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Thread: Tonal music and cliche

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    Default Tonal music and cliche

    Hello all, I am new to this forum. I am a composer with a generally traditionalist taste and style, and I'd like to have a discussion on why or why not tonal music is/isn't dated.

    As an artist searching for my voice I must admit I have schizofrenic tendencies with regards to my artistic philosophy/theory, so you may find that I will want to play devil's advocate at times. I myself compose completely functionally ("common-practice") tonal music but I also write a lot of music that doesn't conform to that style.

    Tonal music is something that we hear all around us, in the movies, pop music, folk music, elevator music, and jazz to name a few examples. It is therefore something that we are familiar with. However, atonal music (although not necessarily serial music) is something we are also exposed to in the movies. Think, what would a scary movie be like without atonal music? It wouldn't be very scary. Moreover modal music is also something that we are somewhat familiar with though not to the extent of tonal music.

    So why is it that tonal music is considered to be dated by most "serious" composers? I propose to you that the answer lies in the fact that the common-practice harmonic vocabulary has become cliche. Since tonal music has such prominence in popular culture, it has become too typical, even mundane. The reason for this is not because the system of functional tonality is in and of itself naive by modern standards, but because its prominance in our culture lends itself to exploitation by the naive and unlearned. Therefore it has been abused and bastardized be more exponents than have composed "learned" tonal music. We in the modern art world have come to asscociate bastardized tonality with tonality itself, or at least I have. In fact the season we are in now exemplifies this. Take Christmas carols and slap pop orchestration on top of it and you've got complete cheese (something we hear a lot of during this time of year).

    The ideas that "we've heard it all" so to speak or "its already been done" are common sentiments among modernists but what they fail to realize is that it hasn't. The problem lies in the lack of interest in tonality as a vehicle for new art because of what I mentioned above. It hasn't already been done, and as far as I'm concerned as long as there's a tune that hasn't been composed, unless I compose it nobody will. On the flip side however, traditionalist composers as myself should not turn a blind eye to modernism. For modernism has opened up a whole new world of harmonic and polyphonic possibilities that should be studies and kept as cards to play. Just don't show all of your hand at once.
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    hi! i read this book on "venus in exile" the murder of beauty in 20th century art: in literature, fine arts and music. it might not have anything on music explicitly but you can definitely apply the same arguments and paradigm shifts on avant-garde art with contemporary music vis-a-vis the classical, as you say, "traditionalist" style. you'd find a lot to think about there then you can develop your own hegelian dialectic on music! lol!
    also, try reading heidegger's poetry, language and thought especially on the "what are poets for." a huge chunk of what it says applies greatly to music as well!

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    Senior Member some guy's Avatar
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    Hmmm. Twentieth century art is plenty beautiful. What're the odds that the Venus in Exile author made the same error that the author of Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music did, mistaking pretty for beautiful? No, twentieth century art is not pretty, though by now, a lot of it is familiar enough to be pretty. But that's always the same. No self-respecting serious artist wants to be merely pretty. Beauty is the goal. And if you think Johns and Boulez and Fluxus and the Oulipo crowd aren't beautiful, well, you've made the same mistake!
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    Senior Member zlya's Avatar
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    I agree with you JANK. I agree that most modern composers talk about tonality as old fashioned, and I agree that this is a ridiculous view to take.

    The very fact that tonality has been done is what allows complex and original musical creations based not only on the notes and their relationships themselves, but also on the listener's EXPECTATIONS regarding these relationships. Many modern composers seek to shock the audience into feeling something simply by throwing out strange sounds and effects. It is far more shocking to hear something surprising when you have expectations of what you should hear. At the most basic level, if I hear
    I-ii-V-7-
    I expect the resolution to I. If I don't get it, if I get a dim-7 instead, I'm surprised, and that makes me feel something. This is one of the major sources of emotion in music. Ok, so it's not that shocking, seeing as it's been around since before Bach, but with the rich vocabulary of extended tonality there is much more possibility for creating emotion-inducing music. Throwing random sounds at the listener without this framework based on thousands of years of expectation and convention may be intellectually interesting, but I don't see how it can generate real emotion.

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    Senior Member some guy's Avatar
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    Many modern composers seek to shock the audience into feeling something simply by throwing out strange sounds and effects.
    Who, Zyla, who? Name some names. Who does this?

    Throwing random sounds at the listener without this framework based on thousands of years of expectation and convention may be intellectually interesting, but I don't see how it can generate real emotion.
    Hmmm. Aside from the grotesque unfairness of "throwing random sounds" as characteristic of twentieth century music, I must ask: You wouldn't be calling my emotions false, now, would you? Why, you don't even know me.

