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tonalityThe ear is a biological phenomenon; but the human ear is also a cultural product. It has a history, a perspective and an interest of its own. The ear of the modern concertgoer is unlike the ear of a medieval chorister, and both are distinct from the ear of the pop fan who never takes his speakers from his ears. Until we understand this fact we will not be able to address the question that is of such importance to classical music today, which is that of the renewal of tonality.

Some people listen to music; others merely hear it. The assumption on which our musical culture has been built is that people will listen to musical sounds, and listen to them for their own sake, treating them as intrinsically significant. All music lovers listen in that sense, regardless of their taste. This does not mean that listening is a single phenomenon, or that it cannot be changed through education. Just as you can educate the eye to look for the meanings that painters endeavour to put on the canvas, so you can educate the ear to listen for, and to hear, the effects that composers intend.

Animals too listen: they prick up their ears and stand still, attending to the ambient sounds. But they are doing something different from what we do, when we listen to music. They are seeking information. It is not the sounds that interest them, but the things that cause the sounds. Like us, they use their ears to gain knowledge of the world, and the sounds that they make are signals of other things—their emotions, desires and responses. Even bird-song is to be understood in that way. Birds neither sing nor listen for the sake of the music: they are expressing their territorial instinct, and taking note of others doing the same.

Ear-Audicus-Hearing-Aids_mediumWhen we listen to music it is also true that we are interested in information—who is making the sound, where it is coming from, why it is sounding now, and so on. But those interests are extraneous to the musical experience. A completely unmusical person could be interested in music for those reasons, as could an animal. When we listen to music as music, we are focusing on the sounds themselves, hearing in them a particular kind of life and movement. And this is a far more mysterious thing than at first it seems. Often, if you focus too closely on the causes of the sounds, you lose track of the music. Brahms’s 2nd piano concerto opens with a phrase on the horn, followed by a rising arpeggio on the piano that breaks into an answering phrase. To hear the musical line you have to think away the physical location of the sounds, to forget the man blowing in one corner of the orchestra and the woman striking keys in the other. You must hear the horn summoning that arpeggio, which rises up in the same space as the horn’s melody, but from somewhere below it, presenting its answering phrase in the space vacated by the horn. Where is this space? Nowhere in the physical world. And when we listen to these sounds as music we are focusing on a movement that does not occur in the place where we are.

Only because we human beings are capable of certain special acts of attention do we encounter music in the sounds that we hear. Maybe the tone deaf hear only sounds, and cannot perceive the order that reveals itself to the musical ear. But musical people are listening in another way from the unmusical. They don’t hear through the sounds to some mysterious cause that eludes those with less acute hearing. What they hear lies in the sounds themselves. It is not a hidden cause or a faraway commotion. It is as present in the sounds as a face is present in a portrait. But it is not identical with the sounds, any more than the face in the picture is identical with a collection of pigments. The order we hear in music is an imagined order, and it is only because we attend to the music in a certain way that it is revealed to us.

Listening is not the whole of musical appreciation. There is also playing, singing along, dancing. But in all those activities we find some equivalent of the mysterious process that occurs in the soul of the musical listener: the process that fills a sequence of sounds with movement, life and order. It is in these terms that we should understand our tonal tradition, and also the interest that we bring to it in the concert hall. When playing an instrument you might be the sole audience. Nevertheless, it is your nature as a listener that governs how you play, and even if your body responds to the rhythm so that the movement of the music takes place also in you, this happens because you are a listener, someone who can hold sounds together in his imagination and who can hear the order that binds each sound to its successor.

Undeniably, listening has a history, and a pre-history too. Just how the habit of making and listening to music arose is a deep question, and evolutionary psychologists have offered various not very plausible theories in response to it. In its first occurrence, it is natural to assume, music must have been a social phenomenon—a form of ‘joining in’ through which the tribe experienced in heightened form the solidarity on which it depended for survival. When people sing and dance together they have an experience of ‘belonging’ which depends on no family ties or prior affections, and which therefore can be used to incorporate strangers into the community, to prepare otherwise mutually suspicious people for combat or hunting, and to mark the rites of passage in which the community as a whole has a stake. Not surprisingly, therefore, singing and dancing are universal features of tribal societies, and occur at just the places and times where the need for solidarity surfaces.

