The minor fall, the major lift

ENGAGEMENT WITH THE fundamentals of music and sound deeply influence the formation of a composer's aesthetic. There is such a thing as musical logic, which is based on a mix of physical factors around sound, psychoacoustics and cognition, and complex culturally specific factors that shape the musical experience for individuals and in society. Musical logic can at times seem stupid – even wilfully anti-intellectual – but it functions in a way that is not primarily based in verbal language or scientific thinking. It is its own domain, and the best definitions and explanations of musical logic are always seen in the work itself.

As a composer I have tried to put my arguments in musical form: in the native language of the ideas. My development has come from experience as a composer, performer, listener and thinker – what I have learned and how I have learned it have led to my aesthetic position, which itself is an organic thing and constantly transforming. An aesthetic position can emerge from inherited traditions or be the result of a more conscious activity, filtering through what is important in search of musical elements that could form a kind of bedrock: 'musical truth', to adapt Theodor Adorno's term.[i] To some my point of view may seem conservative, to others radical, but these critical judgements are themselves based on extraneous and often ideological thinking outside the musical domain.

The nature of the musical experience varies, depending on the role you have in the cycle: composer or creator of musical ideas, performer or interpreter, listener or audience. Yet the roles are malleable. The difference between performer and composer is unclear in many types of music; a composer may be a listener or performer; and audiences engage with music in many ways and at many levels of attention, not just the apparently concentrated but passive role in a concert venue. A composer learns much by listening and performing as well as by actually composing. A composed work unperformed has not been realised – its information is dormant until performed and heard.

Composing is a solitary and imaginative internalised activity; performing may be solitary but is often group-based and has at its basis an external physical activity, the production and communication of sound; listening may seem to be solitary and internalised but at its peak level of experience, in a live performance, it is a highly communal and socially engaged activity. Some may see a hierarchy in the triangle – a composer at the peak struggling with creative ideas; the performer transmitting the ideas; the audience attentive but submissive. Yet they are specialised and interdependent roles. Each has its distinctive character and rewards.

The affective nature of music for a listener is well documented and the focus of considerable research. Much of it has emphasised the way the brain deals with music perception: is it an intellectual or an emotional reaction, or a combination? Where does the locus of musical experience situate itself in the brain? Some such research can seem naive – as if the affective response to music were unanticipated and accidental. Like any of the senses, hearing allows access to strong responses. Just as a gentle touch can induce pleasure, a foul smell revulsion or a comic sight mirth, why would we be surprised to find that music – a subset of sound – can induce equally potent responses in the absence of language?


HISTORICALLY, MUSIC HAS often been perceived in terms of its affective power. Plato allegedly described music as a 'moral law' and saw the personal power of music in social and political terms.[ii] Two centuries earlier Ibycus described Orpheus as already famous[iii]: his harp and voice seem to be a weapon of entrapment, able to block out the fatal lure of the Sirens' songs, enchant the Underworld and tame wild beasts. King David is another harpist who, according to the Old Testament, connives his way to power and authority with seductive music therapy, opening the heart of the disturbed King Saul: 'seek out a man, who is a cunning player on a harp: and it shall come to pass, when the evil spirit from God is upon thee, that he shall play with his hand and all shalt be well.'[iv]

The fascinating connection of music, power and religion continues into the Renaissance, Reformation, Counter-Reformation and beyond. Luther embraced music for its psychological power: 'next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits.'[v] Then the Catholic Council of Trent, 1562 which, in an attempt to draw music back into a form where language clearly dominates, formulated in Canon 8 that music must avoid 'vain delight to the ear'.[vi]

Faust – the alchemist, musician, scientist, and the black-artist par excellence – emerged as real characters metamorphosed into creative ideas. Faust as a story of individual power seems almost a parallel to Orpheus and David, in the sense that power and expression reside in an individual and manifest in a sometimes musical way. Hardly surprising, then, that the Faust story became a key narrative of Romanticism – individual artists shaping themselves and hence transgressing social and religious conventions.

