Each of you has sent thoughtful questions to me every week based on the reading that has been assigned. Some of these get answered in class and others in a personal email exchange, but here I will add questions that I think will be helpful for many of you but didn’t make it into the lecture content.


Where does the term “ragtime” come from, and what role did New Orleans play in the birth of jazz?

“Ragtime” comes from the fact that the rhythms in this type of music are syncopated or “ragged,” as the musicians who played this music referred to the style. Jazz in New Orleans grew out of ragtime; musicians adopted the syncopation and liveliness of ragtime for other instruments and ensembles. Here is a good article that details the music they played: https://www.nps.gov/jazz/learn/historyculture/jazz_history.htm The significance of New Orleans for later jazz is tied up in other issues in American history, particularly the Great Migration, which was an exodus of southern Black Americans to cities in the north (especially Chicago and Harlem). When Black musicians and authors settled in Harlem, for example, their artistic work helped define and shape the new communities they settled into. The Harlem Renaissance, which was a flourishing of Black artistic efforts based in Harlem in the 1930s, was only possible because so many Black Americans left their homes out of political pressure and threat of physical violence, becoming refugees in their own country and banding together once they established a new home. They brought with them the musical style that had developed in New Orleans (and other migrating people brought different musical styles and artistic ideas from their respective homes in the south, too), and these merged to create the music that we simply call “jazz.”


What are “blue notes”?

The textbook is describing the kind of melody that is a common feature in the blues and jazz. Musicians who make this kind of music don’t just use the major and minor scales that we’ve been listening to all semester. Instead, they use different scales and some of the pitches in them are called “blue notes” because they seem to capture the depth of emotion and expression that make the blues the blues. More technically, the blues scale takes certain notes in a major scale and lowers them in the melody, creating a darker, weightier effect than the brightness of a major scale, but it’s not as wholly dark as a minor scale and the harmony supporting the melody (a homophonic texture) usually is major.
“Pitch bending” refers to when a player doesn’t sustain a pitch in a completely steady way, instead moving the note slightly up or down for expressive effect. They might start a note slightly lower or slightly higher than where it is supposed to be, especially if they’re playing a blue note. This often happens in blues and jazz and almost never happens in classical music, so it is a defining feature of those genres.


Is it safe to say the era of Romanticism was the expression of emotions and how irrational they are, while the era of Impressionism was based more on realism?

While Impressionism was definitely a reaction against Romanticism, it wasn’t a full-on rejection of all things Romantic. In particular, I would be hesitant to say that “realism” was a driving aesthetic force in the music of Debussy. The work we played in class, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, is about a mythological creature (the faun) who pursues nymphs in a fantasy-world.
The things that make Impressionism distinct from Romanticism are:
  • Impressionism is made by French musicians
  • Romantic works are made by German/Austrian musicians in imitation of the paragon of Romanticism: Ludwig van Beethoven (there were non-German musicians composing in the same style, but they were imitating Beethoven, as well)
  • Romantic works are typically large, long, and loud — large ensembles, loud and extreme dynamics, and lengthy compositions
  • Impressionistic works are typically more intimate — the Debussy, for example, omitted the loudest, most aggressive instruments from the orchestra (trumpets, trombones, percussion) and instead emphasized woodwinds and harp
  • Romantic works typically are in sonata form; Impressionistic works are simpler (such as an ABA form) or less predictable
  • The experience of listening to the two kinds of music is different — one student described Impressionism as music that you absorbed rather than listened to; there is less that you have to actively think about in order to “get it” in Impressionistic music.

In today’s time, are artists still translating impressions into sound or not?

It’s pretty much safe to say that the answer to any question that begins, “In today’s time are artists still…” is yes. The musical world is so broad, and there are so many compelling historical influences, that you can find find a modern analogue of just about anything in the music that is being written and performed today. (See also the assigned reading from 4/15 by Alan Kozinn).
Musical sounds like those made by Debussy (which are labeled “Impressionism”) are still found in music being composed today. George Crumb (who we listened to in class on Friday) considers his compositional style to be influenced by Debussy, and John Cage’s music bears much similarity to the music of Debussy and Erik Satie.
Indeed, the entire movement of minimalism (including works by John Cage and Steve Reich, who we studied, as well as Philip Glass) is an extension of the notion of enjoying sounds simply as they are rather than as part of a form that needs to go somewhere — the listening experience of allowing yourself to “absorb” the sounds is similar in later 20th-century minimalism and Impressionism, in contrast to the experience of listening to, for example, a sonata form by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, or Brahms.
There are a large number of composers whose music is labeled “spectral,” meaning that they focus on the shift of timbre between one instrument and another even as things like pitch remain the same — this is an idea derived from Debussy, in particulary the focus on timbre, or the sensuality of sound as a driving force in the creation of a work. A good example of a spectral composer is Kaija Saariaho.


I was just wondering how the twelve-tone method works? I’m still a bit confused as to how it is being developed.

Twelve-tone composition (or serialism) is a way of writing music that doesn’t rely on coming up with a melody, emotional idea, etc. ahead of time. Instead, the composer takes all 12 notes available (in an octave there are 12 chromatic pitches; C, C-sharp, D, D-sharp, etc. up to B) and arranges them in a desired order. Then, he (12-tone composers are almost all men) will make sure that every time this ordered set of notes (called a “row”) appears in the music, it appears exactly in order, even if one note is played by the flute, followed by another note in the piano, and the third note in the clarinet. The notes of the row can appear in any rhythm; some may be held a long time, while others are extremely short.
A composer can also manipulate the row — this is called row transformation. Instead of all 12 notes appearing in the same order, start to finish, that the composer first came up with, they may appear backwards (called retrograde), or upside down, so that when the sequence of notes ascended originally, they now descend (this is called inversion), or a combination of both (retrograde inversion). The composer might also transpose the row so that the same sequence of intervals starts on a different pitch (for example, D instead of C).
Other composers take this idea of serialism (ordering a set of musical parameters ahead of time and seeing what sounds result) and apply it to other aspects of the music: rhythm, dynamics, etc.
Examples of 12-tone composers are Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg.

