OVER and over, music has been called the language of the emotions. The title is well earned, for there are depths of feeling in music to which words never attain, yet to attempt as some do to describe music as always and only the language of emotion, is to assume more than the composers have intended, to drag into some works a sentimentalism that is not germain to their nature, and to ignore many of the diverse messages the tone-poets have to communicate. Italian is said to be the language of song, trench of conversation, German of science, and Spanish of love and romance ; but admitting that all this may be true, does not prevent one from conversing in English, making love in German, buying pictures in Spanish, and scolding the waiter in Italian. Some music is simply the revel of a composer in the pure enjoyment of rich sonority ; some, a mere burst of melody as artless and insignificant emotionally as the note of a bird. Some compositions are experiments in new combinations ; some are ingenious manipulations of themes in ways as unfeeling as the solving of a chess problem. Some pieces fill their mission when they allow a rhythmic recitation of words and their conveyance on musical tones to the recesses of a cathedral, while others lend a power to the over flow of the heart that enhances their effect, glorifies their sense and beautifies their form.
The emotional meaning of music is not expressed exclusively by any of the elements out of which the art is constructed. As has already been shown, vivacity and stimulus are peculiarly the province of rhythm, and the opposite of these effects depends also to some extent upon the same element. Some feelings find expression in ponderous accents, others in tender pianissimos. Yet there seems to be a greater range of emotional significance, a wider possibility of soul communion in harmony than in all the other elements of music combined. The plaintiveness in the minor, the doubtfulness in a suspension, the yearning in a discord, the surprise in an avoided resolution, the anxiety in an abrupt modulation, the repulsion in a double dissonance, the bewilderment in a series of diminished sevenths, and the satisfaction in an authentic cadence are among the harmonic means of expression that the great composers have often employed with telling power.
And it might almost be said that a composer’s use of harmony is the measure of his musician-ship. In nothing are the jingles of the incompetent would-be composers so wretchedly poverty-stricken, in nothing is their want of ideas or value so clearly displayed as in the element of harmony. One who has had considerable contact with music is not unlikely to find a melody running through his head an inspiration whose source he cannot trace and whose beauty may be great. In rhythm it may escape absolute monotony by the suggestions of the verses to which possibly he may set it. But when it comes to the harmonization, nothing will save it from being commonplace and worthless in its hopeless emptiness except musicianly knowledge and skill on the part of the composer. And however beautiful a melody, as such, it cannot of itself raise a piece to artistic rank, simply because melody is chiefly the child of inspiration. The touch of adaptation, of manipulation, of intention in short, of art is to be found in the melodic structure of every worthy musical work ; but melody itself partakes too much of nature to be the most reliable sign of the artist. Let those who doubt this contemplate the beautiful melodies that are not infrequent in the productions that find their way into the revival meetings, the theaters, the ball rooms, and the park band concerts. The beauty of these melodies often seems to be the only quality they possess adequate to account for the toleration with which the compositions are received among persons of general culture; for many of them are certainly very inartistic. Were it but customary for those who study the art of piano-playing to give more attention to the subject of harmony, thus becoming aware of its resources and having their thought drawn to the meaningless character of much popular music, both the proper respect due true art and artists in tones, and the quality of music heard in public assemblies, could hardly fail to show improvement.
Previous chapters have considered such of the materials put into the hand of the musician as are the derivatives of three of the fundamental elements of musical sound – quality, force, and length. The remaining element of pitch supplies material of two sorts. The possibilities and effects due to successive changes of pitch in any one voice, considered separately, are the composer’s melodic material. Significance and beauty arising from differences of pitch in sounds heard simultaneously, may be said in a general way to depend upon harmony, and rich indeed are the resources at the command of the tone-poet in his harmonic material. Our study of The Art of the Musician necessitates some specific investigation of these resources.
It is something of a problem to decide what in our lives is truly natural and what that we consider natural is really due to heredity, early education, and convention. It would seem to a person familiar with music simply impossible to hear a melody without associating it more or less vaguely with accompanying harmonies. One might have trouble to write down or describe these harmonies; they might not always be the same. One might presently hear the melody with other simple harmonies and accept them without cavil; but let unusual or elaborate harmonization be applied to the familiar melody and at once it is challenged. If minds in general do work in this way, assigning some harmony to any melody (and a musician possibly may not be fairly competent to judge of such a matter with regard to the lay mind), it would seem as if harmony is in so far natural. Yet, on the other hand, we know that the scales which under-lie all harmonization have not always been the same as at present, and that to-day semi-civilized tribes have scales in use differing from our diatonic series. Furthermore, we are assured by the wise that harmony is a comparatively recent invention and that ancient music was purely melodic. Still it is certain that effects readily recognized by all, and sometimes derived from melodies pure and simple, depend upon considerations that are harmonic- in their essence, and that therefore imply a harmonization of the melodies which must have been supplied in the mind of the hearer.
