Defining Music, Part Two

In a previous blog I described music in simplistic terms as “the moments defined by what I am listening to.” In this blog I want to provide four additional items to my description. I should also add that any attempt to define something as abstract as music is probably a futile task.
In any case, here's some food for thought.

1. Nothing should be ruled out when describing something as "music."
What someone calls "music" might be a Mozart piano concerto, the songs of a humpback whale, or the cacophony of a hammer hitting an anvil — it depends on who is listening and how they want to label it. We are not obligated to like what others call "music," but common courtesy requires us to refer to something as music when others think of it that way.

John Cage, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 112 Radios
(performed by students of Hunter College of The City University of New York)


John Cage, 4’ 33” (composed in three movements, performed by David Tutor)


2. Music is the language of emotion.
In ancient Greece music was described as a language that spoke directly to human emotion. In what has become known as the
doctrine of ethos , the Greeks expressed an idea that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in positive ways. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when a piece of music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion. Aristotle’s idea of music is still alive in the way we use music to exaggerate the drama, horror, or comedy in Hollywood films.

John Williams, Theme from "Jaws"
(performed by John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra)



3. Instrumental music is a prime example of abstract art.
Just as abstract visual images might refer to something that goes beyond reality, instrumental music might be used to portray aspects of human existence that cannot normally be described with sound. After all, what is the sound of "love," "fear," or "spiritual redemption?" Why does Rimsky-Korsakov's music sound so “Russian” and Aaron Copland's music sound so "American"? Only great music can answer that question, and the answer cannot always be expressed in words.

Rimsky-Korsakov, Russian Easter Overture
(performed by Valery Gergiev and the Marlinsky Orchestra)



Aaron Copland, Rodeo, Fourth Movement
(performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Warfield)



4. Some music requires repeated hearings before it can be fully understood or appreciated.
Musical masterworks tend to get better the more they are heard. The first time you listen to Beethoven's
String Quartet, Opus 127, it might have little effect on your emotions. After hearing it several times, however, you might begin to describe it as "spiritual" and marvel at its ability to express profound truth. Listen to the quartet embedded below, and think of it as providing a contrast between Beethoven's inner turmoil and his public persona. It may take several hearings, but you should eventually be able to hear the difference between the "private" and the “public" in the composer's life.

Beethoven String Quartet, Opus 127
(performed by the Jasper String Quartet)



And so it goes...
This blog was written under the influence of Mozart’s
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major.

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major
Yeol Eum Son, piano



Defining Music, Part One

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC

– Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I love all types of music. I find great energy and fun in the Beatles’ early songs, as well as anything recorded by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I am thrilled by the seemingly stagnant music composed by Phillip Glass. I am deeply affected by both the power of Beethoven’s symphonies and the elegance of Chopin’s piano etudes.

I also find joy in the sounds of everyday life. Listening to the rain fall outside my bedroom window at night calms me down, as does the sound of a train in the distance. Some of the most enjoyable sounds I have heard came from when I was with my father on the banks of the Kiamichi River in Oklahoma. Late at night we would wait for the cowbell to ring on the trotline we had spread across the river, a sound telling us that we had hooked a catfish. The campfire was crackling. In the distance some dogs had treed a possum and were howling to save the world.

I call all of that, “music.”

For me, music is the moments defined by what I am listening to. It doesn't matter whether I am spending three minutes listening to Bruce Springsteen moaning about love's desire or ninety minutes listening to Gustav Mahler passing judgment on Judgment Day. It’s all music. When I spend an evening listening to children splashing in a swimming pool at the house next door, I refer to it as “music” to my ears.

Music does not only come from the sounds I hear. It also comes from the sounds I pay attention to, sounds I experience for the pure joy of listening.

Sometimes the joy of listening comes with no need for musical knowledge. Knowing about major and minor tonalities is unnecessary to understanding the beauty (and possibly the terror) in the sounds of a thunderstorm on a summer evening. A knowledge of musical meter contributes nothing to the euphoria of hearing fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July.

Sometimes, however, I need a little musical knowledge or I might not understand what is happening in a piece of music. Without knowing a few basic terms I might not fully appreciate the music I am hearing.

In most cases, the need for knowledge comes when I am listening to classical music. Classical music can be so full of musical content that the “story” told in a sonata, concerto, or symphony might escape me unless I understand the terminology.

I might not need lessons on how to listen to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt and Scruggs. However, I need someone to explain Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or I might never really understand the power of its message.

