There are two things wrong with contemporary classical music. First, it is an oxymoron, and second, it’s no good for jogging. The aspiration of every contemporary composer should be to become a classical station regular, like Mozart (commuting), Vivaldi (shopping), or Beethoven (office work), while still alive. You know you have arrived when a bookstore or espresso bar pipes you in. No one since Mendelssohn has even qualified.
The French composer Eric Satie (circa 1910) was right when he said: “Music should be like furniture. It’s best when you hardly notice it”. Whether we like it or not, people today listen to music while doing other things. Distracting them is not the object. The ultimate litmus test for any great music is “does it make mowing the lawn go faster?”
A classical music experience has three creators. One third is the work of the composer, one third that of the performer, who transforms dots to music, and the final third is the contribution of the listener, who brings his own world to bear on the music. It is this three-way collaboration that creates any musical experience. In this reckoning the listener gets 1/3 of the credit (maybe he should get 1/3 of the royalties too, indexed of course to the intensity of the listening effort expended...? ;)
Things are different with the new kind of virtual music I write, where the roles of composer and "performer" are merged. There are only two co-creators here, me and the person listening to my CD. The proportions are 50/50. In this respect I, a "classical" composer, am joining the singer/songwriter crowd, but there's nothing new about that. We too had a "singer/songwriter" tradition (or rather a "player/composer" one). It was in fact the standard for most of musical history. Then, around 1830, a split occurred, and the role of a performer who plays other people's music was invented. I predict that this trend is about to be reversed, same as in popular music. Consider that almost no singer or band before the 60s wrote their own material. Now it is an exception if they don't.
For the first time ever, composers like me have the ability to produce completed works, much as painters or authors do, without having to shop my music to performers or conductors. We can also bypass the prohibitive costs and rigmarole of recording a live symphony orchestra. It’s hardly a difficult choice. All but 0.001 of composers would never have their composition even considered by a symphony orchestra.
But the DIY approach is much more than just getting a composer an audience. If it spreads it may fundamentally alter the dynamics between composer and listener.
As the quality and flexibility of sampled sounds continues to make quantum leaps, the bad name the early electronic music earned is less and less justified. The tonal quality of a simulated acoustic instrument may never be 100% equal to the real thing but it’s damn close now. What can be equal and often surpass the “real thing” is the quality of the performance. Working with my virtual orchestra I have unlimited time to refine nuances. I am not limited by a union contract or scheduling constraints. My work is not relegated to the customary half-hour rehearsal. When it’s done it will resemble what I had in mind the way a live orchestral performance could never even come close. And I am not even talking about the sneezes, cackles, latecomers, and the terrible seat you are in where all you can hear are the double basses.
I often think of those accounts of disastrous, excruciating first-performances of masterpieces by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, or Bartok, botched by the “real thing”. But am I throwing out the baby with the bath water? Do those bad experiences justify the elimination of the performer, that middle-man, from the supply chain between me and my audience?
Two strong objections to what I propose are usually raised. First, that composers are not necessarily the best interpreters of their own works, and second, that their works benefit from the insights of performers.
The first assertion is just plainly wrong, an unjustifiable generalization. Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein, all were stellar conductors as well as composers. The second argument though does have merit and deserves a consideration. Bartok was a superb pianist who often premiered his own works. The premiere of his second piano concerto however was an unqualified flop. When several years later he attended a performance of the same work by the young pianist Geza Anda, which received a standing ovation, Bartok remarked, only half sarcastically: “Well, you obviously understand my music better than I”.
So, are performers necessary even when composers of the future may not need them to perform?
Actually no. That function of shedding new light on a composition will most likely be taken over by the listeners themselves, thus further justifying that 50/50 split I mentioned earlier.
How? Easy-to-use tools already exist for intelligent listeners to modify any composition to their liking, adjusting tempo, timbre, balance, and even notes. What we don’t have yet is a cultural groundswell, a shifting of what it means to be an active listener. But that too is coming. Could someone 30 years ago have imagined that designing your greeting cards, retouching your photographs, making films, preparing tax returns, or publishing your book from start to finish could be casually done by you without professional help? Could tailoring music to your taste be so far behind?
The shift from "composing for performers" to "composing directly to listeners", the 50/50 collaboration, is most likely to send shivers down concert-going spines and the beleaguered marketing departments of symphony orchestras. But I say not to worry. Symphony orchestras will continue to play the same old tired stuff their aging patrons demand. The newer stuff no one really liked anyway. Give me Beethoven 7th, not that cacophony of Osvaldo Golijov. It’s like taking vitamins, good for you but certainly no fun.
And what about composers like me, the 99% that never stood a chance to even be considered as a vitamin? Well, we just get ourselves the latest music editing Internet tools and if our music is any good we’ll find amateur tinkerers with flair to go to work on our masterpieces. It can’t be worse than entrusting them to a yawning self-important conductor whose stinky feet I'd have to kiss for my half-hour rehearsal and the ensuing botched-up premiere cum last-ever-performance of my new symphony.