And so to the modern realisation of the fears explicitly expressed by the Greek philosophers and hinted at in the Council of Trent: the malevolent potential of music. Music causes armies to march in time, provides a glorifying soundtrack for mass destruction, inspires nations to aggressive and jingoistic pride, and fires the masses up for protest and revolution. There is the legacy of nationalistic musical works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the propagandising use of popular music in the French Revolution and the intensity of Hitler's involvement with Wagner. Hitler claimed a close and protective friendship with the Wagner clan, wrote as a young man a draft of a Wagnerian operatic epic and purportedly carried a copy of the score of Tristan und Isolde into battle.

Much of composers' postwar resistance to engaging with the affective dimension in music, and the inevitable resulting distancing from the wider musical audience, seems to be traceable to that relationship. There is a famous photo of Hitler ('Uncle Wolf') with two of Wagner's grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang, which shows Hitler protectively embracing the young men, who fondly link arms with him. The implicit story is that music has become a tool of social control – don't give a tyrant the chance. Who except the most vain composer would want to allow themselves or their work to be a part of tyranny?

At least for a period after World War II it seemed as if many composers of the avant-garde shared the view that music of a certain type can unleash forces that are socially reckless, and wanted no part of that. In the postwar period the sentimental and affective dimensions of music were a kind of taboo for many composers, in part a reaction to the totalitarian exploitation of music in the preceding twenty years. Cerebral approaches to music were highly valued in the elite, following a lineage of abstract musical thought and obsessive stylistic refinement from Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez. If now we can see that a communicative musical experience would be lost in such approaches, it did not seem so at the time. Better if music is more of a science than an art, then, and if it becomes expressive confine that expression to a generalised angst.

The power of music seems to have been accepted for a long time, but as a means for social and political manipulation its development can be traced to the period around World War I. In 1926 the liberal German intellectual Charles Diserens wrote The Influence of Music on Behaviour, a utilitarian view of music in a social context: 'Our purpose then is to study the influence of music on the organism. We approach music from the practical rather than the aesthetic standpoint, regarding it as a necessity, a possible means of re-education and human reconstruction for all, rather than a mere subject of unproductive pleasure, or an object for criticism from the learned few.'[vii]

How ironic that totalitarian, anti-liberal regimes held a similar fundamental view to Diserens and his Frankfurt School colleague Theodor Adorno: music was a means of social control. What ominous words 're-education and human reconstruction' are in the context of Hitler and Stalin. Both tyrants insisted on the creation of music with social value and embodying national virtues, and then censored what fell outside that edict. Adorno also shared a view that music was a tool for social change and for ideological reasons championed the opposite music to Stalin and Hitler. Music had become a brutal ideological battleground and is only now recovering.

It's not far from Diserens' behaviourist view to some contemporary manifestations and exploitations of the power of music in the commercial world. Music is used to placate airline passengers at the moments of highest anxiety, when they land or take off; to stave off social discomfort in an elevator; to engender happy feelings that may lead to shopping excess in a supermarket; and to create earworms, through jingles or advertising, that burrow deeply into the mind and cement a brand's message. And in much recent film, theatre or television, music is often merely a signpost for triggering emotions, supporting mood, creating the right feel and so on. All are implicit proof of music's power, even if in the quest for commercial advantage they undervalue music's inherent potential.


MUCH, BUT NOT all, of music's power to move lies in its sonic fundamentals. Consider the military use of sound bombs for civil control. They consist solely of a loud explosion, without any destructive effects. They function purely on a psychological level and are a very effective means of engendering fear and obedience.[viii]

But how much of the reaction is instinctive and how much is learned? Babies have been known to cry for hours after being surprised by a loud noise, suggesting that a distressed response to a sudden loud sound is innate. Yet for an adult hearing a sudden sound, such as an explosion in a war zone, the knowledge of risk may lead to a more refined but equally dramatic reaction, as they seek safety. An adult with even more knowledge – that is, one used to sound bombs as a device for civil control – may not seem to react at all. So an initial reaction may or may not be instinctive – on a continuum ranging from primal to tempered by knowledge to completely intellectually controlled.

