Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/December 1882/Musical Sensations

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IT is common, in defining music, to compare it with some other art, painting, for instance, and say it is to the ear what that is to the eye; that it is the representation of the ideal by a means especially adapted to the organ to which it is addressed, or by the combination of sounds. Is that all that it is? Do we not forget, when we simply put it on a par with other arts, the exceptional part it plays in the life of men? The universal adaptation of music to all degrees of civilization, the peculiar charm of which it is the source, and the extraordinary power it exercises, are so many reasons for believing that it is connected with our organization by a more intimate tie than that which binds other arts to it, and that it is the manifestation of a more general faculty. When Fetis wrote, in 1837, the idea prevailed that music originated in the imitation of the songs of birds. He contradicted this, and defined music as the double result of the conformation of the organs and the disposition of the soul, as the art of awakening emotion by means of the combination of sounds. It is, in fact, generally agreed that music addresses itself more directly to our feelings and passions, and is correctly said that it speaks to them in a special language. Descartes indicated this as its object.

In the theory of Helmholtz, music expresses the different dispositions of the soul by imitating the characteristic particularities of movement in space, and by thus translating the forces and impulses that produce the movement. While he admits that it may have been at first only an imitation of the instinctive modulations of the voice corresponding with the different states of the mind, he does not consider this fact contradictory to his definition, for the natural processes of vocal expression are capable of being traced back to the same elements. "Rhythm and accentuation express directly the rapidity and vivacity of corresponding psychical movements; a vehement effort causes the voice to rise; the desire to produce an agreeable impression on another person prompts us to select a pleasant tone; and thus the efforts to imitate the involuntary modulations of the voice, to enrich and make more expressive the recitation of words, may very probably have guided our ancestors in seeking out the means for musical expression."

This is probably the real origin of music; and it is in this direction that we should look in investigating its nature.

Two elements closely connected, but quite different and having each its peculiar function, may be distinguished in the analysis of spoken language—the intonation and the articulation of the emitted sound. No doubt they are the interpreters of the two great human faculties of intelligence and feeling. Speech, then, is a complex physiological resultant, the double image of a double inner condition. The elements it represents can not be conceived as isolated from each other, any more than we can conceive a human organization a pure intelligence. We all know the important part intonation plays in conversation, and how by it the general sense, the whole expression of the spoken words, may be varied indefinitely.

Having thus found the origin of music in the imitation of these instinctive modulations of speech, it should be easy to draw from this an exact idea of its nature; for, without doubt, to read verse well, to declaim with warmth and conviction, is only to perform in advance the work of the musician. We have now a whole class of musical phrases which are only exaggerations of spoken intonations; they are our recitatives. The music of uncultivated peoples is mostly recitative; so also was a large part of the music of the middle ages. The rules and grammar of music and its particular features are the growth of modern times.

This conception of music as the language of sensibility permits us to explain the characteristic features of its action. We must consider, first, that this language, like its twin sister the language of ideas, has suffered a progressive evolution, and has with us reached a great perfection, and consequently a great complexity in its laws and processes. Among primitive peoples of few ideas, whose feelings show few variations of shade in expression, music is almost wholly confined to a few modulations expressive of the principal divisions of feeling—love, joy, sorrow, and warlike ardor. Civilization, with its refinements, has produced a music that has grown constantly richer in shades and means of expression, to the point which has been reached by the great masters of our age.

Neither language is intelligible to all, in its fullest degree of development. As we must have the power of comprehending abstract ideas in order to understand philosophers, so we must be more or less accustomed to musical sensations to appreciate the great musicians; and it is interesting to observe how we learn by study to enjoy works which at first fall cold upon us.

The application of such a word as comprehend, or understand, to music, is a source of numerous misconceptions; music does not understand, it feels. It addresses itself only to that part of us which is susceptible of emotion; and we frequently lose all its charm by our trying to understand it, or to find in it ideas which it can not express. We might expect the same kind of a failure if we should try to find sources of emotion in the working out of an equation.

