A Musical “Number”

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Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines music as “the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.” Notice how “science” is used as part of this definition, along with the usual category music falls under, “art.” Any musician knows that music’s aural qualities can be described in terms of numbers, for instance the way rhythm or time is notated – ¾, 4/4, 6/8, etc. Most western music is based on a 12 tone chromatic scale, with numbered intervals denoting the spaces between the tones. There are major thirds, minor thirds, flatted fifths, dominant sevenths, etc. Numbers play a major role in how musicians communicate with one another and notate their compositions. Of course music cannot be reduced to numbers as they leave out the emotional and immaterial impacts of the SOUND, which can lead us to a higher plane. As a musician myself I know the importance of understanding theory, but also understand the fact that theory must be secondary to the actual aural experience and feelings invoked by the tones themselves.

Preston Harold explains the dilemma of the three and four and how it manifests in music.

The dilemma of the three and four is not confined to the world of science. One comes upon the play between three and four in the world of art. Here one sees that musicians, like ancient alchemists, strive to bring together four “elements” to make possible the quinta essentia, the lapis, that brings forth a new element or a whole new statement. Although musicians do not discuss this in terms of the dilemma of three and four, one can hear the play between the two numbers in Beethoven’s Symphony #5 in C Minor.

This symphony begins with a four-note rhythm, described by the composer as “destiny knocking on the door.”  Deems Taylor calls it an “ominous” signal. This signal announces an agitated main theme which changes to suppressed tragedy, to resignation, to a lyrical movement during which the dread reminder of the four-note rhythm is played. It continues as a sinister reminder throughout the work. The third movement is a dream of terror wherein the four-note beat “sounds noble,” but the nobility fades and it becomes a caricature – the restated theme becomes a “macabre joke.” Reduced to its original skeleton, it becomes suppressed tension, increasing in rhythmical intensity, releasing tightly harnessed fury which becomes a bridge to the last movement. Here triplet note rhythms are introduced, artistic unity is achieved, the symphony ends on a one-two-three beat and a magnificent chord in a triumph of grandeur. In that chord is expressed wholeness: one sound based upon the number man’s hand is based upon – five. Abt Vogler says of music:

“I know not if, save in this, such gift is allowed to man

That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound but a star.”

Perhaps Sibelius was trying to say this in another way in his mighty Seventh Symphony – here, symphonic expression is not given in four movements following each after the other, posed the one against the other: one movement encompasses the whole expression that transcends the dilemma of three and four.

The question becomes – how does life transcend its play between triad and tetrad to produce one, wholeness?

This we will begin to explore in our next post. Until then, peace.

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