4 min read

Music theory yak shaving

The Current Macroeconomic Climate has given me a lot of unexpected free time, so I'm busy shaving some very stupid yaks. Two of them are oddly convergent.

First one:

  • I was thinking about writing a proper blog post about Derrida, gathering together some of the threads from this notebook and making an attempt to explain différance and iterability
  • As part of this I wanted to have another go at Of Grammatology, and in particular revisit the section on Rousseau and his arguments about melody and harmony
  • So then I decided to actually read the source text, Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Languages
  • This has a lot of arguments about how Rousseau thinks music ought to work, and he was an amateur musician and composer himself, so then I listened to his opera, Le devin du village (The Village Soothsayer)

Second, simpler one:

  • I discovered Richard Atkinson's Youtube channel. He posts brilliant videos analysing various pieces of classical music, with lots of "this sounds like this other thing" tangents, and I've been watching these and listening my way through the references
  • A lot of the music theory is beyond me, so I've got hold of an introductory harmony textbook to learn the basics

So, hm, what have I learned from this so far? Probably the main thing is that Rousseau is the absolute archetype of the 18th century philosopher in the tweet:

His argument in the Essay is something like, um... so he starts off by claiming that language grew out of 'passion' rather than 'need', as a form of emotional expression rather than for practical use. This happened in warmer, southern climates, where life wasn't too hard and people could spend a lot of time emoting about things, and language started out very close to song with lots of melodic vowel sounds.

Then, as people moved north, the weather got worse and they had to spend longer doing annoying practical stuff, and language got used more for needs than passions. As part of this evolution it got harsher and more cluttered up with consonants, and generally moved away from its roots in song. Also, written language was a force towards articulation and standardisation, and made literary languages "lose in power what they gain in clarity". Special shout-out to Polish:

In those burdened with useless consonants, writing seems to have preceded speech: and who would doubt that such is the case with Polish? If it is, then Polish must be the coldest of all languages.

So that's the first half of the book. The second half is a parallel argument for music, which is based in some real French court controversy, the Querelle des Bouffons ("Quarrel of the Comic Actors"). This seems to have been an argument between fans of French opera and Italian opera, with Rousseau on the Italian side and the composer Rameau on the French one. Rousseau likes Italian opera because it has a strong melodic line; harmony serves melody rather than dictating what the melody should be. In comparison French operatic music (and a lot of 'serious' classical music in general) is built up much more structurally, with fragments of melody combined and inverted and layered up over complex chord progressions.

This is the sort of music Atkinson talks about a lot in his videos. For example, here's a screenshot from his video on the first movement of Mozart's 'Prague' symphony, showing how Mozart combines four melodic fragments at once as part of a much larger structure:

(The Atkinson examples I've mostly been watching so far are from Haydn and Mozart, and are from a bit later than the controversy, but you'd also see the complex layering of melodic fragments in Bach. I don't know much about Rameau, but presumably he does something similar.)

I feel like I've been living in Rousseau's musical world myself in a weird way. I play a melody instrument and I've never learned 'proper' music theory until now, so complicated harmonic constructions are mostly lost on me. I also really like Italian baroque and early classical music, for similar reasons to Rousseau. (I wrote about this a bit in a previous braindump.)

Even so, I'm starting to see what I'm missing. Rousseau's own opera is fairly listenable, but even to my ear it seems pretty basic and lacking in something, and that something is probably a more solid harmonic structure.

To Rousseau, though, harmony is the articulation side of music and therefore Bad, much like consonants in language. He has some arguments about how harmonies come from a mathematical theory of integer ratios between e.g. string lengths, whereas melodies cannot be reduced in this way. (This is pre-Fourier.) There's also a funny bit where he links it back to his northern-southern theory of language, suggesting that northerners invented harmony as a way to get some sort of proto-musicality back into their horrible monotonous language:

The singing was thus devoid of melody, consisting solely of volume and duration of the sounds, was bound to suggest at last a way of making it more melodious again, with the help of the consonances. Several voices, ceaselessly drawling sounds of unlimited duration, in unison, happened upon some harmonies, which seemed pleasant to them because they added to the noise. And thus began the practice of descant and of counterpoint.

I don't really know what to make of all this? I keep being snarky in my summary, because it's hard for me to take it very seriously, but  Rousseau was extremely influential in his time and maybe this all made some sort of sense in historical context. Also, Derrida devotes a particularly long stretch of close reading to Rousseau's arguments in the Essay, and generally he only does this to thinkers he respects in some way. And there are fragments that do seem insightful to me, like the bit about language and standardisation. But overall it all feels very silly.

Anyway if you were reading this hoping for a point, then haha nope, there isn't one, I'm just going to finish here. Hope you enjoyed the yak shave.