For example, take the widely appreciated fundamental difference between major and minor. Mr. A. J. Goodrich, in his little work called “Music as a Language,” has pointed out that a gloomy sentiment sung to a cheerful strain of melody is unconvincing. To quote his own words and illustration, he says : ” If I were to sing, no one would believe me, because the musical tones contradict the sentiment.” The position is well taken, but if the tones contradict the sentiment they do so for the reason that the mind hearing them, in forming its judgment of them, immediately associates with them a harmonization that assigns them to the major mode. This is perfectly natural, because only by such a harmonization can the tonic be found among the notes sung, and without a tonic (or key notewhich, by the way, can only be recognized by a conception that is essentially a grouping of tones and therefore harmonic) everything is vague and unsettled. Hearing the little fragment of melody then, the mind naturally harmonizes it in this way:
The attunement is major, is therefore cheerful, and hence is inconsistent with the sentiment of the words, and the result is unconvincing, just as Mr. Goodrich observes.
The inconsistency, however, is not in the melody, but in the assumed and mentally conceived harmony. For taking the melody without the slightest change, and re-harmonizing it in the minor mode (see Ex. 29), it at once becomes absolutely in agreement with the sentiment of the words.
While the perception of mode (minor or major) is not the fundamental one in harmony, it yet seems to have the widest appreciation as a significant element in music. Literature is well stored with evidence that the minor mode is regarded as the proper musical avenue for the expression of pain, grief, mourning, and disappointment. Probably that view may pass unchallenged, yet composers have striven very successfully to use the minor in an opposite sense. Scherzos and other light and playful movements in minor are not few ; but, on the other hand, felicitous expressions of gloom and melancholy in the major mode are scarcely to be discovered in great music.
The fundamental, and by far the most important, conception in relation to harmony is attunement the perception that the notes heard are related more or less closely to one certain tone qualified to be the resting point and final of the series, and the one toward which, or toward some member of the concord upon which, all the sounds tend. That one certain tone is called the tonic or keynote of the series. It is verily the key to the solution of the maze of composite sound-structure presented to the ear by any harmonic combination, however simple or complex. The hearer is at sea unless he can mentally locate the keynote. In this fact of the prime necessity for knowing the tonic, is to be found the reason for the paucity of chords in so-called popular music. Pleasure in hearing music is very largely dependent upon ability to perceive at all times what is the tonic of the harmonies used. A brief period of doubt, properly utilized and understood as such, adds zest to the enjoyment of the connoisseurs, but intricate, unrelated and dissonant harmony gives delight only to those who by training and experience have acquired the power of perceiving a remote and obscure tonic.
The natural grasp of attunement (if it be natural) hardly extends beyond those chords which are comprehended within both scale and mode. In the major mode (which is more frequently employed and which offers the composer the wider range of material within the key) the tonic triad, sub-dominant triad, and dominant triad may all be sounded without introducing a note foreign to the scale, without leaving the major mode, and without introducing a dissonance. In fact, the three chords contain every note of the scale. The weakest musical intelligence is able to recognize their tendency toward the evident tonic. In other words, the natural sense of attunement is not bewildered by such a progression as is shown in Ex. 30, and accordingly we find that series of chords in every simple composition-thousands of pieces of popular rubbish use no others. But the instant we pass beyond those chords the sense of attune-ment requires education or it is puzzled, with resulting destruction of the pleasure of him who is not prepared to follow the chords and preserve his assurance of the tonic. Even the introduction of the remaining concords within the limits of the major scale disturbs, because they are all fundamentally minor triads, in spite of their construction from the tones of the major scale, and the sense of attunement is as true to the mode as to the tonic. Hence such a progression as that shown at Ex. 31 demands some education for its enjoyment, notwithstanding the fact that not one note is introduced that is either dissonant or foreign to the scale.
This matter has been considered with a certain fullness of detail, perhaps almost too technical, because it sets forth, with some of the reasons not otherwise easily seen, a most important side of The Art of the Musician, and one which offers an obstacle hardly suspected by music lovers, to the general understanding of the best that the composer has to offer. An uneducated listener can follow more easily a modulation bringing about in a simple and natural manner a change of attune-ment to a related key, than he can cling to the established attunement while listening to chords not evidently belonging to it. For admission beyond the mere outer courts of musical enjoyment, it is absolutely essential that one acquire by practice the power of clinging to the attune-ment even when it is rendered remote by the introduction of chromatic deviations from the scale. And no less necessary is it to perceive where, by transition or modulation, the composer would establish a new key or mode.
