Music: Unique

I have just completed my review of Jeremy Eichler’s Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance (Alfred A. Knopf, 2023). I’ll notify my readers when it’s published. The book dwells on music’s timelessness and its simultaneous ability to recall a time long past. The example I use to sustain the book’s premise in the review is Bach’s fugues, as vivid and alive as the moment they were written, yet able to present a sense of centuries ago.

The book prompted me to understand once again the total uniqueness of music. It proceeds by its own rules that do not apply to anything else. Nor do the imperatives of any other discipline apply to music. It can be used to express any and all human emotions, yet can be, as with Bach, emotion-free. It is created to be heard but can be written by a composer who cannot hear it, as Beethoven proved. That fact consoles me because my hearing is failing as a result of an old war wound.

Western music is based on the diatonic scale. As Wikipedia explains, “In music theory, a diatonic scale is any heptatonic scale that includes five whole steps (whole tones) and two half steps (semitones) in each octave, in which the two half steps are separated from each other by either two or three whole steps, depending on their position in the scale.” We use the major and minor scales for the majority of our music, but we also occasionally use modes, scales beginning on each of the seven tones of the C major scale. The seven modes are named: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The Ionian is the same as our major scale, the Aeolian is our minor scale.

Western composers, starting with Bach, have used almost exclusively the major and minor scales (the Ionian and Aeolian modes) for their compositions but have occasionally delved into the modes, as Brahms did by using the Phrygian mode in his fourth symphony. And they have created harmony, the sounding of two or more tones together. That led to the invention of the rules of harmony dealing with triads, three-tone chords fashioned by sounding tones a third apart at the same time, e.g., C, E, and G played together. The seven triads formed by going up the scale are named tonic (1st), supertonic (2nd), mediant (3rd), subdominant (4th), dominant (5th), submediant (6th), and leading note (7th). The use of these chords generated a whole new set of rules, called harmony, governing their order and arrangement. The most obvious among the rules of harmony is that the dominant almost always leads to the tonic, which is music’s resting place.

More next time.

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