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 The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-07 22:26

Playing classical music stylishly -- an evolutionary argument, and the cocktail party theory of classical music:

What does it mean, to play classical music in a way that is 'stylistically appropriate to the period in which it was written' (or, as I shall shorten the phrase for convenience, 'stylishly'?

Do we need to use period instruments? Or can we, as Nicholas Harnoncourt claims, do just as well on modern ones? Even on modern instruments, how much of our playing can still be our own? Are we condemned to be always considering what they did? Anyway, how much can we trust that they followed their own treatises, given that our own, modern musical treatises fall so far short of capturing how we ourselves play?

All of these questions have been given different answers by different people, so that it might seem that there are no objective conclusions we can come to. I would like to argue here, though, that there is actually an absolute sense in which we can play classical music stylishly. In fact, I think it probable that the most important difference between the way classical music is unstylishly played today, and the stylish way in which it was played by the best players of the time it was composed, can be deduced in just two moves of the imagination. The first move is to take seriously the question of why and how our auditory processing systems have evolved to be the way they are; and the second move is to notice how the scores of the great classical composers are constructed in order to take advantage of that evolution.

I mentioned this argument briefly in the course of an article I wrote in May 1996 for the Oxford University Press journal, Early Music. That article, called Phrasing in Contention, was a thought-experiment investigating the change of meaning of composers' slurs (also sometimes called ligatures) between the time of Mozart and the present day.

Early Music is available in any good library, but in order to make the article more easily accessible, I recently organised with Mark Charette that it be put on the web at


However, I have come to think that the first move, namely, to consider the evolution of our auditory processing systems, is more important than I made it seem there. So, this much shorter post is intended to throw into stronger relief what is implicit in the idea, which is that the classical style is not merely arbitrary or culture-dependent, but is instead determined in a much deeper sense by our human nature, which of course we share with people of quite different cultural backgrounds. What happens to be stylish in classical music is therefore not merely a way of playing that was adopted for a short time by musicians in the eighteenth century. If it were only that, then discovering and following the details of its practice would be little more than just being fashionable, or trendy, in retrospect -- and indeed, so-called authentic performances have often been accused of just such trendiness. The aspect of stylishness that I am concerned with, and the aspect that I claim is independent of any particular musical culture in which it is used, is instead a powerful and general attitude that has universal value. It can be used to great effect in many other sorts of music. It is often what is required to make complex twentieth-century music work well.

In writing Phrasing in Contention, I first tried to imagine in detail what the contemporary meaning of classical slurs had been, through considering what sort of interpretation would make most evident the structure of the best of the music of the time. Second, drawing at least partly on personal experience, I discussed how it might be possible to find a way of playing that would allow us to read and represent the slurs in this way. It turned out that finding that involved the adoption of a view of phrasing that I termed, 'beginning-oriented'. However, I argued in the article that adopting this view of phrasing does not compromise our own naturalness and expressivity. The argument is quite long; but that is because some players find beginning-oriented phrasing counterintuitive, in the sense that it seems to go against their natural instincts. Those players, in difficulties themselves, are then surprised to discover that some others, on the contrary, see 'beginning-oriented phrasing' as a perfectly natural point of view, and cannot understand what all the fuss is about. It was necessary in the article to talk at some length about why there is a difficulty in moving from one viewpoint to the other.

I want here to explain what lies behind what I shall (rather frivolously) call the 'cocktail party' theory of classical music. This is a very simple idea. I hope that interested readers who would like to know about the more complex details will follow the Web link (or look at a copy of Early Music, May 1996) for themselves.

The 'cocktail party' theory of classical music derives its name from the fact that we are able at a cocktail party to hear not only the conversation in which we are engaged, but also, if we want, other conversations that are going on around us. I would say that what is required to perform the best classical music well bears several striking similarities to what occurs at such a party.

