La Grenouille dans le Fauteuil

My thoughts, explorations and opinions about Music, Philosophy, Science, Family life; whatever happens. Shorter items than on my web site. The name of the blog? My two favorite French words. I just love those modulating vowels.

My Web Home Page

Sunday, July 27, 2008

That Elusive Key Structure

When serious minded program-note writers and classical music critics, and writers of serious books about music - when these well-educated folks get into talking about how long pieces of music hang together, how they accomplish their big coups, how they finally achieve a feeling of resounding finality, and how, earlier on, they sustain a sense of incompleteness, - all this long-range discussion of what music plotting mysteriously does, they virtually always bring in the topic of key-structure. You know the stuff, “but the theme returns not in the tonic, but in the tonic major.” or “Tchaikowsky’s genius is that the second subject key is not actually arrived at until the second subject theme is already complete.” or “by this means of never clearly resolving into the keys he so strongly hints at, Wagner manages to sustain restlessness and longing over immense stretches of music.

It is a difficult subject. Not just because it is genuinely technical, which it is, with stuff like “modulation from C# minor through a deceptive V-VI cadence on its dominant into the surprising close A major - the subdominant of its relative major” causing the most adept cognoscenti of harmonic procedure to stop and think a bit, as if confronted by a sophisticated chess move. Not only that, but also because of a strange paradox about this whole key-relationship thing: it is genuinely powerful, so powerful that we all feel its effects in our guts rather than our heads, and because, strictly speaking, it is not audible in itself. Which is why you have never known what people were on about when talking learnedly about key structures. How many of us have been tempted to nod knowingly, assuming that those around us have some clue about what's going on. I think this in itself contributes no small part to the sense of intimidation that people feel about classical music.

What do Key Structure / Key Relationships accomplish? Quite simply, they make large scale structures in music possible - symphonies that last more than 10 minutes, concerti that build up a real head of steam before finally feeling triumphant, fugues that go every which way before finally coming out right in the end. But it all happens behind the scenes.

How does it do this? In essence, it works by having the music change key (the key is both the pitch level and the set of notes that are used by a piece as its main home turf) as it goes along, so that when melodies come back they are usually in a different key (higher or lower) than before, and thus sound somehow different, or somehow not quite right. In order for this to work, obviously the piece does not change key completely, like moving house and now feeling utterly at home in a new place, all memory of the past obliterated; instead it almost changes key, so that things feel normal, but there is that lurking memory of home still haunting us. I am not going to go into details about it in this essay because it really is complex, and it’s the complexities that I am trying to avoid.

My first main point is that the vast majority of people do not have perfect pitch, and don’t listen to music cerebrally, so they are not able to follow things like key changes anyway, apart from the fact that they don’t have a terminology to identify such things. In any case, the literal details about key changes are not interesting, and not the point of what is going on. The power of music over us is undeniable, just as much for those who say they “don’t know anything about music” as for the skilled jazz improvisor who can spot a chord at 500 yards. The punch is visceral and emotional, and some of its tricks are spoiled by being pointed out too clearly.

So point number one is that most people don’t notice key changes happening, and can’t identify them, and wouldn’t have any inclination to. They hear music in a synthetic way, not an analytical fashion. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and identifying the parts really adds very little.

My second point is that, even if a writer such as me, or a lecturer, or a pre-concert talker, wants to demonstrate to people what key changes there are in a piece of music, they cannot, since there is in fact no sound that corresponds to it. The essence of the matter is that the power comes from key-relationships not key-changes. It’s not a matter of sudden juxtaposition, but of relationships subconsciously remembered over time. There are plenty of sudden shifts in music of course,the plunge into the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th, the way Elgar’s Nimrod Variation emerges in a different key from the preceding variation. Schubert often makes startling shifts, and with late Wagner you often don’t know where you are.

So if a lecturer, trying to point out the F-major / D-major relationship between the last two movements of Mahler’s 5th were to play a chord of F, followed by a chord of D, what you would get is just that - two chords only trivially different. It is not that chord progression that aids Mahler’s architecture, it is the whole superstructures built upon those different basic home notes. A photograph of your mother at 18, contrasted with one when she is 80, certainly makes a startling contrast, and one with all sorts of irrelevant suggestions about changes in fashion, changes in photographic technique, the inevitability of aging, and so on, but it does not encapsulate the path of her life, the evolution of her character, the way her early life was fulfilled or frustrated in later years.

What key relationships do is to subtly manipulate our appetites. Music is always a matter of expecting something, and then either getting it or not getting it in an interesting way. By bringing back a tune in a new key you generate a complex response; you are pleased to hear the familiar, but it doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Similarly, when the ambiguities are finally resolved, you hear that relief and relaxation with absolute certainty, but you can’t really tell how it was done.

So if you don’t actually hear specific key-relationships in music, (and 99% of people, including me, usually don’t) don’t worry about it. It’s kind of like not hearing your heart beats. They are still working, and contributing a heck of a lot to your conscious experience.

How important is this key-relationship stuff for music? Absolutely fundamental. Bach’s "Well-tempered clavier” his series of 48 preludes and fugues in all the keys, was a didactic work demonstrating that the problem of playing in different keys had been solved (a topic for a wholly different discussion). It was an important statement, because freedom to move amongst the keys at will (slipping under the radar of most of us) was quite simply the new technique that made all the glories of classical music beyond the shorter-term delights of Baroque music, possible. It’s there all the time, in Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Franck, Sibelius. I just can’t show it to you.

My Web Home Page
My Agent
© ajm 2008


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home