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musical grammar [was: Re: Calling all Conlangers!]

From:Dirk Elzinga <dirk_elzinga@...>
Date:Wednesday, January 23, 2002, 19:34
At 12:51 AM +0000 01/22/02, Chris Palmer wrote:
>Roger Mills writes: > >>-- Any creative endeavor has an underlying "language"; I believe Bernstein's >>1960s lectures on music showed this quite nicely, using the then-popular >>Transformational model. "Phonology"-- the notes of the scale; "Morphology" >>and "Syntax" including "transformations"; even "Historical"; Dialects; >>Languages (e.g. Western vs. Indian or Chinese music. The same goes for >>painting, sculpture, architecture--- cooking! > >I have those speeches on VHS. Absolutely hilarious and an embarrassment for >Bernstein, in my opinion. The basic idea is interesting, but as Bernstein >presents it it hardly holds up to any scrutiny.
Well, "embarrassment" is a bit harsh. He was certainly naive about the application of linguistic methods to musical analysis, but his lectures sparked interest in possible connections between the two fields which resulted in a faculty seminar at MIT on music, linguistics, and aesthetics in 1974. One of the happy results of this seminar was a book written collaboratively by Fred Lerdahl, a composer and music theorist, and Ray Jackendoff, a syntactician and practicing musician (clarinetist; I believe he even played with the Boston Pops orchestra). The book, _A Generative Theory of Tonal Music_ (GTTM) is a fascinating study; I'm rereading it now and am almost finished. In GTTM Lerdahl and Jackendoff set themselves the task of producing a formal description of the intuitions of listeners who are experienced in a musical idiom (in GTTM, the tonal idiom of most 18th and 19th century classical music). They divide their theory into four modules: grouping, metrical structure, time span reduction, and prolongational reduction. Grouping deals with the heirarchical chunking together of notes into groups (phrases); that is, large groups are built up out of smaller groups. Metrical structure deals with the rhythmic intuitions by which certain beats are related hierarchically. Time span reduction deals with the hierarchical arrangement of pitch events in time spans, which are constructed from the interaction of grouping and metrical structure. Prolongational reduction is the hierarchical arrangement of intuitions of tension and relaxation over time-span reductions. Each module is discussed independently, but they interact in complex ways. For each module, a set of well-formedness rules (WFRs) is proposed which generate the class of possible objects in the respective modules. Since the WFRs overgenerate, they also develop a set of "preference rules" (PRs) for each module which are used to determine "preferred hearings" for musical passages. The PRs essentially "thin out" the possible structures which the WFRs generate. They also discuss transformational rules which govern the relationship between the musical surface (the sequence of pitch events which are heard) and the underlying musical structure (which is generated by the WFRs and the PRs). To me it seems that the most obvious connections GTTM draws with linguistic theory is i) the assumption that there is an underlying musical structure separate from the musical surface, and ii) a set of rules which generates possible structures. More recent connections with linguistic theory can be seen in Optimality Theory, which deals with "preferences" in a way similar to GTTM; PRs in GTTM can directly conflict with each other, with the context determining which one wins out in generating structure. Similarly, in OT constraints on linguistic structures conflict with each other, with the outcome determined contextually. GTTM certainly does not claim that there are musical "parts of speech" or direct analogues to phrases and sentences. Lerdahl has recently published a "sequel" called _Tonal Pitch Space_. As far as I can tell, it uses the theory of time-span reduction and prolongational reduction as a starting point (I haven't read it yet), and makes use of the distinction between WFRs and PRs introduced in GTTM. He also deals with atonal music as well. Dirk -- Dirk Elzinga "Speech is human, silence is divine, yet also brutish and dead; therefore we must learn both arts." - Thomas Carlyle