The reason is that the individual lines of a classical piece are written in such a way that each line is interesting in itself. Such lines often contain motivic references to each other, and so reflect the underlying unity of the composer's conception. The scores of the best classical pieces demand that we should be able to pick out such lines from the overall texture even as we respond to higher levels of organisation, such as the harmonies, and on a higher level, shifts of tonality. Perhaps no-one can hear all the individual lines simultaneously, but each of those lines should be at least potentially available to us; the possibility then exists that we may switch our perception between them, even at a rate that creates for us the illusion of simultaneity. For this to be even conceivable, the piece needs to be played in a way that allows all the important individual lines to be heard. That is why, in the preparation of a serious performance of a classical piece, a very large part of the effort of both players and directors is devoted to making the important parts audible.

But -- and this is the message of this post -- there is a great deal to be learnt from the very simple example of what occurs in the normal speech of people at a cocktail party. Understanding that phenomenon makes the problem of balancing a performance much more tractable, and explains why playing that follows the model of speech is much more effective.

Speech has evolved under the twin constraints of the need to be audible and the need to be recognisable, even in a noisy environment, so as to maximise the probability that our ears and auditory processing systems identify its message and pass it on to our other systems for possible action. The survival value of clear communication can hardly be doubted. You could almost say that the whole point of speech is that it be both audible and recognisable. (Not to be able to hear, and understand, "Look out behind you!" is to be at a considerable evolutionary disadvantage.)

Music and language have often been compared, with varying degrees of success. But the comparison I want to make here is much more straightforward and basic than most such comparisons. My analogy is only between the surface structure of speech itself and the surface structure of classical phrases. The analogy is apt because the property of being both audible and recognisable in a noisy environment is what is required in both domains. Not all music relies on such clarity, it's true. The intention of a composer may sometimes be to suppress the details of an accompaniment. But in the music of the best classical composers, the perception of individual lines is very often of crucial importance.

Now, one aspect of speech is that its syllables, in all languages, are what I shall call, 'beginning-oriented'. That is, in some sense, they begin more energetically, and lose intensity as they progress. This particular type of modulation, a clear beginning plus a falling away, contributes significantly to the audibility of spoken words. It is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon: it admits of degrees. For example, if we wish to make ourselves more heard or understood against the odds, we automatically increase the degree to which what we say is beginning-oriented. It is not time-symmetric either; a recording of speech played backwards doesnt sound like speech.

However, that all languages have 'beginning-oriented' syllables doesn't mean that 'beginning-orientation' is a simple thing to characterise. (I have been purposely vague in describing it.) In fact, the lack of such a simple characterisation was notoriously part of the difficulty in programming automatic speech-recognition software. Researchers found it very difficult to make explicit the rules that would allow their programs to segment the continuous sound of speech into syllables, in order to match them with the syllables that constitute dictionary words. That humans find this problem trivial in practice shouldn't blind us to the subtlety of what's involved in solving it. We just have very good speech-production and speech-recognition software 'built in'. And co-ordinately, we shouldnt be surprised that the corresponding musical techniques are difficult to characterise in detail too, even though young players often learn to execute them quite naturally.

It is actually the quality of being both easy to hear, yet difficult to pin down in prescriptive detail, that makes this aspect of the connection between speech and music profound rather than trivial. If being 'spoken' had a simple, unequivocal character, the subtlety and variety of musical expression would not be matched by the subtlety and variety of speech, and the analogy would break down. 'Spoken' phrases would just be the class of phrases that had that one particular character. The truth is precisely the contrary: spoken phrases can be subject to an infinite variety of nuance, and can actually be more or less 'spoken', shading into the quality of being 'sung'.

And there is a further simple, yet overwhelmingly important bonus for musical performance that we may obtain by following the structure of speech. This bonus is the most important part of the 'cocktail party' theory. It is that in the cocktail party, what allows us to be heard against the background noise created by the speech of the other guests is precisely what allows their speech to be better heard against us.

To appreciate this, recall that, at such a party, we can pick out a nearby conversation that happens to be interesting, and pay attention to it even as we continue to listen to the conversation of the person we are at present engaged with. The audible syllable-beginnings of one conversation don't consistently coincide with the audible syllable-beginnings of the other, and so each syllable 'gives space', allowing the other to be heard. Even if, by chance, two syllable-beginnings do happen to coincide, the fact that syllable-lengths vary, often quite widely, soon destroys the synchrony.

