Monthly Archives: September 2018

What is the meaning of invention on music

Decided you want to learn the classical piano? Seriously? Then sooner or later you’re going to have to get yourself a copy of Bach’s Inventions. If you’ve already heard someone good play them, you may be rubbing your hands in eager anticipation. Stick with them, and they should give you at least as much pleasure to play as to hear. But before that, the hand-rubbing may take on a rather different emotional complexion.

Bach’s two-part keyboard Inventions are probably the most beautiful and effective technical exercises ever compiled. But as with most exercise programmes, the early stages are likely to be gruelling and morale-draining. Take Invention No. 1, in the beginner-friendly key of C major. For quite a lot of the piece the two hands are playing the same thing (more or less), only not at the same time. It’s as if the left hand’s starting pistol went off a bar (about two seconds) behind the right’s. 

The beauty is that the two staggered parts not only fit together beautifully (like ‘Frère Jacques’ sung in imitation), they complement each other. As one descends, the other rises; as one lingers slightly, the other runs forward – a better demonstration of the principles of counterpoint is hard to imagine. The trouble is, when you first try playing both hands together, you begin to feel that what you really need is two brains. It’s a bit like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach with alternate hands in contrary directions – only worse. Persist, though, and the impossible happens: you progress from what psychologists call unconscious incompetence through conscious incompetence (so easy to despair at this point) to conscious competence, and finally (hallelujah!) to unconscious competence. 

Brief pause for self-congratulation, then there’s the minor matter of the music, especially how to make this sound less like a machine and more like two voices in dialogue. Of course if you go back further into the past, you can find pieces called ‘Invention’ that have no obvious didactic purpose – for example, Clément Janequin’s first book of madrigals (1555). And in the 20th century, calling a piece ‘Invention’ can be more about demonstrating the composer’s prowess than inviting performers to develop theirs. But say ‘Inventions’ to trained pianists and Bach will spring to mind, perhaps with an accompaniment of knowing smiles. After all, these are the ones who have endured the Dark Night and emerged to see the stars.

Trill on music that you should know about it

Now this one’s simple, isn’t it? A trill is one of those extended wobbles on a long note you tend to hear at the end of a show-off solo in a concerto or coloratura aria. In the Baroque or Classical eras it’s virtually a fixture. Yes, the wobble must be on two notes – neighbouring notes to be precise (either a major or a minor second) – but surely that’s it.

Alas, no. Go back to the very early Baroque period (at this point regular readers of this column may be experiencing a slight anticipatory contraction of the stomach muscles), to the vocal works of Monteverdi and his contemporaries, and there you will find the word ‘trillo’ identified with something significantly different. There it’s not so much a wobble as a shake, and on just one repeated note. The kind of trill described above is usually smooth, legato, but this one is jerkier, more like a vocal spasm.

The gorgeous ‘Duo Seraphim’ from Monteverdi’s Vespers contains plenty of these, as when the word ‘Sanctus’ becomes ‘Sa-ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-han-ctus’. When historically minded performers first revived this kind of trill, critics and listeners found it rather funny; now we’re used to it, it can be strangely touching or, even more strangely, erotic. Nowadays we’d be inclined to call this a ‘tremolo’. Monteverdi would also have used the word ‘tremolo’, but what he meant by it would be what we would call a trill. At some stage during the 17th century, the two terms seem to have swapped over. 

The sign for a trill is an italic tr followed by a wavy horizontal line, which for once looks very like what it represents, and perhaps for that reason it has remained standard since the early-18th century. What it doesn’t tell you, however, is how to begin or end the trill. All sorts of exit strategies are possible. You can anticipate the final note by a fraction of a beat, or just drop onto it. You can preface the fall to the final note with an elegant downward twist or a breath-catching minute pause. As for the beginning, unless indicated otherwise, the modern trill starts on the lower note; the high Baroque trill, however, began on the upper note. The change seems to have happened around 1830. Not for the first time, I wonder if this was just a change in fashion, or whether there’s some deeper sociological significance. A possible subject for a thesis?

Music inspired in autumn

images-26What seasonal playlist could fail to include Vivaldi? From the Allegro’s post-harvest celebrations in ‘Autumn’, Vivaldi’s programmatic music transports us to the somewhat less vibrant morning after, where slow moving suspensions come as close to a musical hangover as anything you’ve ever heard. In the stately final Allegro, ‘The Hunt’, a virtuosic violin solo represents the hunter’s fleeing quarry, which they eventually catch and kill. Not so fun for the quarry, but a jolly old time for all the hunters.

