Why Do We Groove Part 2

This isn’t actually a part 2. This is a completely different musing about music.

Western classical music has this thing where you expect all the tension in the piece to end on a soothing note in the right key, but sometimes it doesn’t. You’re stuck there, while the music moves on, building more tension.

[I’m not making any claims that Eastern music or Western Rock music is different. I’m just limiting this post to Western classical because I don’t want to think too hard.]

Finally, when the composer is ready (and not a second before), the piece provides the note you’ve been waiting for, and you can relax. The tension is released and all is well.

But why do we wait for that note? Why does that note sound right, releasing tension, while others don’t?

It’s nothing new to say that music is a language of its own. And when I hear most Western languages spoken, I notice a rhythm and intonation that’s not completely different from music. Even if I don’t understand the words being spoken, I can often tell whether the sentence has been cut off, or there’s a pause with an expected finish to come.

The typed word can’t help you hear it, but imagine someone saying the following, “That is, if you’re going without me….”

The ellipsis tells us that the person isn’t finished. It also tells us that the sound of that sentence, when spoken, is different from the following:

“That is, f you’re going without me.”

I suggest that even if you didn’t speak the language, hearing the first of those phrases would leave you in a state of expecting more to come, while hearing the second wouldn’t. This may not work in tonal languages, like Cantonese, but I think it works in any Western European language.

So now we move to Western European music. To me, it’s not surprising that music, which can convey meaning just as language can, causes expectations in the listener.

My guess is that even someone who has no experience with Western classical music (but does have experience with Western language) will note musical tension, and be able to pick out when it’s resolved.

So my theory is that the affect that music has on us (that is, our ability to communicate using music) is directly related to our ability to use language. It’s not just a metaphor to say that music is a language. They come from the same place.

5 Responses to Why Do We Groove Part 2

  1. JB September 19, 2006 at 3:11 am #

    The first notes we sing are “so mi” – a minor third. We then add “la”. Perhaps as we add tones, we wait for the next with gradually increasing sophistication. So by the time we’re adults, we find ourselves itching to hear the end of the cadence. That’s the term for a progression of notes that has a particular end, and it’s a primary technique for building and managing that tension you speak of.


  2. weeklyrob September 22, 2006 at 10:23 am #

    Are you saying that we wait for the end of the cadence because we’ve been trained as children by singing so mi? But I don’t ever remember learning that, except from the Sound of Music. I never studied music or singing as a child.

    I understand cadences. I guess I should have spelled it out, but that’s exactly what I was talking about. I think it’s something more universal, and deeper, than just having heard so mi while growing up and learning to expect the end. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’re saying, and I don’t want to oversimplify it.

    But I’m suggesting that maybe a person who speaks English, but never studied (or even heard) music, could feel the tension and know when it’s been resolved.

  3. weeklyrob September 22, 2006 at 10:27 am #

    I guess I’m the most arrogant person in the world, but my explanation of the tension being built seems a helluva lot easier to grasp than that of the Web page you linked to, JB. No casually curious person could possibly want to read all that mess and it doesn’t make anything clearer.

    (Ok, someone who wanted to learn all about it could read it, I guess, but it’s not helpful for understanding the post. And the post is the main thing. Because I say so.)

  4. McEvoy September 25, 2006 at 3:11 pm #

    My own feeling is that an understanding of cadences, spoken or musical, is hard-wired into us, rather than learned. It’s one of the necessary components of human speech, but is distinct from language.

    I’m having a lot of fun listening to my three-month-old daughter string together sounds in an attempt to communicate. She’s obviously not “saying” anything, but she still seems to be using distinct phrases.

    In a related note, one of my favorite books is Douglas Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” which explores recursive aspects of math, visual art, music, and language. One chapter examines how Bach nested musical themes like Russian matryoshka dolls, each wanting to be resolved (by the listener) before continuing on to answer the containing theme.

  5. weeklyrob September 25, 2006 at 6:38 pm #

    Hey, I was thinking about that book (partly) when I wrote the post!

    The reason that I don’t go into the hardwire thing is because I’m not ready to think about how certain languages are tonal, and certain music does not use the cadences of Western music.

    Still, it’s probably hardwired that we search for, and recognize, patterns in language, and I think that’s what translates to searching for them in music.

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