So, we see that if we adopt the analogous musical structure, the whole texture of a classical score is clarified. If everyone 'speaks' the music, to a greater or lesser extent, then much of the balance is automatically taken care of.

Now, in music, the composer has control of the degree to which phrases are synchronous. If we look at the music of the great classical composers, it is easy to recognise examples of the use of both synchronous and asynchronous phrasing between different instruments, in order respectively to obliterate or enhance the perception of individual lines. But this can only work if the performers have a common, beginning-oriented view of phrasing that they generally follow. Classical style must include that beginning-oriented structure as a built-in normative element. We may not always follow it -- indeed, part of the expressivity of any style lies in how in execution its norms may be varied, or even contradicted. You cannot, though, effectively vary what isn't clearly perceived to be there. (Again, both this and other related issues are explored more fully in Phrasing in Contention.)

Of course, none of this is particularly original. There are many players whose playing embodies precisely the attitude towards musical performance that I have characterised. But there are others who find it strange, and still others who think that it is merely a quirk of music of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. ("That backward phrasing," I once heard a colleague call it.) Perhaps by talking about it in a different way I may have reduced that strangeness for them.

To sum up:

(1) The clear structure of classical music demands that we have available the clear structure of 'spoken' execution.

(2) This structure admits of expressive variation, which is important because a crucial part of musical performance is the expressive variation of stylistic norms.

(3) But, you can't expressively vary what isn't perceived to be there.

(4) The structure of speech is designed, by evolution, to guarantee that we perceive what is there; therefore, that structure is fundamental in the performance of classical music; it is important in much other music too.


Post Edited (2005-07-07 22:43)

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: diz 
Date:   2005-07-07 22:40

What do you want us to say ... your thread is so long as to be a little too broad in scope.

Without music, the world would be grey, very grey.

Post Edited (2005-07-07 22:41)

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-07 22:51

I didn't necessarily want anyone to say anything -- though of course I would be happy if someone else did.

I wanted to put forward an idea that is really important -- and so, just doing that was worthwhile to me, in itself -- and then to see how people responded to it, or to any parts of it, if they wanted.


 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: ned 
Date:   2005-07-07 22:57

When will the book publish?

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Liquorice 
Date:   2005-07-07 23:03

Thanks for your interesting ideas Tony. I read your article some years ago, at the same time that I started playing with players who also had this 'beginning oriented' approach. Suddenly a lot of things fell into place for me and classical music started to really make sense.

But are ALL languages 'beginning oriented'? What about Norwegian? Perhaps Norwegian developed differently because nobody actually speaks at their cocktail parties, for fear of disturbing the serious business of drinking aquavit to the point of blissful silence?!

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-07 23:17

I'm very happy you found it useful.

I think it's still true that the syllables of Norwegian exhibit something like 'diminuendo'.

But...I remember Franz Bruggen telling me something else about Norwegian: that Norwegian is much more 'about' vowels than about consonants -- and immediately, when he told me that, I wondered whether unvoiced consonants, for a seafaring nation, would disappear too readily into the hiss of the sea....


 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-08 21:14

diz wrote:

> > What do you want us to say ... your thread is so long as to be a little too broad in scope.> >

Just to add to what I said before: I think that, rather than being too broad in scope, the post is actually concentrated just on one particular idea.

There's a broader polemic then given in its favour, but the nub of the issue is clear.

I think in general that there are some issues that aren't to be captured by short comments and answers. To engage in one of those issues was why I made that rather longer post.

The difficulty is that if you want to respond, you do have to take the trouble actually to read it. Sorry about that:-)


Post Edited (2005-07-09 06:43)

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: 3dogmom 
Date:   2005-07-09 03:29

Thanks, Tony. It would be interesting to have a situation where you could comprise an ensemble of individuals representing a variety of linguistic origins, but who are on board with "beginning oriented" phrasing. How would their understanding and interpretation of the music vary?

