughout South America in cooperation with the US State Department. Arriving in La Paz, Bolivia, we were advised to take a week or so to acclimate ourselves to the altitude, the airport being at 14,000 feet! Sure enough, it was at first very difficult to inhale enough air to perform Strauss, Hindemith, etc. While waiting we were, of course, constantly entertained in the South American tradition and in the course of this I was often advised to go downtown to a new coffee house to hear native musicians from the high Andes. I was told the owner went out periodically by helicopter and captured native musicians and brought them back to play in his coffee shop. After a few days in La Paz, of course, these natives made a 5,000 year leap in civilization and so the owner would let them go and return to the high Andes to find some more.

When I finally went to hear these musicians, having refused for some time on principle, I was treated to an amazing performance. These musicians were as musical as musicians anywhere, with technical display equivalent to any modern player. It was very musical! What really struck me, however, was that I was in the presence of a very rare opportunity, an opportunity to hear musicians who had never heard of nor seen music notation. They understood music and learned music only by ear. If I were to show them a page of my Strauss Concerto, they would not have recognized that what they saw had anything to do with what they were doing. They would have simply thought they were seeing a piece of paper with symbols of some foreign language written on it — which is, of course, what music notation is.

This experience caused me to wonder for how many generations there was important music making before notation. The great musical traditions of ancient Greece were made without notation. At the time of Plato there were not even names for the individual notes. Before that we have the Egyptian period from which Greek traditions came, where on the famous tomb-paintings we see musicians playing all kinds of functional performances and also some concerts in private homes, but there was no notation. There are conductors pictured, but what they are doing is in question.

It seems clear that in ancient Egypt music education, without the benefit of notation, was organized and protected against change by the government. Plato, who studied in Egypt for many years, maintained that this established music education without notation had been in place for 10,000 years; before his time! This would take us back to the period of the cave paintings of Spain and France and, in fact, we know musical instruments have been found in some of those caves.

It is particularly important to understand that just because there was no notation it did not mean there was no knowledge. In fact, without written notation and written educational materials these early musicians probably had one advantage over us in that they were more closely attuned to Nature.

On the Physiology of Listening to Music

Jean Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), the first to understand the “theory” of music in a modern sense, was particularly interested in this subject. In fact, he complained, “In music the ear obeys only Nature. It takes account of neither measure nor range. Instinct alone leads it.” Based on his observations, we wonder if we have built into us through genetics certain physiological constructs which influence how we hear music?

What Rameau observed was that a person who is asked to sing a random note, will always sing a note in the middle of his register. Further, when asked to sing some other note, he will never sing a half-step, but rather, as is also the case if asked to improvise, sing an “ever ascending perfect chord made up of the overtones.”

After twenty-five years, Rameau was still amazed at what he had noticed. He mentions that these kinds of relationships between sounds were known to the ancient philosophers, and discussed much by them, but that every “reason they were able to advance for them evaporated like a wisp of smoke.” “Why,” he asks, “has it never occurred to anyone to seek the reason why, despite ourselves, we should be compelled to prefer certain intervals to others, especially after the first sound?”

Rameau clearly seems to have been under the impression that this preference in choice of intervals was dictated by Nature somehow. Indeed, there are some researchers today, notably Diana Deutsch at the University of California, San Diego, who believe that perhaps we all have an innate built in overtone series. After millions of years of the influence of the overtone series upon all living creatures, one cannot discount this possibility. Are we made in some key?

My wife, Giselle, a certified music therapist who did professional work in hospitals in Los Angeles, shared with me a discovery which she came upon through experimentation which does seem to suggest some internal tuning system. I urge the reader to try this with another person. First demonstrate this initial step and then ask the person to speak a short syllable “Lu” at a good medium-strong dynamic level. Then ask the person to do the same thing but with a slightly longer sound (about like a dotted quarter-note, which you can demonstrate to the person by holding your fingers about an inch apart before their face). Finally, ask the person to do the same thing but with a long, sustained sound. If you listen very carefully you will now hear an added instability as the brain appears to “tune” the longer pitch! But tune to what? As you will find this happens with everyone you experiment with, it does suggest to me that there is some internal pitch template. Once when I was guest conducting in Korea, Giselle at the same time gave a pre-natal lecture to a group of 400 nurses at a training hospital. I asked her in advance to try this experiment with the large group. What I heard was really astounding. A room in which a random sound quickly became octaves and perfect fifths!