@Copyright Peter Elyakim Taussig, 2012. You may download materials from this site for private personal use only. For all other uses please contact to request permission in writing.
MUSIC TEACHERS ARE OUR BEST HOPE FOR IMPROVING MATH IN OUR SCHOOLS
OK, I admit this is not likely to be supported by anyone in the education racket. No politician, superintendent, Harvard expert, or the teachers' union president would ever embarrass herself with such an irrational idea. But consider for a moment the tens of thousands of papers, conferences, and policy papers that have proposed rational solutions to our math education crisis over the past 50 years and ask yourself: “Are kids doing better in math today than they did in 1961?”. They are not, and everyone knows it. So, perhaps its time to try something unconventional, that as you'll find out is a whole lot less loopy than you might think.
Do you know why well-meaning strategies proposed by well-meaning academics from their insular ivory towers never worked? It is because the problem is not with the way math, or any other subject, is taught in schools. The problem is, and has always been, that schools do not teach children to think, and without being able to think no amount of tinkering with HOW math is taught is going to make the slightest difference.
But why music teachers? How could they improve the quality of thinking in schools where science and English and math have consistently failed? Actually, music is no better in solving the problem than any of those other disciplines. What music has though, which neither English nor math nor science have, is the general perception that it is not very important.
You read it right. Being unimportant is the key to what I am proposing.
Our schools operate under the testing paradigm, which states that a school’s funding is tied to its performance, and its performance is ascertained solely by testing its students. As we know, doing well on tests is a skill that has almost nothing to do with learning and comprehension. It is a subject all its own, and it is the ONLY subject taught these days in school. Schools that teach testing well are deemed “good schools”. Those that don’t know how to teach testing become “failing schools”. Both types have in common the fact that their students do not know how to use their intellects, how to inquire, consider, and solve problems independently. In other words they have not been taught how to think, because thinking is not a factor in multiple-choice tests. Memory is. And the school's funding and very existence is completely dependent on its students' ability to memorize and ace tests.
If you introduce into this intellectual desert a new pedagogical concept, unless it can be proven to improve the testing skills of students, and do it instantly, it will die, no matter how worthy it is.
I know what I am talking about. For three years we ran a pilot program in a Math and Music Magnet school in one of the poorest suburbs of Cleveland. Our mission was to use music and math in new ways to gradually turn students from memorizing robots into thinking human beings. The students thrived and their teachers recaptured the enthusiasm and idealism of their youth. After three years the program was axed. You know why? The math test scores did not go up quickly enough. True, the students were thinking and engaged, coming to school all pumped up, doing enthusiastic creative work. But creativity, enthusiasm, problem solving skills, are not reflected in the standardized testing. As test takers our students were only moderately successful and that was not good enough for the school to maintain its funding. End of story.
In hindsight, our biggest problem was not what we were doing nor how we were doing it. Our biggest stumbling block was the mere fact that we were teaching a core subject. Our teachers were math teachers whom we trained to deliver our curriculum. We were teaching MATH!!!!! And school administrators watch such a core curriculum like hawks. It's the math scores that are the do or die for a school.
This is where the music teacher of the future may have a leg up on a math or an English teacher. Nobody pays attention to her. Music in most public schools is the absolutely lowest priority of school administrators. The state may provide some guidelines but they have no real teeth since students are not tested on music, and even if they were, the results would not figure in the overall performance evaluation of the school. In many schools the music teacher is a glorified baby sitter, affording classroom teachers a longer lunch break. In other words, and this the key to my idea;
The music class is an unregulated island in an otherwise Orwellian environment for acing tests.
Unfortunately, what music teachers currently do is, with due respect, useless. They are well-meaning people, often working against great odds in teaching their students how to squeak on a clarinet or beat a drum. For the rest, music class will leave zero impact on the life of its students. None will take away even the most rudimentary musical skills, to say nothing of any intellectual improvement.
But music is an ideal vehicle for intellectual improvement, even though presently it is not taught as such. Of all the arts it is the closest to science and math. Historically, it was part of the Quadrivium in universities (the other three subjects being arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). Music's affinity to mathematical thinking in particular is well documented. You cannot read music without manipulating the objects on the page in your mind and then executing them on a completely different plain on your instrument. You cannot play an instrument without the capacity to form mental images of the sounds before you execute them. All these, and many more, are fundamental skills required in arithmetic, geometry, graphing, and algebra. It is not surprising that since the 1990s researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that musical activities improve spacial temporal skills in children and directly improve their math comprehension. And add to these cognitive benefits the fact that they acquired as part of the creative and enjoyable discipline of music, and you probably get where I am headed with this.
