Peter Schickele once quipped that the lute is a beautiful instrument, but that you won’t hear it if there is another instrument in the room—even if the other instrument isn’t actually being played! One seldom hears lute music on classical music programs, probably for this very reason: the delicate sound of the lute is simply not “good radio,” in the same way that a chess match would not be “good TV.”
In his marvelous monograph, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander develops many fascinating points, one of which is: it is in the very nature of the medium to exclude certain kinds of experiences from public attention. Television takes a three-dimensional reality and flattens it into the two dimensions of a screen. Subtleties are easily lost. The senses of touch, smell, and taste are eliminated. Only that which is outsized and overly-dramatic makes for interesting programming: tight shots of faces, fast-paced action, conflict, and exaggerated sexuality. Events full of nuance that might be compelling when witnessed in person lose their luster when televised. A moonrise in the desert, a child and a dog napping together, the waves at the beach—there is no cable channel for these things, unless they were to get juiced up with a soundtrack or frequent jumps to new angles. TV is best for conveying scenes of strife and passionate sex, sports or violence.
As a result, there are multitudes of worthy experiences that get shunted out of sight and out of mind in a video-oriented culture like ours. Television simply ignores them. And a generation raised on the values of TV-land never learns to appreciate that which is gentle, slow, and subtle. Fast and furious is what we nursed them on intellectually, and that’s how they expect real life to be as well—frenetic and dramatic.
But Mander’s verdict against television also could have been levied against radio decades earlier. He speaks of the need for a successful “signal-to-noise” ratio, and the medium of radio—especially in its youth—has this problem in spades. What makes for good radio? Only that which can survive the loss of overtones, diminishment of harmonics, effacement of vocal nuances, interference of static, and the possibility of poor quality speakers on the receiving end of the transmission. Your sponsors won’t buy ads during your program if they don’t sense it is compelling enough to keep listeners tuned in. Certain kinds of programming, therefore, come across well over the radio, while others don’t. Lively music, big bands, stentorian orators, and exaggerated voice acting make the cut. Baroque lute music does not.
The highlight of my career as a piano student was a group recital in which I played Schoenberg’s Opus 19, Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke. Technically, these aren’t all that difficult. But musically they present quite a challenge. First, as atonal music, they are bereft of the familiar melody-over-harmony of the classical repertoire; to borrow a phrase from a vocal piece by Schoenberg, they feel like “air of another planet.” Inviting the audience to breathe gladly that alien atmosphere is no mean task. Secondly, the pieces are mostly slow and on the quieter end of the dynamics scale. The final note of the sixth piece is marked pppp—this entails depressing the key as lightly as one can while still producing a sound. On that happy occasion almost forty years ago, I performed the work as well as any concert pianist I have ever heard, and on an unfamiliar instrument with a stiff action, to boot. I managed to caress the perfect pianissississimo out of that final low A♭. Schoenberg’s Opus 19 is an important work, musicologically and historically, but like lute music, it is also something that is rarely played on the radio, undoubtedly because its tenderness and delicacy are too readily lost in transmission.
But what we have said about radio and television really applies to all kinds of recorded music. The process of recording and broadcasting filters out subtleties, except when the finest equipment is being used (i.e., not with the PA system at your supermarket). Music that depends on nuance and delicacy simply doesn’t get airtime.
Which leads to my first point: we swim in a sea of recorded music being played at us … ALL … THE … TIME. Shopping. Swimming at the Y. During commercials. As the bumper music leading into the commercials. Waiting in line at the bank. It is everywhere. And it is unavoidable.
We have, for better or worse, trained our minds to ignore the background tunes. But perhaps we do this at our own psychological peril. I would like in this installment to point out some features of this all-pervasive music. And the first relates to the very medium by which it comes to our ears: through speakers and amplifiers and across airwaves and internet connections and so on. Namely, that the signal-to-noise ratio is an issue that will always lead to a preference for recorded music on one end of the spectrum and not another.
To modify the metaphor … we do not so much swim in a vast ocean of music. Rather, there is in this world a vast ocean of music—beautiful music of great variety. And of this vast ocean, we are immersed in but a small area that is distinctly different from the greater whole. We swim, as it were, in a Sargasso Sea of music … much of which is the North Atlantic Garbage Patch. In this sea that surrounds us one experiences little lute music, few fugues, scant Scarlatti, and negligible neumatic chant. In other words, much of the loveliest and soul-calming music exists at a great distance from us. We can access it in live performances—when we can find them—but otherwise we are pounded incessantly by heavy beats, repetitious phrases, and indecipherable lyrics. In other words, earwormy tripe.
