Final thoughts…

May 15th, 2010 by Hal Jacobs

This blog covers 12 classes — and over 40 short videos — related to MUS 470, “Harmonic Experience: Metaphysics and Music,” which met through the winter and spring of 2010.

While the class focused on the sonata form, especially the connection between mathematics and music, and between classical Greek culture and the classical music of Bach and Mozart, the big question that loomed over everything was, Why is music such a powerful force in our lives?

In many if not most cultures, music creates a spiritual link to the divine. It bypasses the limitations of language to involve the senses and emotions (and gut, according to Kant), and, perhaps most importantly, the memory.

If the class has taught us two things, one is the importance of attending to music closely. Most of us have grown up in a world of background music, channel surfing, and multi-tasking. The sonatas of Mozart require a different kind of listening: one that remembers the first section so that when it returns in an altered state, we can experience the thrill of recognition, even as it continues towards its precisely ordered yet unpredictable finale.

The second lesson is that the more we understand about the underpinnings of music, the more it can offer us. It is hoped that the insights shared here by Robert Spano and Professor Steve Everett, along with several other Emory musicologists, philosophers and neuroscientists, as well as the students in this class, will offer a tantalizing (and slightly unpredictable) glimpse of a great learning adventure.

Please share your ideas and comments so that we can continue the journey.

p.s. Thanks to Emory’s Creativity: Art and Innovation and Emory College of Arts and Sciences for co-sponsoring this blog.

Spano demonstrating the sonata form

May 15th, 2010 by Hal Jacobs

In the next to last MUS 470 class, Robert Spano returned to the “aural universe” of the sonata form. In previous classes we talked about the attraction of the sonata to the musicians of Vienna in the late 18th century (by the late 19th century the sonata had become solidified into a formula of sorts). The “classical” music of Bach and Mozart echoed the “classical” theories of Pythagoras that celebrated the mathematics of music and its celestial symmetry.

To bring home the structure of the sonata (exposition, development, recap), Spano sits at the piano and demonstrates with a Mozart sonata, along with a few helpful asides to the class (“We changed key–did you notice it?”).

Robert Spano Creativity Conversation

May 15th, 2010 by Hal Jacobs

Robert Spano (music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Emory University Distinguished Artist in Residence) and Rosemary Magee (Vice President and Secretary) engage in a Creativity Conversation that delves into his musical background and metaphysical musings on music’s power in our lives.

The conversation was recorded in Cannon Chapel on April 14, 2010, and sponsored by Emory’s Creativity: Art and Innovation.

The math of the composers

April 23rd, 2010 by Hal Jacobs

While the April 15th class focused on the sonata form, the April 8th class prepared the way for a better understanding of Bach and Mozart by seeing the role that symbols and numbers played in their compositions. Bach was intensely interested in numerology and was known to embed the numbers reflecting his own name again and again into his music. Mozart was a Freemason who used numeric code to refer to activities in the Masonic world. As Spano says, you don’t need to know this background to enjoy the music of Bach and Mozart, but you do gain a fuller understanding of their mastery — and appreciate the link between music and mathematics that extends all the way back to Pythagoras. (Spano also talks about the advice of Aristotle to “never hurry”; in fact, you can go faster if you don’t hurry — for details, see the iTunesU video).

Coming soon… Videos from the April 15th class and iTunesU audio of the Creativity Conversation between Robert Spano and Rosemary Magee that took place on April 14th.

Class YouTube Videos
(with links to iTunesU versions)

Numerology and Jewish mysticism in the Kabbalah
(iTunesU version)

On the structure of the fugue
(iTunesU version)

Mozart’s fascination with numerology
(iTunesU version)

Bach and numerology
(iTunesU version only)

In the words of Aristotle: “Never hurry”
(iTunesU version only)

Spano on the sonata

April 8th, 2010 by Hal Jacobs

photo by Andrew Eccles

“I believe that thinking about music can help us think musically,” Robert Spano said in his first visit to the MUS 470 class on April 1st. He joined about 12 students and Prof. Steve Everett at the seminar table in the Art Commons room of the Schwartz Center.

