Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Breakthroughs

Eureka moments don't happen for me.

I've always read about them: the moment you reach the summit of a mountain, the moment a great truth is revealed to you. It is a painfully common cliché for a composer to describe in his or her biography the 'moment' when he or she first heard a recording of a symphony or the throbbing of a rock band, and viscerally describe how in this orgasmic, watershed apotheosis, the meaning and order of life was unveiled.

But the ideas that matter to me in my life grew over time; it would be impossible for me to pin down precisely when I realized they had taken form.

For example, my belief that morality is independent of religion was not sparked by any particular piece of reading or event but by many. Religion presented enough of a problem for me when I was 15 or so that I have amassed, again out of years of reading and thinking, a worldview that makes more sense to me out of philosophy and anthropology. My love of composition did not overwhelm me on any particular day, but grew out of years of enjoying tinkering around on the piano and more years of learning the joys and frustrations of twisting and mashing those tinkerings into music.

Part of these latest musings can be attributed to the fact that, after a considerable period of busy pragmatism (which, oddly enough, coincides with a scarcity of compositional output), I have recently begun to both read more and pay more attention to my own intellectual values. Maybe I'm inspired by Barack Obama's intellectualism — clearly, he is a man who spends time formulating his beliefs with reason (here's a great article about this subject). Or maybe reading about Stravinsky and John Adams and how wide-ranging their reading interests were has reminded me of the value of keeping the philosophical fires stoked.

Whatever the case, my latest idea that I think will be useful to me in the long-term is the answer to the age-old question: what is the definition of music? Most often, musicians consider the answer to be 'organized sound'.

This definition is common currency among composers. I always thought it was appropriately liberal (certainly to say that pitch alone makes music is somewhat elementary) but it seemed a bit incomplete and I was never quite satisfied with it. 

Consider the following:

What we recognize as pitch is actually the vibration of a sound wave a certain regular (that is, periodic) number of times per second. A above middle C, for instance, is a sound wave that vibrates 440 times a second. A sound wave is an awkward thing to visualize so consider this: it is possible in a computer program to establish a pulse — a virtual metronome emitting a clicking sound. The lowest audible pitch humans can detect pulsates around 20 times a second (the wavelength is more than 50 feet) which means that if you gradually made the virtual metronome click faster and faster, when it clicked 20 times a second (roughly), you would no longer perceive it as a series of pulses and would instead perceive a very low pitch. Likewise if you continued to increase the speed of the metronome, the pitch would rise. 

In other words, pitch is created out of periodicity. Sound waves that vibrate periodically (at a constant rate) are perceived as pitch, while those that are aperiodic (speech, a door closing — anything, really) are not.

It is therefore not surprising that music should be based on pulses (tempo), recurring ideas, and periodic phrases, which are all macrocosms of varying scale of the waveform itself. Even if someone starts to speak in meter or with a regular pattern of inflections, as in poetry, it starts to sound musical. The periodicity of inflection, like pulse or phrase, is fundamentally related to the periodicity of pitch.

Therefore I have a new definition: music is periodic sound.

This is a crude first-scrawling of this concept, but I hope to bore you further with it soon. In particular, this idea has opened up new meaning for me in terms of what I believe constitutes good music and good compositional craft. I have examples and the like but all that will come later — that is, after a bit of sleep.

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