Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hey hey mama

It gladdens my heart to see Jimmy Page with his double-neck guitar on the pages of a science magazine, even in Italian. So it is with the March-April issue of Sapere, where the second of my “music instinct” columns has now appeared. Here it is.


Attempts to explain how music moves us generally have only one big idea on which to draw. But it’s a good one, and is surely a big part of the answer. When in 1956 the musicologist and composer Leonard Meyer published his book Meaning and Emotion in Music, he was one of the first people to move beyond the cool, formal analysis of musical structure and try to get at why music can make us dance, jump for joy, or break down in tears.

Meyer suggested that it’s all to do with setting up expectations and then violating or postponing their resolution. We think the music is going to do one thing, but it does another – or perhaps it does what we expect, but not quite when we expect it. The unexpected creates a feeling of tension, which might be experienced as excitement. And if that tension is then released, say by the final closing chord of a piece, we feel all the more satisfaction from the delayed gratification. Even the simple rallentando slowing at the end of a Chopin prelude will work that magic.

I’ll give several examples in the forthcoming columns of how this violation of expectation can be played with to raise the emotional temperature, sometimes with exquisite results. Here I want to look at rhythm. This is one of the easiest ways to set up an expectation, because we expect rhythm almost by definition to be repetitive and predictable.

So when it isn’t, we get a thrilling shock. The classic example is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, in particular the “Dance of the Adolescents” section. A repeated chord beats away in an insistent pulse – but with an emphasis that shifts with every bar, first on the second beat of the bar, then the first, first again, then second… We never guess when it is coming, so each time it delivers an electrifying jolt.

These unexpected emphases enliven all sorts of music – in jazz, they appear as syncopation, where the beat seems to jump in early and make the rhythm swing. But there are other ways of playing with rhythmic expectation too. Take Led Zeppelin’s song “Black Dog”, where the instrumental riff sounds easy until you try to play it. What’s going on – have they added an extra beat or something? But no, John Bonham’s drums are still ticking away four beats to the bar. The surprising complexity comes from the fact that the guitar riff doesn’t actually fit into this four-beat bar – it has an extra half note. So as it is repeated, it begins and ends in a different place in each bar. The result of these imperfectly overlapping rhythmic structures is disorientating where you think it should be simple. That way, it forces us to pay attention and gives the song a kind of coiled tension and urgency. Stravinsky, I like to think, would have approved.

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