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Harmonic Perception.


In following the development of music, from the most primitive times and the lowest of races, we find many gradations in the understanding of the art. But we can go down even lower in the scale of living beings, and find some animals that show a well-marked appreciation of music. Fétis has defined music as the art of moving the emotions by combinations of sounds, and according to this definition such animals as the dog, the elephant, and even the pig may fairly be said to be musical. But it is not probable that they are moved by the same characteristics of the music that give pleasure to the trained human auditor, and if we stop to think we can find many reasons other than the presence of harmony to account for the pleasure shown by the brute creation.

If we try to resolve tone into its elements, we find that it has three properties: Loudness, Pitch, and Quality. The first of these, within limits, has little or no influence on musical perception. It is the second, the regularity of vibrations, that causes our elemental sense of the difference between tone, with its measured vibrations, and noise, or irregular vibrations. Who is not thrilled by the beating of drums? The sensation is actually a physical one, we do not merely hear the vibration of drum-beats, or the roar of a passing train, we actually feel them. Sometimes we may be tempted to let our own voices resound, in sympathy with the physical vibration that moves us. When the canine pet of the household runs to the piano, on hearing its tones, and emits persistent howls, it is more than probable that he is merely responding to the vibrations that thrill his frame, and not uttering a protest against the music.

It may very well be true that the human race itself, in the early stages of its growth, possessed a crude appreciation of music, but, like the dog, was keenly sensitive to vibrations. To-day we look back upon the music of early Grecian times, with its rude lyres and kitharas, as something extremely simple; yet if its simplicity was adapted to its hearers, its strains may have moved them far more powerfully than our greatest orchestras appeal to us now.

Such a condition may well account for the many mythic traditions illustrating the power of music. Orpheus, with his lyre, charmed not only his own kind, but beasts as well as men. Krishna, in the Indian mythology, sang with such beauty that all animate and inanimate nature listened in ecstasy. The sixteen thousand nymphs who wooed him during his terrestrial sojourn employed music to plead their cause, and each sang in a different key.

So much for tone itself. The next natural step must have been the perception of differences between two tones, such differences, of course, being caused by dissimilar vibration rates. It is hard for us today to realize what this perception means, for we are so used to the effects of harmony that the perception of simple melody as an advance over mere vibration-perception means little or nothing to us. Yet it must have come as a revelation to the primitive world, and the spells of the legendary musicians may have drawn something of their potency from the growing perception of melody. The Greek modes, the Indian quarter-tone scale, the Chinese male and female tones, and the evasive intervals used by the aborigines of America are all of great antiquity, and show that melodic perception must have come to the human race at a very early date. It is not impossible that animals possess it in some degree, though this would be difficult to prove.

That the simple sense of melody, unaided by any idea of harmony, is still in existence, may be seen from many savage tribes. Perhaps the most noteworthy are the Abyssinians, who will sit, for hours at a time, singing the notes C, D, E, C with infinite patience.

With the advent of melody must have come also the inevitable sense of rhythm that is based on the recurrence and alternation of tones and accents. Here, too, it is very likely that animals share in the preceptions (sic) of mankind. The relics of old Greek and Chinese music show a plainly marked rhythm; but it was not until well along in the middle ages that Franco of Cologne introduced his system of measured notation. The perception of rhythm in music is still a potent factor in its enjoyment, and the many people who are fond of dances, marches, or lively “ragtime” tunes doubtless derive their chief pleasure from this quality, in connection with vibration-perception.

If we consider harmony as dealing with the relation of tones to each other, and not merely the actual sounding of two or more tones at the same time, then much of our early music—in fact, nearly all the classic music of civilized races before a.d. 1600—did not really aim to be harmonic. The crude organum of Hucbald, a succession of empty fifths and fourths, forbade the use of other intervals. The composers of the early Flemish and other contrapuntal schools made no efforts to support the notes of their themes with any appropriateness, but let their chords be the accidental result of combination of melody with melody. The term polyphony, in its stricter sense, has been applied to this style of writing, while the more modern use of chords results in what is sometimes called homophony. This difference finds further expression in the saying that formerly music was horizontal, while now it is vertical.