    Not that you'll take my word for it, but plenty of twentieth century music generates plenty of real emotion. Kutavicius' Lokys the Bear for one. Lachenmann's Gran Torso. Bokanowski's L'Etoile d'Absinthe. Cage's Cartridge Music. Conrad's Four Violins, Lucier's I am sitting in a room, which was a defining piece of music for a whole generation of listeners.

    And so much more. Fair's fair!
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    Senior Member zlya's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by some guy View Post
    Who, Zyla, who? Name some names. Who does this?
    You'll note I said "many", not "all" or even "most". Actually, in this case I was thinking mostly of composers I know, rather than famous names. I don't listen to much modern music, but my friends have a tendency to force their compositions on me. Could be that my friends are just lousy composers. (Something I've thought secretly for some time, but never really wanted to tell them!)

    Not that you'll take my word for it, but plenty of twentieth century music generates plenty of real emotion.
    In fact, I will take your word for it, which raises a very interesting question.

    Why, do you think, this music makes you feel emotion? Is it the dynamic contrast? The twisting of familiar sounds? The reference to similar music you have heard? Do you think this music would generate the same emotions in someone hearing the style for the first time. Many current theories of emotion in music are based on expectation or reference. Does modern music create such references not to other music, but to outside sounds? Does it work on a purely evolutionary level? (Loud sounds=danger). Does it build up conflicts and resolutions using factors other than pitch?

    I'm not asking you for detailed analysis, just what it is that makes YOU feel emotion. What particular sections of the music pull at your heart?

    Thanks

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    Senior Member some guy's Avatar
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    Zyla, this deserves a thoughtful answer, and I'm off tomorrow at four a.m. for New York and a festival of noise artists (noise=exhilaration and sometimes noise=comfort) and then Poland for Musica Electronica Nova and then France for the IMEB electroacoustic festival.

    Briefly, I started out liking the undercutting of expectations--if that sounds too negative, then think of it as promising you a sandwich and giving you a five course meal. I liked asymmetrical rhythms and interesting intervals (the tritone is still a favorite) and tight harmonies--you know, minor seconds, clusters. I listen mostly to electroacoustic music nowadays--the rich palette of both usual and unusual sounds. And I've spent a lot of time with the non-phase minimalists, that is, the drone people and the noise artists, who present very long drawn out, often noisy "chords" with very tiny and widely spaced changes. That's difficult for listeners to Western classical music, who need a lot of variety.

    I'd like, if you can bear it!, to add to this as I get a minute here and there in the next couple of days...

    (Your comment about your friends made me grin, by the way!)

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    Senior Member some guy's Avatar
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    OK, here's my minute or two. I have to take it now.

    Why, do you think, this music makes you feel emotion? Is it the dynamic contrast? The twisting of familiar sounds? The reference to similar music you have heard? Do you think this music would generate the same emotions in someone hearing the style for the first time. Many current theories of emotion in music are based on expectation or reference. Does modern music create such references not to other music, but to outside sounds? Does it work on a purely evolutionary level? (Loud sounds=danger). Does it build up conflicts and resolutions using factors other than pitch?
    I'm not sure what you mean by "dynamic contrast." Contrast is certainly part of it, but that's part of all music. Twisting of familiar sounds is certainly part of it. I do enjoy hearing sounds out of their ordinary contexts... But then, I enjoy sounds in their ordinary contexts, too. Here in my friend's apartment in the Village, I was awakened by an impact drill, then, after I was awake, I became aware of car horns and sirens and the various sounds of a building. That's all very pleasing. (Cage pointed out once to someone asking much the same kind of question about emotion that we make emotional responses to all sorts of things. A thunderstorm can elicit an emotional response. For me it's largely the pleasure of hearing sudden loud rich (complex) sounds.

    I don't know how it works with other people, but I doubt that hearing something for the first time would work very often. I know that it has worked at least once. Beatriz Ferreyra first heard electroacoustic music at a "concert collectif" in 1963. She knew right away that that's what she wanted to do. (Forty four years later, she's still doing it, by the way!)

    I don't think it's an evolutionary thing. Doesn't seem so to me. (See my comment in my previous post about loud sounds.)

    Very much so can conflicts and resolutions be built up with factors other than pitch. I'm surprised by how much ink has been spilled (and pixels... well, whatever you do with pixels) insisting that tonality is the only way to do conflict and resolution. You can do it with rows, as any half-way decent twelve-tone piece will show. Of course, rows still means pitch. You can do it with rhythm, with dynamics, with harmony (meaning any sounding together of two or more sounds). With any change, from pitches to complex sounds, with fast to slow, feedback to cows mooing--anything, really.