In the previous installment, I mentioned the theory (first articulated by Pythagoras, later expounded by Plato and Aristotle, and thereafter accepted widely up through the Middle Ages and into the early modern era) that different scales or modes had different effects on the human psyche. There are a multitude of scales in which the musicians of the world have expressed themselves. Look at a piano keyboard. If you play a scale just on the white keys, you can plunk out seven distinct scales. Start with C and go up to the next C and you have the major scale. Start with A and you get (one version of) the minor scale. Start with another white key and you get one of the so-called modal scales (sort of … too complicated to elaborate here). These would all be heptatonic (seven-note) scales. Play only the black keys and you get a pentatonic (five-note) scale.
But there are so many more! There is the Hungarian minor scale, Ukrainian Dorian, Phrygian dominant scale (“Hava Nagila”), octatonic scales (in works by Mussorgsky, Tschaikovsky, Debussy, and Ravel), hexatonic (Scriabin’s Prometheus), and so on. Around the edges of our sonic Sargasso Sea one finds works in these other tonalities, especially in jazz. But in the main, the kind of music we are bombarded with comes from two scales: the Western major and, to a lesser extent, the Western minor.
What is the psychological effect of this predominance of one tonality? I will pass by the idea that the Western major scale is in and of itself harmful to the spirit. Some say it was known in earlier times as the modus lascivus—a tonality that incited the vulgar interests of the lascivious mob. Others dispute this. Either way, among those who thought long and hard about the spiritual influences of tonalities, the Western major scale was not much used: neither by Pythagoras, nor in subsequent Greek music, or in the Gregorian chant of the Latin church. (It is not to the point here to explain the theoretical difference between the modern major scale of seven notes and any of the ancient Greek modes of two stacked tetrachords: the apparent similarities on the page dissipate in the sounds of an actual performance. Ionian mode and the major scale are different musical animals.)
Rather, we should consider what the effect of any repetitive stimulus is on the mind: it stultifies and lowers awareness. It can either mesmerize or induce stress. The predominance of one tonality all around us in society is quite literally a kind of imposed monotony, when considered at a certain level of abstraction.
One might object: the predominance of the Western major scale is simply the tradition of European and American music over centuries. Not so, actually. The Christmas season we recently passed through puts the lie to that claim. Some of the most beloved carols of the season are not in the major scale, but in a mode, like the Aeolian mode: e.g. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” One finds modes readily used in folk music: Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian and common in Irish and Scots folk tunes. (For a modern example of a Mixolydian tune, think of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”)
For that matter, ecclesiastical music in the West was strictly modal up until the Reformation. Curiously enough, one of the least-remarked changes of Protestant piety was to ditch all the modal music of the past and introduce the major scale as the predominant tonality. Not for nothing has Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” been mistaken for a drinking song. It was not—but it certainly could have been one—and a rousing one, at that! John Calvin’s Geneva Psalter—while less likely to set your toes to tapping than Luther’s hymnody—also brought the innovation of major scales into ecclesiastical setting, while sweeping out the modal forms of Latin chant.
And so, on the contrary, Western European and American music was for centuries a garden of tonally variegated delights. Only recently was that garden plowed under to make way for the monocropping of the major scale.
Could this have been somehow intentional? It would be a hard feat to accomplish. It would require some hidden hand to put in place leading figures in classical music, church music, folk music, and popular music in order to orchestrate a tonal conspiracy. One would have to raise up iconic figures for their peers to imitate and follow after. One would have to produce, in each generation, a Mozart, a Luther, an Arlo Guthrie, an Elvis Presley, and so on, just to get this project off the ground. Is there any independent evidence to suspect that figures like these were something more than meets the ear?!?! Nor is it clear what the net effect of this sea change towards a single tonality would be. One would expect that the hidden hand would have to run some experiments, testing variables to see what the societal influences might be. Is there evidence of this? Let’s bracket that question until the next installment …
Meanwhile, let’s analyze a little more closely this Sargasso Sea that surrounds us. It is not simply that we are treading water in Western major tonality, but even in a particular kind of major scale—the equal-tempered scale.