Perhaps half the pleasure to be derived from a great modern work in symphonic style is the product of its harmonies the soul of the music but it is not a pleasure to be secured to the unthinking and uninstructed by a superficial hearing. As yet lamentably little effort has been put forth in our music teaching to make this under-standing of the meaning of music the possession of our students. While the teachers commonly insist that music is a language, they yet conduct their pupils through a course which is aimed at making mere speakers of the language mere players and singers who are expected to carry out their instructions without necessarily knowing deeply the real subject about which they are not talking but playing or singing. By the long contact with music which the usual course of training applied to the player requires, the pupil involuntarily becomes initiated into the art of following a maze of harmony and perceiving its superficial meaning ; just as a laborer in a foreign land acquires in time the necessary modicum of its vernacular tongue. But who that is familiar with the prevailing standards of musical taste and appreciation, can believe that our music teachers or their pupils generally echo, with regard to the art, Paul’s words : “I had rather speak five words with my understanding, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue” ?
In this view of the matter it is small wonder that the playing of the piano by machinery has recently and with such suddenness sprung into so great vogue. If there is, so far as we know, nothing to be expressed no soul in the music the machine may as well assume the execution and save us labor and trouble. Undoubtedly there is in any case a large and legitimate field for the machine, and even in this strange development there is hope, since by means of these mechanical devices there has come a surprising revelation of the extent and interest of the works of the composers, considered merely as artistic manipulation of sounds, themes, rhythms, and harmonies. For such a revelation most of us would have been obliged to wait long had it been necessary to rely for the discovery upon fingers subjected to prevailing methods of training. Harmonic appreciation also is aided by the machine, for an essential element in the understanding of a series of chords is familiarity with the tonal effect of the progressions. Hearing music requires practice no less than performing it, and a pianola can give the ear very good practice indeed.
But now that we are in the way of so easily finding out something of the richness and variety of the work of the composers, students of technique and mere listeners alike need to undertake systematic work in the language of music. Those who call themselves teachers of music should relax somewhat their devotion to technique and give specific attention to the cultivation of a discriminating taste and a sound critical judgment in their pupils. By this time everyone should know that the word ” discord ” does not signify a false or disagreeable combination of sounds, but merely an inconclusive, intermediate, ‘conjunctive “musical word ” that may be most agreeable when rightly used. One should know that chords have tendencies and that these may be violated for sufficient cause with fine effect ; one should be able to tell whether the scattered notes of a rhythmical design are to be conceived as belonging to one chord or whether they contain foreign sounds. In short, so many details fall under this head that in a work of this character it is not possible to properly enumerate or consider them. The point to be made here is that through combinations of simultaneous sounds, and still more through the various plans of leading and relating such combinations — that is to say, through progression, modulation, resolution, cadence, etc. much of the best that music is capable of expressing is conveyed to the hearer; and that the understanding of these things results in greatly enhancing the joy to be derived from the tone-painting of the masters.
Without the possibility of putting the actual sounds into their proper relations, very little of the enormous wealth of illustrative material along these lines seems available in this place. Few indeed, even among musicians, are able to imagine the expressive power of tonal combinations from seeing their printed representations ; and to actually hear a half-dozen measures of illustrative material, a mere fragment taken out of a great work, cannot put one into the proper frame of mind to catch the elusive power of the soul of music. One must travel the entire musical journey to arrive at the destination. One striking contrast between the real composer and the “jingler,” however, can be revealed in brief illustration, and that is in the comparative wealth of harmonic material used by the two. The appended examples are designed to show something of the rich tonal supplies drawn upon by Beethoven and Wagner for the construction of but a few measures; in one case (Ex. 32) from the slow movement of a sonata, and in the other (Ex. 33) from that wonderful finale of “Tristan and Isolda.” The former shows us in the space of but four measures the employment of seven distinct chords. The latter illustrates how, upon occasion, the great composer can baffle the sense of attunement. Much of the interest of the piece from which the passage is taken is in the problem as to what is the tonic or the succession of tonics to which the chords are related. To the untrained ear, however gifted with a natural love for, and appreciation of, mere sonority, the piece can be nothing but a meaningless jumble, although its harmonic richness may give a pleasure of exactly the sort one might find in listening to the beautiful voice and tonal inflections of a lovely woman speaking an unknown tongue. To the instructed ear, it means a multitude of conflicting emotions : agitation, anxiety, intense hope and despair, all expressed with a power far beyond that of mere words. The true aesthetic delight to be derived from The Art of the Musician is something widely different from and far above the mere sensuous charm of musical sounds however luscious. It consists in no small measure in getting at the soul of the composer through a clear understanding of the beauty and meaning of his harmonization.