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Re: On the Grammar of Music

On 4/26/01 3:40 PM, Martin Braun <nombraun@POST.NETLINK.SE>, wrote:

>Odd Torleiv Furnes wrote:
>"Surely there are rules governing the types of chords and types of chord
>progressions to be found within a certain style."
>There are no such rules. If there were, we could buy books which list the
>chord-progression rules, ordered by all styles that ever appeared in
>European music history. Such books, however, do not exist and will never be

Just some random thoughts (the only kind I have) ...

Perhaps there are no such rules if what you are seeking is something
similar to the prescriptive grammar books used for teaching proper spoken
and written style for a particular language.

But maybe music has something similar to the generative grammars
hypothesized by linguists.  That is, a set of mental rules, shared by a
community or culture, which determine how the elements are combined to
produce messages.  Perhaps in music the end effects are emotions rather
than messages.

I am not sure that the analogy holds, since the elements of a language
(words) are concrete amd have individual meanings.  With music, it is not
clear what we should consider as the "elements."  Notes?  Chords?
Phrases?  And it is not obvious whether these elements have individual

But when reflecting on western music (the only one I know anything
about), I can see a bit of support for the idea of a mental grammar.
Some of the elements do seem to have an isolated emotional effect.  Major
chords have a peaceful relaxing quality, minor and diminished chords can
stimulate an unsettling quality.  In some contexts, dissonance can be
startling or frightening.  Crescendos can signify arousal or exhortation,
diminuendos convey repose.  And so on.  Composers combine these elements,
building on our culturally shared reactions to them, to evoke even more
specific emotional reactions.  That is why we can encounter a previously
unheard fragment of music and experience it as patriotic, mournful,
triumphal, frightening, spiritual, yearning, etc.  The writers of film
soundtrack music are masters of this grammar, pushing our emotional
buttons to reinforce desired reactions to the action on the screen.

Perhaps the grammar analogy breaks down when considering musical works
that are more abstract (Cage), austerely structured (Scarlatti), or
eccentric (Partch).  Then again, maybe these styles have their own mental

Julian Vrieslander <mailto:julianv@mindspring.com>