For those who grew up taking piano lessons, like me, it may come as a surprise to learn that the major scale we were taught—whole step, whole step, half step, whole, whole, whole, half—is not in fact the original form of that scale. Whole steps and half steps are artificial constructs arising from the development of keyboard instruments. The steps up the scale actually differ in size from one another, if the scale is derived mathematically—based on whole-number ratios. Jazz musicians express this idea when they talk about shading notes up or down in terms of “cents,” as in playing a note a few cents sharper or flatter.
In equal temperament, all of these slightly different intervals up the scale are forced onto a sonic Bed of Procrustes and stretched or shortened: the larger intervals into uniformly-sized whole steps and the smaller ones into uniformly-sized half steps. It would take us too far afield to get into the math of just, or pure, intonation. One can read a great introduction here. There are also more than a few audio demonstrations of just intonation vs. equal temperament on YouTube, such as here.
Note that equal temperament is not the same as well temperament, such as J.S. Bach exploited for his famous collection of keyboard compositions. A keyboard that was tuned mathematically—in just intonation, that is— would sound good in only one key; if you transposed your piece from C major to, say, D major, it would sound dreadfully out of tune. In well temperament, the different notes of the keyboard are shaded up or down by a few cents, so that every scale and its chords sound passably good. However, each scale on the piano is slightly different, inasmuch as the position of the differently-sized steps varies from the key of C to the key of D and so on. Bach exploited the difference in character from key to key, writing compositions that played up the best harmonics of each key, while avoiding the more out-of-tune chords that might arise from the shading of pitches. In equal temperament, however, the scale beginning on every key sounds the same, aside from the highness or lowness of the starting pitch. Every scale in every key is out of tune in exactly the same way: transposing a piece up or down does not help or hurt the inherent instability of the harmonics produced.
Well temperament prevailed until the 20th century, when equal temperament displaced it … inexplicably. Michael Rubenstein of the University of Waterloo says it plainly:
… [W]estern music from the time of Bach until the turn of the 20th century was not intended to be performed in equal temperament. Equal temperament is appropriate for some music of the 20th century, especially atonal music, and music based on the whole tone scale, but not for the works of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Equal temperament, the modern and usually inappropriate system of tuning used in western music, is based on the twelfth root of 2. The ratio of frequencies for each semi tone is equal to the twelfth root of two. So, twelve semitones, one octave, gives a doubling of frequency. The uniformity that one gets by having each semitone equal allows one to freely modulate amongst the different keys. One main drawback to equal temperament is that all major thirds are quite a bit off from where they ought to be, roughly fourteen percent of a semitone. Perfect fifths are all pretty close. More importantly, though, other than pitch, nothing distinguishes the various keys. … When we listen to [music of the 1700s and 1800s] in our modern equal temperament, we are not hearing their harmonic intentions. Key color has been lost.
In the first installment of this series, I mentioned how earwormy music tends to have a sort of mental “gristle” that the mind chews and chews on without being able to swallow. I believe that the equal temperament of the major scale tonality is just such a piece of gristle. The harmonics are never quite right in music these days. The waveforms never match up and mesh as they should. Chord progressions are never truly resolved. Everything is more or less out of tune, even when it is “perfectly” in tune via Auto-Tune. The ear never finds rest in equal tempered music. And with the proliferation of electronic keyboard instruments—pianos, organs, synthesizers—equal temperament has become the standard which all other instruments and voices are expected to match.
Long story short: the sea of equal-tempered major key tonality in which we swim is inherently unsettling. Any music—even music from the classical era or before—when performed in equal temperament becomes an exercise in teeth-gritting dissonance, albeit below the level of conscious perception for most of us.
You have heard of price inflation and grade inflation. Have you heard of pitch inflation? There’s another problem with all that music from the classical era. We are being forced to play it or sing it at a higher pitch than was originally intended. And here we arrive squarely in the middle of a conspiracy theory, propounded by musicians themselves, and not just tin-foil-hatters like me.
