Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Psychology of Music: Where Feeling Comes In

by W.S.B. Mathews

In the first paper of the present series we traced the origin of music and its development through the ferment of the harmonic principle acting upon the musical imagination - which is to say, the educated imagination, acting upon selected material for hearing. (The ear hears much besides that restricted part of what it hears which we name music.) It was concluded that the prime object of music is the production of tonal beauty, attractive tonal discourses, which have in them something in common with all human discourse, namely, a series of connected sounds (rationally related sounds) succeeding each other in time and forming a variety of smaller and larger unities, which the listener, if intelligent, apprehends. Music has also the attractiveness of educated speech, in its agreeable sound; it has also much that is peculiar to itself, inasmuch as these tonal successions and ideas appeal to the educated musical sense and are not fully intelligible to the ordinary uneducated person. Thus we have left over from the first paper the nature of music as primarily tonal, and, second, the attitude for enjoying it intelligently, as in expert play with tones, - namely, what might be called an “objective” attitude, the attitude of curiously examining and following a rational discourse. It was admitted that music also has power over the feelings, but the question of the source and scope of this power was left for later consideration. The first thing is to hear and to hear music, which is not the tone, but the ideas, unities, which the tones take on or express through their organization modes. What we now come to is to trace, if we can, the nature of the transactions which take place in the brain of the listener, beginning at the moment when the first sound of the musical stanza falls upon the ear, and ending with moment when the consciousness of the listener has the sense of the whole and has experienced a certain change of attitude or state in consequence. This sounds rather formidable, but inasmuch as it belongs to everyday experiences we ought to be able to make some headway in the investigation.

We begin, then, with the listener in a receptive attitude, as when one says to him: “Listen now, I have a curious and interesting thing to tell you!” The listener pays attention -that is, directs his attention to what is about to be said and keeps it there until the story is completed. In understanding the story there are certain elements not unlike these that take place in understanding music. First, a series of words, which the listener both hears and recognizes, and also understands as he recognizes them - as the “autocrat” used to say, understands them “as one drinks water without stopping to taste it.” Suppose, for instance, it is a sentence like this: “A beautiful girl, elegantly dressed, was standing by the crossing of the street when a ruffian came up and struck her.” Observe the unities which form themselves in the mind during the moment just after the words have been heard without stopping to taste them: “A beautiful girl” (we all know the kind), “elegantly dressed” (we have seen that sort); and now a larger unity, “a beautiful girl elegantly dressed was standing by the crossing of the street” (here the street crossing emerges in its own completeness and becomes associated with all that went before), “when a ruffian” (we swallow hard after “ruffian”; we know that kind) “came up and struck her?’ The key has changed to minor and the chords are distinctly Wagnerian.

Suppose I hold in my hand the printed copy of the piece of music some one is going to play for me. I cast my eyes over the notes, following from left to right, slowly along the line, just as I would do if playing from the notes; I read it conscientiously and musically, that is in the proper tempo, whatever it is. As my eye passes along the line it encounters successive chords, each of which is accompanied by a little vertical mark, those from the right-hand notes commonly stemming out of the right hand side of the round notehead; those of the left hand stem out of the left-hand side of the notehead (as they commonly turn down). These vertical lines may stand for the moment when the successive chords’ fall upon the ear.

Laying aside now the printed music, in order to have the attention more complete to what we hear, let the music begin. First consider the chords, the harmonic movement. Observe that in a really important. piece of music the tension within the chords varies extremely. For instance, take the first phrase of the Adagio of the “Sonata Pathetique,” by Beethoven, and note that, while only Tonic and Dominant occur for several chords in succession, the relation of the bass to the chord gives rise to varied tensions, which if space permitted it would he interesting to trace. If we come to a very modern work we find the tensions much more varied, owing to the presence of dissonance. Now, a word for these tensions.

By repose in a chord we mean the effect of a Tonic chord well placed, with the root in the lowest part and in the highest. This is the only absolute repose there is in music. Any change o-f position, bringing the third or fifth in the treble, changes the tension; and any inversion adds still more tension. From this zero point, out of which all music springs and into which all music returns, we come next to the most reposeful chord after the tonic. This chord is the Subdominant, because, either by nature or by habit, we expect the Tonic to follow it. When we hear the Dominant after the Tonic, we know that we can still see home. While the actual consonance of the chord is quite the same as that of the Tonic, the tension is greater, because the mind is looking for something later. Thus we add the positions of the Dominant.

Then we come to the minor chords of the key, universally recognized as of a pathetic or unsatisfied character. This color lies in the chord itself, which is not consistent throughout with its predominant fundamental. While not technically a dissonance, the minor triad is acoustically such. Then we come to the various chords of the seventh, with greater tensions and more clamorous appeals for progression and resolution. To these "we add whatever dissonance we please, each one being in fact a temporary displacement of a consonant tone of the chord, appealing for resolution. In this way we get a great variety of what we might call acoustical tensions, owing to the perfect agreement or imperfect agreement of all the vibratory elements with a given fundamental, and the very evident fact with many of them that they sound dissonant. In this way I think we might enumerate forty or more grades of tension residing in the chord itself, chords which we are liable to hear at any suitable part of a discourse. 

Besides these tensions, which are inseparable from hearing, there is a second grade of tensions due to place in key -that is, due to our expecting something suitable and definite to follow. The range of tensions due to place in key, and especially to a momentary digression into foreign keys, is very great, and the experiencing of these tensions is an indispensable prerequisite to any intelligent and sympathetic hearing of the music as to its beauty and strength. That most of my readers have never before thought of them is merely a tacit reflection upon the musical education they have had. In popular music these tensions are vastly fewer and less subtle. That is one reason why unmusical persons find what is called classical music uninteresting. They do not respond because they are unawakened to these delicate musical distinctions.

In this hearing there is, first, a moment of what we might call acute attention, when the successive klangs fall upon the ear; second, a time of suspension, until the phrase is completed, when all of a sudden the outline of the phrase as a whole shapes itself ill the mind, just as one sees the branch of a tree clear up in the stereoscope when the focus is perfected; but this is not the end; a second phrase defines itself, a third, and a fourth, and finally a complete period, in which all four of the phrases stand so clear in the vision of the tonal-imagination that a good musician can just as easily write out such a musical period from once hearing, as any person of common intelligence can write out the sentence last spoken to him. 

The organizing elements in the music are the harmonic (tending away from the Tonic and back again to it) and the rhythmic. The rhythmic does not place much strain upon the attention; through the accent the interest is culminated upon a certain harmonic point, and by this means the period takes a color it would not have had with an accent upon a different place. Here is much matter to explore, but we have no space. Enough for the present to point out that our acute attention gives us the actual sound of the successive klangs, and our suspended attention gives us the various connections and dependencies in the period. Moreover, while most of our music consists of melody and harmony, the tonal effects of melody is charged back to the harmony, all melodic motion taking place between two successive harmonies being charged to the harmony last heard. Rhythm cuts a great figure in melody. But this we must pass.

When the period has been truly heard in a musical manner in such a way that the musical hearer is able to write it out without the slightest hesitation or uncertainty, we are at an end of two classes of musical effect: First, the actual sound of the klangs themselves; second, the tension of klangs as affected by place in key. Now, what happens next?

There is something extremely personal and penetrating in music. It comes home to you. Our emotional state changes with the music. Why? There are two chief movers of emotional kind. The pulsation and rhythm themselves are characterizations. When slow and sedate in motivization, it tends to seriousness; when faster and more daring in motivization, it is more inciting and stimulating. Then there is the chord-color, the range and quality of tensions. When a composer is in such a state that he prefers dissonances and delights in syncopations and clashing sounds, you know perfectly well that he is not dreaming of heaven. It may be dyspepsia. The mind cannot get away from the idea that a preponderance of active tensions in music means excitement, sometimes almost madness. And just as a generation or two ago our fathers went wild over the uncanny “Confessions of an Opium Eater” (De Quincy), so in our days there are thousands to go wild over the same kind of thing in music.

And with better reason. Some of my readers have heard of Archdeacon’s famous watch. He pictures a savage finding a watch lying upon the sea shore. It has been recently dropped, and it is still running. At first he imagines it a new kind of turnip. He hears a mysterious ticking inside. He gets the case open and discovers the wheels and the moving balance. “No!” he says, “some man must have made this; it never grew.” Such is the famous argument from design. So in music. Nobody can hear music without recognizing it as a living action. It is a personally conducted progression through a range of life which may prove to be congenial or utterly foreign; nevertheless a life, the story of the actual heartbeats, the laughter, the tears, and the sorrows of men and women like ourselves. It answers to the great under deep of the subconscious in man, where memories linger, hopes lie dormant, aspirations strive and now and then emerge - it covers the whole range of the possible emotional states in man. Now sweet and pleasing, now more troubled, striving, building up energetically to a tremendous climax, never for two minutes the same--what can such a voice mean but to tell of a human soul in pain or joy, in sorrow or longing or aspirations? The emotional hypothesis forms itself instinctively in order to account for the preferences involved in the percentage of dissonance and other tension; and the idea of a personal creator is an inevitable conclusion from the very apparent play of design, repetition and recapitulation as the discourse proceeds. By accentuation and emotional swing, it can only be poetry; and by what it says, it is highly intense poetry of human imagination and feeling. No other hypothesis so easily forms itself. 

Then we must not forget that a very large department of music has always concerned itself with the direct effort to express human feeling. Dramatic characterization, they call it, but the one thing which opera lives for is to supply music to each scene and line of the drama, congenial as a suitable atmosphere or expression for the human loves and sorrows which then unfold before us. Thus arise a few “conventions,” such as the tremolo for suspense, when trouble is on the point of bursting; the sharp pizzicati of the violins for the strokes of swords in fencing, the quiet triplets and monotonous bass of a “pastoral” movement.

Nevertheless while feeling cannot be separated from music, and music without feeling should be sold by the yard and cut ofl' in pennyworths, feeling is after all not the primary object; but the story, in which character is the motive, and feeling the incident. Therefore, while to ignore feeling as a part of the content of music and to fail to educate in discerning it as it appears would be a serious defect in a musical education, it is even more true that to ignore the story, the characters, the individualities of tonal life would be a still more fatal defect. Moreover we also come back to the principle that, whether feeling be a primary or a secondary incident of music, the fact remains that the nature of the story and the feeling it contains are second results of hearing the music, the music itself as tonal story being the first thing one hears, while the person who hears not at all remains ignorant of all that the music contains. Therefore we begin by learning to hear and to hear more and more; and we then inquire what we hear - what it is all about.

These positions explain one very curious fact in pedagogy. The thorough study of even a small number of pieces by Bach almost invariably promotes musical feeling in the player, more rapidly than perhaps the compositions of any other author whatever. And the player not taught to hear design in music always fails to find anything worth noticing in Bach. I take Bach as a test because he was probably the most perfect musician known as yet in musical history. He has pretty much everything: Infinite individuality and character in tonal design, most clever and evasive harmonies which never grow old to the hearer, a most dreamy melody, full of tender mysticism at times (as much so as Schumann) and a background of feeling and temperament which has not gotten cold during the two centuries his works have appealed. After Bach the next great master who fails of popular appreciation through ignorance of his consummate play of musical lines and evasive tensions is Brahms. 

Hence the summary of musical psychology: First, hear; second, understand; third, enjoy and sympathize; then, if you can, play.