Looking for Answers

When I was a kid and just getting into music I remember one year wherein my hoped-for birthday present was a harmony textbook—Kostka and Payne’s Tonal Harmony text, which was the first book I ever read on the subject of how music works. At the time I barely knew that such information even existed, but I eagerly hoped for something that would help me understand what I suddenly found myself wanting to know: what makes music sound the way it does?

As a preteen first turning on to the world of music around me, the above question was of the most general nature. Above all, I wanted to find a vocabulary to describe the harmonic changes and structural patterns that I heard in the (mostly tonal) music I was listening to at home and on the radio; and I wanted to understand what it was that created those effects.

As I delved into basic music theory I did discover some helpful labels and develop some useful skills, but the encounter left me with precious little toward explaining some of the very basic questions I had: What makes this moment touching to me? What makes one sound spacious and another claustrophobic? Why do I find these gestures satisfying and not others? In searching for the answers to these questions I began to study scores along with recordings. I slowly began to equate heard sounds with observed notation and in the process became better-equipped to understand some explanations for my original inquiries; but more often than not, some of those questions began to seem silly to me, not because the impulse behind them was unimportant but because as I was developing I began to reframe my questions in light of my growing knowledge and experience—moving from “What’s the right way to do this?” on to “How do I like to do this?” and “What are the ways of doing this that I haven’t considered?”

In looking for answers, we often come to reevaluate the questions. For me at least, this truth has become integral to the composing experience. Barring the most extreme of philosophical positions, we humans neither create reality nor receive it passively; we are partners in the creation of our world, which we modify by the type of attention we bring to it. Immersed in this feedback loop, one’s development as a composer isn’t confirmed by coming up with better answers but with better questions—a deepening and widening of focus rather than the narrow accuracy that we often presume will guide us into the heart of musical mystery that we first yearned to know.

One thought on “Looking for Answers

  1. pgullo

    Looking for answers
    I agree that looking for answers in such a narrow scope has its drawbacks. The very idea of asking the questions appeals to me more than finding the answers (in many cases). However, the pursuit to find the answers to questions concerning the emotional experience had by listening is a noble one. Going further than theoretical analysis, I would especially welcome neurological studies on, for example, contrasting specific chord progressions, frequencies, timbres, etc. to gain an understanding of why we like certain sounds. Although some broad-based studies have delved into this area, I wonder how we might feel about conclusive results that state dopamine levels, on average, are heightened while listening to invertible counterpoint played by a violin and a cello more than any other combination. Of course, cultural upbringing and other factors present countless challenges in confirming such results, but the implications are thrilling from a compositional stance. Would then one be able to objectively say, “This music is better than that music.”?

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