Musicality Book Club, Week 4: The Energies of Tone, Harmony, and Cadence

bookAs we move past the heaviest chapter of Bridge of Waves thus far (Music as Mind) and now meditate on Music as Heart, it seems quite fitting that I am now experiencing a compelling need and desire for rest. This chapter has some wonderful thoughts about the feeling of leaving and returning home, and being presented with a journey or puzzle and then rewarded with a resolution. Here are a few quotes and reflections for this week. I’m curious to hear your feedback, so feel free to leave a comment below!

The Human Body: An Instrument With Variable Pitch

A sustained tone by definition has a certain constancy – it’s the sound of a specific pitch. But it has variation as well. In fixed-pitch instruments like a piano or organ, the pitch of a single tone will remain relatively steady, but for instruments with variable pitch, like the violin, saxophone, or voice, a specific pitch may include subtly changing shapes…

A tone has a dynamic of soft and loud, just as a drawn line can have thickness or thinness. A piano tone has an initial spike in amplitude, a sudden loudness that drops rapidly in intensity; its gradual decay can last a minute or more. In strings, winds, and voice, the dialectic between louder and softer can tell an entire story, as does the changing thickness of a line drawn with a calligrapher’s ink brush.

Then there is the timbre of the sound to consider, the palette of overtones that allows us to distinguish between a flute and an oboe. In addition, a flutist has dozens of different ways of sounding like a flute: by turning his breath more or less into the lip of the instrument, by subtle changes of embouchure, by various kinds of breath control. A bowed string can be sand or velvet, a trombone can jeer or cajole, and you can call up an encyclopedia of vocal timbres by singing gibberish on one tone… Begin it some which way, wiggle the pitch, control the vibrato, experiment with soft and loud, invent a language. Try anything. Each tone is a whole life. [pp. 61-62]

It leaves me breathless to listen to certain pieces of music that defy the limits of sound with rhythms, melodies, and harmonies played through various instruments, each of them unique in their own way and yet contributing to the feeling of wholeness as a member of the band or orchestra. How equally wondrous is the human body with its various movement qualities – not to mention the human mind with its various emotional, social, and creative qualities – that breathe life into the steps and patterns they trace onto the floor and into space, and so much more when doing so in cooperation with another unique (same and yet different) human mind-body to create a moving partnership to music!

Harmony: Biorhythms and Affective Pleasures

Generally speaking, the simpler the harmony’s ratio, the less work your mind does to understand the harmony, and the more sense we have of safety, relief, openness, resolution, stasis. The more complex the harmony’s ratio, the more calories your mind burns to understand it, and the more sense we have of motion, tension, apprehension. The simpler the harmony, the more spacious the feeling; the more complex the harmony the more uptight, and consequently the more need for release. The harmonies in the middle, the so-called “consonances,” have aspects of repose mixed with aspects of motion, and these mixtures are where the affective pleasures are the sweetest. [note (corresponding to p. 68), p. 270]

The natural emotional affects of music’s harmony have obvious parallels in our dance. If we are attentive to the music, we will most likely feel driven to greater movement and intensity with complex harmony, and alternately soothed into rest and reflection with simpler harmony. But of course complexity and simplicity – action and repose – are very fluid experiences in our bodies and minds. One day the music seems faster than at other times, while on another day I feel so amped up that my mind-body craves movement and complexity even when the music is relatively slower and more reflective. My partner’s energy in the moment also determines how we feel and express the music together in a particular dance. So it seems it’s not only music that has these simpler and complex states; my and my partner’s biorhythms and moods, our natural personalities, the unique chemistry of the same in other dancers on the floor, the music selection and order chosen by the DJ – all of these factors mix and mingle with the harmonic properties of individual songs to create these one of a kind “affective pleasures.”

Cadence: Falling Into Simplicity

A musical cadence can be understood as a release from a condition of relative complexity into a condition of relative simplicity or certainty, a stilling of restless waters. [p. 71]

Although the link between cadencia and the musical term cadence is debatable, I enjoyed reading the author’s reflections on cadence and formulating my own poetic paradigm for how the two fit together. Wikipedia, for example, provides the following elaboration on cadence: “An analogy may be made with punctuation, with some weaker cadences acting as commas that indicate a pause or momentary rest, while a stronger cadence acts as a period that signals the end of the phrase or sentence.” And in addition to his general definition quoted above, Mathieu describes a perfect cadence as a “falling into simplicity”.

Cadencia, for me, relates very strongly to pauses and momentary lilts – part of the punctuation – of the dance, since it is in these moments when obvious movement is at a minimum and, therefore, internal energy can be felt the strongest. It feels very much like the “falling into simplicity” of musical cadence, a slow deep breath that provides both rest and a building of energy to return to action. Isn’t this how we begin the dance, letting the music and the connection fill our body like lungs fill with air, waiting for the impulse to move? And isn’t this also how we finish the dance, settling into a final position that provides release and a parting essence? The start, the finish, the pauses in between… this ebb and flow of the dance, with its peaks and valleys, is also present in my body when I execute a pause and feel that quality of cadencia coursing through my body, that “surfing on the waves of the music and the connection.”

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Here’s the next post in this series:
Musicality Book Club, Week 5: Technique, Expression, and How Things Blend

2 comments on Musicality Book Club, Week 4: The Energies of Tone, Harmony, and Cadence

  1. LadyLeader
    March 28, 2011 at 3:52 pm (13 years ago)

    Just want to thank you for this initiative!

    Got the book last week and now I am trying to catch up. Authors angle of description is not so familiar to me so I am advancing slowly!


  2. Joy in Motion
    March 28, 2011 at 6:55 pm (13 years ago)

    Hi Leena,

    Good to hear from you!

    There are a few others who are starting late too, so you’re in good company. And actually the chapters seem self-contained enough to read out of order; I know a couple of them are heavier than others. I hope you’re enjoying your reading so far. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts!



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