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Music Theory Perception
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Music Theory - An Introduction

By Richard Merrick

The central question in music education and theory is how do musical scales, intervals and chords combine to create a sense of anticipation and resolution, or tension and release. Parallel to this discussion is what causes some intervals to sound pleasingly concordant while others are perceived as gratingly dissonant. These are the fundamental questions of music perception that have yet to be answered.

Whether hidden in religious embrace, dismissed by artistic opinion or left behind by the scientific revolution, the underlying principles of music perception remain a thing of complete and utter mystery at the dawning of the 21st century. Modern music pedagogy, with its textbooks and theory curriculum, continues to incorrectly describe harmony using asymmetrical nomenclature based upon layer after layer of unquestioned tradition descended through the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, our knowledge about music remains quite limited with no universally consistent theoretical model for use in the classroom.

With the exception of the small field of experimental psychology investigating music cognition, contemporary science continues to shun the serious study of music. The avoidance of any unifying field of harmonic science has left music and any derivative natural philosophy as a humanities project. We might reasonably wonder why the scientific community continues to ignore something so immediately accessible and universal as how we perceive musical scales and harmonies. Outside of Church tradition, what else could be keeping our most inquisitive minds from seriously investigating music perception and developing a new theory of music founded upon it?

Probably the biggest drawback to replacing music tradition with music perception is its intimate connection to culture. When one considers music across diverse societies over thousands of years, it is easy to conclude everything in music is subjective and all just a matter of cultural indoctrination and personal opinion. With observation and testability central to the scientific method, how could any scientist hope to carve out a theory about something involving manmade conventions, human perception and individual opinions? Early scientific thinkers, such as Galileo and Newton, along with harmonic theorists, like Tartini and Rameau, tried to unravel this musical knot and failed. In the 16th century, French philosopher Rene Descartes was so perplexed by the problem of music perception that he flatly declined to judge the goodness of harmonic consonance by any rational method, protesting that the ear prefers one tonal combination or another according to musical context rather than any concordance of vibrations.

Then there is the matter of modern pragmatism. What practical results would the scientific study of music yield? How does that help solve the world’s problems? There are no jobs, no government grants and few university tenures relating to the scientific research of music, harmony or otherwise. There is no belief that a thorough understanding of harmonics in sound might be useful in other areas of application. It seems that an aspiring mathematician or scientist would certainly be better served to pursue established fields to make a living, leaving musicians to get on with the business of art and entertainment.

Getting past the stumbling blocks of subjectivity and pragmatism, we then come face to face with the age-old association of music with medieval religion, Greek mythology and ancient theosophies. After about 1650, with Galileo’s and Newton’s break from Pythagorean ‘musica universalis’ in the Age of Reason, the harmonic science of music was completely abandoned by so-called enlightened men along with alchemy, astrology and other presumed metaphysical leanings. Since then, few in the scientific community have had any interest in risking their career reputation or university tenure on reestablishing that taboo relationship.

Today, so-called New Age advocates warmly embrace the numeric symbolisms and cyclic wave properties inherent in music, integrating it into astrology, metaphysical yoga disciplines, chakra healing, crystal and tuning-fork therapy, neo-pagan and occult ceremonies, esoteric lore and ritualistic practices, explanations for the paranormal, various flavors of quasi-science, etcetera – all with the mostly good intention of reinstating a much needed ‘harmonic balance’ to our modern chaotic lives. Unfortunately, such enthusiasm from the New Age crowd has only compounded the scientific community’s deep-seated fear of championing research into music or any unified field of harmonic science.

But, the music community is not exactly rushing in to help the cause of Science either. New techniques and technologies challenge the very humanity of music as an Art. It could be argued that the creative ‘soul’ in music touches that indefinable thing that makes us human, so over-rationalization can be viewed as detracting from this most noble purpose. Entertainment is what music is all about these days, so if a musician wants to study mathematics or the sciences they should just go do that instead — shouldn’t they?

So, why do this? Why abandon hundreds of years of music tradition to search for a new theory of music based on perception? Because the most important step we can ever take to free our minds from doctrine and reconnect with nature is to correctly understand the harmonic laws at work in music and the body. This is the point where outside meets inside and the vibrations in our environment become the vibrations in our brain. This is where the magic happens and truth can be found – the truth that we all live in a musical universe.

Content courtesy of Richard Merrick
Copyright (c) 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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