It’s been widely discussed there are only a few basic stories ever told. Still, it’s rather amazing to think that something written thousands of years ago can be reinterpreted today and remain startlingly close to our current experience. This is why a tragic opera based on an apocryphal biblical book reset in Appalachia has a pertinent message (Carlisle Floyd’s, Susannah). Or why a movie adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey works as a comedy (O Brother Where Art Thou?). In essence these stories really have nothing to do with religion or ancient times. Rather they speak universally to how we negotiate life.
Music is Song!
When it comes to music, it is perhaps more clear. While there are countless expressions of music, there are only a few essential origins. Music as an extension of speech begins with song, one of the earliest forms of communication. Mark Changizi recently wrote a fascinating book on the subject titled, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man. The book looks at language and music and puts forth the hypothesis that singing (and rhythm) were one of humankind’s first methods of communicating. It’s not a far putt to see how this develops into the concept of more formalized traditions of singing. And from that, instruments and music develop to imitate the possibilities of the voice. (Don’t worry. Long history lecture deleted!)
Music is Dance!
People also move. Expression through body language is another element found in all societies. Some are much more developed than our Western traditions, such as Balinese dance and Chinese opera, where even subtle eye movements have meaning. Music to accompany these “movements with meaning” would eventually develop into the myriad of styles we today refer to as dance. From tribal dance to stately sarabandes, rhythm contains history and meaning.
Even when you think about a Mozart Symphony, basically only these two elements are at work, albeit often together. A lyrical (singing) melody is combined with rhythmic elements that are derived from centuries of combined movement. It occurs whether we find ourselves in a strict formal application, an aria-like theme, or a brisk finale. Every dotted rhythm, metric arrangement or rhythmic pattern moves—the sinew of music. Every aria sings, whether played on clarinet, violin, or cello. There is certainly more to it than that, but the threads of musical creation lead to these two origins.
Music is Story!
But there is one additional element that is more elusive. This is the element of story. Music tells a story. This is obvious with music such as a simple love song, complex opera, or symphonic tone poem. But it also exists in so-called absolute music. Each piece tells a story and travels, like a story, through time. It has a start, a middle, a climax and a resolution. We humans are addicted to the concept of story telling, and it stands to reason that we will try to do it in every possible way. We report sporting events as if they are campaigns from Roman times. We enjoy reading novels, watching movies, and even follow Facebook to piece together elements of story. So it stands to reason that for music, as a human endeavor, we would do the same.
At its basal level, lyricism, movement, and narrative are the strands that give music it’s meaning and tell its story. These are the strands that contain the “other” elements (the often complex ones you learn about in music school) and combine to produce a multitude of possibilities with an infinite number of interpretations.
But this is not music school (although I play a professor in real life). This is a blog about finding meaning around, within, and, sometimes in spite of the notes. So, the next few posts will look at these elements with thoughts on how both musicians and audiences can experience, express and find meaning in music using these very quintessential threads. It’s the “star-stuff” of music, the building blocks of possibility. The way I see it, a novel by Mark Twain, a symphony by Brahms, or the journey of our own individual and collective lives are essentially the same thing.
Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin