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«Empirical Musicology Review Vol. 1, No. 2, 2006 Pitch Frames as Melodic Archetypes WILLIAM THOMSON University of Southern California ABSTRACT: In our ...»

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Empirical Musicology Review Vol. 1, No. 2, 2006

Pitch Frames

as Melodic Archetypes


University of Southern California

ABSTRACT: In our history we have recognized scales of some variety as keystones to

music’s pitch structure. And yet, empirical studies of perception and archeological

appraisals of human evolution confirm an unchanging cognitive/perceptual ground for the musical experience; they render the ragas and modes and tonoi and scales of the past to be understood only as "local" explanations for things better understood by the space/time kinetics of limited elements rather than by frozen note paradigms.

This paper concludes that an empirical study of music from a broad variety of times and cultures argues for a more elemental basis: thus coinage of the tonality frame. This conceptualization reunites harmonic nucleus with temporal span, meshing as well with ancient and exotic conceptualizations of hierarchical patterning.

Submitted 2006 February 2; accepted 2006 February 24 KEYWORDS: perception, melody, melodic, harmony, tonality, form, structure MUSICIANS have contended with at least three explanations of pitch coherence over the past three centuries. They were forced to grapple with even more when dealing with music from outside the WestEuropean orbit.

One of the three, the 12- tone world initiated by Schoenberg, is of no concern to us here; after three-quarters of a century, it continues to lack confirmation from studies of perception as more than a compositional tool.[1] The other two conceptualizations, modality and tonality, were conceived as attempts to explain something of music’s perceived pitch structure. Each carries the birthmark of its origins, the ontological canons that dominated its era. In the rhetoric of learned musicians the two theories are separated, as if mutually exclusive.

This convention demands that music of Western civilization composed between 900 and 1600—give or take a half-century on either end—is modal. Its taxonomy is confined to the diatonic set (with the preGuidonian exception of B-flat), whose permuted orderings by finalis yield eight modes.[2] Then music created after the 17th-century deadline is routinely lumped into a different pitch-structural taxonomy: it is tonal, not modal. And then tonal conditions of that duality are sometimes further refined as either of classical tonality, functional tonality, or harmonic tonality. The modal/tonal separation boasts an imposing birthright: the revered legacy of the Rameau-Riemann-Schenker triumvirate. Each in his own way defined pitch organization as a product of major or minor scales set into certain orderings of chords.

But we must ask: “Has humanity evolved in such a way that different pitch resources have been demanded as the centuries rolled by?”[3] Must that development be thought of only as a few-to-many pitch progression, with primitive pentatonic (or fewer) leading on through modality into the Enlightenment’s diatonic, and hence to the dodecaphonic of 20th century fame?

There are “evolutionary” exceptions noted on occasion from the modal/tonal duality, even beyond obvious instances of antique resonances, like those in the music of Bruckner or Vaughn-Williams. Thus Debra Mawer tells us [4] that Milhaud and Stravinsky favored “modality over tonality,” as if the presence of the one negates presence of the other. And then jazz giants Miles Davis and Bill Evans claimed to improvise in the Dorian mode, even if what they produce sounds suspiciously like simple old C major.[5] It is musicology’s good fortune that a cadre of new-generation scholars has made some progress in clearing the fields of our historicistic blind alleys. Harold Powers’ numerous burrowings into matters of mode, scale, räga, et al., Delores Pesce’s studies of late medieval polyphony, and the analytical studies of Empirical Musicology Review Vol. 1, No. 2, 2006 Sarah Fuller have been markers toward long overdue relief. Music historian Cristle Collins Judd has helped lead the pack toward a less confining perspective of pitch structuring in pre-Baroque music over the past decade. But, sad to say, the engrained bad habits of academe are not easily broken.

The most concise statement I know of Harmonic Tonality was made in 1940 when Ernst Krenek ruled that “A tone becomes the tonic only when the central triad is built over it.”[6] Since the term tonic is here inseparable from the term central triad, Krenek’s claim is tautological—which is just one of several clues that assumptions implicit to his definition are flawed. Whatever may be its ultimate credibility, the Harmonic/Classical/ Functional Tonality versions are de-facto irrelevant to music lacking chords, whether as simultaneities or implied by melodic motion.

So a second probing question is in order: “Why are different theories required to define musics which in very fundamental ways sound alike?” How really different, for instance, is the pitch structuring of a Gregorian tune in certifiable Lydian mode and a 19th century English folk song designated as “in the key of F major?” And is the bassoon opening of Stravinsky’s Rite really that different from any other pitch string of 6 notes with A as its nucleus? Mawer calls his music modal; theorist Allen Forte finds the Rite of Spring atonal.[7] And “That’s a complication,” as Lawyer Frazier told Bess.

There is yet a further compounding of this conceptual dilemma: Neither modality nor tonality is touted as definitive for non-Western music. We are directed instead to the likes of Ragas or Liu-liuh or Octoechos–the chosen option depends upon the music’s culture of origin–to derive official pitch sense. One must wonder if a close shave with Ockham’s Razor might not be overdue; far too many “entities” seem to muddle the conceptual stew. Can we not reach an overarching consensus? A basic theory?

Despite those inroads made by musicologists like Powers and Judd, the dominant view of current musicology about such matters is bleakly historicist, anti-empirical. It argues that structural ontologies are credible only if conceived within the time and place and explanatory trappings of a music’s creation.[8] Virelais of the 12th Century, it is argued, can’t possess tonality; that term, with its descriptive overlay, was not coined until six centuries later. In other words, if contemporaries formalized no conceptualizations, then we can’t assume they entertained any such perceptions. The policy is as indefensible as it is quaint. If duplicated today in medicine it would hold that persons suffering inflamed joints before 1800 were in fact victims of “leaking morbid humors,” which was the diagnosis of the times—since the faulty metabolism of uric acid had not yet been discovered.

The fact is that many confirmed explanations of our world enjoy no conceptual basis in the lore of “their times”—from the cave paintings of Lascaux to heavenly constellations. Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake obliquely trashes the no-concept/no-percept notion when she observes that...not having a word for something is not proof that the something does not exist.

Many societies have no words for “love” or “kinship,” yet these abstractions are evident to the outsider who names and then looks for them.[9] So again we ask: “Must explanatory theories be different for different times and places because people change?” Our current knowledge suggests the folly of such a conclusion. Empirical studies of our own cognitive-perceptual machinery point to rather basic and uniform processes that govern the way we humans obtain a sense of dynamic wholes from successions of pitches—a sense of music. And furthermore, our knowledge of peoples who preceded us and who enjoyed different cultural trappings suggests that they were not different from us in the way they experienced music. In fact, what we know today suggests that the basic properties and operations of being human have not changed in thousands of years. As archeologist Steven Mithen explains, the most recent act of humanity’s evolutionary scenario began around 10,000 BC, when Homo sapiens helped usher in the Holocene era.[10] As a species, we all arrive equipped with much the same sensory powers and predispositions that enable us to meet the external world and survive. These genetically-endowed talents stem from common needs; they are part and parcel of what psychologist Eleanor Rosch calls “Cognitive Economy.”[11] They enable us “...to classify, to sort impressions and perceptions into some kind of order such as normal and abnormal, safe and dangerous, edible and inedible … and so forth.”[12] Empirical studies of music perception from the past three decades don’t support the kind of multilateral division imposed by musicologists and music theorists. Indeed, such a conceptualization is foreign to the burgeoning field of perceptual psychology, as a brief review of that literature’s high points can reveal.

Empirical Musicology Review Vol. 1, No. 2, 2006 Especially prominent are relevant studies by Schellenberg & Trehub (1966a-b), Deutsch (1980), Krumhansl & Keil (1982), Castellano, Bharucha, & Krumhansl (1984), Butler, (1989), Bharucha (1996), Huovinen (2002), and Giangrande, Tuller, & Kelso (2003). Above all, each manages to establish the persuasive powers of context on any musical event. Each confirms something that comes as bad news for many of our PostMod colleagues: we are not blank slates. We play the perception game with loaded dice.

