On why music is hard (with apologies to grahart for the plagiarism!) Or when up is down… or right… or towards… or away from…

A few days ago grahart posted On why science is hard .
He was talking about the way in which people’s eyes so often glaze over when faced with an unfamiliar polysyllabic word.

Now I just love words. I love their timbre (that’s only one syllable so no-one should glaze over at that one) and their rhythm (two syllables so probably safe). And I love understanding their etymology. Ooer – that’s five syllables and therefore definitely polysyllabic. Are you still with me or are you glazing over? Maybe I should have used a synonym (only three syllables – is that OK?) such as derivation (although that’s four syllables…).

One of my favourite words is penultimate. It holds the promise of an ending and therefore of an ensuing new beginning… but not quite yet. The present situation can be enjoyed for a little longer. So in a sense penultimate suggests that we can come close to having our cake and eating it.

Another favourite phrase is enharmonic equivalent. Of course, when faced with a couple of words like that, a rudimentary (five syllables – maybe I should have said basic) knowledge of Latin and Greek can smooth the way.  Equivalent comes from the Latin words aequus meaning equal and valere meaning to be worth. I daresay you all knew the word and it’s meaning, if not its etymology. Enharmonic is maybe less familiar. It comes from two Greek words en and harmonikos, which together mean “the same sound”. So we havein this phrase a coming together, in more ways than one. Both the words are themselves composite words with two elements each, and in each case the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And then the two words together unite two ancient languages and also themselves combine to create a whole which implies more than the sum of the parts. The enharmonic equivalent of a musical note is simply another way of notating precisely the same pitch.

Have I lost you yet? Or are you still following me?

So music – if we’re going to talk about it with one another in a technical sense – is hard in the way that science is hard. It contains jargon – words used in a highly specialised way. As a non-scientist (and I’m not proud of that – I fell into a 60s education-theory hole where it was OK to specialise too young and without a breadth of study) married to an electronics engineer I frequently come up against the tendency of scientists to take perfectly good, ordinary words and use them in a highly specialised way which can render them practically incomprehensible to me. I’m sure he would say he frequently comes up against the inability of a supposedly intelligent, educated woman to understand perfectly simple, basic concepts about the way the world works (in a physics sense).

Musicians, of course, use language in a perfectly rational and straight-forward manner (will all musicians reading this kindly refrain from catcalls and jeers at this point…).

After all, it’s quite simple. “Up” refers to higher sounding notes, higher-pitched notes (to help the scientists along here, let’s describe them as higher-frequency notes). And “down” refers to lower sounding notes, lower-pitched notes (lower-frequency for you scientist).

So if you play the piano – pay attention at the back there, or you might get a bit lost – you move your hand up to the right to play higher-pitched notes, and down to the left to play lower-pitched. Got that? Simple really.

And then, if you decide to branch out to play the cello, you just need to learn to move your left hand down the string away to produce higher pitches and up the string to produce lower pitches… except when crossing from one string to another when you might need to move your hand back up to produce a higher pitch. Unless you’re moving across the strings in the other direction in which case you might need to move your hand up to produce a lower pitch…

If you then fancied your chances at becoming a violinist, you would learn to move your left hand away from you to produce higher pitches and towards you to produce lower pitches… except when crossing from one string to another when you might need to move your hand towards you to produce a higher pitch. Unless you’re moving across the strings in the other direction in which case you might need to move your hand towards you to produce a lower pitch. Got it?

And as for flute, clarinet, oboe, trumpet… well it all depends on the fingering and the lips. And if you play the trombone the slide goes in and out for both up and down… simple really, just ask any professional musician.

Oh goodness… my poor brain hurts.

Time to switch off with some music…

http://youtu.be/VtEqn-5XHpU

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