July 31, 2013

#SciAm has a culturo-centric fail on music

A recent blog post at Scientific American talked about the "sad" feeling of minor keys vs. the "happy" feeling of major keys, and how the author wanted to do some more specific investigation of this issue.

Several historically or culturally relevant items were missing from the piece, though.

That includes, but is not limited to:

1. The major and minor scales of modern Western music (more on that below) did not become the only two regularly used scales until the Renaissance, and even then, not really so until the later part of the Renaissance.

2. They evolved from two of the several church modes of the medieval modal system, which in turn had involved from older classical Greek modal scales.

3. Even when the Western musical world focused on the major and minor scales, they didn't all sound the same until the adoption of even or mean tuning in the 1700s, pushed by people like Johann Sebastian Bach in his two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Before then, instruments generally had to be tuned to sound best in one or two major or minor keys. Keys that were harmonically "distant" from them had certain intervals that basically sounded ... bad at least. Perfect fourths and fifths, in the most distant keys, might instead sound halfway like the infamous "devil's tritone," the augmented fourth or diminished fifth.

4. Since Debussy's work with whole-tone scales in the late 19th century, followed by Arnold Schoenberg's serialism, Western classical music has become more loosely connected to the major-minor system.

5. Much non-Western traditional music is based on non-12 tone scales. These include India's classical 22-tone scale, the pentatonic scale of stereotypical East Asian music and more.

6. Some modern Western music has also rejected 12-tone scales, not just the major/minor system within 12-tone scales. Harry Partch is known for his work with microtonal music.

7. The author doesn't ask whether cultural beliefs about happy/sad and major/minor influence our perceptions, nor about how our mental states at the moment might fuse with these cultural beliefs.

Basically, the post (I'm not going to bother hunting up the link) came off sounding like someone halfway through grad school in science program but without a single class in music theory or history spouting forth personal ideas on happy/sad and major/minor, plus tapping into modern pop Western musical preconceptions.

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