One instance is our decided predilection for 5th and 4th (ic5) within the kinetics of pitch patterning, relationships that play prominent roles—even determining roles—in the musical experience. Try as we might, we seem unable to escape these predispositions.

We furthermore derive structure from pitch dynamics in time rather than from itemizing the tiniest sound bits. And thus “empirical” studies that only count notes to produce structural information, without attending to parametric kinetics, are misguided. Drawing a parallel between psycholinguistics and music theory, David Butler (1989) makes a crucial point when he observes that “it is certainly clear that major revelations of deep structures in grammar did not issue from repeated and careful studies of the alphabet.”[13] And counting notes inhabits the same wasteland.

Erkki Huovinen of Finland finds indispensable the recognition of a limited set of pitch frames in describing the tonal residues of real-time pitch motion.[14] Data from his six empirical studies affirm the prominent role played by interval-class (ic) 5, leading to his conclusion that such intervals (5ths and 4ths) “should be seen real intervallic sign posts for listeners in their quest of sense from pitch sequences.” In this, Professor Huovinen echoes a conclusion reached by Paul Hindemith more than sixty years ago. But Huovinen goes further. His study adds hard empirical support to the idea of pitches framed in time as perceived reality, data that exceeds mere informed hunches or numeric formulations.

A recent study of event-related electrical potentials of the brain (ERP) by Granot and Donchin [15] supports several common-sense notions of our responses to pitch patterns: (1) a string of pitches (sets of seven in their study) constrains or does not constrain our expectations of a succeeding pitch. How so? It depends on the intervallic ordering of the particular series [16]; (2) a broad difference separates the way we listen to passages of clear pitch orientation and those of ambiguous orientation; and (3) the musically trained are not alone in their sensitivity to fundamental tonal/harmonic propensities.

Nor are constraining auditory traits limited to our West-European populace. Patterns of straightforward pitch hierarchy (i.e., of 0, 4, 5 interval class content) are encoded and remembered by listeners outside our cultural milieu with comparative ease. A study by Castellano, et al. (1984) concludes that native listeners to the music of North India respond with the same hierarchical biases exhibited by listeners from West-European cultures. A similar study by Nam (1998) finds a conventional tonal hierarchy—with ic5 (perfect 4th or 5th) paramount in the p’iri repertory of traditional Korean court music.

Within that music he notes “analogous tonal hierarchies,” these dominated by “‘finalis’ tones consistent with the ‘tonic’.”[17] Such experiential propensities are not limited to highly-conditioned adults. Studies of six-year old children by Schellenberg and Trehub (1996), by Trainor (1997), and by Zentner and Kagan (1996) make manifest that 8ves, 5ths, and 4ths provide stable referential bases within strings of successive and simultaneous pitches. Studies by Trehub, Endman, and Thorpe (1990), Lecannuet (1995, 1996), and by Fassbender (1996) confirm timbre discrimination as a fact of life 3 to 4 months before birth. A classic 1982 study by Krumhansl and Keil concluded that the pitch hierarchy, with ic4 and ic5 as central elements, has been internalized by 8-9 years.

Data of a more generalized nature, from studies of melodic contour by Dyson and Watkins (1984), and Jones (1987), isolate the power of contoural and contextual factors (highest/lowest, first/last) for imbedding a pattern into a young listener’s memory. Psychologist Lyle Davidson has found three constituents endemic to children’s music-making, one of which he calls the “tonal frame. “It’s a component that designates the pitch interval outlining the temporal play of an improvised melody.”[18] These conclusions help to ratify the perspectives voiced by archeologist Steven Mithen and confirmed by anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake: the human aural experience is no haphazard production line, one whose finished product changes with the fashion of the times. We don’t process sound information as separate bits nor according to style-conditioned fashions of the times. As psychologist Deutsch explains, “…we form sequential groupings out of combinations of elements.”[19] In other words, we build things as we go. And we "build" them in ways that do not vary, culture-to-culture, century-to-century. In the words of psychologist Ernst Terhardt (1989, p. 197), "there exist a number of universal auditory phenomena that govern--or at least affect--the perception of any type of music."

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