Central auditory processing issues are controversial. There is a lot of discussion in education about whether we really understand processing, and we enter in to the area of how the brain learns and what we actually "hear".

Lots of food for thought.

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: diz 
Date:   2005-07-14 01:27


tony pay said "Franz Bruggen telling me something else about Norwegian: that Norwegian is much more 'about' vowels than about consonants -- and immediately, when he told me that, I wondered whether unvoiced consonants, for a seafaring nation, would disappear too readily into the hiss of the sea"

Fascinating (I speak Danish and had never, until now, wondered why those Scandinavian tongues are so 'vowel' intensive). I rang a friend, who is a linguist and PhD in English ... his comment was that there are gaelic parts of Scottland (the islands) where old norse was spoken at sea in preference to Gaelic ... and if you've ever heard Gaelic spoken you'll understand.

Without music, the world would be grey, very grey.

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: hans 
Date:   2005-07-14 02:59

The Netherlands is historically a "seafaring" country and consonants have certainly not disappeared from its language(s). Time for another cocktail....

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: diz 
Date:   2005-07-14 05:20

Tony - finally, I've read your (rather long) but enlightening article. How does one explain that "your mob" use A = 430 Hz and the Renaissance mob use A = 440 ... when, in actual fact (as you well know) Europe's Classical sense of pitch was widely varying ...

Without music, the world would be grey, very grey.

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: larryb 
Date:   2005-07-14 11:53


can you address the disconnect between composer and performer? and then the further disconnect between performer-composer and listener?

At a cocktail party, there is no disconnect - the party goers are both composer and performer. In most classical music, however, there is a disconnect, which might confound your theory - maybe.

You seem to assume that period composers and period performers were on the same page, and that might be true in many cases. Mozart, as performer and composer, was able to write for some of the best performers of his day (himself, Stadler, for example). Mozart seems to have written operas with specific singers in mind. We know, however, that Beethoven was continually frustrated by the poor quality of musicianship available for his orchestral works, but that does not seem to have affected his composition.

I think your theory best describes what Gunther Schuller calls the "collective improvosation" of early New Orleans jazz - before it was killed off by the solo genius of Louis Armstrong (later revived in the music of Charlie Mingus). In the case of New Orleans collective ensemble, there is a unity of composer and performer that is generally lacking in "classical" music. As Schuller desribes it, the result of expertly executed collective improvosation is a fluid, rocking quality (perhaps not unlike overhearing a cocktail party) - go listen to King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band recordings (1923) while sipping a gin and tonic (preferably Tanquery) and you'll hear/feel what it means. Of course, a cocktail party, like jazz, is not pure improvisation. Both rely on a balance of improvisation and composed convention, or structure. Not unlike oral formulaic epic poetry of Homer or Beowulf. While most great composer-performers (Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin) could improvise as individuals, it's not clear to me that they had the cultural ability to do so in a collective sense. The missing ingredient is probably the west African musical tradition that drives Jazz.

A further disconnect beyond that of composer - performer, then, involves the listener, and I'm not sure how that fits in to your theory. I think though, that when successful, an alienated/objective listener will achieve great satisfaction and frustration from both the collective and individual aspects of King Oliver's performance. One great challenge is trying to pick out Armstrong's "voice" from the ensemble while not losing sight of the collective feel (surely, Armstrong would have resisted that). The great historical tragedy is that today we risk straining to hear Armstrong's solo on "Chimes Blues" and lose sight of the band's collective brilliance. The death of the collective is our desire to focus on that amazing individual voice.

While it might be enjoyable for the participants, an alienated observer of a cocktail party is not a desirable position. If your theory is true, that may be why the audience for classical music is dying.

I think your cocktail party metaphor is interesting, but it needs some work. Unless you think it is acceptable for classical music to continue on the line of a closed, elitist conversation among its practitioners. Welcome to the party - by invitation only.

Post Edited (2005-07-14 12:17)

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: EEBaum 
Date:   2005-07-14 17:49

"can you address the disconnect between composer and performer? and then the further disconnect between performer-composer and listener?"

