Saturday, September 15, 2012

Music(al) Stretches

Sound and time are the two primal ingredients of music, and a word we use for each is rooted in the act of physically stretching something. 

Tone comes from Middle English: from Old French ton, from Latin tonus, from Greek tonos 'tension, tone, from teinein 'to stretch" -  Oxford American Dictionary.

Pace comes from Middle English: from Old French pas, from Latin passus "stretch (of the leg)', from pandere "to stretch'. -  Oxford American Dictionary.

Stretching is something the human body does all the time, from waking in the morning to standing on tiptoes reaching for a top shelf, so we all have a built in somatic sense of some stretches being easy and others being extreme and everything in between. 

The most deep seated stretching we do is extending and relaxing the diaphragm with every breath. We do it one way when we're relaxed, and another when we're anxious. 

Since it's my contention that a lot of music's power to move us is due it its encoding physical gestures (and associated feelings), I feel the ways in which music can mimic physical stretches (and associated feelings) has a lot to do with the feelings a piece of music might evoke. It's so easy to get caught up in the surface issues of music making, we can sometimes forget there's this deeper gestural substrate that's communicating to an audience in a mostly non-conscious way.

A key component of physical stretches is that they always have an arc from not being stretched to being fully stretched and back again. You can't make yourself stop breathing and you can't hold a body stretch forever. So besides the degree of a stretch at it's fullest, from barely stretched to full or over extension, there's the way each stretch builds to a peak and then relaxes.

"Tension and release" is a phrase often used in talking about music, and for me, understanding that in the context just laid out gives it a richer meaning. 

"Balance" is another word often used in talking about music making, but I've never really liked it because I always get the extremely two dimensional image of scales tipping one way or another, whereas stretching is complex and our sense of it springs directly from our proprioception.

I often ask students if they've ever been around someone who has lots of interesting things to say, but whose voice is so off putting it's hard to pay full attention, -  that's the substrate I'm talking about. If their voice tone suggests either a string stretched to the breaking point or barely tuned up to pitch, and if the pacing is either to fast or too slow, the words they say will may not register as well as they might. 

On the other hand, if the gestural substrate of your music making matches up well with what you're trying to express, there's a much better chance of connecting with an audience.

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