On Universals (Something to Say Pt. II)

As I mentioned in the previous post, the first rule of academic writing is to avoid superlatives at all costs. "Always" and "never" are almost always asking to be rebutted and almost never help an argument. This especially rings true in music. Sounds are intangible, and we as listeners largely perceive music based on prior experience and learning. Some ethnomusicologists assert that it is almost impossible to understand the music of a different culture because the preconceived notions we carry with us permanently taint our perspectives. Each person will comprehend and enjoy music of any style and variety based on their upbringing (and surely some of that nature that accounts for individual personality differences).

Despite this strong argument, I cannot help but point to certain universals that underpin any sonic experience. These, in and of themselves, are not emotional, but they do have potential to "play with the heartstrings." In fact, some composers treat the compositional process like a game or a riddle to solve, and many musicologists would point to Beethoven as one of these in how he treated musical form. The primary universal (and the only one I feel confident about) is that there is an opposition in all things. The most basic sonic opposition is between sound and silence. Composers must deal with this question, and different cultures take it in different ways. Balinese Gamelan avoids silence during the performance due to traditional beliefs, and Western music emphasizes silence. Indian Carnatic music abolishes silence altogether with a continuous drone that sounds before the first audience members enter the room. While each culture treats silence differently, there is, at the very least, the potential for this opposition to become a factor in the music.

Carnatic music demonstrates the essential opposition between stasis and activity. Our brains are designed to give attention to the most active parts of our surroundings. Hopefully, the music at a concert performance takes this active role the moment the baton falls. Yet, after some time, some aspects of the music take on a passive role due to sameness. Composers and performers, in response to this natural phenomenon, must ensure that their music contains enough variety to sustain interest. Every variation to the music arises out of opposition to something else. High or low, loud or soft, fast or slow, clarinet or violin, muted or overblown, consonant or dissonant, major or minor (or whole-tone or octatonic), choppy or sustained, groovy or floating: these are some of the tools musicians work with. This game of oppositions becomes as simple or as complex as the musician desires it to be, and each culture deals with opposition in its unique ways.

Nevertheless, a caveat exists in this game. When is there too much variety? The brain can only process so much information before the music becomes incomprehensible. Novice composers may vary their music to the point that the variation becomes sameness (and thus static and boring). A good friend pointed out that perhaps the key to writing music is establishing a sense of consistency and tactfully working to build in musical surprises. I believe in this principle as well, and I also believe that the more familiarity one has with a style of music, the more attuned one is to the subtle surprises at play. For example, a Western musician may have great difficulty hearing the difference between common scales in the Middle East because of the melodic limitations of a twelve-note collection. Also, people from non-Western cultures may not find much satisfaction in Western music's harmonic flow because their primary musical style sustains interest in other ways. Repeated, active listening attunes the ear to some of these differences.

To me, an understanding of how opposing forces interact in music is essential for anyone who engages in music as a musician or listener, even if at a subconscious level. It easily maps onto the human experience, in which each of us deals with variety and sameness (the brain is wired this way). So, from this angle, can someone enjoy music, despite its origin and their understanding? Definitely. Will some education help them enjoy it more? Surely. Will a product of one's immediate culture have the greatest impact? Perhaps. But they can certainly enjoy other styles too.