It is true that persons exist who have no sense for music, and to whom its language is a blank; but they are rarely found, and prove nothing. Opposed to them are much more frequent instances of excessively sensitive natures, on whom even simple single musical intervals produce wonderful effects. Who has not made music without suspecting it? In certain states of feeling we are sometimes surprised to find ourselves composing simple melodies that are never finished, and are major or minor according as we are gay or sad, while we may be totally ignorant of the existence of those modes. Some natures seem obliged thus to express themselves in song. This is because speech is really an imperfect means of expressing the feelings. It is just as necessary to address the feelings, to make an emotion known, as it is to address the intellect, to communicate an idea. Hence the charm of the opera, in which the words describe the situation, while the music enables us to see into the hearts of the persons who are implicated in it. A certain school of operatic composers, indeed, are not concerned about depicting the passions set forth in their dramas, but are satisfied if they can introduce a few agreeable melodies good to sing anywhere and to any words, and which will become favorites; but this is not the case with real dramatic music as illustrated in the works of Gluck, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Verdi in his second style, and Wagner.

In songs, the expression is in an inverse ratio to the interest of the words. Good poetry is hardly susceptible of any but an uncolored music, just enough to sustain the voice; the thought, in effect, crowds out the feeling, and, a choice being forced upon the attention, too much musical accent would weaken the thought. For a full musical interpretation of the feeling, a third-rate poetry, only indicating the subject, is best, for it permits the concentration of all the attention upon the emotional expression. This is, ordinarily, the character of the librettos of operas, in which everything is subordinated to the music; but the song, the interest of which lies in the conception, is accommodated with a colorless melody.

By considering music as the language of the feelings, we are enabled to account for the power it has over masses composed of the most incongruous elements. An address can not affect alike persons of different degrees of intellectual development, and must fall without making any impression on a part of the audience. There is less difference in the capacity for feeling, and all are more or less subject to the same transports of emotion. The masses feel more than they think.

It is interesting to remark the generally simple and touching expression of popular songs. The feeling is brought out in its purity without science or preparation, and the result is a music full of artless charms, the inexhaustible source to which composers, knowing that they can not find better ones, go for the themes of their works. These popular songs are generally of a sad character, and tell of vague aspirations and indefinite desires. Thus have originated those dreamy melodies with which working-people love to lull their melancholy, and which are frequently the only source to which we can go for the history of those who have lived and suffered in obscurity.

As different human races have their several languages, so each one has its own musical system; and these various systems, the existence of which is explainable by the action of the same causes that have made different words to designate the same things, prove that the origin of the two languages is common, and that the one is the spontaneous expression of feelings, as the other is of thoughts. Like alphabets, gamuts also may differ within certain limits. They are also not fixed, and undergo the evolution common to all languages. Most uncivilized peoples are unacquainted with semitones, and use scales with full intervals. This is easily accounted for if we suppose that these intervals are the ones which represent the elementary intonations, and that they constitute a music near its origin. The need of representing shades of feeling brings about a progressive filling up of the intervals. The ancient Celts excluded semitones, while the music of the Greeks found refined expression in quarter-tones. Our musicians are also sometimes tempted to reduce our minimum interval of a semitone, and some performers abuse this process to an extravagant degree.

The effect produced upon our ear by music of a system different from oars is generally painful; but we have no right to say that the Indians and the Arabs sing false. We have to learn a language to understand it; and a quite short accustoming is generally sufficient for a music that appeared savage and harsh, at the first hearing, to become supportable, if not agreeable.

Music nearly always commands the attention of animals; and every one knows what curious results have been obtained from experiments on different species, from the elephant to the spider. This language of feeling is really more within their reach than speech; and we may generally remark that when we address ourselves to our domestic animals it is by the intonation alone, of greater or less force, that we make them understand—that is, feel. Articulate words have no meaning for them, except on condition of a previous education based on the association of sensations. A dog is never mistaken as to the intention of a person calling him, and the tone alone tells him whether a caress or correction is in waiting for him. So music is never heard by animals with indifference.

After what has been said it would be idle to consider the rank which music holds among the other arts; its origin, its nature, and its effects give it a separate place. It is a language which everybody understands, which nearly all speak to some extent, and in which some rise to a sublime eloquence.