What would happen if in this barely supervised musical island, in which presumably a creative teacher could pretty well do as she or he wished with little interference from school administrators, what if that teacher was versed in in both music and mathematics? Couldn’t such a teacher take a useless curriculum aimed at teaching students to play a band instrument, badly, and turn music class into an engaging multi-disciplinary curriculum of Math and Music, and inquiry, and experimentation, an intellectual incubator that fosters curiosity and mathematical thinking? And the best part is that it could probably be done under the radar, without the pressure of testing and without Big Brother watching you.
In other words, a Math and Music curriculum, which failed under the glare of scrutiny that Math attracted in our Magnet school experiment, might have succeeded in the quiet unobserved corner of the music room.
Of course such a strategy depends on many factors. First and foremost, there must be young music teachers with an interest in mathematics and an open mind towards developing young intellects. Second, schools have to be identified in which the principal would be sympathetic to an expanded music program that would feed the intellectual capacity of students and positively impact their performance in all other areas. Such a benevolent principal would hopefully also shield our renegade music/math teacher from the preying eyes of the superintendent’s office. And third, these insurgent teachers, entering a hostile environment, often operating alone and clandestinely, would need to have a support structure. They would need an organization that would help them keep in touch with other “guerilla” math-music teachers and, more importantly, would go to bat for them and support them legally and politically.
There is no doubt that such a vision is a pie in the sky. It derives from my deep disillusionment with the public education in this country and with the government policies that regulate it. But considering all the remedies proposed and implemented in the past, and their universal failure, perhaps it is not such a crazy idea after all.
 The reason you cannot have it both ways, i.e. develop mathematical thinking and creativity AND have high testing performance is that there are only that many hours in a school day.
Could there come a time when all possible new melodies have already been composed?
Let’s place some restrictions on “melody”. Let’s restrict melody to a 12-note succession of pitches with various durations within an octave. This is not arbitrary as most melodies are within those parameters. We can also limit a tune to its most characteristic first phrase or even a part of it, i.e. enough pitches to recognize it. Using whole melodies would swell the numbers below to even higher levels by many orders of magnitudes.
To figure out how many different possible permutations of those 12 pitches could exist we start by randomly selecting a starting note and then finding out how many “next steps” are possible from it to form the 2nd note, and so on. A “next note” of any note would be one of:
This means that there are 520 to the power of 12 unique tunes possible, or: 390,877,006,486,250,192,896,000,000,000,000
In English this is Three hundred and ninety trillion trillion trillion (plus change) possible tunes.
No one know of course how many tunes have already been composed since humans evolved to be able to do that, but assuming that a unique new tune has been invented every minute by someone somewhere in the past 10,000 years (the estimated age of human civilization), a quite preposterous totally unrealistic assumption even for today let alone for early humans who had more important things to worry about than producing new tunes, we would have only exploited 5,256,000,000,000 (5 trillion) potential unique songs so far, a paltry 0.0000000000000000000134467 of all possible tunes.
It would take many times the projected lifespan of the entire universe to run out of possible new tunes
 Randomly chosen: Jingle Bells 11 notes, Oh Canada 10, Yankee Doodle 14, Twinkle, twinkle little star 14, Take me to the Moon 13
The other day I tried an interesting experiment. I slowed down Chopin's Prelude No.1 in C, a short piano piece less than a minute in duration, and stretched it out to last 27 minutes! I was doing this inside my computer music program so I could replace the piano sound with longer sustaining orchestral strings. It sounded like one of those New Age meditative music CDs. Why 27 minutes, you may well ask? Because stretching it any longer slowed the music down too much. Any slower than that the music fell apart and became incoherent.
It must be something about the way we perceive harmonic progressions. Here is my theory.
I think that each musical chord is perceived in three ways. Firstly, as what is, secondly, as where it might lead - an anticipation, and lastly, as where it fits in with what has preceded it - a memory. For a chord to make sense in a musical progression it seems it has to have a past, present, and future.
When the chords are too long they become too widely spaced and the memory part starts dissolving. We are left with just the chord itself, the present, and maybe a sense of curiosity about where it is leading us, the future, or whether it is leading us anywhere ("is this chord ever going to end?"). As the chords stretch out even longer, this anticipation also dissolves and my poor brain just gives up trying to place the sounds in some harmonic context. At that very slow threshold, which I suspect varies from person to person, I am left with a series of random, meaningless sounds.
There is a limit of how slow music can get to still be music.
I was curious to find my personal threshold for this harmonic perception. I timed a phrase consisting of sic chords in the slowed down Chopin Prelude. At each chord lasting 8 seconds I was able to easily perceive it as a phrase. 10-12 seconds per chord was pushing it, but I still got the sense that there was some structure here (though I was not sure what it was). At 16 seconds per chord (the entire 6-chord sequence lasting 1.5 minutes) I no longer cared what came next. I was listening to a succession of very long random chords, nice or interesting or boring or annoying perhaps, but certainly it was no longer a phrase. The musical meaning did not extend beyond this speed.
Poor Chopin was probably rolling in his grave.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)