Monday, January 22, 2007

You know it when you hear it.

(And the correct answer to the final Jeopardy! question is: how is tonal music like a sound track to an adult movie?)

Sorry, another post about labels.

Individual, groups, organizations, and competitions expressly promoting "tonal music" seem to have a growing presence. While many of these identify themselves up front as musical traditionalists or conservatives, and many are simply dilettantes, there are also banner-carriers for tonality in one form or another who cross all stylistic and ideological boundaries. It's now been decades since an appeal to tonality can be heard immediately as a rearguard action, and indeed, there are musics out there which are comfortably both avant-garde and tonal.

Buts it's difficult to find anyone out there wiling to give us a definition of "tonal music" or "tonality", and when offered, they are either too broad to be meaningful or too specific to be useful. For example, a definition requiring on the presence of a single central tone or tonic would include Harry Partch's tonality diamond, or Lou Harrison's twelve-tone but pitch-centric Symphony on G, and a narrow definition might exclude music without a clear major-minor tonality, or something from outside the western tradition, like Indian music or Javanese Karawitan, although both traditions share some important traits with western musics that we can probably more easily agree to define as tonal.

I have my own ideas about this, but I'd like to hear what others have to say. How do you define tonal music or tonality?


Samuel Vriezen said...

Hi Daniel, your post brought me back to my earliest days of usenet posting when I was young a boy composer student scarcely more than one score years of age - how soft and promising I was in that happy, innocent age! - anyway, I posted something on this that I still think makes sense. Here it is (with some minor changes):

I am finding it strange that people think of tonal vs atonal as an easily applicable dichotomy, which they can then use to judge the value of a piece of music. I was trying to challenge this practice by trying to show that unequivocally dubbing pieces either tonal or atonal is a very problematic issue.

How to proceed showing this? I can make an appeal to the ears, or to music theory. As to the ears, I find that many not-strictly-tonal composers do compose with a sensibility that more often than not borrows a lot from tonal practice. For instance, in Xenakis we find an abundant use of 'scales' (sometimes even scales that remind me of diatonicism); Ligeti's micropolyphonical techniques remind me of Renaissance music; early Stockhausen uses 'central notes' and 'central chords'; and early Schoenberg atonal harmony is very often based on thirds (very tonal!) and fourths (which he [and also Scriabin and Debussy] had already 'inserted' in tonal music). It is also possible to find truly non-tonal music based on diatonic scales (Ligeti - study for piano nr.15 'White on White' for instance).

As to music theory, the point is I think that tonality is not a simple idea - it is a complex of ideas, including but not limited to notions of central tone, modulation, diatonicism, leading tones, triads, chords based on thirds, functional harmony, dissonance resulotion, relations between harmony and meter, between melody and meter, etc. etc. Now in the 17th through 19th centuries a neat system arose combining all this in a nice fashion thereby giving the impression that there exist a simplex called 'tonality'. However, it is possible to borrow elements from this system, disregard other elements, add again other elements and there it is - you have concocted your own special brand of tonality. This concoction of tonalities is a pastime that has been perpetrated by most major composers before, during and following the Age of Tonal Reason.


These days, however, I'm inclined to put the accent somewhere else really. Recently, I found this quote from the Russian experimental poet Lev Rubinstein:

Conceptualism is not concerned with purely modernistic exercises in the region of euphony, syntax, metaphorics, and plot composition. It considers all more or less substantial innovations (or pseudo-innovations) of contemporary art to be objects of reflection in exactly the same way as the classical forces and genres are. All is equally new, and all is equally old.

and I blogged about this - in Dutch, though. The gist was this: Rubinstein works with text in a way that goes beyond stylistic idiosyncracies of types of text, by putting things on library cards. On these cards, any type of language makes sense, and the "language" of the poem is, materially, just the language that you have around you. It's the way you are led to read this stuff, the form, that makes Rubinstein's poetry go and stimulate the reader.

Similarly, I think composers have often been spending too much time trying to think up musical languages, where what they would better concentrate on is finding out how listening works, and finding forms that activate these ways of listening in surprising ways.

As to tonality, I might propose an updated definition, hopefully too broad for most tastes:

Tonality is a way of listening. It means hearing the connections between consecutive sounds and the combinations of coincident sounds; hearing those connections as having a specific role (a "function") within the whole of some such sequence; finally, tonality involves hearing all this in terms of the harmonic parts of the sound.

Elaine Fine said...

When it comes to defining tonality, that 1964 comment by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart comes to mind: I know it when I hear it.

Tonality is the "mother tongue" of most Western people who are brought up in even the most basic musical environment. The departure from a musical point of origin and feeling a sense of arrival when returning to that point of origin represents a kind of security and order--even a kind of musical gravity. The departure from tonality is just that: a departure. When we do not play by the rules of tonality, we have to create other methods of organization and order.

In tonal music we can separate the right notes from the wrong notes. When playing a piece in the key of G major, an A flat would, in many cases, stick out as being "wrong," especially if the intended note was to be an A natural. In a piece using the same passage that did not have the "gravity" of a G major (or other) tonality, that A flat would probably not be identified as a wrong note.

Samuel Vriezen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samuel Vriezen said...

In tonal music we can separate the right notes from the wrong notes.

I'm not convinced this is true. I believe at best, some advanced listeners can tell when a note is not very expected. But there exist 'atonal' chord progressions in Mussorgsky - dissonant chord progressions that you can't really analyse meaningfully in any tonal context - that nobody will hear as such.