Poetry, with its measure and rhythm, is the first intermediary between speech and music; but it lacks vastly the power of the latter, because of the degree of intellectual culture it exacts. Mimicry comes nearer to music in its effects, for it leaves the idea vague, and speaks more directly to the feelings; and it is a great aid to the orator. But the most powerful orator is he who has a musical intonation.

An interesting investigation might be made of the various musical accents which answer to different conditions of feeling. To ascertain this correctly would require a long and minute course of experiments. It is curious to observe, however, that Gluck, Mozart, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Wagner, when they have the same situations to depict, whether in recitative or melody, use the same musical intonations. It thus appears that the major third is generally employed in interrogations and appeals, and that the appellative character of that interval becomes more marked and impressive in the fourth descending, while the fourth ascending denotes affirmation, decision, command. The minor and major fifths express the feelings from prayer to violent desire and menace. The sixth is the interval of passion; it is the symbol of a very accentuated emotion, and is inevitably met where love is declared. A semitone higher conveys the idea of something painful, which is resolved into a real expression of grief in the cry of the seventh, the symbol of an excess of suffering. There are, in effect, no two ways of saying the same thing in music, and it is only in the way the phrase is introduced and sustained by the harmony that authors vary. We are speaking, of course, only of those passages of the songs in which the emotions are exploded, for it is in these only that the author, not caring to expend his force over the whole phrase, aims to bring out his full meaning. From these comparisons of emotions and intonations we are able to discover the physiological reason of the correspondence between the note and expression. The smaller intervals are congenial with indifference, monotony, doubt, melancholy, and sadness; the group of moderate intervals affirms occupation, pleasure, and desire, which grow more ardent as we approach the extreme intervals; and in these we look for the most intense feeling. Melancholy sentiments involving diminished vitality, we might naturally conceive them to be expressed musically by diminished intervals, the compass of which requires little effort; while earnest desires, strong passions, and pleasant and happy feelings, being accompaniments of a more active vitality, provoke more vigorous expressions; and these expressions, by giving an outlet to the excess of vitality, furnish one of the best means for calming violent passions.

We add a few words on the nature of musical pleasure. It is dependent on variety—the essential condition of all pleasure, that of the mind as well as that of the senses; variety of ideas for the former, variety of sensations for the latter. Nothing, in fact, is more incompatible with pleasure than monotony, even in agreeable things. The feelings do not escape this general law; and the cause of musical enjoyment must be sought in the infinite variety of conditions of feeling through which the rapid succession of musical intervals makes us pass. In this, we do not speak of the merely material pleasure of the sense of hearing, which may exist aside from all attention; but of the stirring up of the whole being by the emotions. To this enjoyment, which exists parallel with the succession of sounds, should be added the pleasure of the hearer's adapting his personal feelings of the moment to the general sense of the performed music: a theme marked with melancholy will move a whole audience of thousands to sadness, each person of whom will associate his feeling with some particular object. This impersonality of the musical phrase and its adaptability to individual feelings explain the taste of the masses for music, and its power over them. The system of tones, by furnishing a kind of stable basis for the undulating variety of musical sounds, effects in music a union of the two chief conditions of pleasure—variety in unity.

It is impossible to treat of music without speaking of rhythm, which, without being an essential part of it, enframes it, sustains it, and gives precision to its otherwise vague expression. The origin of rhythm need be sought no further off than in the movements and paces of men. Descartes finds it in the efforts of the voice in singing, or the gestures of the instrumentalist; every accent is preceded by an inspiration or a drawing of the bow, marking the beginning of a new effort. These efforts, methodically arranged, give musical measure.

Different rhythms reflect the different paces of the walker or the rider plainly enough to justify us in attributing their origin to them. The same cause that makes one pace his room with gaits varying according to the impressions of the moment, in the reverie of solitude or in conversation, also determines the rhythm in music.

Just as our emotional being loves to be amused by rhythms suggesting natural outer movements, so certain cadenced sounds casually heard, such as that of a passing train, the trotting of a horse, or the beating of oars, induce states of sensibility, under the influence of which we surprise ourselves by humming old airs, or by improvising melodies that naturally adapt themselves to the fortuitous movement.

This conception of the origin of music explains the universality of its domain and its power, as well as all the particular facts connected with its different adaptations.—Translated from the Revue Scientifique.