When I spend time listening to a symphony by Haydn, for example, simply knowing that it will be divided into four movements helps me enjoy it more. Knowing that the first movement is in sonata form and the third movement is in triple time makes the music even more meaningful. And I can't stop there. Haydn's symphonies are endlessly entertaining — if I am willing to learn about them.

None of this means that classical music is
better than other types of music. It only means that classical music is different. In most cases, classical music requires knowledgeable audiences. Many other types of music, on the other hand, require little more than listening and having a good time.

I'll say it again, I love it all. Music of all types enhances my life, feeds my soul, and elevates my spirit. It doesn’t matter whether I’m listening to Johann Sebastian Bach, Johnny Cash, or that cowbell ringing on the trotline in the middle of the night.

Flatt and Scruggs, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”


Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”


How to Play the Cowbell


This is Part One of my two-part attempt to define music. There's more to come in my next posting when I will provide four additional elements of music that I use to help my students on their journey through music history.

Alive Inside: The Power of Music

"The imagining of music, even in relatively nonmusical people, tends to be remarkably faithful not only to the tune and feeling of the original but its pitch and tempo. Underlying this is the extraordinary tenacity of musical memory, so that much of what is heard during one’s early years may be ‘engraved’ on the brain for the rest of one’s life."

– Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

As a follow-up to a blog I posted two days ago titled "Music and the Doctrine of Ethos," I have embedded two film clips below that show how powerfully the memory of music is imprinted in our minds.

The first clip shows an old man named Henry reacting to music from his past. Henry was an Alzheimer’s patient who had spent over ten years in a nursing home. He was depressed and normally unresponsive when people spoke to him. He came alive, however, when listening to music. As seen in the film, music had the power to liberate Henry's memories more than any other form of therapy.

The clip I have embedded comes from
Alive Inside, a documentary about the power of music and the social worker who used it to help patients with dementia and Alzheimer's.

Man in Nursing Home Reacts to Music


“[Music] gives me the feeling of love, romance! … The Lord came to me and he made me a holy man, so he gave me these sounds.” – Henry

The second film clip comes from ABC’s
Nightline and shows U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords finding her voice through music. In January 2011, Giffords was shot in an assassination attempt. Although the bullet passed through her head, she has recovered some of her ability to walk, speak, read, and write. She owes her life and partial recovery to many talented doctors and physical therapists. I have embedded this clip to show how music therapy was a large part of her recovery.

Gabby Giffords Finds Her Voice Through Music


2500 years ago the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in positive ways. In modern times the doctrine of
ethos seems to have science on its side.




The Convalescent's Soul: Beethoven's Opus 132 (1825)

"[Beethoven's] last quartets testify to a veritable growth of consciousness, to a higher degree of consciousness, probably than is manifested anywhere else in art."

J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Journey


"You never get to the bottom of [Beethoven’s quartets]; they may be the most single profound statement that any human being ever contributed to the world of art."

– Peter Oundjian, violinist and conductor (Toronto Symphony Orchestra)


Take the quotes above as an example of the well-deserved and universal praise for Beethoven’s late string quartets. The maestro’s last five quartets (Nos. 12-16) plus the
Grosse Fuge, which was originally composed as a finale for No. 13, have received almost universal recognition as some of the greatest music ever composed.

Beethoven began composing the quartets at the request of Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, an amateur cellist from the Russian aristocracy. Galitzin loved Beethoven’s music and offered fifty ducats for each of three quartets. Two years after Galitzin made his offer Beethoven delivered what the prince had requested — three quartets — and was only paid for one. Even so, Beethoven wrote two more quartets and a different finale for No. 13. No one had asked him to write the new music, and he composed it with no commission. One can’t help but feel that Beethoven had discovered something to say with the first three quartets and felt compelled to get the rest of his ideas written down. Whether or not he was paid seems to have made no difference, and the quartets serve as one of history’s greatest examples of art that was created for the sake of art.

As with any music containing as much content as Beethoven’s late quartets, listeners must do some research and expose themselves to repeated hearings. Rest assured, however, that the time invested in Beethoven’s late quartets will provide tremendous rewards.

If you are new to the quartets, I recommend beginning with the
Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132. Although Beethoven composed it as the second of his late quartets, it was published as the fourth and is therefore labeled No. 15.

Listen to
Opus 132 and think of it as an exploration of the universal human struggle against both physical and spiritual pain. The first, third, and fifth movements provide the greatest intellectual and emotional challenges, while the second and fourth movements provide a respite from those challenges. If you have never heard the quartet, the third movement is the one that is most likely to catch your attention. The movement shows a spiritual side to Beethoven that allowed him to create one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed.