This is relevant to music and the way it is heard because music has both physical properties (as do all sounds) and culturally specific attributes. The physical properties of sound are widely understood as mathematically constant. Sound consists of waves of vibration travelling from a source to a receptor. Although the sound waves are invisible to the eye, they are a real physical phenomenon, just like light (which also cannot be touched). On their trip to being heard they may encounter obstacles or acoustic factors, which may alter the character of the sound. The journey affects the sound we perceive, as does the nature of the receptor. Put an obstacle between the sound and the receptor, and its path will be diverted; put the sound in a resonant chamber and it may produce echoes or other enhancements to the sound. The sound may be enhanced, reduced or transformed by its journey. Our process for receiving sound involves physically capturing the sound by the ear and transferring it to impulses that the brain interprets. We can hear more than one tone at once, but create too many individual tones at once and what we hear becomes unintelligible – although the ear seems to initially (but not indefinitely) search for meaningful information even in a babble of sound.

This is well documented and understood but we take it for granted at our own risk, as the composer's, the musician's and the listener's roles are fundamentally about creating, communicating and experiencing subtleties of the physical nature of sound and interpreting those subtleties. Understanding the limitations of sound production and reception is also important, as there are biological limitations to our listening. If we ignore these fundamentals the capacity of music to communicate is severely restricted.

At key points in music history a return to sonic fundamentals has occurred and shaped the way music has subsequently developed. We may in the past forty years have seen such a move. Out of the postwar European musical avant-garde emerged a primarily American movement of experimental music. It followed a quasi-scientific methodology and engaged strongly with the potential of electro-acoustic music in the 1950s and '60s. Central to the thinking of various composers (John Cage is the most well known) was the idea that music exists in multiple ways in a pluralist society and that aesthetic assumptions should be challenged. Experimentation was important – the idea that a defined conceptual process should be established to 'create' music. So a score may be a set of verbal instructions or a game-like scenario in which music would happen as a result. The ideas were important across the arts and philosophy, even if, ironically, some of the music was uninteresting. The ideas themselves are an odd mix – libertarian social philosophy paired with a sombre scientific outlook – but they unquestionably focus attention on the fundamentals of the musical experience.

The American composer Alvin Lucier (born 1931) has a unique and fascinating approach to experimental music that has bearing on the nature of the musical experience and its relation to sound. I came into contact with him in the early 1980s, when he spent a semester at the University of Queensland, where I was a PhD student. An example of Alvin's work is a piece with the wonderful name Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas. The concept of the piece is to show the physical presence of sound waves in a room, to the extent that they are absolutely vividly experienced as physical phenomena, as if they were visible. In a performance I participated in with Alvin, the work in part consisted of a single sustained sine wave being generated electronically from a loudspeaker, while I sat with my clarinet. Over about fifteen minutes I would play very slow, soft, long and evenly spaced notes, moving progressively, by tiny increments, from a semitone below the sound to a semitone above. In all I was able to find about ten to fifteen tiny or microtonal steps to eventually go up a semitone into unison and then as many steps above. The sound waves produced by my clarinet and the sine wave generator interacted in quite amazing ways. As the two tones got closer to being in perfect unison the physical properties of the sound waves changed and became more physically apparent. At the point where they were slightly out of unison the interaction of the two tones produced an extraordinary effect of beating: rapid pulsation waves of disturbed air. Quite uncomfortable to listen to – like the sound of bird's wings beating a path near your head. Then, at the point of absolute unison, the sound waves moved into a beautiful parabola. As the performer I could feel the two sound waves merge in and out and around me. After the concert one audience member (a distinguished musician) explained that she had had to leave the performance because she found the physical sensations of the sounds being created, though extremely soft, unbearably painful and nauseating. I would never have guessed that very soft sounds could have such oceanic force.

The intensity of the experience helped me to appreciate why for centuries so many people have reverted to supernatural explanations of the force of music. Some members of the audience said that they had found inner details and interest from the experience, and found it artistically rich. I found that baffling for some time, as the piece was impoverished in conventional artistic terms. My conclusion, having observed similar reactions to comparable pieces since, is that the human brain will construct a great deal of meaning even where the source material does not actually possess it. The imaginative properties of the listener, in other words, are a critical part of the music experience.


