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Dancing with the Muses: A Historical Approach to Basic Concepts of Music Paperback – February 16, 2013
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Top Customer Reviews
The only fault of the book is that it promises audio examples of musical phrases via a website. I'll admit that it has been a while since I checked the website, but when I first started reading the book there were, at the time, no posted audio examples. This was a little disappointing as I don't sight-sing and don't always have an instrument handy to play the examples for myself.
All in all, I found this book to be truly insightful, illuminating, very easy to understand, and a pleasure to read!
An important aspect of the book is that the author presents these musical concepts in their historical context. This is valuable not only because it is generally edifying for history lovers, but because it reinforces the logic of the concepts that are introduced. History, properly understood, is explanatory. The orderly presentation in the book is indicative of the author’s understanding of music as an integrated whole, a view that rejects any split between science and art. Music, Johnson makes clear, is a product of reason.
I love this book—it is a delightful and unexpected gem—and I am looking forward to reading the author’s new one, which has just arrived in the mail.
While this book can serve as a powerful introduction to the ideas that explain how music works, I believe that the more one already knows about music theory, the more powerful this book can be in illuminating a rational explanation of what is most important in the structure of music.
I myself have a college education in music theory, composition, and piano performance. Like everyone who begins studying music theory in college, my education began with the writing of four-part harmony exercises which require the student to learn a complicated matrix of rules on leading the four voices to connect one chord to the next. Professor Johnson persuasively argues that this practice can be as baffling to students as trying to teach them higher math before they have learned arithmetic, and yet this has been the common practice at music conservatories since the time of Rameau, in the 18th century. Johnson argues that the practice of beginning music theory with the study of harmony is contrary not only to the cognitive grasp of the essentials of music, but contrary also to the historical and intellectually hierarchical development of music.
It is this historical and hierarchical development of music that Johnson gives us in this book. Johnson guides the reader to understand what animates music by telling the story of music's evolution in its most essential terms. This story begins in every time and culture with melody made of scales rooted at the intersection of the processes of human cognition and the physics of sound. Among all the peoples of the world, melody has been the primary force in music, and, outside the Western development of polyphony and harmony, melody has been the only element in common between the music of these peoples. Johnson makes the point that melody is primary to music, and historically came before harmony. Indeed, harmony developed out of the human experience of weaving melodies together polyphonically.
After the appearance of Jean-Philippe Rameaus' Theory of Harmony in 1722, the most powerful authorities in music came to teach composition in a way that made students revere the primacy of harmony and to be rather indifferent to melody, this crucial core of music. Moreover, many of the most honest and conscientious students have been rendered dizzy, pixilated, and confused by this fairy dust of a philosophy that says our choice of the notes for composing music is but an arbitrary cultural convention, governed by the tribe into which we were born, and not derived from any marriage between the processes of human cognition and the physics of sound.
Dancing with the Musies shines a strong light on what is truly important in music and makes me feel that I can see more clearly than ever before why it matters, and how so much serious art music of the last century, written by so many otherwise talented but misguided composers, came to be so ugly!
Now, knowing that Rameau admired Rene Descarte's rationalism, we should not be surprised to see that Rameau begins, like Descartes, with arbitrary axioms and proceeds deductively to spin out implications that are oblivious to inductive experience and blind to observation.
If you've read David Harriman's book, The Logical Leap, you may know of Descartes' truly absurd book on physics, which was an a priori exercise in rationalistically spinning out the implications of arbitrary axioms, bereft of even a whiff of inductive observation of the world. The results of Descartes' physics are as bizarre as Rameau's theory on the primacy of harmony, and the resulting pedagogy of teaching four parts before two, or even before one part (which is another name for melody, and which is not even to mention the important properties of writing good melody.)
Johnson's discussion of the primacy of melodic line over the primacy of chord brings to mind Ayn Rand's crucial formulation of the disastrous error of upholding the primacy of consciousness above the primacy of existence, if you know this line of reasoning.
Johnson does not write about Manfred Clynes' work, but it sounds like he might well know of it anyway.
Clynes is a neurosurgeon, an ethnomusicologist, and a concert pianist (if you can wrap your mind around all those titles!) who has done research into the music of all the far-flung peoples of the world. Clynes' conclusion from these studies is that, yes, there are vast differences between the music of all these peoples, differences in such elements as the choice of vocal timbre and in the particular division of the octave into scales, but whether the scale is divided into five or six or however many notes, these tones are invariably chosen from among the first several partials of the overtone series, and not by some artificial, rationalistic division. Clynes' conclusion from studying the music of all these peoples is that the defining characteristic of music everywhere in the world is ... melody.
Blessed melody! Surprise! Tell that to the gangsta rappers and the vulgar hip-hopsters! Not to mention the purveyors of twelve tone counterpoint like Schoenberg, or the dice-throwing aleatory composers like John Cage.
If I were to mention any faults with Dancing with the Muses, it would be the lack of an index. I might also quibble with Professor Johnson's selection or omission of one or two items on his timeline of the development of music theory, but otherwise I find his book a splendid effort.
Read this book, and buy copies to give all your musical friends. For me, this work comes as a treasured gift from the musical muses.