I enjoy reading science stories about music, but I sometimes wish they’d pay more attention to music history. Last summer, researchers at Duke announced they had discovered inter- relationships between the pitches of human speech and the pitches of musical scales. The coverage generally overlooked the fact that Leoš Janáček, composer of several of the greatest operas of the twentieth century, based his mature musical style on a painstaking study of this same relationship. Wagner, before him, made the speech-ness of music a cornerstone of his theory of opera. Since the mid-nineteen sixties, Steve Reich has been writing a series of works in which the musical material is derived note for note from speech samples. No doubt the Duke team have added new insights in their research, but "discovery" isn't the word.
Likewise, Nature recently reported on studies comparing the structure of tonal music with the structure of language (link via Arts & Letters Daily). An Argentinian physicist has found that Schoenberg’s atonal works do not repeat “key words” the way tonal works do. This, in fact, was the composer’s well-advertised intention. Writing on Mozart and Beethoven, he bemoaned the fact that those composers felt obliged to recycle their material for the benefit of the inattentive listener. The twelve-tone method of composition is designed to keep tones in rapid circulation and to prevent any one tone or set of tones from achieving primacy. (And yet, twelve-tone composers, starting with Schoenberg himself, have subverted the rules.) Schoenberg wanted his music to be more difficult than tonal music. He refused to provide familiar landmarks for the listener. It’s not as if he didn’t know what he was doing.
What’s really novel in the science/music field are researches into psychoacoustics — how the brain processes music, sound, and noise. Steven Johnson mentions some of these studies in his new book Mind Wide Open, a riveting survey of modern neuroscience that has the eerie effect of seeming to be reading you. His notes led me to an article by Jaak Panskepp, who has investigated the phenomenon of the “musical chill,” in which listeners are suddenly overcome by a physical tremor that runs down the body and raises the hairs on the skin. Panskepp says that music in which a solo instrument steps in front of a softer background is especially prone to cause this effect. He compares such moments to “the separation call of young animals, the primal cry of despair to signal caretakers to exhibit social care and attention.” I immediately thought of the Largo of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, in which solo winds sing out plaintive motifs over a backdrop of tremolando strings. An entire nation is crying for its mother in the night.