Building a Language Out of Music (with boodles of links)


CCHR International released a video about the way attribute certain childhood behaviors to mental disorders. This video struck a chord with me because so much of what those labels say has to do with fit and function; rather than objective assessment. To oversimplify: If a kid has a lot of energy, and is set to a task that requires a lot of energy, there’s no reason to say they’re dysfunctional. However, if they’re asked to sit still all day, then… they’re gonna have a bad day. We can say that the kid has a lot of energy — but whether that’s an asset or a dysfunction depends on how she’s socialized.

How you’re socialized somewhat determines your relationship with music, and vice versa. Nowhere is fit and function more subjective than with musical taste. When someone asks what kind of music you like, “oh, everything but rap and country” is the most common answer I hear from my white friends. I’m willing to bet they haven’t listed to a lot of country; the same way I’m pretty sure my midwestern aunties can’t tell symphonic metal from speed metal and are content to leave well enough alone.

I like rap and country, and pop and metal, and industrial and folk (from Georgia the state to Georgia the country), and house and trip-hop, rockabilly and opera. It is perhaps most accurate to say I am psychoacoustically active to sus2 and sus4 transitions, which are chords specifically designed to cause tension.

Would love to see answers like that on a friggin’ buzzfeed quiz. What does your personal resonance say about you? It would be impossible to codify.

While music resonates on an intuitive level, there are mathematical consistencies. Some people look to classical forms to make them feel relaxed, whereas others can’t stand that stuff and find more aggressive material soothing.

It turns out there’s an entire field of (pseudo?)science surrounding music and sound as therapy. This article goes into some of the science of why humans like music. In some cases, it  creates a physical response.

For example, I noticed that the key changes in “Let it Go” always give me chills at the base of my skull. My buddy explained that in the Idina Menzel version there’s a key change from G minor to sus2 (a suspended chord). I get the same feeling during the Demi Lovato version, and he said it was the same thing. Similarly, in the case of our national anthem translated to a minor key, I felt the same chills at 1:08, 1:21, and 1:52.

Let’s go deeper than major = happy, minor = dour.

Suspended chords shift away from the common triad pattern, so instead of a 1+3+5 pattern you’d get 1+4+5 (sus4).

Mmm… Math.

Getting away from that for a moment, let’s talk about music and story.

Peter and the Wolf is an excellent introduction for how music can inform a story. Each instrument plays a particular role, and the narrator helps guide us along; but this is socialization. This is setting and meeting a specific expectation. The description and function of each instrument is clearly laid out so we know what to imagine when we hear the final adventure. However, if we’ve never heard the narration, and didn’t have the title, there’s a possibility we’d envision something different.

When story informs music, resonance could go anywhere. Even though we as humans experience the same emotions, we don’t always express them the same way. Let’s approach from the other angle, translating from feeling to music.

Das Parfum: Die Geschichte Eines Mörders, was a novel written in the 80s by Patrick Süskind. Many songs have been inspired by this story, but for now let’s talk about Meeting Laura (below) and “Du Riechst So Gut” by Rammstein. Both the choral Italian piece and the metal German piece balance warm attractiveness with a chilling threat — much like the protagonist Grenouille, who creates untouchable olfactory beauty while committing unspeakable horror.

When it comes to the music itself, are these different accents, or different languages? To me, the undercurrent feels exactly the same — the kind of passion that presents itself as love; but is in truth the most destructive kind of hunger. To me, these are different languages. They say the same thing, but are mutually unintelligible. When it comes to the language of music, this is further complicated by the fact that Western Europe never held a monopoly on music. There’s maqam. There’s sargam. There are dozens of other systems, codified and uncodified, that tell stories and resonate with musicians and audiences alike. Different chord progressions and different keys have different meanings in different cultures. What is mournful to one group could be joyful to another (literally, not sadistically).

What resonates with you might not resonate with your neighbor; but transcend borders and culture.

Certain characters and certain moments resonate so loudly we can slap a song right on them. However, I can’t put an entire 4-7 minute song in the text of my story — and need a shortcut. That’s where the math comes back. If you distill your favorite song down to it’s best moment, you wind up with a certain phrase linguistically and/or musically that can be represented in coded shorthand. Here’s a quick preview of how I’m doing this in text, aimed at people (like me) who don’t have a music theory background.

When one character is asked to introduce himself, he responds with five short chords, described as a lash of sound.  Here are the tabs for guitar.

e|————–|
b|————–|
G|————–|x 1
D|-0–0–0-0-0–|
A|-0–0–0-0-0–|
D|-0–0–0-0-0–|

This was taken from of Rammstein’s “Ich Tu Dir Weh,” the first five chords on guitar. Here’s a cover that focuses just on the guitars, and here’s the full song. That’s how this guy introduces himself, and how the other characters refer to him. It has been really challenging to translate these concepts into a wordless, intelligible, resonant language. All forms of expression have technical and intuitive approaches, which enhance and support each other.

If poetry is the music of language, music is the poetry of mathematics.

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