Saturday, November 8, 2014

Vertical and Linear Hearing

Most of us learn music theory in relation to vertical, i.e., harmonic hearing.  Tones are identified by their function within scales as borne out or expressed in chord progressions.  A lot is left unaccounted for by this method.

For one thing, it does not account for the tension inherent between tones that do not want to move beyond their position of stability in the scale:  5 notoriously not wanting to rise to 6, for example.  Nor does it account for the tremendous upheaval when a given scale degree in one tonality (say 1 in B minor) becomes a different scale degree in another tonality (say 3 in G major).  This is especially problematic in the absence of perfect fifths to stabilize the tonic, whether that tonic is expressed or merely implied.

This is Beethoven at his most subtle: the first natural horn tones of the Fourth Piano Concerto, Op. 58.  Incredibly difficult to play as the players are hearing one set of stabilizing tones coming from the orchestra though their entrance in no way conforms to that set of tones, but to one as yet unexpressed and foreign to their own overtone series. 

This is just one instance in which players and conductors must have been overjoyed at the invention of the modern horn:  the note was suddenly easy.  Of course, the meaning was lost.  But we are still involved in saving the time that was saved!