I’ve often referred to cooking when talking about music. We use some of the same words to describe music and foods — words like “sweet,” “sharp,” “dry,” “complex,” etc. Frequently, an audience member tells me after the concert that they liked a certain piece, but they don’t know for sure why they did … or even if their assessment is valid. They think there is some “secret sauce” in the music that they don’t understand, but others surely do. Despite my attempts at reassurance, they can’t quite get past the idea that there are secret formulas at work that would really unlock levels of deeper enjoyment for them.
Having dealt seriously with music for more than a half century, I have sampled ample helpings of the secret sauce over the years. The thing that most impresses me about it is, you don’t have to know about it to enjoy and appreciate it. Apart from giving everybody courses in harmony, counterpoint, ear-training, sight-singing, form and analysis, etc., I wish I could just convince people they know just about all they need to know. In fact, some of that information might just get in the way of enjoyment, especially if you get fixated on the detail and miss the big picture. I really think that many untrained audience members are better consumers of musical performances than trained musicians.
To reassure audience members of their instinctive abilities, I make the comparison with language. We all learn language initially without much overt teaching. It is only after we start going to school that we begin to find out there are labels for the things we are saying and understanding. Almost any four- or five-year-old understands a compound sentence without knowing what it is, much less being able to diagram it. They get it if you use the passive voice. You may even find one that uses the subjunctive. Geniuses! Well, we learn music the same way. It is just as instinctive. We even have a musical head start on language. Long before we can form words or put them together into sentences, we understand a lot about music. Some studies even show some recognition of music already in the womb.
However, another comparison dawned on me recently. So, if the language metaphor doesn’t quite do it for you, let’s try food. In some ways, comparing food and music may make more sense than with language. We obviously have a sense of taste very early in our development – much earlier than our verbal acumen progresses. Just watch any non-verbal infant spit out her blended spinach when you try to feed it to her. Can’t fool her!
But as we practice our eating adventures growing up, we take on new textures and taste sensations. We grow beyond hamburgers and pizza to beef Wellington, moussaka, and veggie lasagna at the Shoreline (hey, it’s my article, so I get to make the list).
The thing is, we don’t have to be a chef — or even a cook at all — to enjoy and appreciate a fine meal. Even in our relative ignorance, we can enjoy a nice mixture of textures, flavors, spices, etc., in a fine meal without having to be able to come home and recreate something very comparable in our own kitchen. Similarly, we don’t need to be able to come home and write a Beethoven symphony after hearing a performance of the Eroica. In fact, imagine Beethoven’s possible state of mind after coming home from a performance of someone else’s music. Do you think he was hard to please? Can’t you hear him mumbling to himself, “Why did he ever invert that chord in the third measure,” and “Why didn’t he go to the sub-mediant for that section in the development instead of the super tonic?” Imagine how hard it would be for him to get to sleep. Is it any wonder he was a heavy drinker? Maybe it’s better you don’t know the secret sauce.
But the fact of the matter is, you do – at least substantially. Do you have to know how to make a bechamel sauce or a hollandaise to really appreciate a good one? I have never made a hollandaise, but just say “Eggs Benedict” and see me jump.
I’m going to pull back the musical curtain just a little bit — just a little bit, because I’m no Beethoven. So, here goes: We all know that music is made up primarily of melody, rhythm, and harmony. Those are the basic building blocks. Most everyone has some understanding of what melody is, as well as rhythm. I think it is harmony that seems like the unknown elixir. Generally speaking, isn’t that where we think the alchemy occurs?
Okay, so what is harmony? First of all, it implies that it has an opposite. If something is not harmonious, it must be unharmonious, or “dissonant” to use the musical term. This is really important. If we are talking about the combination of two or more pitches sounding together, it basically suggests that there are some combinations of sounds that are acceptable, and others that are not. In the major/minor tonal system, which is what we are all most familiar with, we are not talking about a welcoming society. There is rank discrimination present. There are those combinations that are tolerated, and those that are shunned, avoided, or treated as second-class citizens. And even within those two groups, there are subgroups, sort of like the caste system. Very undemocratic!
