Trying to Break Out of Musical Prison


There has never been a recorded culture that did not make music. Harry Partch in Genesis Of A Music writes: Music, “good” or not “good,” has only two ingredients that might be called God-given: the capacity of a body to vibrate and produce sound and the mechanism of the human ear that registers it.” I might add, innate, biological core emotions to give significance to our music making. All else is learned.

According to Partch, implicit in the learned part of the musical art are:

1) An attitude toward one’s fellow humans and all their works
2) A source scale
3) A theory for its use
4) A voice or an instrument
5) A complexity of organized tones (composition or organized improvisation)
6) A powerful emotional response to the music

In the list above, number 2 — “source scales” — is one that is most usually overlooked, or limited in Western culture. We in the West have been handed a pre-determined source scale of 12 equal intervals. Most Western music of the last 300 years has derived secondary scales from this master set. The 12-tone equal system evolved from: 1) the ecclesiastical modes and the desire, largely unconsicous, for small-number ratios; 2) the growth of popular forms, and of keyboards; 3) the five-fingered hand.

Since the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Western musical practices can be seen as an attempt to break out of the prison that our assumptions have built around our musical statements and our prevalent musical doctrines. We have been reaching for the freedom to create, test, and revise an indefinite series of systems more and more adequate to our bursting growth in feelings, knowledge, mastery of sound, and of ourselves. But most of the attempts have been to introduce new theories either based on the 12-tone set, in rebellion against it, or ignoring it all together by organizing sounds without regard to estabished musical pitches and practices. Many of these attempts have been largely futile. The tonality of the 12-tone equal scale has reached its tonal limits. By including scale-making in the musical creative act, a return to tonality is possible with surprising results.

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Gary David

Gary David, Ph.D. in epistemology, is currently engaged in a private counseling practice, as well as giving seminars teaching the role of the biology of emotion in the meaning-making processes of the whole human being. A former professional musician, he was the leader of an experimental jazz group called "The Sound of Feeling," and was one of the early, longtime students of Erv Wilson.

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