It was certainly to be expected that the true harmonic perception, a realization of the meaning and value of chords, would be a gradual growth. As far back as the year 1200 we find Adam de la Hale writing to please the ear rather than obeying strict rules. Orlando di Lasso’s works are delightful today. Palestrina was able to employ all the skill of counterpoint, and add to it much harmonic beauty, just as Bach, in later times, could bring forth harmonies of crystalline charm while retaining the older contrapuntal style.

It is upon the understanding of chords and chord progressions (whether this knowledge is conscious or unconscious) that our modern music depends. Here, too, we find the vast difference in power of appreciation that renders some of us musical and others unmusical. If we look up the relative vibration-rates of notes at different intervals, taking the ratios of the two, we find that if we limit ourselves to triads, such as the tonic, dominant, and subdominant, these ratios are very simple: 3/2 for a fifth, 4/3 for a fourth, 5/4 for a major third, and 6/5 for a minor third. In listening to a chord we not only perceive that it contains several single tones, but we make a mental note of the relation of these tones to one another. This being granted, it will readily be seen that the simple chords, with their comparatively obvious relations, are the ones that ought to be most widely understood; and, when we investigate, the folk-music of nearly all nations shows us that it is so. The more intricate chords—sevenths, diminished sevenths, or accidentals—are understood readily only by the few in all lands who are better trained or more musically gifted than their brethren. The most expert among us, the great composers themselves, become so advanced in understanding that they go beyond their time, and write harmonies that their hearers condemn, but future generations grow to appreciate. Thus it was with Beethoven and Wagner, and thus perhaps it will be with Strauss.

Still another point of importance is the chord- succession. If one chord be followed by another that retains some notes of the first, it is more generally understood than if the notes are all, or nearly all, changed. The trained auditor, however, is quick to grasp the meaning of a new chord, even if it has little relation to the preceding one. The acrimonious contests of last century over the works of Wagner will illustrate this excellently. Those who could follow the rich web of harmony were lost in admiration, while those who were unable to do this found Wagner a sealed book.

So thoroughly does harmony underlie all of our modern music that a perception of melody per se is practically impossible, to the musician. He who has once learned the meaning and value of chords will supply them unconsciously to every unison melody he may hear. Let the reader try this for himself, by having a friend play themes for him, and he will see how difficult it is for him to get back to the pure melodic perception that our ancestors must have possessed.

The beauty of a melody, then, by no means depends upon the theme itself, but is almost wholly a result of the harmonies implied. Just as the student of thorough-bass writes down chords in accordance with the numerals placed before him, so does the trained auditor supply imaginary harmonies to every tune that he may hear. Keeping this in consideration, we are able to see why some popular music is good and some execrable. Beautiful melodies, like the tunes of a Mozart or some of the Scotch and German folk-songs, imply chord-progressions that flow on with infinite sweetness; while a tonal atrocity such as “Mrs. Cragin’s Daughter,” for example, suggests a harmonic scheme of the coarsest vulgarity.

Chords and their succession, then, have a definite emotional meaning to the musician. The student who tries to harmonize a theme at different times would probably give it two distinct settings, according to the mood of the moment; for, within limits, every theme admits of some little variation in its harmonization. It is not uncommon to find that several composers have used the same phrase of melody, in which case their work can be compared. An excellent instance is found in the opening theme of Bach’s “Mein glaübiges Herze.” There the harmonies portray the direct sincerity of joyous adoration. But if we turn to Jensen’s “Murmelndes Lüftehen, Blüthenwind,” we find the same notes in the voice, but the harmonies now picture the tumultuous passion of love. A melody, then, may suggest several possible settings, but they must be harmonically attractive, or the musician will pronounce the tune trashy.

Why certain chords or progressions should arouse certain emotions is not wholly clear. In orchestral music tone-color has something to do with it; but that is not all; for if we reduce scores to piano arrangements, we can still tell that the cries of the Rhine daughters are charmingly attractive, the measures of Hunding stern and brutal, and the Valhalla motive possessed of lofty sublimity. Even if we cannot explain the fact, then, we are forced to acknowledge it. Through the existence of this condition modern music is animated by an expressive power that forms its crowning glory, and after listening to its triumphs we may well admit the truth in the words of “Abt Vogler”:—

“Consider it well: each tone of our scale in itself is nought;
It is everywhere in the world—loud, soft, and all is said:
Give it to me to use! I mix it with two in my thought;
And there! ye have heard and seen: consider and bow the head.”


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