Beethoven titled the third movement, “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity in the Lydian Mode.” The title speaks volumes about what is in the music.

First, the Lydian mode heard in much of the movement was used in medieval church music to represent healing and recovery. If you are a musician, think of the Lydian mode as a major scale with a raised fourth. If you are not a musician, think of the Lydian mode as sounding “bright,” somewhat like music in a major key.

Second, the movement is a hymn of Thanksgiving that Beethoven composed after surviving an illness in April 1825 that almost killed him (possibly Crohn’s disease). The movement was a product of Beethoven's premonitions of death.

Third, take note that Beethoven describes himself in the title as a “convalescent.” He had suffered for years from health problems associated with lead poisoning. And, as almost everyone knows, Beethoven was deaf, an affliction that caused him also to suffer from the pain of loneliness.

As Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon writes in
Late Beethoven, “He was a deaf composer, painfully confined within an ever-darkening inner space.” In reference to Beethoven describing himself as a "convalescent soul," Solomon states, “the invalid is another kind of prisoner, afflicted and weary, in whom there is need to cross a threshold, or to awaken from a frightening dream. The invalid, too, yearns for an open space, looks upward to the presumed realm of the deity. Beethoven’s sufferer — later convalescent — prays for deliverance more from a sickness of the soul than of the body.”

Watch the animated recording I’ve embedded below and notice how the music moves back and forth from a hymn of thanksgiving to an expression of joy for being alive. Use the following outline to guide yourself through the piece.

0:00 — Hymn of Thanksgiving
This section explores the world of the spirit. It is composed in the Lydian mode and employs few flats and sharps.

3:18 — Interlude
This section explores the world of the flesh. The music in this section is highly chromatic.

5:38 — Hymn of Thanksgiving

8:16 — Interlude

10:44 – Hymn of Thanksgiving

15:07 – Coda



If you have not yet heard all of Beethoven’s late quartets, I urge you to do so and wish you the very best on your journey.

Happy Holidays!

Music and the Doctrine of Ethos

Music magnifies emotion.

Notice how music is used in films to enhance the drama, horror, or comedy in a story. It might be tragic enough to see an innocent child die in a film, but if the death is accompanied by the right music, the film can make you sob until you are honking like a goose.

In the ancient world the Greeks believed music had a magical power to speak directly to human emotion. In what has come to be known as the doctrine of
ethos, the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in a positive way. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion.

"We accept the division of melodies proposed by certain philosophers into ethical melodies, melodies of action, and passionate or inspiring melodies, each having, as they say, a mode corresponding to it".

– Aristotle, Politics, Bk 8, Pt 7

In Aristotle’s mind, someone listening to the wrong type of music would become the wrong type of person. Certain instruments and modes would take one toward either the logos (rational) or pathos (emotional), and it was essential to raise children with the right kind of music.

"Shall we argue that music conduces to virtue, on the ground that it can form our minds and habituate us to true pleasures as our bodies are made by gymnastics to be of a certain character?"

– Aristotle, Politics, Bk. 8, Pt. 5

In a similar manner, many people today believe music can be used to help educate children and promote good health.

According to the
American Music Therapy Association, music can be used to "promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation."

In an article posted on the Huffington Post," Therese J. Borchard, who is the author of the
Beyond Blue column, writes that music can be used as therapy. “Everything with a beat moves my spirit,” writes Ms. Borchard. “I can't get enough of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, because I think so much better when these guys are playing in the background.”

Listen to the pieces I have embedded below to get a sense of what Ms. Borchard is saying. Both pieces are referenced by Ms. Bochard in her article “
Music Therapy: Got the Blues? Play Them."

Whether we call it music therapy or the doctrine of
ethos, the concept is simple to grasp. At its best, music has the potential to affect our emotions so deeply that it can cleanse our soul and connect us with something that might best be described as “spiritual.”

Sarah Brightman singing “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera


Rachmaninoff, Prelude in C-sharp minor (Ruslan Sviridov, piano)

Tallis, Spem in alium (c. 1570)

Stop and take note! Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium is a piece of music that will make you believe in something bigger and far more important than anything else you are searching for on the internet today.

The music begins with a single voice breaking the silence before other voices penetrate our consciousness with forty (yes, forty)
separate vocal lines. Once it gets going, the piece provides eight separate five-part choirs singing simultaneously, creating a labyrinth of sound that harmonizes magnificently.

