Thursday, September 18, 2014

Musings on Melodies, Modes, & Moods

I tend to prefer writing about things after I have a pretty good understanding of them, only sharing thoughts and ideas after feeling that I have "arrived" at my final conclusion. This may or may not be the best philosophy of writing. What is indisputable is that my complete, polished, well thought-out writings are few and far between - hence the scarcity of worthwhile posts on this blog. Whether this post proves worthwhile or not may be individually determined by the various readers; I warn you now that it has not gone through the tumbler of time, and is far from being well-rounded or polished.


Over the last week or two I have been trying to figure out how music works. I'm not referring to how the pitches are measured, how the sound waves travel to our ears, or how the timing and note lengths are calculated - I mean how music affects us. For music does affect us, doesn't it? In different ways for different people, certainly, but there are some elements to music that work on most people in similar ways.

Take the broad categories of Major and minor keys, for example. While not quite a truth universally acknowledged, it is commonly felt that pieces in Major keys tend to be bright, happy, joyful, or glad sounding, while pieces in minor keys tend towards being melancholy, sorrowful, angry, intimidating, or sad in sound. Why on earth is this? The only difference between the Major and minor scales is a slight shift in the pattern of whole and half steps. Both modes work with the same set of tones. How can it be that these two systems work on our emotions in such drastically differing ways? Why is it that, as a five-year-old, I felt Loreena McKennit's musical rendition of The Highwayman to be a melancholy song - even without understanding the words or the tale itself - merely by hearing the melody and the style of accompaniment? Why is it that George Winston's piano solo Corrina, Corrina, which I fell in love with around that same age, always filled me with smiles and made me dance across the room? And why am I fairly certain that these melodies would have pretty nearly the same effect on most listeners?


To bring in a separate yet related train of questions: is the Major/minor difference hardwired into people, or is it something that actually is, so to speak, picked up through social conditioning? I know that the Major and minor modes, which we of Western civilization use almost exclusively, are not always employed by other cultures; even our division of the octave into twelve semi-tones is not the only measure of pitch used. It would seem that with such differences between the types of musical systems, responses to the Major/minor modes would not be universal. And yet, it makes sense that there would be some commonality of responses to musical types, shared between people within the same culture, if nothing else... having all been created in the image of the same God, all people have the ability to express themselves creatively, through music and in other forms, and the ability to understand the expressions being produced by other individuals as well.

Along these lines, it might be said that music is the language of the expression, the tones are the words, and the melodies are the messages. Though you have the same set of words in your vocabulary, the way in which you arrange them drastically alters the meaning. Major and minor, then, could be described as being slightly different vocabularies that are arranged in different ways to convey a completely separate set of meanings. Songs in Major keys use an arrangement of the "words"/notes that are more representative of joyfulness, contentment, exuberance, praise, and happiness, while songs in minor keys use the "words"/notes better suited to expressing lamentation, pathos, longing, sorrow, anxiety, anger, and other deeply felt emotions.


Too many questions, too few answers, too little time to proofread - too late at night. :)
Hope you enjoyed this little look into my brain, such as it is.
Have a lovely day - and please do comment if you have the time!

13 comments:

Zoë said...

Actually, the comparison might hold together better if the notes were seen as individual letters, their precise arrangement within specific songs as the words, and the mode as the tone of voice in which they were spoken. Maybe...

Zoë said...

...or maybe not. Maybe I shouldn't write after midnight. :]

Christian said...

how do you do it, you completely stole my ideas and posted under your blog you THIEF, robber, burglar, stealer of thoughts...

Zoë said...

And I totally forgot to credit you! So sorry.

HEY WORLD! ALL YOU FOLKS WHO ARE READING MY BLOG! (Yes, I'm talking to all two of you!) THIS POST IS ENTIRELY INSPIRED BY MY AWESOME COUSIN! So all your gushing comments of praise should be directed to him! Your applause, while merited, was misdirected - let's hear it for Nathanael!

There you go, Thanael. Sorry to steal the show for so long.

(Hope this didn't come across as too sarcastic - I actually *did* get most of the good ideas from you, and even the lesser ones were originally inspired by our conversations. furthermore, I did credit you in the second post n this series - it just never got out of the draft folder.)

So, in all sincerity - thank you for inspiring this post, Nathanael!

Zoë said...

My typing leaves much to be desired. I forgot to capitalize the "F" in "Furthermore". Why can't I notice these things *before* posting my comments?!

Zoë said...

AAAH! And I left off the "I" in "in"! I'm a disgrace to mankind... Okay, I'm just going to stop blogging forever now...

Christian said...

wellcumm 2 de loeer ind uv gramir zoyee


your friends never comment on this blog much, what is the chance of them seeing this, wow, now that was being quite irritable..

Zoë said...

;P hee hee hee

Not irritable... let's call it "overly-feisty", shall we? ;]

Christian said...

You have heard George winston piano music, we love that stuff, we always listen to it while driving to Alabama to see our Nana, it is almost a tradition in some sense...

Zoë said...

I've been in love with it for approximately fifteen years!

Zoë said...

I understand Isaac has strong nostalgic attachment to it?
I'm continually amazed by how strongly musical recordings can be attached to whole sets of memories, and that the nature of the memories they're associated with can be so different from person to person.

Ron Hinkle said...

Do some reading on the "Mozart Effect." The way I understand it is, great composers start by posing a musical "problem," then continue on to solve the problem through the course of the piece of music. That's why Mozart is so revered; nobody else has ever presented such fascinating problems and then solved them so easily. There are those who argue that his IQ was the highest in human history based on his works.
I believe the human mind notices these things, whether the owner of the mind is aware of it or not, or even has any training in it. I have read that this is very good exercise for a young, developing mind, and I would imagine it is very good for an aging, perhaps weakening mind as well.
I enjoy your writing Zoe! Don't be afraid to present ideas before you have "arrived!" There's no better way to learn than by sticking your neck out and possibly making a mistake. Just read some of my blogs; most of them are half-baked, and sometimes I get put in my place by readers!

Zoë said...

Hmm, very interesting! Would it be correct to say that the problem being solved is primarily one of "getting back to the I/i chord"? Or do you mean more of a storytelling sort of thing, a "problematic theme expressed through orchestration" as opposed to a technical progression of the music itself?

Huzzah, I'm so glad to hear that! :]
Many thanks for your comments - I'll definitely be giving them some further thought.