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Does that have a tune?

The Sound Barrier : Blog

When does a bunch of sounds stop being just a bunch of sounds and become a tune? It seems to be one of those things where we place the bar even higher than we do for music. People might accept that sounds are musical, but might think of it as 'tuneless'. Where then, do we place the bar for being accepted as a tune?

This was the question posed on the latest edition of The Sound Barrier. Posed but probably not really answered.

Probably one of the things we associate first and foremost with a tune is that that there it has a sort of tonality that makes it singable. It orders its pitches in a way that has a constancy to it that we can recognise and relate to not just as separate notes, but as a group of notes. A tune. And this familiarity makes it singable. But even there, we are in difficult territory because what is singable in one context might not be in another. There are vastly different systems of tonality in some Eastern music than in much Western music, for example and a person who has grown up singing easily in one tradition is likely to find it very hard to sing in the other. So, at very least, tunefulness will be a relative thing, depending on who is listening to it and what they already know. A tune, then, isn't in the music, but in your head and my head, it would suggest.

And yet even these boundaries don't always work for us. We can, for example, hear a bird sing and marvel at how tuneful it is, and yet most of us would find it almost impossible to imitate its song. And yet we think of it as tuneful.

There is probably no better place to hear this in music than in the works of Olivier Messiaen who, in almost everything he composed, included birdsong. He worked meticulously in doing this – not round it off into the neat and familiar diatonic intervals that you might hear in a piece of kitschy easy listening, but rather trying to get the relationships of the pitches and the rhythms as precise as Western instruments would allow him to do it. He would record the songs of birds and then transpose these as exactly as he could into the measured, evenly-tempered tuning of Western twelve-toned chromatic instruments. Where birds sang in microtones, as they usually do, he would expand the smallest of these to convert it to the smallest tone of the Western scale – the semitone – and then expand everything else proportionately. But does that end up being a tune? You can listen to these results in most of his works, but on the show I played one of his organ works where these birdcalls, mostly of the Garden Warbler are heard throughout, amongst massive heaven-storming chords and motifs that characterise the other aspects of Messiaen's music, his devout Catholic faith. This, too, would effect the way he pitched notes, where the pitch of a note was assigned a letter, working over two octaves to have one pitch for each letter of the alphabet, building on the A to G pitches that are already so well known in Western music. With letters and pitches matched in this way, he would then musically spell out words such as 'God' and 'Heaven', and others, to reflect the liturgical or theological messages he was wanting to convey. Words as tunes? Is a tune less tuneful if it structured in this way rather than in a way that is built on recognisable patterns of intervals that we can easily sing? All of this can be heard in his huge organ suite, Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969), from which I played the final of these nine magnificent meditations. The bold, earth-trembling theme with which it opens is the theme for 'God' – this time a 'tune' built more out of Messiaen's notion of the divine, rather than the pitches of the letters, or the intervals of nature.

Messiaen was not the only one to explore how words can become music and surely one of the most famous examples of the transition of the one to the other is in Alvin Lucier's I am Sitting in a Room (1969). But for Lucier the process was not one of converting letters to pitches but rather exploring the process whereby slowly the recognisable discernible aspects of speech would give way to their resonant sounds within a the physical space in which they were spoken. Placing himself in a room with two tape recorders, he recorded a passage of himself speaking, describing this idea, and then recorded the recording, and then the recorded the recording of the recording, and so on and so on for about fifteen minutes, by which time the traces of the words have gone completely and only ambient resonance can be heard, by now rich in the overtones and echoes of the space, full of sonic timbre and pulse. But does it now also have a tune. As the pitches of the sounds mix and mingle, do they create tunes? You certainly can't sing it – but remember: you can't really sing the bird tunes either. Is this any less a tune?

We begin to see already that the lines that mark the space of sound, music, and tunes are far from sharp, and the qualities that we might think defines them never totally fit and it is just as difficult to explain why we might feel inclined to include some things as it is to justify why we might exclude others.

Like the noise of an artist such as Kevin Drumm, for example who, in his magnificent collaboration with Jason Lescalleet, Busman's Holiday, from which we heard the central track 'The Wait', creates music that is harsh and uncompromising in its aural assault. It doesn't seek to create comfortable sounds: it rumbles like jackhammers in the depths, while sounds drone and slide around it. It is music where pulse and pitch constantly move (or don't move) unpredictably, leaving you nothing to hold onto and feel safe with. But it holds you nonetheless and in its murk you hear things moving around, forming tangible shapes for an instant and than moving somewhere else. Why is this any different to what a tune does as its notes shift around against the bed of their harmony?

Maybe something of the answer to all of this – but it is only something of an answer – lies in what composers began to explore in the 1920s and 1930s, in and around Vienna. They were known as 'The Second Viennese School' and their main proponents were Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. They made a drastic move away from the way music had been formed until then – music that was then still based on more or less the same ideas of tonality that had been around for centuries in Western music: diatonic keys. This meant that pieces had their feeling of 'tunefulness' because they were based largely around eight, rather than the full twelve, notes of the Western scale. The patterns of intervals from the lowest of those eight notes to the highest – the intervals of the scale – were so hard-wired into Western musical thinking that they were always familiar. These are the patterns in scales that give music their feeling of having a note where a melody, or a phrase, sounded finished. They gave tunes their feeling of tunefulness.