What happens here is a confirmation of something noticed in Dr. Sperry’s early work with split-brain patients. It appeared that, given the separate character of the separate hemispheres of the brain, when a problem was posed by placing a card with a question before the person, both hemispheres began a kind of race to solve the problem and the side best equipped to do so always won the race. In the case of a simple math question, the left hemisphere continued to function while the right hemisphere actually shut down, its brain waves went into a state of rest. In Giselle’s discovery, when the syllable “Lu” is pronounced in short duration the brain concludes this is language and the left hemisphere is posed to continue. But when the syllable is extended to a longer tone, the brain seems to say, “Oh, this must be music,” and the right hemisphere then tunes that given pitch to some other pitch of its own.

Another experiment in the physiology of how we hear music in the brain is one I discovered which the reader can experiment with by himself. I had been studying and thinking about some evidence that in early music what we call the “staccato dot” over a note did not refer at all to the length of the note, as we are taught, but rather was intended to call for the smallest of the kinds of accents. It is in fact representative of Giselle’s discovery, but going in the opposite direction. Sing the syllable “Lu” as sustained quarter-notes at a tempo of about quarter-note = 60. You will notice that when you sing slow sustained notes in this way the ear seems to concentrate on the last half of the note. Now do the same thing, but sing these quarter-notes as the staccato we learned in school, that is the note’s length is reduced by one-half. Of course the reduction must be taken off the back half of the note because if it were taken off the front half it would change the rhythm. Now you will hear that in singing “Lu” as resultant eighth-notes at the same tempo the brain will now focus on the front of the note, not the back side. Furthermore you will hear the effect of an accent on the initial sound and nothing you can do will prevent you from hearing this accent. You can say to yourself I will purposely sing “Lu” in such a way that there is no accent, but you will still hear one!

Again, when the tone is long the right hemisphere must hear it as music. But when the sound is short, the left hemisphere concludes it must be language and then the left hemisphere concentrates on the initial consonant, the essential role of the left hemisphere in the development of language, one of the properties of that hemisphere. It is this focus of the left hemisphere on the initial consonant which produces the illusion of an accent. And thus, as the earlier composers must have discovered, to create a small accent you add the staccato dot. These examples remind us of what Rameau concluded, “in music the ear obeys only Nature. It takes account of neither measure nor range. Instinct alone leads it.”

There was a very long period when Music was understood by musicians and listeners alike as being something which was Natural, part of Nature. Before the advent of musical notation there could be no other conclusion. But the creation of musical notation changed everything. For the first time the eye became part of the preparation of music. More important, Music, which had hitherto been a verb, now became a noun!

How Western Notation Changed our Perception of Music

The music notation system the Western World uses today was created by Roman Church mathematicians during the late Middle Ages. It is very important to understand the Church perspective which produced this notation which forever changed the very concept of what Music is.

With the victory of the Roman Church over the Roman Empire in the 4th–5th centuries, the Church set out to recreate the Roman citizen. Foremost among the Church’s goals was the elimination of Emotion from the lives of the new faithful, for in their view the Emotions were the first step toward sin. The Church Fathers repeatedly warned against going to the theater, to music events and sporting events because of the presence of Emotions. St Basil even contended that a good Christian should not even laugh, because laughter is a form of Emotion.

As part of this effort to recreate the Roman citizen, the Church closed schools and attempted to destroy the books of the Pagans (Plato, Aristotle, etc.). When schools were reopened there was strong pressure from some Churchmen to include Music, which had been so much a part of the education of the ancient world. But Music is a natural vehicle for the communication of Emotions! The official solution to this conundrum was to make Music a branch of mathematics! Music, the Church Fathers said, was the part of arithmetic that you can hear! This kind of reasoning must have had little resonance even among the Church officials for by the sixth century a new strategy was set forth: Music was now divided into two categories: the Speculative and the Practical. The Church said, We will teach the Speculative (theory, mathematics based composition, criticism, etc.) and we will leave the Practical (performance) to be learned from the musicians out in the street. This became the format of higher education in music for several centuries and some readers will perhaps perceive the echoes of this philosophy in university music departments even today.

