Monday, May 19, 2014

Our Subjective Experience of Music

On the Music Theory Society's on-line talk feed this week, a theorist commented:  "Our subjective experiences are known only to ourselves. Nevertheless, human beings have always tried to communicate these experiences to others."

To which I replied:

"Validating subjective experience of musical elements is very much at the heart of my life's work, as my own subjective responses to specific sounds, very pronounced when I was a child, were never substantiated in my training.  When I read Viktor Zuckerkandl's Sound and Symbol back in the 60's I realized that he was talking about the necessity of figuring in subjective responses to tone relatedness as essential to making and listening to music.  Based on my understanding of his findings I have made it my life's work to demonstrate the practical implications of his insights.

In order to do that I set myself the task of listening to my students without looking at the score.  I deliberately chose to work primarily with adult amateur chamber musicians (I founded a non-competitive chamber music program at the Mannes Extension Division in 1975, which I coordinated until 2007) and with children (Mannes Prep, where I taught techniques of chamber music for many years until performance pressures and competition made such an approach untenable).

The idea was that these populations would be more vulnerable to the subjective elements of their hearing than would professionally-motivated students whose technique would mask such vulnerability.  The result of listening in this way has been quite remarkable:Often I would hear specific things, like a consistently out-of-tune A in a Handel Trio Sonata in G minor for two violins and continuo.  How does a composer contrive a composition that causes A on a violin to be difficult to find? 

When I would go to the score to look for an answer I very often could not see it. 

My conclusion is that reading the printed score can lead to a a too-readily pre-determined notion of sound which, if allowed its own life (so to speak) will run its own course, often deviating from the trained identification of a proper course.

The culmination of this work is a technique which I call Tonal Refraction, whereby an individual using colored pencils and a grid, can give visual form to the  variables that enter into her own individual sense of tone relatedness using color for the intervallic sense (whether harmonic or linear) and the grid to play with spatial elements (degrees of high / low; rising/falling).

Allowing the visualization to be imprecise (according to our notion of precision based on standard notation), and to be flexible, i.e., to vary from day to day, as from one specific composition
to another, has revealed a great deal to me about the composer's inner ear.  Of course, you are right, I am guessing.  But my guess is now based on having aroused a level of auditory involvement that stems entirely from my inner ear. 

When a prominent theorist studied my work on the Mozart G minor Piano Quartet (which has since been published along with a presentation of the method) his comment was: "This is about what gets trained out of us."

I will be presenting my findings at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Seoul, Korea this August.

My use of "refraction" is related to that of Steven Rings in Tonality and Transformations, though I derived it from Proust, who refers to what happens to sensory memory when processed through layers of subconscious association as refraction.  Rings uses it in analogy to prisms per se; he, too, is strongly influenced by Zuckerkandl.