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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences




How We Hear Music: The Relationship Between Music and the Hearing Mechanism by James Beament (Boydell) Our Hearing System chose the sounds for music. During the past fifty years there have been spectacular advances in our knowledge of how that system works and it seems possible that it might provide explanations for a range of musical phenomena. This book begins by discussing the early evolution of simple `western' tonal music; what exactly were the characteristics of the intervals and scales which hearing selected? It then considers problems such as what hearing has selected as instrumental tone, and why we have such a peculiar assessment of loudness; why is that independent of pitch, and why is hearing so sensitive to time? Does the mechanism of hearing determine our pitch discrimination, which differs so much across our hearing range? Amongst other things, this discussion leads to the conclusion that the harmonics of musical sounds, which are the basis of so much theory about music, did not and cannot play the role which has been so widely attributed to them ever since the work of Helmholtz in 1870.

There follows a simplified account of the hearing mechanism: how musical sound is coded by the ear, the nature of the processing stations through which the information passes before it creates sensation in the cortex, and the extent to which it provides answers to the questions which have been raised. This produces a rather different view of the basis of

some fundamental features of music from those which are commonly held. It also leads to the conclusion that music started with primitive instruments rather than with the human voice. Finally, the biological reasons for the hearing mechanism behaving as it does are explained, and thus the reasons for the sensations of music being experienced in the way they are.

No scientific knowledge is assumed; any simple physical acoustics required is explained, and there are no mathematical equations.

Author Summary: Music depends entirely on the sense of hearing, and this book is literally about how we hear it. During the past fifty years there have been spectacular advances in our knowledge of how the ear and hearing system work. In its advanced form it is a large, extremely complicated subject and really a closed book to all but specialists in that field of study. One can, however, extract a simplified explanation of the mechanism, to which basic musical phenomena can be applied. But add to that our modern understanding of evolution and behavior, of how advanced animals including ourselves use their hearing, together with acoustics, and the mass of fact and belief about hearing music, and one is faced with a huge body of uncoordinated and sometimes conflicting material.

In such a situation in science, and it appears equally true of music, it is often fruitful to go back to first principles. So the book begins by discussing the origin and early evolution of simple `western' tonal music, which appears to be almost universally accepted and acceptable. No one knows how music originated. I suggest that it started with experiments with artifacts ‑ with instruments, and not with the human voice. This is not unfounded belief, for the later chapters appear to substantiate the assumption, and if it runs counter to your current belief, I ask you to give it the benefit of the doubt until you have read all the arguments.

A consideration of the evolution of simple music from first principles produces a list of basic questions about intervals and scales, tone, dynamic, harmony, time and so on. And as the discussion develops it leads amongst other things to the conclusion that the harmonics of musical sounds, which are the basis of so much theory about music, did not and cannot play the role which has been so widely attributed to them ever since they were revealed by Helmholtz in 1870. I then examine whether the hearing mechanism provides some form of answers to the questions and conclusions. I believe that it does and that it produces a different view of the basis of some fundamental features of music to those which are commonly held. It also provides a cogent explanation of why our hearing mechanism behaves as it does, and therefore why we receive the sensations of music in the form we do.

I have arranged the book in this way because from long experience in teaching and examining Cambridge music students in acoustics, I know that there is little point in trying to interest most musicians in acoustics for its own sake. Similarly, there may be enquiring minds who are interested in the approachable account of our hearing mechanism I have given, but the same generality applies. The only thing one may reasonably expect to interest most musicians is whether either offers an explanation of the musical phenomena with which they are concerned. In other words, I start with music and relate it to science, rather than the other way round. I also know that mathematical equations are of no help to most people; many scientific things can be explained without them, and this book does so.

It may reassure those who have had difficulty in understanding writings about music, whether in popular articles or serious works, that I do define precisely the way in which I use common terms such as beat, note, pitch, timbre and tone. These restricted definitions may not correspond to your ideas of them, but you will always know what I mean by them.

I hope it will also reassure readers that I am a practicing musician who plays jazz and serious music and composes both kinds, as well as a scientist.

Finally, I believe that the mainspring of music has been the production of pleasurable sound sensations. Even that is not now universally accepted, and if you are one of those who think otherwise, then I'm afraid this book may not be for you. But I hope it will be of particular interest to practicing musicians and teachers, as well as to acousticians, those studying the psychology of music, or those involved in electronic music and recording.

Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture by William L. Benzon (Basic Books) Why does the brain create music? In Beethoven's Anvil, cognitive scientist and jazz musician William Benzon finds the key to music's function in the very complexity of musical experience. Music demands that our symbol-processing capacities, motor skills, emotional and communicative skills all work in close coordination-not only within our own heads but with the heads (and bodies) of others. Music is at once deeply personal and highly social, highly disciplined and open to emotional nuance and interpretation. It's precisely this coordination of different mental functions, Benzon argues, that underlies our deep need to create and participate in music. Music synchronizes the brain and has had a profound, and little-appreciated, influence on the shape of the mind and human cultures.

This is a remarkable book: both daring and scholarly, it offers a sweeping vision of a vital, underappreciated force in our minds and culture.

Emotion and Meaning in Music by Leonard B. Meyer (University of Chicago Press) should be required reading for any student of music, be (s)he composer, performer, or theorist. It clears the air of many confused notions and lays the groundwork for exhaustive study of the basic problem of music theory and aesthetics, the relationship between pattern and meaning.

Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture by Leonard B. Meyer (University of Chicago Press) reisueed makes a valuable statement on aesthetics, criteria for assessing great works of music, compositional practices and theories of the present day, and predictions of the future of Western culture. His postlude, written for the book's twenty-fifth anniversary, looks back at his thoughts on the direction of music in 1967.

The Spheres of Music: A Gathering of Essays by Leonard B. Meyer (University of Chicago Press) Leonard B. Meyer's writings on the theory, history, perception, and aesthetics of music have inspired and provoked generations of readers. The Spheres of Music makes available a selection of his most important essays (originally published between 1974 and 1998). Gathering them together in one volume not only enables the essays to "converse" with and illuminate each other, but also allows Meyer to revise, recant, and comment on the ideas they present.

With the same sensitive insight and searching intelligence he has exhibited throughout his career, Meyer transcends the boundaries that so often separate fields of inquiry. The Spheres of Music joins music theory to history, history to culture, culture to aesthetics, aesthetics to psychology, and psychology back to theory. In so doing, the book highlights the complex interrelationships at the heart of the creation, comprehension, and history of music. Diverse and adventurous, The Spheres of Music presents an intriguing and impressive collection of Meyer's work.

Music, Tendencies, and Inhibitions by Renée Cox Lorraine (Scarecrow Press) Leonard B. Meyer in Emotion and Meaning in Music has proposed that when musical tendencies or expectations are inhibited by musical ambiguity or the unexpected, those inhibitions and their subsequent resolutions are likely to be provocative or engaging. Music, Tendencies, and Inhibitions explores the relevance of this theory to music and various other disciplines, and to psychological and natural processes. Each chapter consists of two parts: a presentation and consideration of an aspect of Meyer's theory, and a more associative or rhapsodic section of "Reflections" on this aspect. The book focuses on Meyer's aesthetic rather than his music-theoretical proclivities, and is intended for academics and students in various fields as well as educated non-academics. The music scene is fluctuating, Meyer suggests, in that new and original styles or techniques are continuously emerging or developing on a small scale; it is static in that many of these developments seem unrelated, and are not likely to be grasped or progress as a whole. It will be posited that this theory foreshadowed and reflects important ideologies of contemporary culture, including postmodernism;

Meyer describes analytic formalism, his preferred ideology in "the coming stasis," as the idea that a work has complete meaning within itself, and as an ideology in which evaluation is based on skill, elegance, precision, and refinement rather than representation, plot, symbol, history, psychological insight, expression of feeling, or morality. Its "mode of criticism" is described as analytic or formal rather than interpretive. Meyer was living in a formalist age when he expressed these ideas, and he cites works like Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation as influences." To take issue with Meyer's formalism as expressed in the 1960s is to beat a dead horse; as we have seen in chapter 3, Meyer almost always qualifies his formalist tendencies and often takes positions antithetical to formalism in his later work. But because musical formalism still has its adherents in music theory and beyond, it is worth considering its relative merits and limitations.

