Music that breaks the Rules

Abstract: The 'rules of music' as taught by the education system reflect the limitations of out-of date ways to play and record music and reflect the hand of rulers who want music to obey their rules. These rules now are not only obsolete, in many respects they are wrong.

A. The History of Music

In the past, music usually was strongly linked to lyrics. There often was little difference between songs, poetry and rhetoric. Throughout history, people have used rhyme and melody to add meaning to their words and to make sure they are not easily forgotten. Originally, the Olympic Games included contests in music and poetry, as well as in athletics, and music was regarded as an integral, but supporting part of poetry. In 586 BC, aulos player Sakadas raised many eyebrows by performing a purely instrumental piece of music.

Until that time, few people worried about the 'scientific' aspects of music, just like few people today worry about the 'correctness' of variations in rhythm, volume and pitch of their speech. But kings and dictators demanded their ceremonies to be accompanied by the 'correct' sounds and music to be played by the 'rules' . . . and many musicians obliged.

B. The Music of Kings

Dictators instinctively know that their power is based more on their public image of wealth, importance and might, than on their ability to persuade people with logic. A king likes to present himself seated at a throne, surrounded by servants, in his palace. Special dresses, crowns, jewellery, architecture, protocol, it all adds up to the image the king wants to convey to the public. When the king enters, the crowd cheers, while his servants blow their trumpets, hold their horses and present their sables or guns. Then a man shouts: "The King!" at the top of his voice and a bell, a chime or perhaps a canonshot can be heard, to enforce silence on the crowd; the abrupt end to this cacophony of sounds makes a dramatic impact just as the king starts speaking.

Just like a horror movie loses most of its dramatic effect when played without sound, the king loses a lot of his glamour without such sounds accompanying his presence. The rulers of the past all looked for sounds that could augment their appeal and, kings being kings, they looked for the 'rules' of music.

As far back as 2700 BC, a fundamental tone was fixed in China and the dimensions of the pipe or bell which gave it were carved on public monuments and served as the universal standard of measure. In medieval Europe, Pope Gregory I put his stamp on music and forced music into a narrow set of rules. In 1324, Pope John XXII declared by Papal Bull his resentment against the scale referred to today as 'do, re mi'. Until 1650, the 7th note of this scale, the 'si', remained unnamed. Calvin the Reformer, prohibited music altogether and for a hundred years no musical instrument was seen in Geneva.

Whatever the rules of music were at the time, they turned out to be hard to change as they were seen as infallible edicts. After all, if such 'rules' of music turned out to be wrong, the entire rule over society by their rulers became doubtful.

C. Music and Education

In their efforts to use music to their advantage, rulers imposed all kinds of rules on how music was to be played. By default, people who did not play music 'by the rules' were regarded as rebels. Playing music virtually was a political activity.

The oppressed society was sucked into believing that, by teaching children the 'rules' of music, these children would grow up into law-abiding and thus 'good' adults. Music was not seen as a form of art, but was regarded as just another subject to discipline children.

As long as musical education was a method of teaching discipline, it fitted in with the education system. This explains why even in Sparta, the ancient Greece city famous for its military-style education, music at some stage was a compulsory element in the curriculum.

And as long as music was vocals only, teachers had little problems with the 'rules' of music. Children who sang 'out of tune' were corrected. If they persisted, they were punished, called stubborn, stupid and un-talented, and perhaps expelled from school. Instruments without much pitch such as drums, triangles, little bells, chimes and wooden sticks, were also popular, although their use was restricted. The discipline of the classroom could not cope with an over-enthusiastic use of rhythmic drums, shouting and clapping hands.

Things started to become complicated with the use of musical instruments that produce 'pitched' sounds. Recorders, i.e. wooden flutes that are held in front of ones head, became popular at school. They can easily be carried, are relatively cheap and, in contrast with flutes that are held side-ways, students can watch which holes they cover with their fingers while they play.

But the sound that recorders produce is often quite horrific! One reason for this is that the holes in recorders are fixed and, therefore, the tones they produce cannot be varied. Thus, if a song requires a tone with a specific pitch, the player will seek to match this on the recorder, but the result may be a sound that is slightly out of tune. The problem for the teacher was that, even though the sound was horrible, they couldn't blame the pupils for that.

Despite their often horrific sound, recorders remain popular at school to date. School does not care whether children play nice music, school uses recorders more as an instrument of discipline. Schools teaches children to play like robots and read music from notes, a form of literacy that has little to do with music (Appendix C).