And we should not overlook the metaphor of diverse human voices coming together to touch our souls and place us in a different world. All told, the music is relaxing, reassuring, and achingly beautiful. Listen to it several times and you might become addicted.

Spem in alium nunquam habui (I have never put my hope in any other)
Praeter in te, Deus Israel (but in You, O God of Israel)
Qui irasceris et propitius eris (who can show both anger and graciousness,)
et omnia peccata hominum (and who absolves all the sins)
in tribulatione dimittis (of suffering man)
Domine Deus (Lord God,)
Creator caeli et terrae (Creator of Heaven and Earth)
respice humilitatem nostram (be mindful of our lowliness)

The Taverner Choir, with animated graphical score by Stephen Malinowski

Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, First Movement (c. 1721)

Concertos normally feature a cadenza in which the orchestra quits playing and the soloist demonstrates virtuosity with an extended solo passage. This video of one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos features a three minute cadenza by the harpsichordist beginning at 6:38. Although I enjoy the cadenza and find it impressive, I can't erase from my mind what the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham said about harpsichords: “Sounds like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof.” (Once you envision some things, it's difficult to get them out of your mind.)

Paul Begala, harpsichord / Otto Büchner, violin / Paul Meisen, flute

Haydn, Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major, Third Movement (1796)

Musicians playing the valveless trumpets of the eighteenth century were limited to playing notes from a harmonic series and were generally unable to provide satisfying melodic lines. However, new developments in the construction of trumpets during the late 1700s allowed the instruments to deliver satisfying melodies in all registers. Anton Weidinger, a trumpet virtuoso in the Vienna Court Orchestra, played a significant role in developing a five-keyed trumpet and then asked Joseph Haydn to compose a concerto for the new instrument. The Concerto in E-flat Major came from that request.

A lesson for tyros: a “concerto” provides audiences with a solo instrument accompanied by an orchestra. In the video below Haydn’s orchestral accompaniment has been scored for piano.

Markus Würsch, keyed trumpet; Peter Solomon, fortepiano

Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana, Intermezzo (1890)

Here’s a wonderful performance of one of classical music’s most beautiful pieces of music. Mascagni inserted this interlude into his opera Cavallaria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) to denote the passage of time. If it sounds familiar, you may have heard it in the film Raging Bull. (The music begins at 0:40 after much encouragement from the audience.)

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Gothenburg Symphony

Eric Whitacre Conducting Actual Choirs

Yesterday I posted a blog with three embedded videos of Eric Whitacre conducting virtual choirs. In the For-What-It's-Worth Column, I've posted videos below of Whitacre conducting the same pieces with actual choirs.

The music is worth hearing in all its forms.

Eric Whitacre conducting Lux Aurumque


Eric Whitacre conducting Sleep


Eric Whitacre conducting Water Night

Everything was in Shocking Technicolor

If you have yet to hear about Eric Whitacre, he is a rock star of the choral world, a charismatic man who is swarmed by admiring crowds at music conferences. I first heard about Eric Whitacre over a decade ago when my son sang two of his compositions — Water Night and Sleep — with the New Mexico All-State Choir, and I count myself a big fan.

Whitacre’s life story should give hope to anyone who starts late in music. In his
lecture on TED, he tells about going to the University of Nevada Las Vegas at age 18 with little musical experience. When the choir conductor discovered he could sing and asked him to join the UNLV choir, he at first refused, believing people who sang in the choir were “geeky.” However, he accepted the invitation after a friend told him he could travel to Mexico with the choir at the end of the semester.

Whitacre described his first day with the choir as a transformative experiences. As the choir began singing the
Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem, he said everything changed. “In my entire life I had seen in black and white, and suddenly everything was in shocking Technicolor.”

Whitacre stayed with the choir, learned how to read music, and began studying composition. Within three years he had completed his first concert work,
Go, Lovely Rose. He then earned a graduate degree in composition from Juilliard and has since published numerous vocal and instrumental works, making quite a name for himself through his works for "virtual choir."

As my son told me, “If you meet someone who says they don’t like choral music, tell them about Eric Whitacre."

Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choir, Lux Aurumque


Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choir 2, Sleep


Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choir 3, Water Night

Benjamin Zander on Music and Passion

“Everybody loves classical music, they just haven't found out about it yet.” – Benjamin Zander

Embedded in this posting is a must-see TED talk by
Benjamin Zander, the musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Zander's moving performance of Chopin's Prelude in E minor should be enough to persuade everyone to begin a journey into the world of classical music.