Now, what do you know about this discriminatory aural society? Quite a lot, it turns out. Most of you know what you like and what you don’t like. I know because you tell me. Which means you are helping to perpetuate this discriminatory, anti-egalitarian musical society. Actually, that’s a good thing. This is one case where discrimination is a positive. Again, think about language. What if we didn’t have any preferences or rules in language – if any word was just as good as any other in all circumstances. I wouldn’t have any idea what you were saying to me. There are poor ways of saying something, and much better ways. The same is true of music.
Perhaps the most unfashionable way of putting this is to consider the C major scale on the piano. Most of you know that the C major scale is the one that uses only the white notes on the keyboard. The black notes are not allowed! If we play one octave, from one C up to the next, there are seven white notes and five black ones. If you play all the white and black notes in order from one C to the next, you will have played 12 half-tones or half-steps. That succession of twelve notes we call the chromatic scale. Since you are playing only half-steps, there is no way of discerning its organization. You can start at the very bottom of the piano and go all the way to the top playing the chromatic scale (every single note in order), and you will have no idea of where you are along the way. The only reason for stopping at the top of the keyboard is because you ran out of keys.
Going back to our seven note, all-white, C major scale, we have a combination of half and whole tones (a whole tone skips over the half tone in between). Using “W” for whole and “H” for half, here is the order: W – W – H – W – W – W – H.
That is the order for any major scale in any key. Now there is such a thing as a whole tone scale that is used sometimes for a certain exotic sound, but it has the same problem as the chromatic scale. Since it is made up entirely of the same sized intervals, there are no signposts along the way. Any beginning or ending is completely arbitrary.
That’s why those two half-steps are so important. They provide the signposts we need. What’s more, they are strategically placed. Here’s why: The last H (half-tone) is the interval from B to C. Because B is so close to the main note in the scale (C), it is called the leading tone. If I played a C major scale going up and stopped on the B, you would beg me to play the C because it cries out trying to lead you to the C.
In the same way, coming down the scale, the other half-step wants to lead us from the “F” to the “E.” It should come as no surprise, therefore, that if I were to play the “B” and the “F” simultaneously (as a chord), in the context of C major, they would like (demand) to go to “C” and “E” respectively. The relationship of those two chords is the fundamental building block of our harmonic system. It basically sounds like the chop-sticks chords, but the gravitational pull of those two half-steps in the opposite direction is key (no pun intended) to our understanding of every Beethoven, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky symphony, and everything else they wrote. The use of those two chords in that manner is called a cadence in music. A cadence is simple the word for a two-chord formula that lets you know you are at a stopping point or an intermediate stopping point. This particular cadence is heard at the end of almost all pieces of music from hymns to symphonies and from jazz to pop. Another less frequent cadence that we all recognize is the so-called A-Men cadence as used as a tag at the end of hymns. Such cadences create a somewhat conditioned response having been developed over time, but as you can see, there is also a physical or acoustical reason we respond to them so strongly. Our reaction to them is not arbitrary.
There are additional relationships among other chords in a key that pull in a certain direction from one to another, but none is stronger than this final cadence. If I were to play such a progression of chords for you on the piano and reached the first chord of the cadence (the next to last chord of my progression) and hesitated there, again, I would have you begging me to complete it. Knowing how to use these kinds of expectations to toy with your feelings is what great composers do very well. Just like a great writer can keep you in delicious suspense, so too can a composer. But the only reason they can do this, is because you have those expectations to begin with. You feel the gravitational pull. You know the language, and they know you know it.
Take these two gravitational melodic half-steps (B – C and F – E) and turn them into harmonies by sounding the B and F simultaneously and following it with the C and E, and you have created the Ursprung of the major/minor tonal system. It’s as though you have isolated the Sun and the one planet that feels the sun’s gravity the most intensely. It is a gross simplification illustrating the fundamental power of gravity in the solar system. There are other planets that feel this pull less strongly, and we can line them up that way. So too it is with chords. When we line them up in the proper order and play them one by one, we feel the increasing pull to mother sun with each chord. It took centuries to develop this rational system. Schoenberg tried to do away with it in the early 20th century by making all the planets and the sun totally equal. He did away with gravity. It didn’t work out so well.
Now you’ve had a little peek into the “secret sauce.” Don’t tell anyone. By the way, if you don’t like the white vs. black disparity of the C major scale, try E major. It has four black keys and three whites. Nicely integrated but same combination of whole and half-steps.