THIS AND OTHER similar experiences have shown me several things regarding music and consciousness. First, the physical properties of sound are almost infinitely powerful in their effect on consciousness. Second, shaped to a rich aesthetic experience in musical expression, the force of sound can be enhanced; but done badly it is less than the raw sounds – a single bass-drum beat on its own can be more potent than a misplaced drum beat in an orchestral work. Third, listening is an imaginative process not purely confined to what is being heard – the brain may manufacture meaning and ascribe value within a set of cultural expectations. Fourth, there are paradoxes in listening – soft can be more potent than loud, and less can be more. Fifth, there are significant inherent limitations in our hearing and listening. Last, there are culturally specific and social influences in our cognitive listening processes that shape and even pervert the way we experience music.

Our biology shapes the musical experience far more than we realise; you could even propose bio-aesthetics as a new field of study. Charles Ives' 1931 exhortation to a concert audience – 'use your ears like men' – could be recontextualised in light of this, to 'don't use your ears like men', because the human listening capacity is limited. Perhaps one day we will have prostheses to improve our listening as well as our hearing.

Of particular interest to me are our physical limitations in listening to music. This is distinct from limitations a listener might have due to a lack of cultural knowledge or misinterpretations of the artistic content of a work. We have limits in our listening ability, just as we have limits in other activities.

For example, our range of hearing deteriorates with age – a child can hear a larger range of pitches than an adult and an elderly person can hear less at the ends of the pitch spectrum than either. You may have noticed the secret-ringtone phenomenon: the high-pitched mobile phone ringtone an adolescent can hear but a middle-aged parent cannot.

There are other limitations in individual listening with implications for composers. The 'cocktail party effect' – a term used to describe our ability to hear mass sound environments and connect to single or multiple lines of interest – applies to music. Even expert listeners have limits to the number of independent lines of music they can hear before the character of the music changes from contrapuntal to a dense mass of sound. Also, as the listener cognitively creates the musical experience, the speed of perception is limited, just as it is in taking in visual or verbal information. That has repercussions for a composer in the pacing of events and even the internal structure of musical ideas. Further, quirks of the imagination can occur in listening, as they do with optical illusions in vision. The ear, it seems, can create inner experiences – we may perceive meaning and even manufacture aural impressions that are not actually present. Limitations in memory are also relevant. Our short-term observation of events and capacity for recall of these events may not be adequate to deal with all of the information in a complex composition.

If one listener is this complicated, what goes on when multiple listeners hear the same piece? Collective responses to music can range from extremely extroverted to completely silent and yet either can signal a high level of engagement. The familiar spectacle of a rhythmic writhing mass at a rock concert can at times look a bit like the schooling behaviour of fish. Some sort of mirroring and collective, non-verbal decision-making seems to occur. By contrast, sitting at a chamber music concert recently I noticed that many of the audience were listening with their eyes shut; I think they were awake and sentient and listening in a deeply relaxed, almost meditative way. By cutting out visual stimulus you can almost become a part of the sound and be highly aware of tiny aural nuances that may otherwise pass by. But are we more or less alone when we listen to music in a group with our eyes shut?

Perhaps an extrovert rhythmic and physical response to music is achieving something similar – feeling oneness with music through highly kinetic group behaviour. To what extent does some kind of quantum entanglement, or mirroring behaviour, affect the listening experience? It should puzzle anyone who has sat with a group of a thousand others in a performance: why do we behave as though one? Why do we sometimes engage almost involuntarily and at other times without cohesion? Does the size of the group have an impact on the behaviour and does the volume of the music influence it?

The brain is puzzling, and the music bug seems almost addictive and viral in its affective and contagious qualities; indeed, at times music in a mass environment can produce disinhibiting effects more typical of alcohol or other drugs. The nature of shared sound is powerful and wonderful.

In music, style is the final frontier. Musical exploration of new ideas has led to massive expansions in complexity in all areas of pitch, rhythm, and tone colour. But, with a few notable exceptions, conceptually driven stylistic expansion – manipulating conventions of style – is taboo. Where a composer engages with it, it can engender ignorant criticism, as I have discovered with two large-scale works, Journey to Horseshoe Bend and Going into Shadows. Is style a representation of a kind of tribalism – like passion for a football team, do we feel the need to belong to artistic teams? If some studies conclude racism is hardwired, do we have similar incipient artistic prejudice? Is our passion for group behaviour so strong that we find music a marker of group identity? Why is it, when our modern experience of music is so plural, that we look for stylistic uniformity in single works of music? My feeling is that where we learn certain listening behaviours at a young age we are very resistant to transgressing them later. In fact, patterns of listening behaviour around style are rather like etiquette – a very complex social formation of shared behaviour. To demonstrate a lack of affinity with etiquette singles you out as a breaker of social taboos, an outcast.[ix]