And yet, as I say, this only something of an answer. By time the Second Viennese School composers were looking to break away from this classical diatonic tradition of music based largely on eight-note scales, composers were already wandering away from it anyway. Composers such as Wagner and Debussy were already writing pieces that never stayed in the same key – that is, did not stick with the same structure of eight-note scales – for more than a few bars. Debussy often invented entirely new scales of his own. But somehow their music still often had a sense of tunefulness about it – maybe no longer easily singable in the way that something by Mozart or Beethoven might have been – but still it somehow had the recognisability of a tune. Often this was achieved by the ways composers would work with their musical themes – structuring them in ways that they became familiar to their audiences, as patterns were repeated or modified in ways that stuck in the head, and then would be developed in all kinds of ways throughout a piece. So it had a sense of tune, at least in part, because the music itself wired the tune into us.

But the music of the Second Viennese School broke away from these ways of organising pieces and instead created systems of 'tone rows': a sequence of all twelve pitches of the Western scale, put into whatever order the composer chose, and then this order – the tone row – would become the basis of the entire piece. The row could be performed forwards or backwards, or its intervals inverted, or inverted and played backwards. It could also be transposed up or down to begin on any pitch of the twelve-tone scale, thus ultimately creating 48 versions of the tone row. But always, when the principle was strictly applied, you would never use a note again until all other notes in the tone row had been used. So, in a sense, it reverted back to the notion of tunes being comprised of a constant sequence of pitches. It moved away from the idea of musical form being created through the different techniques and structures that enabled those melodies of Wagner and Debussy, always wandering away from every key they momentarily wandered into, to be heard as tunes and instead went, in a sense, back to the most primary principle of a tune of all – its pitches.

I played tonight one of the iconic works of this period, Anton Webern's Variations for Orchestra (1940). One of the many things that makes this piece so intriguing from the perspective of tunefulness is that the tone row on which it is based is, as was often the case in Webern's music, mathematically and symmetrically shaped, often with intervals that are very commonly heard in conventional diatonic 'tuneful' music. They symmetry, which allows the rows to be played backwards and forwards and still retain the same proportions of differences between the pitches. The rhythms of the notes are determined in ways that correspond to the pitches so they, too, have a symmetry and a pattern that repeats throughout the work. Everything, then, seems on paper to have a clarity and constancy of structure to it, maybe complexly executed, but so too was Bach. Why, then, does Bach tend to be heard as tuneful but Webern not?

The answer to that cannot lie simply in the fact that Webern worked with more pitches than Bach did because we have already seen, in the music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries how there could be masses of pitches and yet still a sense of tunefulness. And, in any case, a paucity of pitches doesn't make something more tuneful either.

But perhaps that very notion of paucity is itself worth considering when we try to understand tunefulness. The Norwegian improvisation quartet SPUNK worked for twelve years on a series of long-form improvisation, each on a separate note of the twelve-tone scale. They were performed on systematically spaced times and dates – the first at 20.01 on 20.01.2001, the second at 20.02 on 20.02.2002, and so on until the final instalment was performed at 20.12 on 20.12.2012. The whole project was a tribute to J S Bach who demonstrated the capabilities of the then new way of tuning keyboards which allowed the same instrument to play in any key, and he did this by composing two books of 24 Preludes and Fugues for keyboard, covering the twelve major and twelve minor keys in each book. It was called Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, and so SPUNK called their project, based on the twelve individual notes that form the basis of those twelve major and twelve minor keys, Das Wohltemperierte SPUNK. They gave a firth nod to Bach by working on the notes B flat, A, C and B natural in the first four pieces: the German system for naming notes varies slightly from that of English, where in German, B flat is designated 'B' and B natural is designate 'H'. The sequence of the notes of first four pieces is, therefore, B.A.C.H.

This huge piece, from which we heard 'D#', the fifth in the set and therefore recorded on 20.05.2005 at 20.05, is not really about tune at all – but it is about the notes out of which tunes are made. Whatever tunes are, Das Wohltemperierte SPUNK can perhaps be understood as a mediation on their building blocks.

And maybe it is this concept of a meditation that captures best of all the semblance of an answer to our original question: what makes a tune a tune? Maybe it is the coming together of two things: the notes, and the ways we hear them – not just in the sense of how we listen, but what our mind does when it contemplates those sounds and begins to discover a connection in them that it finds tuneful. So it is neither totally objective nor totally subjective – it is, like music itself, what we subjectively construct out of what is out there objectively for us to pick up and do what we will with.

The show was framed by two pieces for piano that both played on the edges of all this, but with very different sets of rules. I opened the show with the darkly chromatic Black Mass Sonata (1913) of Alexander Scriabin, built around the awkward interval of a minor ninth and with swirling dissonant arpeggios that become more and more tense, more and more dense. And then the show finished with Valentin Silvestrov's Nostalghia, every bit as chromatic as the Scriabin, but with a sparsity and austerity in its notes which form in little fragments of, well, tunes.

A lot of notes, a few notes. Familiar, unfamiliar, Diatonic, chromatic. Singable, unsingable. Any of these can be part of a tune. But you can find any of them in the things you don't think of tuneful too. Like so many words, it's a word that you can't quite define, even though you may have used it a million times. And maybe, maybe you don't always know one when you stumble across it either. Tunes are partly out there and partly in you. It would be kind of odd then to think of something so nebulous, so shifting, so undefinable, as a standard for judging the merit of a piece of music.

Music's magic lies, amongst other things, in its capacity to touch us in different ways – but for that magic to be ignited, we have to be open to that capacity: we have to respond to it with our own willingness to hear and contemplate music differently.

In a way, it probably doesn't matter in the end whether we hear a tune or not – because, ultimately, it will always and never be there anyway.

As always, the show's audio and playlist is here for you to check out whenever you like!

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