An important qualification of Meyer's early formalism pertinent to this discussion is Meyer's emphasis on the importance of interpretation, which he reserved for "traditionalism". In Style in Music (1989), he writes that "there are no such things as uninterpreted events, actions, or artifacts. To understand the world at all, to know that something is an event or object-that is, to segment and select, classify and relate is to interpret experience." Meyer also adds that interpretations are never definitive, infallible, or final, and he stresses that values are culturally based (SIM 71-2). Yet he maintains that in our culture, at least since the Renaissance, the criteria for evaluation have generally been aesthetic [or formal]. And given the goal of aesthetic enjoyment, he feels value is significantly related to the "relational richness" of musical syntax.

Surely there is a place for formalist analysis in our postmodern age. There can be a psychological healing in aesthetic distance or an attention to pure form; such an attention relates to Homo ludens, or in rare instances, even the poetic (or musical) rapture referred to in ancient Greece. A purely or largely formal experience can be relaxing or stimulating, as in a chess game; and some formal pleasures, such as solving a problem in mathematics, may have important cultural ramifications that are not immediately realized. There are people who enjoy and are interested only in formalist analysis of music, and their talents can be put to good use by those with other, extrageneric musical interests who seek to relate these interests to musical syntax or process. As noted earlier, it is expressly the ambiguous and implicative nature of music's pure form that allows for the assignment of various and potentially illuminating contexts.

Yet given our present cultural conditions and problems, it is important that a formalist response to music not be the one most central or widespread. Throughout history and all over the contemporary world, music has often born relationships to a culture's highest values. The Vedas of ancient India and Confucius in ancient China held that sound or song could put the singer in touch with the ultimate reality. Pythagorus and other ancient Greeks believed that gifted musicians could resonate with the harmony of the "music of the spheres" and thus harmonize their character. We have seen that among the African Mbuti and !Kung San, music and dance serve to integrate the individual and community and are connected with the spiritual or magic, with nature, with healing, and with the basic stages of life. In contemporary India it is believed that an accomplished musician can glimpse Brahman, the spiritual source of the universe, through Nada Brahma, "God-as-sound." In the Fuke sect of Zen in Japan, it is held that one can achieve enlightenment, or satori, through suizen, or "blowing Zen" (on the shakuhachi or bamboo flute, for example). The Balinese of Indonesia believe they are helping to keep the various forces of the world in balance through their rituals and their music. The Navajo believe that through their most sacred ceremonials they can achieve a state of hozhoo, or harmony with their surroundings.

Music has also been related to significant cultural values at certain times in European and American history. After the ancient Greeks, the fluid and seemingly timeless ancient chant of the Christian church was believed to facilitate contact with God and eternity. European music has often been valued when it was associated with Classical Greek ideals. Music was held in particularly high esteem by some musicians and philosophers during the nineteenth century; Schopenhauer deemed music the highest of the arts, and a manifestation of what he regarded as the primary force of the universe, the "will to live." In the twentieth century, as in ancient Greece, music's renewed relationship with mathematics linked music with what some regard as natural principles or laws. Other scholars are encouraged by the healing power of music therapy. (Music, for example, is the only means by which some mentally disabled patients are able to communicate. I have high hopes for developments in music therapy, hopes that we may discover therapeutic properties of music claimed by many ancient philosophers from various parts of the world.) For the most part, however, the most respected European or American music since the Enlightenment has been a largely secular enterprise not explicitly related to values, and especially since the nineteenth century has been regarded as existing for its own sake. It seems unlikelyl in the near future, that the most valued musics will be related to spiritual or other high values (or cosmic harmonies) on a wide scale. But music can be and is being related to patterns in our everyday lives, to important psychological processes and social patterns, to morality and politics. Music is always a social act, and it is likely to have political ramifications. This is not to suggest, necessarily, that composers or artists should overtly or consciously politicize their work; often the most important social or political implications of a work are subtle, ambiguous, and (at least often) unintentional." Yet in a world full of violence and suffering, it seems appropriate, as Suleiman puts it, to be cognizant not only of what a work is but what it does;` and this holds whether the work in question is literary (the medium with which Suleiman is most concerned) or musical. Political and social efects of music, like extrageneric contexts, may be discovered through relating musical processes to social or political processes and discerning the impact of appropriate analogies. Such analogies (which, as expounded earlier, are always multiple, theoretical, and can change over time) are aptly drawn in collections of essays like Ruth Solie's Musicology and Difference, Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones's Embodied Voices. Such works show that however postmodern our present age may be, it has not reached the point of being apolitical or ahistorical; there is both a resistance to traditional monopolies on interpretation and a concern with various historically situated interpretations and values. To relate to music only formally or aesthetically would be unfortunate indeed when music can, through analogy, illuminate so many aspects of our lives.

