Tag Archives: form

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The Perfect Note?

It is an intriguing idea that we have a natural affinity for certain sounds, shapes and forms.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the attraction that the pitch of B-flat major has for humans. For years musicians and some scientists have speculated that this single note shows up as the home key in a lot music, as well as other non-musical parts of our lives.  Is B-flat our homing frequency?  What accounts for all of the major pieces of music written in this key?  Is it an accident that a black hole in deep space seems to “sing” that note, albeit some 50-plus octaves below the pitch we know as middle C? Is it more than a coincidence  that our electrical system “hums” at 60 hz (cycles per second), close to the audible lower octave B-flat? And should we make anything out of the anecdotal evidence offered by some that human structures seem to sustain sound especially well in the neighborhood of the same pitch?

Actor Ethan Hawke’s interesting documentary Seymour: an Introduction (2014) includes a passionate pianist who is impressed by how many  composers were drawn to producing  works in the key of B-flat major, including concertos and symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Schumann, Prokofiev and others. Is it the perfect note: a kind of passkey that resonates with something inside, as the opening of  Brahms Piano Concerto in B flat major.

A slightly broader question was asked by the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the first of his still fascinating Norton Lectures given at Harvard in the early 70s (available on YouTube). He argued that the idea in linguistics of an “innate grammatical competence” that allows even young children to form sentences may have its counterpart in how we are  “tuned” to the intervals that make up tonal music. The idea is that we already “know” a harmonic series like a triad of C, G and E without having to learn it.  Any set of notes built off the overtones of a low first note always sounds “right.”  We expect a simple musical work to find its way along what music theorists call the “circle of fifths” within a chromatic or diatonic scale.

To be sure, a more specific theory asserting a special affinity for a single absolute pitch has its problems.  After all, Mozart’s B-flat was lower than ours. In his time the nearby tuning note of A was more likely to be around 420 hz rather than the more standardized 440 hz today.  But it is an intriguing idea that we may have a natural synchronicity to natural sounds, shapes and forms.  Think of how easily we associate music composed in a minor key as darker and more solemn.  When a tune “resolves” in a major interval it tends to perk us up.  We don’t have to be trained to notice the effect. Most of us are born into this world discovering that we have an unquenchable thirst to hear modulations of sound that build out from (and occasionally violate) music’s fixed chromatic intervals.

The motive to confirm a ‘hard-wired’ need is naturally interesting, leaving us at the doorstep of a theory of forms. Consider the rhyme that falls at the end of a second line of a poem; or the AABA structure of a pop song that so easily satisfies our expectations by delivering the “B” refrain; or the third act resolution of conflict that developed and festered in Act II.  All are narrative forms that have become routine templates for thought. They sink their claws into us (or were they already there?).

It would might take some magical thinking to identify a form that is as controlling on us as something like the inviolate laws of physics. Even so, the question of identifying perfect resonances–responses tuned to our essences as humans–is intriguing.  We are usually better at naming specific human processes than single universals that may function as reliable North Stars. To be sure, religion fills this need for many. But it’s exciting to consider the idea of a physical property that exerts an enigmatic and irresistible pull.  If we need a visual reference, perhaps form as “deep structure” is perhaps like the inscrutable black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968). The possibility that anything can be the organizing principle that animates the rest of our world is always exciting.

    Still from 2001: a Space Odyssey                                                                                   

Rhetorical Exigencies

Listening to the President issue his bellicose threat against North Korea made people around the world wonder: why now?

Early in their college careers students of rhetoric are introduced to the enduring idea that a leader’s public remarks are shaped by some kind of precipitating event.  As the University of Wisconsin’s Lloyd Bitzer noted decades ago, public figures respond when they believe their words will answer a problem, bending it’s trajectory in ways the speaker imagines will be positive. In the short version of the idea, rhetoric is a response to an “exigency.” It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s almost always a piece of a larger conversation provoked by a significant event. George W. Bush was slow to react to Hurricane Katrina, taking a lot of heat for the delay. He was better in assuring Americans after 9/11.

This simple notion that has not gone unchallenged, but it is also more than an empty academic term.  It rewards us by asking that any comment be set in the context of immediate past events, not just as an isolated island of thought.  When a president or public official speaks, we expect that there are clear reasons–significant antecedents–for steering our attention toward certain issues. The theory goes on to note that in significant ways the antecedents will govern the response.  The glaring lateness of Donald Trump’s denunciation of white hate groups last Sunday is a violation of the principle. But his tone deafness on key events always been one of his problems.  His comments are too little too late or too much too soon.

Of course  Pyongyang is always making threats, but nothing coming from them seemed to warrant an out-of-the-blue threat to engage them and the world in a potentially catastrophic nuclear exchange.

Listening to the President issue his bellicose threat against North Korea on August 7 made people around the world wonder: why now?  At the time he was in the midst of a meeting on the nation’s opioid crisis, and yet the warlike language on North Korea is how he unburdened himself when reporters were ushered into the room:

North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. [Kim Jong-un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.

Apparently only after his comments did we learn that the North Koreans blustered that they were looking at options for attacking Guam, some 1800 miles away. Of course Pyongyang is always making threats, but nothing coming from them seemed to warrant the President’s out-of-the-blue challenge to engage them and the world in a potentially catastrophic nuclear exchange.

This was troubling because the sabre-rattling affair would make more sense if the exigency for his words was after North Korea’s threat. But no. Trump commented first on a Tuesday of last week. The North Korean’s comment came on Wednesday. In the short term, the larger exigency resided with the Koreans.

It is so like Donald Trump to make inaccurate and combative comments for reasons that only he understands. Too often his reference points are still the former president and Ms. Clinton. In his rhetorical wanderings he often seems like a befuddled fisherman casting a line miles from the closest stream. In this case he did have legitimate bragging rights after the unanimous United Nation’s vote to increase sanctions against the North. Any other President would have used the occasion to build off this diplomatic success. But on the sanctions he was mostly silent.

In this strange pattern there is a lesson in how much we are hardwired to place the flow of a person’s ideas in a larger frame of reference.  Meaningful rhetoric is almost always a moment in a river of known events.

Exigency theory explains how we arrive at attributions of other people’s motives. We naturally search for the antecedents that seem to trigger strong reactions in individuals. There is a form to these things. We expect to be able to identify contributing factors for a significant presidential statement. This feeds into the dialogical form that is second nature to us. We mentally ‘build out’ from a person’s words to make conclusions about what likely gave rise to them. When we ask questions like “why did Mary say that?” we are looking for the triggering exigency. When we can’t find one, we worry that we are missing something important, or that the speaker has a chaotic mind that has drifted into magical thinking.