The introduction of instruments such as flutes that produce fixed tones, and instruments that have strings that need to be tuned in fixed ratios with each other, called for tuning systems and scales (see Appendix A). The education system was not very interested in musical theories as to which tones sound well together and why, it simply needed rules how to tune their instruments.

D. The Horror of School

What musical education is given at school carries all the limitations of instruments such as the 'recorder' and the piano, of music notation systems, of musical scales and of tuning methods. Throughout history, children were taught to play notes that were only in tune according to the musical theories of the day. And much of the musical education was spent on teaching children this musical theory of the day, as if this was the only truth.

The practices in musical education have changes little over time. Music is still associated with discipline. Just like children who sang 'out of tune' in the past were punished and corrected, children today are often judged for their abilities to read notes. If they persist in 'erring', they are labelled stubborn, stupid and un-talented, and are expelled from further musical education. Thus, music still is regarded as an elite subject, as if only 'talented' children should benefit from musical education.

Teaching children to read from notes is a convenient way to discipline children, but such education is little more than discipline and has little to do with music. At school, teachers often concentrate on vocals to avoid tricky questions about pitch; when the question of pitch arises, teachers bury their heads in books and start teaching children how to read from notes using a sterile method stripped from all sense of emotion, feelings and improvisation. This notation system is a relic of the past that should be banned to history (see Appendix B).

The education system seems unable to produce musicians who make it in the charts; generally, the less formal education one has had in music, the better one's chances of success as a popular artist. The education system destroys one's feeling for harmony, as one is taught that frequencies fit together that are in fact 'out of tune' (see Appendix A). The education system destroys one's feeling for rhythm, as one is taught to read from notes, which will cause one to play with fits and starts (Appendix C). Rhythm is usually avoided as if it is something evil that can only disturb the classroom order. The education system prefers to teach children to play quietly, as this does not disturb the order either, while the music notation system rarely indicates differences in loudness of individual tones.

But most of all; the education system destroys one's ability to improvise, by insisting that children play notes exactly as they are written down on sheet music. The emphasis is on reading, not on music and least of all on creativity and improvisation.

By disciplining children at a young age, into such a horrible straitjacket, much of their innate feeling for music will be destroyed. The education system reverses, rather than advances one's musical abilities.

E. Technology liberates

Today, there is little need to hang on to such old-fashioned methods. Today, there are cassette recorders and computers; why would one want to write down notes on paper? If one wants to hear the tune, one just pops the cassette into the player, why go through all this trouble of learning awkward symbols, when a cassette offers a much more accurate record of a song?

Similarly, there no longer is a need to develop strong lungs and a loud voice if one wants to become a singer. Today, someone with a whispering voice has more chance of success in the charts than a trained opera-singer. Multitrack recording and computer editing take away the need to learn long text by heart and joint repetitions with orchestras.

Furthermore, computers can now generate any sound, from an old piano to the songs of birds; and although the old-fashioned equal-tempered scale is standardised in MIDI, there really is no need to be restricted to a limited amount of tones as once imposed by the limitations of the piano keyboard. The computer allows pitch glides to be created, time shifts and pitch shifts, adding of harmonics, widening of frequency bands, 'Fourier'-analysis of combined tones, replication of sounds, sequencing, etc, etc.

Technology has liberated music from the limitations of notation systems, of old-fashioned instruments and of the stress of live performances. Today, students of music do not have to spend endless amounts of time on exercises to improve their techniques. Today, they are free to concentrate on what really counts, i.e. development of their creativity, their feeling for rhythm, familiarity with harmony, etc.

F. Don Paragon's method: 'Improvisation'

Don Paragon has developed the method Improvisation, an introduction to music. This method is quite different from most existing teaching methods. It does not start with musical scales or with reading from notes, instead it starts with examples of rhythm and tempo. From there, it goes into harmony, chords and composition, using familiar tunes or melodies made up by the student. It makes the student understand that a tune can be played in a number of ways, using a number of rhythms, and that there often is a choice of chords to accompany a melody. Similarly, different melodies can be played on the same sequence of chords. Once the student gets familiar with variations in rhythm, harmony, composition and melody, one can start improvising using one's own ideas.

The history of music tuition is full of methods that insist that, to learn music, one first has to learn the 'rules of music': As technology makes it clear that the way the education system teaches music is obsolete, it becomes clear that school does not teach children music, but teaches children to abide by the 'rules' for the sake of it. The future promises that, if anything, it is better to abide by Optionality.

Appendix A. Limitations of Musical Scales

The notes that are most popular today are part of so-called equal-tempered system, i.e. the interval between two adjoining notes is equal on a logarithmic scale. This system is useful for instruments with keys that have fized frequencies, such as the piano, but it actually creates sounds that are slightly 'out of tune' with each other.