    I listen to a lot of music which rather ignores the whole issue of expectation and reference--or maybe it just creates its own. I like improv--and if that's done well, you simply don't know what you'll be hearing next. Which I like. I like the feeling of imbalance, of surprise, of having patterns seem to be building up only to break into other patterns or no patterns at all (if that's even philosophically possible--I'm not at all sure that it is.)

    So, there's my story. And I'm stickin' to it.

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    Senior Member zlya's Avatar
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    Thank you for your explanation.

    I understand what you're saying about undercutting expectations. In my opinion that's one of the main factors in good tonal music. What I don't understand is how that works in atonal music. How can you undercut an expectation if you don't know what to expect? If you're hearing computer generated clicks and buzzes rather than pitches, how can you expect anything at all?

    Our impressions of conflict and resolution are based on the idea that certain sounds are more final than others, more safe. The tonal consonances are not arbitrary, but based on a variety of factors including the biological processes in the inner ear. Even in serialist music (tone rows) conflict and resolution are largely based on pitch relationships and tonal consonances, though these may work on different levels (such as the resolution from a chromatic subset to a diatonic cluster). I suppose you could resolve a chainsaw to mooing cows, and on a very fundamental level that constitutes a conflict-resolution progression, but on a very unsubtle level. (Has anyone done that, by the way? I mean, not necessarily chainsaws to cows, but unsafe sounds to safe sounds. Would be interesting to hear).

    I suppose that's another reason I prefer tonal music. Tonal music can be extremely subtle, because it's had thousands of years to evolve, so that every note, every dynamic, every relationship interacts on a psychological level with every other piece of music the listener has heard. This allows some amazingly complex progressions, much more complex than simply sudden loud sounds (which is what I meant by dynamic contrast, by the way).

    According to my friends the mediocre composers (people do commission their music, so they can't be THAT bad) they feel that every piece of music they write must be completely new and different from everything else ever written, by them or anyone else. That makes these subtle relationships a bit harder.

    So I'm not trying to disparage your taste in music, but I do think that tonality has greater, if not exclusive, power to inspire emotion even in non-musical people. You see it every day, people crying at the end of movies, not really knowing why. Can atonal music do that? So it is stimulating to those who have studied it, or spent a lot of time with it, but can it make every-day people cry? Sometimes I wonder if modern art music is even really music, or if it is some entirely different sound-based art form--not worse, just different.

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    Zyla, your last post was a long one, but the response I just deleted, in which I answered each point, was even longer, hence the deletion. What follows is mercifully slight. Hopefully it does not seem slighting, as well.

    Your point is that tonal music is superior because it's best at creating expectations, it's more subtle, it inspires emotion (illustrated by non-musical people crying at movies).

    If all that is true, then the advocacy seems puzzlesome. If tonality is so obviously superior, then why does it need to be defended? Two things certainly happened in the 20th century--a lot of people concluded that tonality had been developed as far as was possible, so that different means of structuring pieces had to be found, and a lot of people continued to write tonal music, some of it very fine indeed. I don't see that there's much to say about either thing. People in the first group came up with some interesting ways to make music that didn't rely on tonality--people continue to do that. People in the second group had to constantly battle the inevitable: that their music was going to sound like it had already been done. As indeed it had. You can do good things in either case; the one that looks forward is likelier to continue doing good, though, I'd think. And with less despair. Why write like Brahms, for instance. One, Brahms has already done it. Two, you can't really do it, 'cause you're not Brahms. All you can do is pastiche. If you're Cage, better to be Cage and be done with it!

    Otherwise, expectations and subtlety and emotion are all possible with new musics (nontonal ones) just as much as with tonal musics. The only way to prove that (if proving's what you want) is on yourself, by listening to more music. That's how you came to like what you like now, isn't it? Just keep doing that, I'd say. I can only repeat that I find all the things you find valuable in nontonal musics, and I find a lot of other, also valuable, things there that aren't in tonal music to the same extent, if at all.

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    I read your "dialogue", and I would say that I understand you both because I listen to both kinds of music - tonal/atonal. I really knew noise music before I started to listen to classical music so I'm kinda walking backwards.

    some_guy, I'm curious about what have you been listening. I need some good advice on minimal, electroacustical, serial, atonal, whatever, music. I was listening to a sample by La Monte Young and it was the worst thing I ever heard, I need some ground here. I like noise but not this noise. And I'm also sleepy.

    See you soon.