Let me say clearly: I do not buy the theory that setting the A above middle C at 440 Hertz (cycles—or vibrations—per second … the larger the number, the higher the pitch) was part of a Nazi mind control plot, led by Joseph Goebbels and continued by an American Navy intelligence officer named John Calhoun Deagan. The matter of pitch inflation began before any Nazis were around to sing “Deutschland Über Alles.” Nor do I buy claims that A=432 Hz. is somehow a more “natural” vibratory rate because the number 432 is important to the cosmos. Measurement in Hertz presupposes a certain measure of time we call a “second,” but that length is an arbitrary choice—a matter of convention rather than nature, and one that goes back to Sumerian and Babylonian customs, not to principles of physics. Define a second as slightly longer or shorter than it is, and the pitch known as A432 suddenly gets a different number assigned to it, while remaining the same pitch. Pitch inflation almost certainly began in the classical era as concert venues grew in size, and thus there was a perceived need to tune up instruments to a level of “brightness” that could fill the space adequately. In turn, luthiers developed new ways to make stronger strings that could bear the increased tension.
What is indisputable, however, is that the pitch assigned to that A above middle C was once lower than it is now. Giuseppe Verdi in 1884 petitioned the Italian government to standardize A at 435 Hz like the French, or even lower, to A432. A tuning fork that had been used by Mozart sounds at A421.6. Handel’s tuning fork sounded at A422.5. It was not just Nazis, but international bodies that decreed in 1939 and again in 1955 to set A=440 Hz as the standard concert pitch. (Why this matter needed to be standardized around the world is not entirely clear to me. There is even a clause setting a standard pitch in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Article 282 .22!) In any event, even these efforts at standardization have failed:
Virtually all commercially produced contemporary music is tuned to A = 440 Hz. Nevertheless, most symphony orchestras ignore the standard and tune to 441, 442 or 443 Hz instead, while orchestras specializing in older music may sometimes tune in a tuning close to the one for which the piece was originally written, which may range from 415 Hz to 470 Hz.
But that has not solved the problems created by pitch inflation, especially for singers, who are finding that the standard repertoire is moving out of their ranges. In his article “Pitch Battles,” Colin Dickey explains:
In 1988, more than a dozen of opera’s greatest superstars—including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Birgit Nilsson—added their names to a petition before the Italian government, asking it to lower the standard pitch at which all orchestras are tuned. … The petition asked the government to lower this to 432 Hz, claiming that “the continual raising of pitch for orchestras provokes serious damage to singers, who are forced to adapt to different tunings from one concert hall or opera to the next,” and that “the high standard pitch is one of the main reasons for the crisis in singing, that has given rise to ‘hybrid’ voices unable to perform the repertoire assigned to them.” The petition ended with a demand that “the Ministries of Education, Arts and Culture, and Entertainment accept and adopt the normal standard pitch of A=432 for all music institutions and opera houses, such that it becomes the official Italian standard pitch, and, very soon, the official standard pitch universally.”
Given that this higher standard for A above middle C is problematic for singers and even for brass instrumentalists (some of whom trim the pipes of their horns to achieve the higher pitches), and given that some studies suggest that listeners prefer A432 to A440 , why does the standard remain the higher pitch?
Maria Renold conducted many experiments, testing the different response of listeners to her tuning system both in 440 Hz standard pitch and 432 Hz.
“[She] found that of 2000 people tested over 20 years, over 90% consistently preferred the lower pitch. The notes were given in different order, on different instruments, with various means to avoid prejudicing the listener. The wide variety of comments all went in the similar direction of calling the higher pitch more “irritating, unpleasant, aggressive, making one stressful and nervous”. The lower one, on the other hand, sounded “right, complete, pleasant, radiant, peaceful, harmonious, heartfelt but leaving one free.”
And, for that matter, why so much mystical hooey out there about a simple matter of engineering? The more I look at pitch inflation and the obfuscations around it, the more it seems like a 9/11 discussion of how the Twin Towers were taken down! With this much intentional misinformation afoot, it feels like something is in fact being hidden in plain sight. But what?
Finally, we turn to the titular subject of this installment. It was through Carl Honoré’s book In Praise of Slowness that I first learned about the “Tempo Giusto” movement. Musicians are coming to recognize that the pace at which classical music is typically played nowadays is actually much faster than the composers intended.
