Re: On the Grammar of Music (Julian Vrieslander )

Subject: Re: On the Grammar of Music
From:    Julian Vrieslander  <julianv(at)MINDSPRING.COM>
Date:    Thu, 26 Apr 2001 18:08:10 -0400

On 4/26/01 3:40 PM, Martin Braun <nombraun(at)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." > >Reply: > >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 >possible. 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 meanings. 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 grammars. -- Julian Vrieslander <mailto:julianv(at)>

This message came from the mail archive
maintained by:
DAn Ellis <>
Electrical Engineering Dept., Columbia University