The growing size of the Church by the late Middle Ages began to create a need for the faster production of boys (ladies not allowed) who could sing in the choir; rote learning was proving too slow. The Western notation we now use was first created in order to teach these boys to read music faster. The new musical notation was created by Church servants who may have been involved in music, but were first and foremost mathematicians. Therefore today we have an arithmetical notational system: two of these is equal to one of those, etc. It is clear that the Church, still very much concerned with the impact of Emotions, laid down an order that there be no symbols for feeling or the Emotions. And so today, one thousand years later, we have not a single symbol whatsoever for feelings or emotion, even though that is the very purpose of music!

Our notational system for music is able to notate only the grammar of music, not music itself. There is no music on the page, as Mahler was careful to point out, “The important part of music is not found in the notes.” Let us restate that: the notational system can only document grammar, but grammar is not music! Since the very nature of music grammar is conceptual, the eye now becomes the critical central point in the learning of music, not the ear. This leads to a very significant problem in music education and the very purpose of music is lost for there is nothing about grammar which communicates feelings and emotions.

The student of music education inevitably begins to think of music as something for the eye. Indeed, it intrudes upon our very language, as we say in rehearsal, “Now, watch the intonation at letter B,” while it is hearing the intonation at letter B which matters. The fundamental issue here is that our five senses tend to occupy our mind only one at a time; they do not ordinarily work together. Thus the eye, by far the most dominant of our senses, tends to shut down the ear thus destroying the very foundation of music.

Aside from shutting down the ear, a considerable confusion arises. We now begin to have three forms of the score. In the case of the conductor there is one on his music stand that he reads with his eyes, one in the room (which can be quite different from the one he sees) that he hears with his ears and one in his mind which is the result of his study. One can witness this confusion by watching any conductor in rehearsal. If his head is up and he is conducting while looking at the ensemble he will have adequate facial expression, supplied by the right hemisphere of his brain. But when he looks down at the score for some reason while the ensemble continues to play you will invariably notice an immediate loss of all facial expression, because the eye is now concerned with left hemisphere data. The face is the only major part of the body that either hemisphere can operate, thus this striking illustration, a window into his brain function.

The new emphasis of left hemisphere teaching of music, together with its dependence on language and not music, leads to the creation of artificial new descriptions of music. This includes entirely useless forms of knowledge, such as the way we teach forms in the typical “Form and Analysis” class. The teacher will go to the blackboard and in the center, at the top, he writes, “Sonata.” Under this he draws a bracket with three new columns which are entitled “Exposition,” “Development” and “Recapitulation.” Underneath the first column he now makes a new list, “first theme, episode, second theme and closing theme,” etc. It looks like someone’s family tree. I call this “useless information” because never again will either the player, composer or listener ever use this information. No one ever stands at the side of a barn, so to speak, to perceive the form of a composition. If form is to have an informational musical value it must presented in a way that the student perceives it as if he were standing at the left side of the black board, representing the beginning of the movement, looking through to the right side, representing the end of the movement, allowing him to perceive the music from the beginning to the end. One will never use this information about the sonata form as it is taught unless one himself sometime teaches a class in “Form and Analysis”!

The teaching of harmony is much the same. Chords are written on the blackboard (for the eye) and described in numerical language. I doubt you will ever hear an instructor in a beginning harmony class use the word “pain,” but that is the kind of thing chords describe. In fact, during my school days harmony was taught for the eye but tested for the ear. No wonder it was difficult.

I would propose that there is nothing which the eye and the left hemisphere sees which has anything at all to do with real music, even though all of this becomes the subject of musical analysis in education. Deryck Cooke, in his wonderful book, The Language of Music, finds it most strange that Music is the only art form in which we analyze the grammar and not the content:

If man is ever to fulfill the mission he undertook at the very start — when he first began to philosophize, as a Greek, and evolved the slogan, “Know thyself” — he will have to understand his unconscious self; and the most articulate language of the unconscious is music. But we as musicians, instead of trying to understand this language, preach the virtues of refusing to consider it a language at all; when we should be attempting, as literary critics do, to expound and interpret the great masterpieces of our art for the benefit of humanity at large, we concern ourselves more and more with parochial affairs — technical analyses and musicological minutiae — and pride ourselves on our detached, dehumanized approach.