Friday, April 29, 2011

Musical Expression, and the lack thereof:

This week’s Science section in the New York Times had an interesting article about expression in music, featuring research by Daniel Levitin. The article reminded me of a fascinating experience I had in graduate school, in the 1960’s.

The music department was paying undergraduates to keypunch all of the masses of Josquin des Prez, who,whenever his music is not performed in a sappy way, is easily recognizable as the Beethoven of the sixteenth century.

We had devised a scheme for coding his (mostly four part, polyphonic) music, and we faced the giant challenge of proofreading it. Proofing the codes was really horrible, and I came up with an alternative: we could feed the codes into a newly-installed mainframe program that generated music from (differently encoded) input. I managed to make tapes from the Josquin codes that sounded like an organ playing the music. We listened to this output, and it was easy to find the coding mistakes that made wrong notes.

These tapes sounded beautiful, even though the computer was unable to add any “expression” to the music, and there were no instructions in our codes to suggest any musical expression. I’m pretty sure I know why this musical output was so striking.

Modern singers, no matter how hard they try to adapt their style to ancient music, tend to accent the first beat of every measure. That’s how music has always worked for a long time, and it is deeply ingrained in our nature. The computer music was not making these accents.

We can be pretty sure from sixteenth century accounts, that singers of the time made no such downbeat accents. Instead, they accented each long note that was preceded by a short note. Our computer added no such accents, but still, it more nearly approached the type of performance that Josquin intended by eliminating the anachronistic downbeat accents. As a result, our computer approached closer to the heart of the music than most modern performances.

As for the expression we experienced listening to our tapes: the mind is a mysterious thing, both ours, and Josquin’s.
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