Snobbery, protocol, elitism. Historically ingrained. It's how we've come to expect "classical music." We've declared it to be high art and culture, and therefore anything "lesser" is traditionally shunned and abolished.


 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-14 21:25


I wrote that I wanted to describe:

"what I shall rather frivolously call, the 'Cocktail Party Theory' of classical music."

Perhaps I should have been less frivolous. What I was calling attention to is certainly not a theory, and certainly not about 'classical music' in its entirety. It's more of an analogy between speech and some sorts of music; and moreover, an analogy of a very basic sort.

The idea -- and though it's sometimes difficult to get across, it's not a particularly profound one -- is that many classical players today underestimate the power of their 'beginnings' -- namely, the precise details of how they begin notes and phrases when they play.

I think we lose something important when we begin our notes and phrases always quietly, and in the same way; and then base our expressivity on how we develop those notes and phrases, usually by making a crescendo.

The point of imagining the cocktail party is to characterise the difference between a group of players that play their notes and phrases in a 'beginning-oriented' (or spoken) way, and a group of players that play their notes and phrases always in a 'quiet-beginning-then-crescendo' way.

You can see from the cocktail part analogy why speech-syllables are beginning-oriented: it's because nobody would be able to hear anybody else -- or even themselves -- if speech-syllables worked in a 'quiet-beginning-then-crescendo' way. And it's a property both of speech and of our systems of perception.

Because speech-syllables are always beginning-oriented, it's clear that the cocktail party is not an appropriate model for a group of 'quiet-beginning-then-crescendo' players. It's also clear why playing in that 'quiet-beginning-then-crescendo' way diminishes the clarity of part-writing.

For players whose expressivity is based on crescendo, this is bad news. On the other hand, it's possible for them to recapture their expressivity by making their expressive crescendos follow the model of crescendos in speech, if they want.

It's interesting that you should mention jazz. Most jazz players and singers have no difficulty in playing and singing in a 'spoken' way. It's a part of their style.

It's also a part of our style -- but one many of us have forgotten about. We need to recapture a 'spoken' expressiveness for classical music.


 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-14 22:43

Here is a more detailed post about the issue, that I posted to the Klarinet list in 1998. I hope it helps make clear what I'm on about:


I said that I had a few more shots in my locker about this 'beginning-oriented phrasing' business that I intended to get off, so I'll produce them in this post.

I know that some people will find what I have to say obvious, others will disagree strongly. Go figure. We live in a very strange and heterogeneous musical world at the moment!

Here goes.

There are two distinct reasons why beginning-oriented phrasing is important for performers. One has to do with audibility, and one with expressivity. Both tend to be compromised by the tendency to ask the question 'where does it *go to*?' of a phrase, together with the tendency then (by playing the phrase) to answer the question in a superficial way, and thus to base all expressivity on local crescendo.

(It might be objected that the question 'where does it *go to*?' may sometimes be a very natural one, even in classical music. Fortunately, in these circumstances, it is possible to provide a satisfactory answer to the question, yet without undermining the advantages of beginning-oriented phrasing, by allowing the 'going to' to occur on the next higher phrase level. I won't spell this out in detail here (see my article), but consider: the sequence "louder, *louder*, LOUDER!", read 'out loud', constitutes an evident 'going to' the final 'LOU-!' -- yet there is never a 'local' crescendo. *Everything* is in diminuendo.)

(1) The first reason why beginning-oriented phrasing is important -- to do with audibility -- is something that any solo wind player, in any sort of music, but particularly in an orchestra, does well to realise.

One part of it is well-known: you should *begin clearly*, in order to be audible.

However what I find less well known, consciously at any rate, is that it is advantageous to *come away afterwards* (thus giving space to begin again, of course), particularly if you have to overcome a degree of competition from your colleagues. The 'coming away' may occur to a greater or lesser degree (even to zero degree), and there is no suggestion that the continuity of the sound be broken.

Why is this?

