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Thread: Nature vs. nurture

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Default Nature vs. nurture

    Let's see can we have any consensus on innate musical preferences. Does anybody disagree with the following claims:

    1. The fact that thirds and perfect fifths are popular in harmonies, more than say minor seconds and tritones isn't simply due to conditioning.

    2.The fact that there are never 12-tone compositions in top 10 pop charts is not just "nurture" either

    3.It is highly unlikely that there ever could be "atonal" equivalents of classical "hits" (among the general public) like Pachelbel's Canon
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    Senior Member Richannes Wrahms's Avatar
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    There are many cultures that do not have harmony as the term is understood in Western societies. The Japanese hirajoshi scale does not have a third (above the base note) at all.



    The fact that there will never be pop charting hits with Wagnerian harmony or extended chromatic fugues a la Bach is equally true, and for the exact same reasons. It has nothing to do with the naturalness of the 12-tone technique.

    Atonality doesn't exist, so I see No. 3 as meaningless. Of course something considered atonal cannot be popular, because atonality to most people is entirely a matter of how bad it sounds to them rather than any actual principle of construction.

    That said: Miles Davis's jazz fusion album Bitches' Brew, which some consider to be atonal and which certainly has nothing in common with traditional tonality in terms of harmonic construction (far less so than anything by Schoenberg or Sessions), was a half-million seller that continues to be popular to this day.
    Last edited by Mahlerian; Mar-10-2015 at 23:03. Reason: Corrected figure

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    The fact that there will never be pop charting hits with Wagnerian harmony or extended chromatic fugues a la Bach is equally true, and for the exact same reasons.
    I completely agree with this, and I can't get enough of Wagnerian harmony. Saying something is less "natural" in a sense is not the same thing as disparaging it.
    Last edited by Dim7; Mar-10-2015 at 23:18.
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    Senior Member Celloman's Avatar
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    The triad is a purely Western convention. Many cultures don't use it at all, and some societies have entirely different scale structures which include so-called "quarter" tones. Musical preference is largely a result of cultural conditioning. If you were somehow able to place a child into an environment in which only 12-tone music was played, they would come to see that music as "normal". If you suddenly exposed them to diatonic harmony, they would first perceive it as new and unnatural.
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    Senior Member isorhythm's Avatar
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    I would like to get a better sense of the most extreme social constructionist position here - are some people really saying that things like diatonic or pentatonic scales, fifths, fourths, thirds, etc., which do show up in some form all over the world, which correspond to the overtones of a vibrating body, which, when used in vertical harmony, produce nice regular soundwave patterns - are people really saying that all of this is completely arbitrary, a total historical accident, that our cave-dwelling forebears could just as easily have stumbled upon music based on serial arrangement of an equal-tempered 19-note scale?

    Someone is going to say something about how un-diatonic Balinese gamelan music, or whatever, is - well, sure. The Balinese are not savages. They are just as able as Richard Wagner or Elliott Carter to come up with all kinds of different ways of organizing musical sound. So what?

    And in case it still needs to be said - none of this is a prescription for how I think music should be.

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    Quote Originally Posted by isorhythm View Post
    I would like to get a better sense of the most extreme social constructionist position here - are some people really saying that things like diatonic or pentatonic scales, fifths, fourths, thirds, etc., which do show up in some form all over the world, which correspond to the overtones of a vibrating body, which, when used in vertical harmony, produce nice regular soundwave patterns - are people really saying that all of this is completely arbitrary, a total historical accident, that our cave-dwelling forebears could just as easily have stumbled upon music based on serial arrangement of an equal-tempered 19-note scale?

    Someone is going to say something about how un-diatonic Balinese gamelan music, or whatever, is - well, sure. The Balinese are not savages. They are just as able as Richard Wagner or Elliott Carter to come up with all kinds of different ways of organizing musical sound. So what?

    And in case it still needs to be said - none of this is a prescription for how I think music should be.
    I don't consider myself an extremist of any kind, so maybe I'm not the one you're referring to.

    Yes, the overtone series is related to the construction of simple scales, which correspond with the pentatonic scales that show up all over the world.

    In some cultures and musical traditions, fourths and seconds (or even thirds) are dissonances, while in others they are consonances.

    I don't believe anything that developed in human music is arbitrary or accidental.

    Serial arrangement is unlikely to appear in early folk music for the same reason Bachian chromatic fugues or Wagnerian extended tonality are unlikely to appear, as I said above. They are developments out of a tradition and a grounding that could not exist without that tradition.

