Monday, May 25, 2015


A couple of fragments of television drama have stuck with me, each between an aspiring young musician and a teacher of theory or composition who is pointing out an error in the student's work.  The student rejects the correction as an unwarranted incursion on his artistic voice; the teacher defends the correction; and a clash ensues between the stuffy old defender of rules for their own sake and the ardent young spokesman for originality and artistic integrity (with whom American audiences can be counted on to identify).  I wasn't interested enough in either of these shows to stick around and find out how it all turned out.  I suppose the student sticks to his guns and ultimately triumphs in the teeth of The Rules.

It doesn't work that way.  Within the context of any art or genre there are things that work and things that don't, and rules and techniques that you ignore at your peril.  While there probably are teachers who can't see beyond the letter of the rules and would allow themselves to be sucked into the kind of altercation depicted in these TV shows, any teacher with his wits about him would point out that the young musician can do anything with his own music that he can get his band, friends, and relations to go along with; but a passing grade in the class or a degree from the institution presumes mastery of certain material. A student who has learned those techniques can go beyond them, but breaking a bunch of rules because one doesn't know any better usually doesn't work well.  An artist who is honest and genuinely talented will recognize that it doesn't, and either give up or re-invent a lot of wheels trying to fix the problem.

Thirty years or so ago some tune from The Godfather was being played a lot.  I always knew that it annoyed me, but I didn't care enough to figure out why until, after hearing it one time too many, I found myself humming it, to my dismay (Laurie and I had some satisfying Ain't It Awful moments on getting music you don't like stuck in your head).  Unable to rid myself of the Godfather tune, I turned around and looked it in the eye and noticed that it violated at least one rule of melodic writing that has been in force in Western music since the days of Gregory the Great in the seventh century: a wide upward leap in a melody is usually followed by a more or less corresponding descent; if such an interval is part of a continuing rising line, the effect is awkward; and the longer the upward motion continues, the more of a bad debt, so to speak, is created.  The Godfather tune exactly, unrepentently and repeatedly took some big upward leap and kept on going.

Another time, annoyed by the background music in a restaurant, I asked Laurie, "What's the matter with this thing, anyway?"  "Oh, it's all parallel," he said in disgust.  Centuries ago, when Europe was figuring out how to manage music that consisted of more than one pitch at a time, we discovered that in most contexts we prefer the sound of contrary motion -- melodic lines sounding simultaneously and moving in opposite directions -- to parallelism, where lines move together the same distance apart.  Obviously, if there are more than two parts they can't all move in different directions.  We settled on keeping the bass line as independent as can be managed, and eschewing parallel octaves and fifths.  Laurie was a sophisticated enough listener to recognize the problem with the restaurant music as parallel fifths.  I just knew that I didn't like it.

When you invoke rules in the arts, people roll their eyes and accuse you of pedantry; but it tends to work the other way around.  You don't think, Oh, god, parallel fifths, horrors, this
song must be terrible; you think, What is wrong with this thing?? and then notice the parallelism, if you can hear it.  If you can't, you may just go on liking that piece of music less and less without knowing or much caring why.