    PS: I was wondering about emotions... were do cerebral music and emotional music meet? I think I found some "meetings" but I don't know if you'll like the answer, and I don't really know how to explain. You were talking about music for the intelect, sound for the sake of sound (isn't there the "art for the art's sake"? - music was late!), and Zlya was talking about emotions and I perfectly understood it. So atonal music is the complete desconstruction of harmony? of expectation? Were are the emotions? And what are we talking about here? About intelectual emotion or about other kind of emotion that we could compare to the lost "aura" of Walter Benjamin?

    See you tomorrow.

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    I could see both ends, though I really don't tend to listen to atonal stuff (though I do like me some Ives every once in a while!). I do definitely agree that tonality is often seen as some sort of cliche, though I really don't see why. Atonality, though, I can't think of as un-emotional or not artistic... just a bit harder for our conditioned ears to comprehend, though I must say that twelve-tone row gets a bit far into the "elitist" realm of music.

    I don't know, maybe I just need to hear more of it.
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    Senior Member Elaryad's Avatar
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    World_Violist, I can think about atonal music as un-emotional sometimes, and completly artistic. I see atonality as more "expressive" music, I mean, more connected with things that we ear on everyday life. But it's so close and so far away at the same time! Tonality is not a cliché, it can be also used as cliché (pop hollywood music) and not by far a cliché as a general idea.

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    Atonal music is certainly less accessible than the tonal variety, not to mention much more esoteric (goes without saying), which doesn't do much at all to aid in its elitist perception.

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    Exclamation I never truly shut up...

    Quote Originally Posted by some guy View Post
    If all that is true, then the advocacy seems puzzlesome. If tonality is so obviously superior, then why does it need to be defended? Two things certainly happened in the 20th century--a lot of people concluded that tonality had been developed as far as was possible, so that different means of structuring pieces had to be found, and a lot of people continued to write tonal music, some of it very fine indeed. I don't see that there's much to say about either thing. People in the first group came up with some interesting ways to make music that didn't rely on tonality--people continue to do that. People in the second group had to constantly battle the inevitable: that their music was going to sound like it had already been done. As indeed it had. You can do good things in either case; the one that looks forward is likelier to continue doing good, though, I'd think. And with less despair. Why write like Brahms, for instance. One, Brahms has already done it. Two, you can't really do it, 'cause you're not Brahms. All you can do is pastiche. If you're Cage, better to be Cage and be done with it!
    Firstly I'd like to counter your assertion that modern tonal works must inevitably sound like they've 'already been done'. For example, I think that Andreas van Haren's music sounds perfectly new, and not at all clichéd, despite being nicely tonal. The reason is that it follows the 'rules' most of the time, so whenever it doesn't quite, it jogs something down in the limbic system, in a way that is only possible if there are expectations in the first place. In that respect, modern tonal composers are no different, fundamentally, from someone like Mozart: they are almost, but not quite, following the idiom. In fact, clichés give one immense power - it's like, if you wrote a book that read like a Mills & Boone, and then halfway through one of the characters got tuberculosis, and the rest of the book dealt with the protagonists' struggle to come to terms with the fact that he/she was going to die soon, but you still carried on writing with Mills & Boone-ish simple lexicon and style, you'd have a much stronger impact on the reader, and probably involve them deeply in the protagonists' pain, than you could achieve with a book where every other word is 'blood' and someone gets their head chopped off on every page. This only works because of our expectations about something, which derive from our experience of other, similarly styled things. If something isn't close enough to anything else we know, we have no expectations, so nothing can give us the frisson of 'Oh, I didn't think of that happening!' (Have I made my point clearly enough with that tangle of hypothetical simile?)

    Secondly, you seem not to understand why this advocacy is necessary. I often see this mistake made - 'if you were right, you wouldn't need to keep saying so' - so let's get it over with. Many people are labouring under the impression that classical music is done, finished, that anything tonal is old hat. The reason for this is that the popular media portray classical music in a very unjust way, painting it as an elitist, reactionary thing, purely for posh people to go to in order to prove how posh they are. To dispel this myth, two different things are happening (hmm, I seem to be echoing your structure a bit...) Some people are writing music, labelling it as classical, but making a huge effort to make it sound as different from traditional music as possible. Some of it is very good, most of it is clearly motivated by a desire to be new. The value of music often originates from what it tells the listener about why it is there - if it's only there to be 'a piece of classical music that's not old fashioned, zomg look!', it isn't really communicating anything. (As I say, not all atonal music is like this, but a lot of it is esoteric merely for the sake of obfuscation)
    Others try a different tack: since the problem is not with the music per se, but rather with the perception of it, instead of changing the music to challenge the perception, why not change the perception to reflect the truth about the music? This is why people like myself and zlya feel the need to advocate tonal music: so that people know what it really is.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again. People shouldn't repeat themselves!

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