Sunday, December 14, 2008

How Music Makes People Happy

Mitsutomi, Toshiro. How Music Makes People Happy. Tokyo: Shincho Publishers Inc., 2003.


By Megumi Okamoto


This chapter discusses the role of the canonized music theory that characterizes the Western musical culture, and suggests that the reason Western musical culture became so prevalent was because of this rigid theoretical framework. For instance, we are taught that music contains three main components: rhythm, melody, and harmony. However, this explanation is only accurate when referring to Western traditions. We would not be able to go far in ethnomusicology with this vocabulary. For instance, some African music has melody and rhythm merged together, so that one cannot draw a line between them. Also, in traditional Japanese music, there is no concept of rhythm, melody and harmony in the first place; such notion is simply nonexistent.  

In cultures where musical traditions are handed down from person to person verbally, there is no way for the music to become widespread. Theory, as we can observe here, functions to universalize the given language of music. But when "universalizing" is not prioritized, music theory is not as important. When we trace back music from ancient times, we would likely discover that such rules were not necessary for one to express emotion with songs, or create rhythms that were to be used when farming.

            Back in the ancient times, music was like magic. It was believed to have the power to heal, and to formalize every ceremony regarding life and death. In another words, music controlled every aspect of life. This is elaborated by musicologist Sophie Drinker, who wrote that the most primitive form of music is "incantation," which incorporates the word "cantare" (meaning song) and the word "in," thus indicating the event of entering with a song. This indicates that, by employing the power of rhythms and sounds, they believed that they could influence events, people, and situations, and fulfill their wishes. 

            To investigate the role of music further, the author urges us to take a look into the role of instruments in the ancient times. Instruments were likely to assimilate with nature, show respect and fear for the nature, god, spirit, and of the unknown. However, with the advancement of technology, the function of instruments to bridge humans with nature had become subverted. The use of modern technology such as synthesizers places the relationship of humans with nature into question.

            For instance, the sound world in the modern day became limited to sounds that are audible to human ear, which may affect the way music is perceived. Since computers do not possess the capacity of the human brains, we are forced to limit their sound-making process by cutting off the range of sounds that is not audible to human ear. As an example of such inaudible sounds, he discusses pipe organs, which has the lowest note that contains 16 Hz. This is incorporated into the instrument in order to vibrate the air, church, and the congregation, functioning to let itself be heard by God even when not audible by humans. By shutting out such sounds, modern technology had inadvertently, but significantly, influenced the musical properties.

Also, another aspect of digital music is that speakers cannot portray the sound activities of instruments (such as flute or violins, for instance) that vibrate the performer's body itself, become absorbed into the body, thus influencing the harmonic tones that are created. Synthesizers cannot produce this continuously-altering relationship of overtones that take place physically between the performer and the instrument.


The first part of this chapter was intriguing to me, since I am majoring in music theory and had come across many questions regarding the development of music theory. I had not studied ethnomusicology, and quite frankly, I can hardly imagine being separated from the known concept that rhythm, melody, and harmony create the foundation of music. I may be closed-minded than I ever thought of myself to be, when it comes to music theory. Conceptually, I have trouble stepping out of the box. However, it is through this rigid structure that I was able to learn so much repertoire of the Western musical culture.

As I was reading this section, I thought of my grandmother, who plays a traditional Japanese instrument (called "shamisen"). It is like a small, three-stringed guitar. When I saw the musical notation that she uses in the traditional music, I could not help but count its limitations. It is very basic, as most of the learning is expected to take place verbally, with the knowledge being handed down personally from the teacher to a student. It would be thus very difficult for such music to become more universalized.

            In the next section that discusses the role of instruments, I found it most intriguing that the sonic world consists of such a wide range, and that what we hear with our ears is only a small spectrum. It leads me to think that music is not only about what we hear, and that the things we do not hear may be influencing our perception of music without us being conscious of it.

I also liked the argument that our bodies vibrate the sound waves and become part of the music itself. In this view, we are part of the instrument, and we are physically in fact part of the music. This is an important view for instrumentalists especially. In playing the piano, I often feel that we are too preoccupied with the simplicity of "just pressing the key down" to produce a sound, and neglect the deeper physical connection that takes place the instrument. Piano is makes the sound-making process extremely easy- even beginners can make a somewhat decent sound. However, I sometimes help but think that this easiness sometimes becomes a stumbling block.

            Overall, I felt that this book offered great insights that made me "question the obvious" and become more open-minded.



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1 comment:

Lee Bartel said...

Sounds like your ideas of theory are possibly undergoing some growth. That is excellent. I especially like the emphasis on the vibratory response of our body to music - that is one thing our very techno-rational approach to music and life has missed.