For the next two hours, Spano and students engaged in a conversation that ranged over many of the topics the class has considered for the last two months: the meaning of music, tonality, philosophical approaches to music beginning with Pythagoras, and more recent neuroscience discoveries. The maestro also brought his years of performing and conducting experience to the table, offering personal insights about his journey into the meaning of music.

The class reinforced a few of the main themes: “When we listen to music, we’re thinking musically,” said Spano. While we may have many thoughts while listening, or attending, a performance, music involves brain activity at the very least, “if not heart and soul activity as well.” Music, its symbols and tones, cannot be expressed through words, which are not precise enough to express the layers and depths of tonality.

And why is the sonata form so important? Spano talked about the connection between Greek culture and classical music of 18th century Vienna. It’s no coincidence that “classical music” operates on principles that came from Pythagoras. Germans of the 18th century were obsessed with Greece. This leads us to the sonata, which typifies the classical music of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms — the core German classical tradition.

The sonata is the pinnacle of this classical thinking in actual music. In the words of Spano: “The sonata isn’t a form in the sense of a mold that we pour content into. It’s an idea that you enter into and then the video game begins. The idea that is the seed, the DNA, of a sonata is tonality.”

Memory is critical to understanding music in all its complexity. Spano says he familiarizes himself with music, especially new scores, until he can hear the connections. Meanings are often found in formal relations akin to constellation of stars. He gave an example of listening to Mahler over and over as a child until he got it: hearing something that happens 30 seconds in the piece happening again 3 minutes later in an altered form – then again in yet another altered form 5 minutes later.

As for live performances, “the beauty is in the shared experience,” he said.

“I don’t know of a musician who plays the same way in a rehearsal or practice as they do in a performance. It’s an act of giving. Composer, performers, audience — if any of those things are missing, we don’t have the art.”

Class YouTube Videos

On thinking musically

On performing in front of live audiences

On playing and conducting Mozart

On music as philosophy

German philosophers on music

March 26th, 2010 by Hal Jacobs

In the last couple of classes, we’ve talked about how Kant and Schopenhauer analyzed musical forms. Guest  lecturers Andrew Mitchell (Philosophy) and Kevin Karnes (Music) presented the ideas of Kant and Schopenhauer, respectively.

When Immanuel Kant examined the form of music, he saw it as formless, as something that was more about agreeability and sensation. He based his notion of form on spatial dimensions, not temporal. So he didn’t recognize a form of music based on harmonies and melodies that existed in time. “Music is a language of sheer sensation without any concept,” he wrote. Music has a positive role in our lives because it  strengthens our sensations (hearing is the sense most responsible for our humanity because it receives the sounds of speech), and music is a social pleasure that everyone can participate in. Music is also “bodily invigorating” — it improves our health. Interestingly enough, he believes music is linked to intestinal health (yes, he writes a lot about the effect of music on the  intestines). It can also bring us closer to our animal (as opposed to strictly rational) side, which is a good thing.

Composer Richard Wagner (“The Ring” cycle) drew heavily on the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer (“the greatest philosopher since Kant”) and a very romanticized view of culture. According to Karnes, Wagner found Schopenhauer in 1854/1855 in the way that some people find God. His life was never the same after that — he also planned to abandon “The Ring” and didn’t finish it for another 20 years.

Music had a special place in Schopenhauer’s world because it is a direct expression of Will, the essence of all things, which is basically the same as energy, the thing that is striving for its own continuation. It’s the working of Will that we see in all our actions and motivations.

Videos on Kant and Schopenhauer (iTunesU)

Kant’s ideas on music (Mitchell)

Schopenhauer and his influence on Richard Wagner (Karnes)


More gamelan please

March 9th, 2010 by Hal Jacobs

Among the amazing things happening in the Music Department, the growth of the gamelan ensemble is a great story. In 2006, Emory was one of five universities in the U.S. that received a set of West Javanese gamelan from a donor interested in spreading the use of the instruments in college classrooms. Now students, many of them majoring in subjects other than music, are discovering the joys of the gamelan. For more on the subject, see a new YouTube video, Sounds of Sunda: The Gamelan, and a recent Quadrangle article, “Music for a Changing World.”

Music’s healing powers

March 4th, 2010 by Hal Jacobs

A recent series of articles in The Los Angeles Times reinforce what we’ve learned in class about recent research involving the neuroscience of music and the brain.

“Music might provide an alternative entry point” to the brain, because it can unlock so many different doors into an injured or ill brain, said Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist. Pitch, harmony, melody, rhythm and emotion — all components of music — engage different regions of the brain. And many of those same regions are also important in speech, movement and social interaction. If a disease or trauma has disabled a brain region needed for such functions, music can sometimes get in through a back door and coax them out by another route, Schlaug says.

For more information and links to the articles, visit Emory’s Creativity: Art and Innovation blog.

Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”

March 3rd, 2010 by Hal Jacobs

In the most recent class, Prof. Stephen Crist, chair of the Music Department, talked about Bach, focusing on the composer’s masterpiece “St. Matthew Passion.” Bach first performed the composition on April 11, 1727, at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany.

In the video clips below, Prof. Crist provides context and background for that first performance as it relates to the structure of the composition, and the different understandings of time between theologians of the age and scientists (Newton among them). He also reveals what Bach’s personal Bible says about his spirituality.

If you’re inspired to listen to a recording of  the “Passion,” you can listen to the class recordings (usage restricted to Emory faculty, students & staff) or choose a clip available on YouTube.

Videos on Bach and “St. Matthew Passion” (iTunesU)

Background details on the first performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

Concept of time in Bach’s day

What Bach’s Bible says about his spirituality

Your brain on music

February 26th, 2010 by Hal Jacobs

In the last two classes, we delved more into the neuroscience of music: how it may have evolved in humans, whether humans first communicated by music (Darwin’s theory) or by language, how listening to music physically changes the brain in children and, surprisingly enough, adults.

As a result of the class, I’ve noticed that I’ve already begun to listen to music differently. I’m more aware of how music affects me and why. Instead of having classical  music play in the background, I’m more aware of listening to it as a precise mathematical structure that’s being rapidly constructed in the air around me. At the same time, I also appreciate better the perspective of people who see music  as a way of establishing a spiritual connection to a sense of the divine or cosmos. It’s fascinating to think how this may have come about in humans, whether as a result of evolutionary hard-wiring or our desire to seek connections beyond ourselves.

In the videos below, Prof. Paul Lennard, director of Emory’s Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program, talks about recent research on music and the brain.

Videos on the neuroscience of music (iTunesU)

What good is music (evolutionary speaking)? (On Darwin’s Descent of Man and the origins of music.)

Your brain on music (The human brain, unlike those of animals, reacts uniquely to consonance and dissonance in music.)

Emotional processing of music (How music involves the insula and visceral; story about the woman who couldn’t recognize the song “Happy Birthday,” but did think it sounded “happy.”)

Did music come before language in humans? (Darwin believed that music may have preceeded language, so the brain was originally wired to process music.)

Your child’s brain on music (After seven months, children’s brains begin to adapt to the sounds around them in interesting ways.)
The dynamic, changing brains of adults (A fascinating study  shows how the adult brain may experience changes from one day to the next.)

The difference between the brains of musicians versus nonmusicians (Chalk one up for musicians — they have bigger corpus callosums.)

Right and left brain processing (musicians versus nonmusicians) (Another interesting study that shows differences in processing music and language.)

Practice makes perfect (with perfect pitch) (Research shows that if you don’t use your practice pitch at an early age, you lose it.)