You may be wondering which of these facets is a permanent feature of human listening and which are culturally specific. Further, which of these limitations may decline over generations? Can we improve our listening en masse? Should composers aspire to be listened to by an audience in the distant future with superior listening capacity? That would be in the same way that a composer may write challenging music whose novel performance techniques over time become assimilated and accepted as normal. For example, will our listening ever improve sufficiently to interpret a more fast and complex rate of activity? Yes and no. We may improve individually and collectively but there are limits of biology that preclude improvement past a certain point.

The Leonard Cohen song 'Hallelujah' illustrates the power of simple things. Like other Cohen songs, its true affective domain is not primarily in the music. The key to the song is the exceptionally interesting and engaging way the music functions in relation to the words; Cohen's poetry is magnificent and, while populist, has the knack of catching attention and allowing multiple levels of interpretation. Multiple interpretations are important because they trigger an imaginatively engaged response from listeners and hence a kind of personal ownership and identification. The words provide a powerful level of metaphor echoed by music that is easy to sing, falls within a functional vocal range and is constructed so that there is time to absorb the key ideas. That the song's text plays on musical terminology ('the minor fall, the major lift' and 'the secret chord') is itself a level of meaning that engages attention. Art about art appeals because it makes us think about what we are hearing on several levels. Play the music on its own and it's not much; place it in its social and textual context and there is abundant expressive force.

In Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E Major, Opus 109, the communicative impact is purely musical. It is fascinating that it was written by a composer who had been deaf for two years. The piece draws on profound insight into mental responses to music, a highly evolved inner voice and a physicality of performance touch or muscle memory that Beethoven must have experienced as a pianist. He hears through his fingers and through his highly developed imagination, not his ears. There are five or six particular moments in the Theme and Variations movement that are engulfed in musical expression. Beethoven's music progresses from tuneful and waltz-like simplicity to a huge expressive range, with double trills and passage work that teeters on the edge of losing its balance before returning to the opening theme. The movement shows a detailed understanding of the way a listener perceives and holds musical ideas. There is no great pride or conceit in the music – no ideology or facile fashion – just a determination to permit creative flow and imaginative invention within a carefully constructed and well-understood formal structure.

These are not abstract concepts – the success of the affective dimension of Beethoven's music is based on an exploration of inner listening, rather than any technical argument or intellectual device. The mastery of technical musical language is subsumed to allow an expressive and communicative end. The expressive objective is personal and internal for the listener. Musical logic is paramount in the work and musical logic is a force derived from sound, not language. Definitely not a 'black art', but one that exists in its own sensory domain of knowledge and communication, which words alone can only struggle to fully convey.

This piece was extracted from a speech given at the University of New South Wales in October 2010.


[i] "On the problem of Musical Analysis," trans. Max Paddison, Music Analysis, 1 (1982), 176).

[ii] Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations, 1991, p. 45.

[iii] Ibycus, Fragments 17 (Diehl); M. Owen Lee, Virgil as Orpheus: A Study of the Georgics State University of New York Press, Albany (1996), p. 3.

[iv] 1 Samuel 16:1

[v] Martin Luther, "Preface", Georg Rhau, Symphoniae lucundae, 1538.

[vi] Council of Trent, Session 22, Canon 8, 1562.

[vii] Charles Diserens, The Influence of Music on Behaviour, 1926 (quoted in Robert Gjerdingen, "The psychology of music," The Cambridge history of Western music theory, ed. T S Christensen, CUP: 2002.)

[viii] See for example, "Sound near kids at Damascus gate" at In this video excerpt a sound bomb is used in an East Jerusalem street. The reaction of the children nearby is thought-provoking – they experience fear, distress and confusion – although there is no actual physical danger, just a loud sound. It may be a normal and natural reaction to a sudden very loud noise to behave in this way.

[ix] CD: Journey to Horseshoe Bend by Andrew Schultz, words by Gordon Williams, Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Porcelijn, 2004, ABC Classics, 4762266.

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