Aaron Petit Piano  

Classical Pianist, Teacher, and Lecturer 

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The Nature of Music

Posted by [email protected] on April 25, 2016 at 6:20 AM

Hi all, I have been reading a lot lately. I recently came across the single most interesting prinicble I have ever thought about in music. Below, is that page-long excerpt from Igor Stravinsky's autobiography and my own thoughts on the matter. 

"For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of natrue, etc.... Espression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its exsitence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply and additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention - in short, an aspect unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being...

The phenomemon of music is given to us with the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including, and particularly, the coodination between man and time. To be put into practice, its indespensable and single requirement is construction. Construction once completed, this order has been obtained, and there is nothing more to be said. It would be futile to look for, or expect anything else from it. It is precisely this construction, this achieved order, which produces in us a unique emotion having nothing in common with our ordinary sensations and our responses to the impressions of daily life. One could not better define the sensation produced by music than by saying that it is identical with that evoked by contemplation of architectural form. Goethe thouroughly understood that when he called architecture petrified music. " -Stravinsky

I have read this over an over in the last week. Everytime I re-read it or think about it, I realize how important and true it is. This quote, on a first read, seems to be so contrary to how people often percieve and talk about music. It appears to be claiming that music is a non expressive art and that is has no emotionally quality attached. But after pondering it, I don't belive that is what the author is getting at. Let me elaborate. 

We must consider that music is made up of 2 elements- Pitch, and Rhythm. Pitch being the actual frequency of each note and rhythm being the amout of time each tone lasts. Everything else in music (harmony, instrumentation, timbre, polyphony, etc) is just a modification or combination of those 2 elements. This is where I realized that Stravinsky is right. Neither Pitch, nor Rhythm actually express anything. If I were to play a single tone (let's say D flat for example) then all that is heard is that pitch. Nothing else. If we feel a sence of beauty or ugliness from hearing that tone, it isn't because the D Flat has that emotion, it is because our own individual mind made an association of that note to an emotion we are familar with. Our minds always subconsiouly identify and categorize everything to be understood on a personal level. So naturally, we associate thoughts, moods, or emotions to what ever we hear. This explains why everybody perceives music differently. Because it is US feeling something, not the MUSIC expressing something. 

Now that you read that, I suggest re-reading the first paragraph of the Stravinsky quote and see if you don't think of it differently. Moving on to the second paragraph... Structure is the only thing that creates music. Patterns and shapes don't need anything other than themselves to be understood. If you look at a triangle or a square for instance, you don't try to connect it to anything. It is easy to understand the shape because you have a definition for it. Structure in music, is similar. Once you are taught to hear the difference between tones ascending and tones descending, your mind will have the same reaction as looking at a shape. When you "hear" a pattern, your mind associates it with a sence of structure and can therefore understand it. That plays into memorization as well. The reason musicians can remember thousands of notes and play 2 hour recitals is because the brain has had time to understand the patterns of music during the repetitious practice sessions. If music wasn't structure, we couldn't memorize or learn it. 

My teacher, Mark Westcott, once told me "Musical interpretation is not just thinking of an emotion or story and applying it to the notes you are playing. It is about understanding the fundementals of what make up music (Rhythm, Dynamics, Texture, etc) and finding a way to demonstrate them to the listener." I am starting to see how what my teacher said lines up with Stravinsky's writings. Too often music is performed carelessly with no sence of the structure that was written into it by the composer. This is part of the reason that you might find your mind wandering during performances on ocation. 

All of this information shifts the agenda of practice and performance. I think a musician's main focus should be on understanding the formation of their music and conveying that to their audience. I don't belive Stravinsky is saying we shouldn't involve our emotions in music. He is saying that if we look at music as something that needs to be expressed, then we will go in circles not understanding the structure. Expression happens as a RESULT of a personal emotional response to music's structure. 

I am still devloping my ideas here so I would love to hear any feedback and have a discussion with anyone reading this. Please feel free to make a comment below. 

Thanks for reading! 

Aaron





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