Category Archives: Theory

Hermit thrush pitch preferences

HermitThrush

The song of the hermit thrush, a common North American songbird, is renowned for its apparent musicality and has attracted the attention of musicians and ornithologists for more than a century.

Recent research has shown that hermit thrush songs, like much human music, use pitches that are mathematically related by simple integer ratios and follow the harmonic series. These findings add to a small but growing body of research showing that a preference for small-integer ratio intervals is not unique to humans; such findings are particularly relevant to the ongoing nature/nurture debate about whether musical predispositions such as the preference for consonant intervals are biologically or culturally driven.

This according to “Overtone-based pitch selection in hermit thrush song: Unexpected convergence with scale construction in human music” by Emily Doolittle, et al. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America CXI/46 [18 November 2014] pp. 16616–16621).

Below, a hermit thrush video that will fascinate your cats; more recordings, including slowed-down ones, are here.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Science, Theory

Spektrum Musiktheorie

Spektrum Musiktheorie

In 2013 Are Musikverlag launched the series Spektrum Musiktheorie with Die vier Symphonien von Friedrich Gernsheim by Sandra Maria Ehses. The series presents publications of selected dissertations accepted by the Hochschule für Musik at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität in Mainz.

Below, the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland‑Pfalz performs Gernsheim’s fourth symphony under the direction of Siegfried Köhler.

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Filed under New series, Romantic era, Theory

Slonimsky and Coltrane

 

Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns (1947) is a highly systematic compendium of templates for composition and improvisation.

In an interview, Slonimsky stated that “the scales are compositions and they also provide materials for more extended compositions…I wrote several works in those scales.”

“Everybody warned me that only dyed-in-the-wool academics would touch the Thesaurus, but what actually happened was that academics did not care at all for it. So who picked it up? Jazz players!”

“I have interviewed McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s pianist for a number of years, and he directly confirmed Coltrane’s use of the book. [According to Tyner,] Coltrane carried the book with him constantly during the years 1957 to ’59…He always took it with him when he travelled on concert tours, and…practiced it as part of his daily routine.”

Quoted in “Conversation with Nicolas Slonimsky about his composing” by Richard Kostelanetz (The musical quarterly LXXIV/3 [1990] pp. 458–72).

Today is Slonimsky’s 120th birthday! Below, selections from the Thesaurus played on electric guitar; a full open-source publication of the work is here.

BONUS: Coltrane’s Giant steps and Countdown, both of which are thought to have been influenced by Slonimsky’s Thesaurus.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Jazz and blues, Theory

Johannes Tinctoris: Complete theoretical works

tinctoris

Johannes Tinctoris: Complete theoretical works presents a complete new edition of Tinctoris’s treatises, along with full English translations and multiple layers of commentary material, covering a wide range of technical, historical, and critical issues arising from both the texts themselves and the wider context of Tinctoris’s life and the musical environment of early Renaissance Europe.

Combining the highest levels of historical, textual, and critical scholarship with innovative technological presentation, this open-access edition explores new methods of relating text-based materials to the numerous, often complex, music examples that punctuate the treatises.

The project, which is based at Birmingham Conservatoire, is an outgrowth of the ongoing research of Ronald Woodley into the life and works of Tinctoris.

Above, a depiction of Tinctoris at his desk; below, the Kyrie from his Missa L’homme armé.

Related articles:

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Filed under New editions, Renaissance, Resources, Theory

The music of the Temporalists

The music of the Temporalists

In The music of the Temporalists by Andrei Covaciu-Pogorilowski (Charleston: Create space, 2011), a Parisian drugstore owner and amateur pianist experiences a two-year mental trip as an avatar in a parallel (Temporalist) world in which music is cultivated as the art of time rather than the art of sound.

There he meets a musicologist called Jean-Philippe and an old psychologist, Herr Sch…; they teach him all they can about their musical theory and its cognitive aspects so he can transmit what he has learned to his own music culture.