When were music boxes invented?

The earliest dated music box is from 1796. These aren’t a kind of recording technology exactly, only a means of mechanically playing back a pre-programmed piece of music. The music box maker would arrange a series of metal pins to engage other tuned pieces of metal in a particular order and at a pre-determined interval.
Music boxes were the only option for music in the home that you didn’t have to produce yourself until the 20th century. Phonographs in the home became widespread ca. 1905-22.
Here is a good chronology and detailed photographs of several historical music boxes: http://www.museums.iastate.edu/MusicBoxes.pdf 
For the rest of recording technology, there are many websites detailing the chronological developments in recording technology. A good one that includes examples of the music that was recorded using different kinds of technology is available here: http://www.charm.rhul.ac.uk/history/p20_4_1.html

Forney, pg 249: “Unlike Mozart’s day, when composers wrote concertos to showcase their own talent as performers, Romantic composers often wrote with a particular artist in mind.”
Does this mean that, during the Baroque and Classical periods, it was mostly the composers performing their own work? Was it less common for a different performer to perform a composer’s work?

Yes, that’s exactly it. In the 18th century, composers were their own promoters in a sense — they wrote music that they themselves would perform. It was considered extremely gauche or inappropriate to perform someone else’s solo or concerto. In the 19th century, the skills of composition and performance diverged, each becoming more specialized and demanding, so it was more difficult to do both at a high level, and the compositional portion of the creative process begins to take precedence over the performance/execution side. At least among music critics and music philosophers, the skill of composition is more highly regarded than the skill of performance.


How do I know if I’m hearing a countermelody?

  • You’re hearing (at least) two melodic ideas at the same time that are equally interesting
  • These melodic ideas are usually contrasting
  • Common in classical music
  • Special (because it’s more rare) in pop music – often comes at the end of a piece (combining melodies heard earlier in the work), can feel climactic


What does “bass” mean?

  • Specific instrument: double bass
  • Specific voice range: lowest male voice
  • The lowest line in a musical texture — Often changes on the first beat of measure; Establishes a sense of harmony that all the lines above it interact with
  • Lowest kind of a particular instrument — Examples: Bass clarinet, bass trombone, bass recorder


On page 65 (of the Forney textbook), a sentence reads as follows: “We often label art music as ‘classical,’ or serious, for lack of better terms.” This label often confuses me. When does “classical” as an era of music end? If a modern-day composer is imitating a classical composer, what would their music be called?

The distinction between “classical” as a large category or umbrella term and “Classical” as a time period is made with capitalization. The specific era (ca. 1750-1820) is capitalized while the generic term is not. I won’t cover this in class tomorrow, but it will come up during a historical survey we’ll cover next week.
Modern classical music can be referred to as just that: “classical music.” Some composers’ work may be a bit heady or inaccessible, and their work may be deemed “modern classical,” “classical avant-garde,” “experimental,” or “contemporary music” etc. just to ensure the listener doesn’t think it will sound like Mozart.

Is music from the Romantic Era supposed to set a “romantic” mood?

Nope — Romantic as a time period and “romantic” love are unrelated. The name Romantic Era actually refers a general 19th century reaction against the realism, logic, and empiricism that had defined the 17th and 18th centuries. This site provides a good explanation the artistic period called “Romanticism”:  http://coursesite.uhcl.edu/HSH/Whitec/terms/R/Romanticism.htm

I don’t understand why the call of prayer is considered as music? Being a Muslim, I know what the call of prayer is and usually it’s just recited through a loud speaker.

The issue of what sounds are deemed “music” is dependent on how the sounds are made, why they’re made, and how they’re interpreted.

In the case of a call to prayer, there are certainly aspects of the call that are musical: pitch, singing, motives, cadences, scales, melodic contour… There are similar musical sounds in other traditions (Catholic chant, Jewish prayers, etc) that treat their religious music as both a religious object as well as music.

However, as you’ve experienced, despite these quasi-musical qualities the Muslim call to prayer is a religious tool or object, and members of the religion (who create it, use it, and interpret it daily) do not consider it to be music.  To call it music would be to diminish its religious power and potentially sully it with the impurity associated with (entertainment) music.

The answer, then, rests on what a culture has decided the term “music” can mean or encompass — is it entertainment, a positive thing, a sinful thing; does it only occur in certain venues, etc.? The Muslim call to prayer is simultaneously music and not-music, depending on who is listening and why they are listening.

In the Titon reading, I learned that the Jewish culture uses an instrument called the klezmer and I know Buddhist monks use a giant bell, gongs, and a stick to hit a wooden block. My question is are there other religions that also use instruments? It seems like Christianity other religions only sing or chant.

Yes! We’ve already heard an example of Christian music that uses instruments in class:

The organ is a common instrument in Christian churches (much of Bach’s career centered on his abilities as an organist in Protestant churches):

A particular sect of Zen Buddhists use the shakuhachi as a meditative tool (hoki) in their daily meditation:

Sufi Muslims use instruments to accompany their meditative dancing: