Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

An art of sound in time

That is my dictionary's definition of the word "music." One might quibble -- is it the art of sound in time, or are there many musics, as the indefinite article implies? And of course sound only exists in time, it is ephemeral by nature. But the definition emphasizes that the systematic subdivision of time is a universal feature of music (with the possible exception of some recent experimental projects that nobody listens to).

Music is ubiquitous, valued in every culture, and one of the most important attributes of ethnicity and other forms of group identity. The Taliban's biggest mistake, from the standpoint of popular support, may have been trying to ban it. Musicians are among the most celebrated and admired people in the world. But why? What is music for? It is clear why we evolved language, and manual dexterity, and even love is not terribly hard to explain, but music is mysterious. It may be that it has adaptive advantage by creating social cohesion, but other social animals get along fine without it.

Not only is it difficult to explain why we are graced with the capacity, in fact the irrepressible need, to make and hear music; it is difficult for us to explain to each other why we like it, and what it means to us. Music accesses a realm beyond language, represents a dimension outside of space.

The universal foundation of music is, of course, the beat: the steady division of time with a repeated emphasis creating groups of two, or three, or four. In recent times, we sometimes hear 5 or 7 beat measures, but these inevitably resolve into alternating 2 and 3, or 3 and 4 beat segments. In jazz and popular music, the drummer emphasizes the 2d and 4th beats of the measure with the ride cymbal or the snare drum, while the melody and harmonic changes continue to respect the 1st beat. Jazz also subdivides the beat asymmetrically, the property we call swing. These qualities were once viewed as dangerous and immoral.

The other dimension of music, pitch, is organized by successively dividing a vibrating string or column of air into thirds, creating intervals called fifths, and then organizing all of the resulting frequencies -- of which there are twelve -- into the same range by dividing them by powers of two, as needed. That statement will no doubt sound baffling to people who haven't studied music theory, and I won't try to explain it further, but the point is that this esoteric mathematical property of sound, which has nothing evidently to do with biology, provides musicians with an inexhaustible expressive vocabulary. How can it be that manipulating these twelve tones, in sequence and in combination, with a rhythmic pulse, reaches to the profoundest depths of human feeling?

It seems as pointless as the universe of Einstein, Hubble and Darwin, as useless as an altar or a reliquary. But there it is. Part of what we are.

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