    The point of bringing in gamelan or gagaku into conversations like these is because these musical traditions which are very different from our own Western traditions flout many of the conventions which are often called natural, and in fact they arose completely independent of those conventions, as if they had never existed.

    I am of course fine with the position that all music, as a human construct, is heavily artificial. Naturalness or lack thereof is not related in any way to value, though it is often implied that it is.

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    Senior Member isorhythm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    I don't consider myself an extremist of any kind, so maybe I'm not the one you're referring to.

    Yes, the overtone series is related to the construction of simple scales, which correspond with the pentatonic scales that show up all over the world.

    In some cultures and musical traditions, fourths and seconds (or even thirds) are dissonances, while in others they are consonances.

    I don't believe anything that developed in human music is arbitrary or accidental.

    Serial arrangement is unlikely to appear in early folk music for the same reason Bachian chromatic fugues or Wagnerian extended tonality are unlikely to appear, as I said above. They are developments out of a tradition and a grounding that could not exist without that tradition.

    The point of bringing in gamelan or gagaku into conversations like these is because these musical traditions which are very different from our own Western traditions flout many of the conventions which are often called natural, and in fact they arose completely independent of those conventions, as if they had never existed.

    I am of course fine with the position that all music, as a human construct, is heavily artificial. Naturalness or lack thereof is not related in any way to value, though it is often implied that it is.
    I meant extreme as in "most," not "extremist" - I wanted to know what the most social constructionist position actually is.

    I'm not sure I actually disagree with you about anything. I don't think that common practice tonality is any more natural than gagaku. Where we may part ways is that I think a folk tune is more natural than either, and a serial composition is less natural than either (as always, not value judgments).

    I note that the Japanese scale you posted is full of thirds, fourths and fifths.

    Where are thirds dissonant? They were considered dissonant by some early Medieval theorists, but they were working in the context of Pythagorean tuning, in which thirds sound awful.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    Let's see can we have any consensus on innate musical preferences. Does anybody disagree with the following claims:

    1. The fact that thirds and perfect fifths are popular in harmonies, more than say minor seconds and tritones isn't simply due to conditioning.
    No, I do not disagree. Since tonality is based on a harmonic model, we find that the most consonant intervals are the strongest in function.

    In a scale, the pull towards a tonic is inherently determined by vertical harmonic factors, not horizontal "emphasis" by repetition or accent. That comes later.

    1. minor seventh (C-Bb) 9:16
    2. major seventh (C-B) 8:15
    3. major second (C-D) 8:9
    4. minor sixth (C-Ab) 5:8
    5. minor third (C-Eb) 5:6
    6. major third (C-E) 4:5
    7. major sixth (C-A) 3:5
    8. perfect fourth (C-F) 3:4
    9. perfect fifth (C-G) 2:3
    10. octave (C-C') 1:2
    11. unison (C-C) 1:1

    So a C major scale's horizontal functions correspond to these harmonic relations; and one can observe how these functions were derived:

    I — 1:1
    ii — 8:9
    iii — 4:5
    IV — 3:4
    V — 2:3
    vi — 3:5
    vii — 8:15

    Their importance in establishing the tonality is be ranked by the order of consonance to dissonance, with smaller-number ratios being more consonant.

    I — 1:1
    V — 2:3
    IV — 3:4
    vi — 3:5
    iii — 4:5
    ii — 8:9
    vii — 8:15


    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    2.The fact that there are never 12-tone compositions in top 10 pop charts is not just "nurture" either.
    I agree, but there are more complex reasons for that. But the fact remains that folk and popular musics are based on the primacy of the ear, and how it hears consonance/dissonance.


    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    3.It is highly unlikely that there ever could be "atonal" equivalents of classical "hits" (among the general public) like Pachelbel's Canon
    I disagree with that.

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post

    But the fact remains that folk and popular musics are based on the primacy of the ear, and how it hears consonance/dissonance.
    And doesn't have to use tonality at all. If you look at heterophony in Gaelic Psalm singing which leads naturally into Blues and the associated musical patterns there which vary from classical scales. Gaelic music both sung and played (on the pipes) is an example of a cultural tradition outside the normal Western pattern of tonality (and many would say superior to).
    Music begins where words leave off. Music expresses the inexpressible.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Taggart View Post
    And doesn't have to use tonality at all. If you look at heterophony in Gaelic Psalm singing which leads naturally into Blues and the associated musical patterns there which vary from classical scales. Gaelic music both sung and played (on the pipes) is an example of a cultural tradition outside the normal Western pattern of tonality (and many would say superior to).
    Ahh, so at last we know where you're coming from, Taggart.

