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
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