Different styles of music offer varied means of presenting and dealing with such musical inhibition and thus offer disparate models of dealing with inhibition in more general terms. High Baroque music presents musical inhibitions or conflict while maintaining a sense of overall unity for the listener, in that surface-level conflicts are mitigated by stability on a more remote hierarchic level. The high Classicists have shown us how we may resolve conflict or tension dialectically or synthetically, and often with great clarity and elegance. The developments, recapitulations, and codas in the sonata forms of Beethoven show us that considerable time and energy may be needed to resolve an extreme amount of conflict or tension. The lack of resolution in some of the music of the late romanticists suggests that conflicts or problems can arise that we may not be able to resolve or resolve completely, a condition that can be met variously with struggle or striving, despair, acceptance, or serenity.

Other composers and musical traditions are less or unconcerned with models of conflict and resolution. Ancient chant seems to transcend worldly processes of desire, interruption, and resolution. Late Medieval and early Renaissance music suggests more of a motion in time, but without the strong sense of teleology that gives rise to strong musical tendencies. In the twentieth century, serialists transcended the process of conflict and resolution by providing a model of control or dominion over one's environment; aleatoricists, through letting go of as much control as possible. Certain traditions outside of Europe and European influenced America have developed musics that lack any large-scale emphasis on tension and resolution or suggest that tensions can be moved or resonated with rather than mastered or struggled against.

In what follows, I explore Meyer's theme on tendencies, inhibitions, and resolutions (or implications, deviation, and realizations) in music, considering along the way how musical patterns can be analogous to patterns in everyday life, as well as to patterns in other fields such as film, art, literature, psychology, history, ethics, mathematics, and science. Music, Tendencies, and Inhibitions draws chiefly on Meyer's Emotion and Meaning in Music, Music, the Arts, and Ideas, reprinted with a new "Postlude" in 1994), Explaining Music (1973), and Style in Music, (to be reprinted). Each chapter consists of two parts: a presentation and consideration of an aspect of Meyer's theory, and a more associative or rhapsodic section of reflections on this aspect. Chapter 1 explores Meyer's early thesis that inhibitions of

musical expectations or tendencies can give rise to meaning and affect. The reflections section considers various positive and negative reactions to inhibitions in music and in general, in various historical contexts.

Chapter 2 considers Meyer's theory of the relationship of tendencies and inhibitions-and order and disorder-to information theory and entropy, and the relationship of information theory to musical meaning and value. The reflections of chapter 2 consider past and present views of the relationships of order and disorder in various fields.

Chapter 3 discusses Meyer's revision of his "expectation" theory to a more objectively stated theory of musical "implication." This chapter traces Meyer's development from expectation to implication within a historical context; it also explores analogies that can be drawn between Meyer's implication model and current interests in musical narrative. The reflections ponder the relation of Meyer's expectation and implication theories to the subject/object problem and to issues of process and unity, probability and inevitability, becoming and being. Although implication has been described as a more objective theory than Meyer's earlier theory of expectation, I seek to show in chapter 3 that Meyer's account of implication can be interpreted as a synthesis of the more subjective account of music dealt with in chapter 1 and the more empirical, information-theoretic account of chapter 2. All three chapters consider the association of order and stability with the masculine and/or traditional Western values and of ambiguity or disorder with the feminine or "other:'

Chapter 4 focuses on the relevance of implication to what might be called an inhibition of a large-scale, historical tendency in music: Meyer's proposal (from 1967) that musical composition was no longer proceeding teleologically and with a common musical language, as it had from around 1600 through Stravinsky, but had entered a temporary period of "fluctuating stasis." The music scene is fluctuating, Meyer suggests, in that it consists of many highly original stylistic developments; it is static in that most of these developments seem unrelated and not likely to be grasped or progress as a whole. Leo Treitler has suggested that it is up to future historians whether the twentieth century is viewed teleologically or in some other manner; as he puts it, "History will whistle the tune, and music will dance to it, and there will be no telling the dancer from the dance."' Whatever the future appraisal of Meyer's concept of a fluctuating stasis in contemporary music, his theory foreshadowed and reflects certain attitudes and ideologies of contemporary culture, including postmodernism.

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