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Suppose there was a dude who had never head any music in his lifetime and you play him a major and a minor triad. If you'd ask him what they would make feel, what would his answer be? My guess is that 'not much anything really'. What about if you asked him "Which chord is happier/brighter and which is sadder/darker?" My guess is that it's more likely that he would choose the minor triad as the sadder and major triad as the happier chord if you'd force him to choose, but there's a pretty high chance that he would choose the other way around as well.

    Now suppose that memory of all music (along with recordings, notation etc.) was erased from everyone except one guy. He would then teach the basics of western tonality (diatonic scale, triads etc., everything that's used in modern pop music) to the rest of humanity but without teaching anything about the extramusical associations. Would the idea that major = happy, minor = sad evolve in this restarted musical culture? I'd say that it would with a very high likelihood and the revese association would be very unlikely.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    Suppose there was a dude who had never head any music in his lifetime and you play him a major and a minor triad. If you'd ask him what they would make feel, what would his answer be? My guess is that 'not much anything really'. What about if you asked him "Which chord is happier/brighter and which is sadder/darker?" My guess is that it's more likely that he would choose the minor triad as the sadder and major triad as the happier chord if you'd force him to choose, but there's a pretty high chance that he would choose the other way around as well.

    Now suppose that memory of all music (along with recordings, notation etc.) was erased from everyone except one guy. He would then teach the basics of western tonality (diatonic scale, triads etc., everything that's used in modern pop music) to the rest of humanity but without teaching anything about the extramusical associations. Would the idea that major = happy, minor = sad evolve in this restarted musical culture? I'd say that it would with a very high likelihood and the reverse association would be very unlikely.
    The critical theory most relevant to several of these questions is a late chapter of Ernst Gombrich's Art and Illusion and, more generally, the systems of thought that come under the label structuralist theory. Gombrich explores issues similar to the ones you are raising by asking readers to apply the terms “ping” and “pong” to the paired items of binary oppositions (in structuralist theory, binary oppositions are basic to human thought), pairs like: orange/blue, piccolo/ bassoon, high/low, dagger-up-the-strap/blow-on-the-head. In each case, his theory suggests, “ping” would overwhelmingly be assigned to the first item in each of these pairs, and “pong” to the second. Graham Chapman's Theory of Woody (pong) versus Tinny (ping) Words works on the same principal. Extrapolating Gombrich’s thinking to your questions: major would be ping and minor would be pong.

    Your intuition that there is a natural basis to the major=happy, minor=sad opposition such that it would recur if our musical culture were restarted from scratch, reminds me of what anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said about traffic lights: that the fact that red means stop and green means go is the inevitable consequence of a single fact: human blood is red. This fact makes red the obvious choice for representing danger, and its opposite, green (opposite based on the physiology of cones in the human eye) the obvious symbol to inform us it is safe to go. Minor mode has no association with danger, but because of its natural proclivity for sighing (6-5, 3-2), slouching, and schlepping — that is, mirroring "human expressive behaviors including gesture, posture and utterance" (Peter Kivy's words) — it inevitably claims the dark side of human affective states when set in opposition to major.

    If one assumes that your musical culture 2.0 has the same expressive goals as the 1.0 version, then it too will need a convenient way to accommodate the expressive opposition between light and dark, happy and sad, which, by the way, is likely what led to the dominance of our binary major-minor system in the first place. Within such a system, major would probably always be ping and minor pong, for the reasons Rudolph Arnheim discusses in his essay “Perceptual Dynamics in Musical Expression” (The Musical Quarterly 70 (1984): 295-309).

    But of course, all of this depends on the recurrence in the 2.0 version of 12-tones-to the octave, intervals defined by mathematical ratios, evolving modal and tonal systems, and so on. Whether or not any or all of this is inevitable and likely to recur is anyone’s guess and farther than I want to go.
    Last edited by EdwardBast; Mar-14-2015 at 03:18.

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    This isn't a topic I know much about, but I was under the impression that thirds were not common in early medieval music, which suggests that their popularity in subsequent Western music is a product of culture.

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nereffid View Post
    This isn't a topic I know much about, but I was under the impression that thirds were not common in early medieval music, which suggests that their popularity in subsequent Western music is a product of culture.
    As isorhythm said:

    Quote Originally Posted by isorhythm View Post
    Where are thirds dissonant? They were considered dissonant by some early Medieval theorists, but they were working in the context of Pythagorean tuning, in which thirds sound awful.
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