Dreams, Metaphors and Music Theory

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Do you ever dream about music theory?

I have a feeling people are going to give me those looks about this post. Never mind, I'm used to it... Anyway, it's my blog and I can post about the random stuff that happens in my head - that's part of the deal. At least this is on topic in its way.

The dreams we remember are the ones that capture our imaginations enough on waking for us to rehearse them over in our minds to fix the memories. Mostly when I wake, I find I do not understand in the slightest what has been going on in my head, and those dreams disappear back into the gloop they arose from. But some have enough internal logic to hold onto, and I find them entertaining, sometimes even illuminating.

For instance, when I was an undergraduate, I had been reading a lot about the Second Viennese School, and dreamt that I was walking with friends to a rehearsal, but because of the lack of gravity, we all had to wear fishbowls over our heads or we wouldn't be able to breathe. On waking, I realised my brain had conflated the metaphor of tonality as gravitational pull with the words set in Schoenberg's 2nd String Quartet ('I feel the air of another planet') to produce a scene of a cartoon moon landing in the corridors of the University of Bristol.

The reason I've been thinking about this is because I've had a couple of music theory dreams in the last week that likewise entertained me.

The first was a synaesthesia dream that hinged round the way the chords of E minor and E flat major pivot around the note G, which explains the way they each have a colour blue that is soft and cool (though E minor, obviously, is darker). Both blues are quite, quite different from the bright, clear blue of E major. For some reason, this quality of blueness was also associated with the 'e' sound in the word 'Methodism'. (No, I don't get what this bit is doing there either, but there was a forbidding looking 19th-century stone chapel involved.)

I found this interesting, because I have carried my internal colourscape for harmonies as long as I have been aware of chords. And I have always enjoyed playing around with tonally distant chords with a common note. But I had not previously noticed these systematic relationships between chords and colours highlighted by my dream. Now I reflect on it, I realise that the reds of A minor, A flat major and A major exist in a similar relationship: the first two (with the common third) softer and cooler, with A minor the darker of the two, and A major brighter and clearer. And similar stuff going on with browny/bronzy/goldy colours about D, and yellows around F.

The second dream was much more normal in that it featured people doing only moderately incomprehensible things. Part of it involved queuing up to pour a very tiny glass of water and getting into a conversation about Schenker. The feature that stayed with me was a very clear articulation of the sense that the written score is but a moment in the generative process that starts with the primordial resonance of the Klang and progresses with increasing complexity through the 'finished piece' as presented on paper and into the ornamentations added in performance.

We tend to think of the notated layers of a Schenkerian graph as fundamentally separate from the further elaborations that a performer contributes. And not unreasonably so, inasmuch as there is separate of role (composer from performer) and of medium (paper versus sound). Though of course, for someone like Mozart, both the roles and the media were much more continuous - indeed the scores he wrote for himself to perform from did not always carry as much detail as those that were subsequently published, because he knew the kind of thing that needed elaborating.

The metaphor that always comes to mind for this is the way we think of the earth's solid and liquid layers as fundamentally different from the gaseous layers that continue outwards from the crust. But that is probably an idiosyncrasy of our perspective - we walk around on the crust, so we experience a radical difference between above and below. But from the perspective of describing the planet, they're just a lot of different layers made of different substances in different states that interact with neighbouring layers in limited ways.

Likewise, we give a particular importance to score of a composition because that's the 'product' that we identify, that we pick up and play, but that's only one perspective. From a listener's perspective, the twiddles and roulades and rubatos in performance are just as much part of the 'piece' as the written down bits.

The thing I liked about my dream was that this concept was really really clear and that I wasn't struggling to articulate it like I am here.

Right, that's enough self-indulgent nonsense for now. May I wish you all a productive and stimulating night's sleep.

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