The debate about musical scales is at least as old as ancient Greece. Pythagoras advocated in the 6th century BC a mathematical system that uses frequency ratios based on the combined series of the powers of 2 and those of 3.

By contrast, the 'harmonic' system is based on the natural phenomenon of harmonics. If a string is pulled, it can vibrate in its full length, producing a fundamental tone; it can also vibrate in two parts, producing a (harmonic) tone of twice the frequency of that fundamental tone; it can also vibrate in three parts, producing a tone of three times the frequency of that fundamental tone, etc. Generally, the lower harmonics dominate; they have more volume, as the string swings out wider. This pleads for Pythagoras' system which includes tones of 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 8 times the fundamental frequency. Nevertheless, the 5th harmonic is easily audible and cannot be ignored, as the 'Harmonicists' argue. Aristoxenus, a disciple of Aristotle, pointed out in circa 300 BC that the system of Pythagoras is deficient as it is unable to produce intervals that correspond to ratios such as 4:5 and 5: 6. In the harmonic system, notes can be moved up by repeated multiplication by 2 or 3, just Iike in Pythagoras' system. But in the harmonic system, the ratio 4:5:6 is taken as the basis of the chord.

Making a scale becomes a dilemma, if there are various ways at which one can get to certain notes. E.g., when multiplying the frequency of the 5th harmonic four times by 2, it will reach a frequency of 80 times the fundamental tone (i.e. 5x2x2x2x2=80). But by multiplying the fundamental tone's frequency four times by 3, one gets a frequency that is 81 times the one of this fundamental tone (i.e. 3x3x3x3=81). Which is the one to use in the scale? It gets even more complicated, if one uses divisions as well. Should the scale have tones of 25 times or of 128:5 times, of 80:3 times or of 27 times and 9 times or 80:9 times the fundamental frequency?

The problem, however, is only in the minds of those who insist on scales. Today, computers can generate any type of sound at any frequency. The pitch of a sound can be moved up and down at will. There is no need to hang on to the limitation of scales.

Appendix B Manipulating Music

Authorities like to portray musical tones as notes that each have a fixed place on a continuous scale. The most popular one of such systems uses a cycle of seven notes, represented by the letters A through to G, fixed on and in between five parallel lines. When adding the black keys on the keyboard, there is the perception of twelve distinct tones in an octave. This system grew out of the desire to write down music, as well as to 'tune' instruments such as church-organs. However, people who understand the background of this system are generally aware that these tones are deliberately fixed 'out of tune' with natural sounds.

In nature, of course, tones relate to each other when they are multiples or fractions of each other, in the sense that simple ratios are more harmonious. Harmony is NOT created by choosing tones that are members of supposedly equally distanced notes on a universal scale. The education system, as enforced by the Government, tries to teach us a music-notation system that bears little relation with real music. The reason why the Government manipulates music in this way is to give the false impression that its laws are in step with nature. The Government portrays music as if it obeys a linear system imposed by a central authority. This explains why, in music, people are more successful if they do not accept this way of thinking; the less people get involved with such an evil notation system, the more likely they will understand and appreciate music.

(The paragraphs in this appendix are for a large part extracted from: Standards of Measurement. For further background, see also Mastering Music.)

Appendix C The Rhetoric of Musical Literacy

In the old days, a popular way to remember words was to make them part of music. Problems arose when people started to mix up speech and script. Audio is stored and processed in a different part of the brain than visual information.

A similar process occurs when music is written down as notes. People who play from sheet-music will rarely make it in the charts, they lack the necessary creativity, spontaneity and feeling for rhythm. They usually cannot improvise. The reason is that what was originally audio information, was recorded as visual information: the wrong medium for this purpose. People reading music from notes have to interpret all kinds of dots and symbols (in the visual part of their brain) and they try and co-ordinate this with muscle movements. As the visual input becomes more complex, processing takes longer and they get out of step with the rhythm.

On the other hand, people who never played from sheet music, often have less difficulty improvising and picking up a tune or rhythm. To co-ordinate audio information and muscle movement alone poses less problems. To hear a tune and sing along is an ability that virtually every young child has. People playing from sheet-music often play by fits and starts, whereas people who can play by heart, can play fluidly and with feeling. People reading from sheet-music rarely recognize rhythm; their voice is sterile and biased, and they often sing out of tune in their efforts to stick to set frequencies.

(The paragraphs in this appendix are extracted from: The Rhetoric of Literacy.)

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