global musical analysis

I recently received notice of a call for papers at a conference being organized to address the development of (among other things) an analytical approach that is equally valid for sound art and music. The Sound Energy Aggregate (SEA) method is essentially that already, having grown from my experiments in sound as the fundamental expressive medium, so I look forward to addressing the issues raised by the conference in a new paper. On further looking around, I was intrigued by finding mention of a move to create a globally applicable foundation for music criticism or analysis.

The search led me to the realization, at the end of another semester of teaching Contemplating Music at the Longy School of Music, and after the fourth meeting of the new organization by the same name, that the SEA is in fact a tool ready for use in the analysis of music from around the globe. I will work these ideas out more fully, but here is the thinking at the moment:

Certain features (parameters) of music are so basic that operations which use them are quite likely truly global in scope. The old maxim that “music is the universal language” has always both bothered and excited me, and I am beginning to understand why. Those who dispute the notion usually do so because of the degree to which culturally learned features mean that what practitioners of a tradition gets from the experience can be quite different from what listeners from another culture get. Likewise, it is easy to show that what happens in a person's imagination while listening to music, creating what the music “means” is often vastly different even among even members of the same tradition.


What I am beginning to think is that indeed, the subtle aspects of a tradition, the features involving pitch organization, are culturally determined and take years of practice to fully understand and process while listening to or performing music. On the other hand, the most obvious features of music – it gets louder, it gets faster, it gets higher, etc. – communicate very directly, are responsible for a huge proportion of what is often called “emotion”, and have pretty much escaped the attention of those who theorize about music. I can certainly state that intuition about western classical music, and from what I know about the musics of other cultures, suspect it to be true rather universally.

As I say in my classes, “the obvious is in control: expose it!” The most obvious force in our daily experience, gravity, escapes our notice most of the time, and is yet to get a fully satisfactory theoretical explanation, even in our scientifically advance age. Yet we all benefit from the line of brilliant minds who have attempted to explain gravity: Newton, Einstein, Hawking. Shouldn't we in music have the courage to stick with the task, and bring the most obvious features into the rigorous world of musical analysis?

The Sound Energy Aggregate offers a way to bring the obvious factors into analytical consideration, by estimating or calculating the energy contribution of each parameter to the ever-shifing energy field of music as it interacts with our consciousness. The more subtle energies of pitch usage, refined over centuries in the musical traditions of the world, are likewise estimable in energy contribution. These will probably always lie a little beyond a totally inclusive global analytical framework, but an incredible amount of commonality exists on the obvious aspects of sound that will allow an incremental step toward a worldwide technique.

So, shared by all, theorized about by almost none: the basic features of sound:
  • dynamics
  • register
  • horizontal density
  • vertical density
  • timbre
  • articulation
How many times have my students listed at least two of those in their list of three required parameters to explain the energy of a piece of music? Over and over and over again.

Ok, so they're obvious! Let's deal with it. If we want to develop a means by which to discuss music from around the world on equal footing, why start theorizing about things that require extensive explanation when the things that most deeply affect listeners, cause physical reactions, are so immediately obvious, easily defensible, and clearly responsible for the listeners' reactions? We will gain perspective from dealing with what is already available, and allow important musical factors to put all traditions on equal footing in at least the most fundamental parameters.

To end for now, a personal experience of note: At the last meeting of Contemplating Music: the Greater Boston Center for Contemplative Mind in Music, we listened to a selection of music from Azerbaijan, very much in the tradition of Persian music. I had thought beforehand of using SEA principles to analyze a piece together, and on hearing the music, I was reminded of just how powerfully the approach yields results. It was hardly even necessary to talk over how clearly the use of rising register, volume and activity level were responsible for communicating energy to a listener. This experience preceded only by a day or two the discovery of a person in the UK seeking to develop a global critical approach to music, and leads me now to think of the SEA as not only a contemplative approach, not only as a phenomenology of music, but as a globally applicable method of analysis.