Within this imaginary frame an alternative to the classical bar-rhythm theory is proposed, based on an empirical study of key phenomena of temporal discretization, including entrainment, chunking, subjective accentuation, pulsatory inertia, and temporal gap perception.

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Wiener Veröffentlichungen zur Theorie und Interpretation der Musik

im-schatten-des-kunstwerks

In 2012 Praesens Verlag launched the series Wiener Veröffentlichungen zur Theorie und Interpretation der Musik with Im Schatten des Kunstwerks. I: Komponisten als Theoretiker in Wien vom 17. bis Anfang 19. Jahrhundert, edited by Dieter Torkewitz.

The book’s articles discuss Viennese composers from the 17th through the 19th centuries who were also theorists; future publications will cover other topics in Viennese music theory and interpretation.

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Analyze this!

Analysis of compositions has long been one of the mainstays of Western musicology. What, in turn, are the mainstays of analysis? We recently checked RILM’s database to see which works have inspired the largest numbers of analytical studies.

The hands-down winner is Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier, BWV 846–93, with 112 analyses—perhaps not terribly surprising since the work comprises 48 preludes and fugues, some of which are fiendishly complex. The rest of the top ten are:

2. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (75 analytical studies)

3. Debussy’s Préludes (45)

4. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fugue, BWV 1080 (31)

5. Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (29)

6. Beethoven’s symphony no. 9, op. 125 (29)

7. Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, op. 21 (27)

8. Mozart’s symphony no. 40, K.550 (26)

9. Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (23)

10. Schubert’s Die Winterreise, D. 911 (22)

Above, part of the manuscript for Das wohltemperierte Klavier.

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Filed under RILM, Theory

Routledge studies in music theory

Routledge inaugurated the series Routledge studies in music theory on 3 April 2012 with Music and twentieth-century tonality: Harmonic progression based on modality and the interval cycles by Paolo Susanni and Elliott Antokoletz.

The book explores the web of pitch relations that generates the musical language of non-serialized 12-tone music, and supplies the analytical materials and methods necessary for analyses of a vast proportion of the 20th-century musical repertoire.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Theory

Architectural modulations

The Western tonal system is founded on specific procedures for modulating from one key to another; the harmonic relationships involved have parallels in Western architecture’s classic proportional relationships, suggesting the idea of architectural modulation.

In the above examples, the floor plan on the left shows the width-to-length ratios of the principal spaces in a project from I Quattro libri dell’architettura by Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). The unexpected and somewhat disturbing angled wall of the rear courtyard space could function like a pivot chord, leading to the hypothetical addition shown on the right.

This according to “Modulation in music and architecture” by Radoslav Zuk, an essay included in Systems research in the arts. IV: Music, environmental design, and the choreography of space (Windsor: International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics, 2003, pp. 1–8).

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Filed under Architecture, Curiosities, Theory

Pitch perception B.C.E.

Although the notion of pitches being relatively high or low was well-established by the first century C.E., when Pliny used the terms summus, medius, and imus, there is no evidence that earlier Greek theorists espoused this metaphor. The terms νήτη (nētē, “down-located”) and ὑπάτη (hypatē, “up-located”) were used, but they referred to the physical placement of kithara strings, not to a spatial concept of pitch; in fact, the higher the pitch in our terms, the further down-located it was on the instrument.

The commonest adjectives for pitch in ancient Greek writings are ὀξύς (oxys, “sharp, piercing”) and βαρύς (barys, “heavy”). Ptolemy wrote that the former quality was a result of λεπτότης (leptotēs, “fineness”) and πυκνότης  (pyknotēs, “close spacing [of notes]”, and that the latter was caused by μανότης (manotēs, “thickness”) and  παχύτης ( pachytēs, “loose spacing”) . The idea of higher and lower sounds, and their eventual depiction as such in notation, was a later development.

This according to “The development of vertical direction in the spatial representation of sound” by Eleonora Rocconi, an essay included in Archäologie früher Klangerzeugung und Tonordnung: Musikarchäologie in der Ägäis und Anatolien (Rahden: Leidorf, 2002), pp. 389–392.

Related article: The perfect-pitch puzzle

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