This does not, however, tell us very much about listening. The very fact that listening can occur in private, without the experience of ‘joining in’, might lead us to think that it is a late arrival on the human scene, a mark of the separation of the individual from the community, and of the growing ability of humans to put observation in the place of participation. Even if the performer and the dancer must listen to their music, the art of listening without joining is, it might be suggested, a later development, something that did not have to occur, and which supposes a new and more sophisticated attitude to the collective life of the tribe.

Whatever its pre-history, however, listening in silence brought with it not only a new attitude to music, but also a new kind of music. Music began to be written down and worked over; it became established as an art whose products could be repeated and admired in other places and at other times. The movement heard in sounds was now isolated for study, and understood in terms of its inner logic. New complexities arose as people began to distinguish separate but harmonising voices, and in due course there emerged the instrumental, choral and vocal music of our classical tradition, which demands acts of attention that can occur only if the audience maintains a posture of collective silence, and only if the urge to dance or to sing along is suppressed.

vancouver-symphonyIt is from those developments that the symphony and the concert arose. And it is not too fanciful, I think, to compare the rise of silent listening to the advent of silent worship in church, temple and synagogue. What must originally have been a collective dance or song in honour of the god became in time a largely silent ritual, in which the presiding priest conducted the ceremony, performed the sacred actions or recited the holy words, whether or not with the aid of a choir. The congregation could join in from time to time, but only in ways specified by the rite. For long moments the ordinary worshippers remained motionless in silence, their eyes and thoughts fixed on the ritual at the altar. The priest mediated between two worlds, the everyday world, and the world beyond, the spirit-world, to which the thoughts and hopes of the congregation were directed. And in due course the question arose whether such mediation was necessary, and whether people could not put themselves immediately in the presence of God, and receive his blessings through pronouncing prayers of their own.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the history of instrumental music and that of the cult of listening are interwoven with the history of the Church and the priesthood. You entered both the church and the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is. The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an act of spiritual refreshment. This is perhaps one of the most important differences between the concert-hall experience and the Rock concert, in which the audience falls silent, if at all, only because it cannot compete with the noise from the stage. Like a football match, a Rock concert takes place in an atmosphere of excitement. Even if the result is a kind of listening, it is one in which participation, rather than contemplation, is the background sentiment.

In our attempts to understand the place of the symphony hall in our society today we should be aware of that great difference between the symphony and the Rock concert. The first is more akin to a religious service, in which a mystery is repeated in silence, while the second is more like a collective celebration, in which everyone joins in and there is no mystery at all—only life, expressed and accepted for what it is. The music of the concert hall tends to start from small beginnings and work to a climax. It is a kind of reasoned extrapolation of a primal thought, in which the listeners are invited to move and develop with the music, much as they are invited to move and develop with a religious service. Your feelings at the end of a great classical symphony have been won from you by a process which involves your deepest being. In the usual Rock concert, the excitement, and the message, are contained in the very first bar. Rhythm, tonality and the main spurt of melody are thrust immediately into the ears of the listener. There is a ‘let’s go!’ feeling to the music, and an invitation to leave aside all those long-winded and difficult emotions that have hesitation as their initiating mark.

imagesBut there are also significant similarities between the two events. In both there is a centre of attention—the people who are making music for the sake of the audience. And in both there is, or has been, a shared legacy of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic devices. While the symphony is more akin to a religious mystery, and the Rock concert to a tribal dance—although a dance that is constrained by the space and by the focus on the stage—both depend on musical movement, melodic progression, rhythmic beat and harmonic closure. The chords that occur in the Rock concert could also occur in a tonal symphony, and while, by the standards of the concert hall, the melodies of Rock music are for the most part truncated and ephemeral, they work in the same way—by bringing the listener into their movement. They work towards closure, and usually the melodic closure is a harmonic closure too, a coming to rest on the tonic of the key.

I don’t say that all Rock music is like that. But such is the paradigm case, from which the many experiments depart. And it is built around the same basic grammar as the great classical symphonies—the ‘common practice’, which extracts repeatable and recognizable harmonies from the diatonic scale. That is the thread by which young people today can be brought to enter, with experimental footsteps, the sacred place of the symphony hall. But first they must take off their ear-phones. And how do we make that happen?