There is certainly evidence that we play some music faster than before. In a letter dated October 26, 1876 , Liszt wrote that he took “presque une heure” to play the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata op. 106. Fifty years later, Arthur Schnabel needed just forty minutes. Today some pianists rattle through the same notes in thirty-five minutes. Early composers scolded musicians for succumbing to the virus of hurry. … A distrust of accelerated tempo carried into the twentieth century. Mahler is said to have told budding conductors —to slow down, rather than speed up, if they felt the audience was growing bored.” (pp. 233-234—emphasis added)
For some nice examples of what a slower tempo can accomplish, search YouTube for performances by Uwe Kliemt.
Before the development of the metronome, composers might indicate their desired pace by marking time with the swing of a pendulum of certain length. (A ten-inch pendulum will have the same period regardless of the mass of the weight attached.) In those early days of pendulum-marking, the evidence points to the idea that the counting corresponded to one full swing of the pendulum: from the left to the right and back again was one unit.
Here’s the catch: when the metronome (essentially a mechanical pendulum whose length could be varied at will) was invented in 1815, some composers seem to have marked their tempo as they would have for the pendulum they used previously—one beat equals one full swing (left-right-left again) of the metronome. Others marked their times to correspond to each tick and tock of the machine. The second way of marking tempo is twice as fast as the first. Which method should one apply in interpreting a metronome marking on a piece?
In a certain sense, then, the metronome markings on classical scores are useless. And in any case, a sense of musicality should dictate the tempo. For a given piece, that sense must be informed by many considerations, such as Honoré details (235): “the mood of the musician, the type of instrument, the nature of the occasion, the character of the audience, the venue, the acoustics, the time of day, even the room temperature.”
Tempo inflation over the centuries probably followed pitch inflation. A bigger auditorium requires a bigger sound to fill it, and nothing does that better than the overlapping echoes of chord upon chord in rapid succession. The end result of the process is a pianist like Lang Lang, who hacks away at the ivories like a chef at Benihana. Such virtuosity can be breathtaking and yet lack the musicality that reaches into the soul. Back in my prime as a piano student, my thick peasant fingers could pound away with the best of them, for a Rachmaninoff “Prelude” or Bartok’s “Allegro Barbaro.” I even played Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu” flawlessly … just once. But I still count my proudest moment as that performance culminating in the almost inaudible final note in Schoenberg’s sixth little piece, which was written as an elegiac tribute to his recently deceased friend and mentor, Gustav Mahler. To hit that note just so, in its full context, is to convey the depths of a man’s inconsolable grief.
Da Capo al Fine
Something is amiss with music. Maybe not the music that you choose for yourself for listening or playing. But with regard to the music that surrounds us passively as we shop or dine or swim or wait in line or watch TV, there are a bunch of issues.
To recap, this music is:
• selected for its high signal-to-noise ratio in electronic transmissions (to the exclusion of a great deal of other music)
• largely restricted to a single tonality or two (out of the large number of possible tonalities)
• produced with a temperament in which the notes of the tonality can never quite harmonize with one another
• pitched at a tuning that is relatively high, and not well within the range of even trained voices
• performed at a tempo that is consistently on the faster end of the spectrum
If you compare these features to the list of earworm characteristics in the previous installment, my conclusion writes itself: music is getting more earwormy. These features are innately true of any kind of popular music composed in the last century. And like a time-traveling parasite of science fiction, this infestation of shrill, rushed, distempered, monotonous performance—this otohelminthiasis—is reaching back into the classical and baroque eras as well—at least in terms of how we experience that music today in recordings or live performances.
And, again, I would add that these points have no reference to lyrics or their meaning. These are simple observations about music as a whole. Music in Western society over the last century has become more and more like television—in equal measures both boring and over-stimulating at the same time. Stultifying and yet provoking restiveness, addictive and yet unsatisfying. Just what Jerry Mander says TV has become.
The remaining question is: is this trend in music intentional on the part of anyone or anything?
While we ponder that question, and until the next installment, let me leave you with an example of what you might be missing. I first encountered this performance a few years back while listening to one of the holiday episodes of the obscure radio show Hearts of Space. I don’t know Russian, so the only word I recognize is the opening “Alleluia.” But here is an instance of structured sound that—despite its transmission via your ISP and through your crummy computer speakers—still stands out from mainstream music today: in tonality, tempo, tuning, and temperament. Enjoy!
And Happy New Year to all at Piece of Mindful!