Bax – November Woods (1917)

Though ostensibly inspired by nature, Bax’s November Woods also acts as a musical portrait of his turbulent love affair with pianist Harriet Cohen. An often unsettling work, the tone poem fluctuates between stormy drama and quiet ecstasy, yet fades to a quiet and unresolved finish.

Fanny Mendelssohn – Das Jahr (1841)

Fanny Mendelssohn wrote the piano cycle Das Jahr as a musical diary of the year she spent with her family in Rome. The 12 months are represented by 12 individual movements. In ‘September’ a flowing accompaniment overlays a dark melody in the left hand. ‘October’ is a brighter, march-like song, but ‘November’ returns to introspection and a minor key. She instructs the performer to play sadly.

R Strauss – Four Last Songs, ‘September’

Sometimes considered Strauss’s own musical epitaph, all of the Four Last Songs are themed around death. ‘September’ is a shimmering and uplifting work, which calmly compares the passing of the seasons with the passing of life. Strauss also includes a poignant and wistful solo for his father’s instrument: the French horn.

Ominous background music

Scripps scientist Andrew Nosal and a colleague at Harvard University recruited over 2,000 online participants to share their attitudes toward sharks after watching a 60-second video clip of sharks swimming. They compared the results of the participants who watched the clip set to ominous background music to those watching the same video clip set to uplifting background music, or silence.

Participants who viewed the video with ominous background music rated sharks more negatively than those who viewed the clip with uplifting music or no music.

“Given that nature documentaries are often regarded as objective and authoritative sources of information, it is critical that documentary filmmakers and viewers are aware of how the soundtrack can affect the interpretation of the educational content,” said Nosal, the lead author of the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

A researcher from the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego was a coauthor of the study.

Healing powers of music

The researchers allocated 120 study participants as follows: half of the subjects were exposed to music for 25 minutes. Subdivided into three groups they were played recorded music by either W. A. Mozart, J. Strauss Jr., or the pop band ABBA. The remaining 60 subjects were allocated to a control group that spent their time in silence. Before and after exposure to music and quiet time, respectively, all participants had their blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol concentration measured.

Classical music by Mozart and Strauss notably lowered blood pressure and heart rate, whereas no substantial effect was seen for the songs of ABBA. In the control group, resting in a supine position also resulted in blood pressure lowering, but the effect was far less pronounced than for exposure to the music of Mozart or Strauss. All musical genres resulted in notably lower cortisol concentrations. As far as cortisol concentrations were concerned, the sex of the participants must have played a part, because the drop in cortisol levels was more pronounced in men than in women, especially after exposure to the music of Mozart and Strauss. Comparison with the control group showed that the effect of music was far greater than that of silence.

High resolution audio

The study compared data from over 12,000 different trials from 18 studies where participants were asked to discriminate between samples of music in different formats.

Dr Joshua Reiss from QMUL’s Centre for Digital Music in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science said: “Audio purists and industry should welcome these findings — our study finds high resolution audio has a small but important advantage in its quality of reproduction over standard audio content.”

Many in the music industry have been split as to whether people can really hear a difference between CD quality music and high resolution audio — even celebrity musicians have entered the fray with new music streaming services: Tidal launched by Jay-Z and Pono players and music service spearheaded by Neil Young and crowd funded through a Kickstarter campaign.

Both streaming services launched in the last two years have been met with scepticism. However, this new study found that listeners can tell the difference between low and high resolution audio formats, and the effect is dramatically increased with training: trained test subjects could distinguish between the formats around sixty per cent of the time.

Writing in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, the research suggested that careful selection of stimuli, such as using long samples of more than 30 seconds, may play an important role in the ability to discriminate between the formats.

Dr Reiss explained: “One motivation for this research was that people in the audio community endlessly discuss whether the use of high resolution formats and equipment really make a difference. Conventional wisdom states that CD quality should be sufficient to capture everything we hear, yet anecdotes abound where individuals claim that hi-res content sounds crisper, or more intense. And people often cherry-pick their favourite study to support whichever side they’re on.

“Our study is the first attempt to have a thorough and impartial look at whether high res audio can be heard. We gathered 80 publications, and analysed all available data, even asking authors of earlier studies for their original reports from old filing cabinets. We subjected the data to many forms of analysis. The effect was clear, and there were some indicators as to what conditions demonstrate it most effectively. Hopefully, we can now move forward towards identifying how and why we perceive these differences.”

The samples analysed were mainly classical and jazz music, though it’s not clear for which type of music high resolution recording and playback made the biggest difference.