08 October 2006

The Place of Music

The next session I attended at CiRCE was called “The Place of Music in the Classical Christian Curriculum”, taught by John Hodges. He is passionate and knowledgeable about music and this was a delightful session. And when it was over, we asked him where we could sign up for his class.

I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to attend this session. I’m not really a musician and thought most of it would be over my head, but I was wrong. Since most of the rest of the Wild Bunch was going, I thought I would too and then Jenny, our WB musician-in-residence and my roommate, would fill me in later over tea in our room. If I mess up, it’s because I haven’t had time to re-listen to the CD and I only partially understand what John said.

Is music math or is it art? Yes! It’s both! It’s filled with ratio and proportion. For example: if you strike a low D on a piano keyboard, included in the vibrations produced are D, E, and F# 2 octaves above. If you strike the low D and leave the damper open, those three strings will also vibrate. (I think he called this sympathetic vibrations, but I could be wrong - as I said, I’m not a musician. He also did this cool demonstration with an old curly phone cord to show us how vibrations work - it was almost like physics class!) Because of this sympathetic vibration, harmonies are actual and objective, not subjective. They are part and parcel of the created order, not something we made up on our own. (Man discovered these in the same way we discovered mathematical principles and laws of nature, such as gravity. We didn't create them.) Dissonance and consonance are a result of the created order. Our Western system of music is a man-made system based on creation. Physics is the same throughout the world in all different cultures.

Now we get to the “Art Part”. “Art” is the science of making things, forming things using what God has created. (I like Tolkien’s “sub-creation,” that we are creators under The Creator. He made everything ex nihilo, we use what he made to form, order, and create beauty.)

Growing up means learning to discern. Someone (Augustine? Aquinas? Boethius? I don’t remember...) said that beauty contains unity, proportion, and clarity, and pleases upon being seen. It is objective in its unity, proportion, and clarity, but for those whose affections are trained to love that which is good, it produces a subjective, emotional response. It’s not an either/or proposition.

However, it’s not as easy as all that because the Fall affects us. Our receptors are damaged, but we must still strive to see what is good.

How do we teach aesthetics?

  1. Introduce the idea of objective. Good art is good, whether I like it or not. It’s not how I feel about it that counts.
  2. We must also model analysis using the elements of music: rhythm, melody, harmony, form, texture, and timbre. (This would also apply to any artistic discipline we’re teaching and learning about - Jenny has begun pulling together lists of the different elements of different disciplines and I’m sure I’ll be asking her for her input in the future.)

    Rhythm is the organization of pulses into groups of strong and weak beats. Then these groups can be subdivided. Ask: “Why did the composer choose that particular rhythm?

    Melody is the linear aspect of music, the part you hear. Is it long? short? Does it have sections? Is it a call and response? What stylistic differences are there?

    Harmony is what you hear simultaneously; it’s the vertical aspect of music. Listen for chords leading into one another.

    Form is the big picture of the piece. Strophic form is a repetition of the same thing: AAA. Verse/chorus is ABAB. If someone understands the sonata form, it will unlock a lot of classical music.
(John then went into a fairly detailed - at least to this novice - description of sonata form. I’ve started hearing the differences in the different movements, but I haven’t had the time to sit and listen for the subtleties yet. I’m only going to give the overview as my notes at this point are a jumbled mix of diagram and phrases.)

A sonata is an instrumental piece, made up of four movements that vary in tempo. The first movement is fast and is called Allegro. The second movement is slow and repeats some of the melodic themes and variations of the first movement. The third is a dance, most often a minuet incorporating a simpler form of the melody from the first movement. The fourth movement is fast: Allegro or Rondo.

A good example is Mozart’s 40th symphony, the first movement. The various movements are very clear and easily identifiable. The Romantic composers hid the seams between the various movements and so it’s harder to identify them in their works.

The following information relates to sonatas composed in the 18th century. A piano sonata is a sonata written for piano alone. A clarinet sonata is a sonata written for clarinet and piano. A concerto is a sonata written for piano and orchestra; at least it’s similar although there’s usually no dance movement in a concerto. A symphony is a sonata written for orchestra, generally consisting of four movements.

In the 19th century, the Romantics, while accepting the sonata form at first, broke the rules to express themselves, which lead to the breakdown of the form. They also were the first to use this form to tell an outside story using music.

There were two Greek gods who inspired art: Apollo, who was responsible for reason, order, balance, symmetry - the head and ideals; and Dionysus, the god of grapes, wine, nature, passion, the emotions - the heart and particulars. This Greek dichotomy was synthesized by the early Christians who understood that both were worthwhile: the objective, that which deals with the object itself; and the subjective, that which deals with the emotions of the partaker of art.

There are three objective “goods” relating to any piece of art: performance (the excellence of the piece in terms of its execution, whether painting, sculpture, or film), composition (the structure of the piece), and content (the message communicated). In other words, a piece might be well-composed in its structure and have a wonderful message, but if its execution is lacking, it will not qualify as good art.

We must receive and understand a work of art; then we ask, “Where do I agree with it?”; and only after these first two steps should we ask, “Where do I disagree with it?” This reminded me of CS Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. I try to teach my children to understand what the author, sculptor, painter, poet, or director was saying and only when we think we understand, do we begin to critique it.

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