It is not a question of replacing one musical taste with another—something that often happens through education and an expanded acquaintance with the repertoire. It is a question of replacing addiction with discrimination. If you look back at the critiques of tonality articulated by Schoenberg, and subsequently by Adorno, Bloch and others, you will find a repeated emphasis on the ‘banality’ of the common practice. This banality clings not only to melodies and rhythms, but also to individual chords. The diminished seventh, Schoenberg tells us in the Harmonielehre, has ‘become banal’. You just can’t use it any more: its once thrilling effect has gone from it; the chord has lost its aura through too much and too predictable use. (Though people went on using it nevertheless—there are three diminished sevenths in a row in Berg’s great Lyric Suite for string quartet.) It is as though a groove has been worn in musical space, and if you slip into it you are trapped by it, sliding along with no escape. All the effects of the common practice, Adorno argued, have become like that.

The same kind of groove is chiselled in the human psyche by addictions. When rewards are too quickly and too easily obtained, the path to them becomes entrenched and closed against divergence. The addict slips into the groove unresisting, and is carried to the goal without the possibility of escape from it. This happens with substance abuse, with pornography, with the anger-addiction of the Islamists, who slip into the God groove at the first hint of an excuse. And it surely happens with music too. When rhythms, harmonies and melodic lines are taken from a predictable repertoire and offer no resistance to the person who nods along with them, and when the experience is available at the push of a button, a groove is chiselled in the listening part of the brain, and the entrance to that groove lies always open. How to close that entrance? And if we cannot close it, what then?

The first step in the cure of addiction is well known: the addict must confess to his condition and express a desire to be released from it. The various ‘12 step’ programs that have been proposed, in the wake of the pioneering work of Alcoholics Anonymous, all depend upon this first step. And it is this first step that is the hardest to achieve. The pop addict must first be brought to listen to something other than his addiction. And how can that be achieved without removing the earphones? Only if he can be brought into a shared space, and encouraged to listen, with others beside him, to another kind of sound than the one that lies along that open groove, will the process of recovery begin. For this reason, it seems to me, music education must begin in school. It should be one task of a symphony to organize school-day concerts, to show children that there is another and more grow-up way of listening to another and more long-range kind of music.

It is for the same reason that we should refuse to go along with those who disparage the common practice, who say, with Adorno, that tonality is a dead language, which should be learned only as Latin is learned, in order to appreciate the beauties of a world that has gone. We must be prepared to show young people that the coal face from which their addictive songs have been chipped contains other, more beautiful and more interesting seams of meaning, and that behind the glittering surface lie treasures that are worth far more than the superficial dross.

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George Gershwin

American composers have made their own distinctive contribution to this enterprise. From Gershwin to John Adams it has been normal to take some aspect of the popular music of the day and to show its connection to other and more long-term ways of musical thinking. Just as Gershwin rewrote jazz sequences in the language of counterpoint, so does Adams lift the ostinato four in a bar of the Rock group into an orchestral empyrean, where the flat-footed dance gives way to a gravitationless rhythm that moves and develops with the harmony. Adams uses the tonal language, not to make the kind of profound statement of a Beethoven or a Bruckner, but nevertheless to lift the young ear out of its groove and to make it listen.

If those thoughts have any merit, then they suggest a program of musical education that is still available to us, and in which the American symphony, and the American tradition of democratic openness, can play a vital part. But they also suggest that we should not let ourselves be bullied by the avant-garde into filling the concert hall with original noises and inexplicable sound effects. New music is of course necessary if the symphony is to live. But it should be music in which each note is joined to its neighbour, so that life can move between them and we the listeners move in sympathy too. It is that experience of moving in sympathy, yet without really moving, that is the ‘real presence’ in the consecrated space of the symphony hall. And to lead young people towards it is not only our duty, but also their salvation.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Future Symphony Institute. The author would like to thank Hillary B. and Kate Miller who made this essay possible. 

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2 replies to this post
  1. I would argue that without the experimentation of the avant garde, the arts would stagnate. Schoenberg’s atonalities are a journey, not a destination. He and others like him opened the way for new musical expressions, even if most composers only borrow some the ideas. Same with the visual arts. Modernism broadened artistic horizons, even for artists who consider themselves traditional. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. How does any endeavor go forward if no one pushes the boundaries?

    Besides, I like Schoenberg. 🙂

    • In this case I don’t think the author means to say that experimenters in the arts don’t have value but that many in the avant-garde believe that they are the only endeavors of value.

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