First, one sort of explanation: our ears and brain are sensitive to *change*. Something that changes is more easily perceived than something that stays the same. So, even if we are doing a diminuendo, and giving therefore less energy to the note or phrase we are playing, we are more clearly perceived than if we stayed at the same dynamic.

(As another aside, this is part of a sort of paradox about the communication of the *idea* of energy, too. We communicate 'energy' in our playing by rapid changes of dynamic, even though we are thereby playing for a proportion of the time quieter, and therefore less energetically, than we might.)

But there is another, deeper explanation of why we should 'come away' that is more suggestive. It is that to do so is to mimic the surface structure of *speech*.

Speech has evolved subject to the constraints of our perceptual systems. The character of speech is therefore a clue to the character of our perceptual systems, including those that we bring to our perception of music.

The fundamental character of speech is its responsibility to be intelligible, which presupposes that it be clearly *audible*, even against background noise.

For this to be the case, it seems to be important that the constantly changing vowels and consonants at the beginnings of syllables be clearly differentiated from the sounds that immediately precede them. In other words, the beginnings have more energy. This is a natural character of everyday spoken language. Recorded speech in any language, played backwards, doesn't sound like speech.

This structure of speech is the reason why we can understand one conversation even in a crowded party, where there is not only background noise but also the conversation of others to distract and confuse us. It is also why we can switch our attention from one conversation to another, if we hear something gripping in it (like our name, for example).

So if we want to be clear, it makes sense to take advantage of how our perceptual system works and 'speak' the music. Then the musical phrases are like the syllables of words: each phrase begins clearly and then gives way to allow the next to do the same. Moreover and this is crucial if there is more than one line, this 'giving way' also makes room for the beginnings of other phrases in the sequences that are simultaneously in progression in the other parts.

We may range across the spectrum from separation, through contiguity and into sostenuto, whilst still retaining the autonomy of the individual phrases, just as we may do with words when we speak. Our ability to do this is very important. Any method of showing phrasing that does not allow both separation and sostenuto as limiting cases is bound to fail in classical music of any subtlety, because the simultaneous and delicately balanced expression of both unity and diversity is fundamental.

For me, it is something like magic that *what allows us to be clearly heard*, if we are playing an important line, *also allows what else is going on to be clearly heard*.

As I said before, it is therefore to be expected that a music consisting of individual lines, all separately audible yet nevertheless blending in an overall effect, should have those lines share some of the character of speech. In my view, the best classical music is such music.

(2) The second reason why beginning-orientated phrasing is important has to do with expressivity.

Expressivity is a mysterious thing. It has to do with the notions of 'atmosphere' and 'character', and seems to be beyond the notes. It is often approached by analogy, and is something that, in large works, it is an important part of the job of a conductor to communicate or allow.

The best way of thinking of it is as something rather like context, or 'being'.

But just as the conductor's upbeat that represents it occurs before the downbeat, it is something that we create in the moment *before* we start to play. The beginning of what we play is then the first, most crucial moment in which our sound can reflect the context, and communicate it to the audience. Our beginnings are our most powerful gestures.

And, once you consider your playing from this point of view, you begin to see that our abilities to begin phrases and subphrases can be considerably developed and refined. It's no good beginning anyhow, and *then* playing expressively.

The ability of a really excellent violinist lies to a very large extent in how he or she uses the bowstroke -- particularly the *beginning* of the bowstroke.



 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: larryb 
Date:   2005-07-15 00:05

Interesting that you never use the word "attack" (I think) - the most commonly used metaphor for the process you're describing. Why?

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-15 01:02

larryb wrote:

>> Interesting that you never use the word "attack" (I think) - the most commonly used metaphor for the process you're describing. Why?>>

I think the other bits of that metaphor are too damaging. I know that it's a common use of language to divide a musical object into two bits: 'attack' and 'note', or alternatively 'attack' and 'phrase'; but such division is a limitation.


Phrasing most often appears as an implicit, rather than an 'imposed' structure.

The 'attack' metaphor is of someone (the performer) doing something to the beginning of something else (the note); whereas the 'speech' metaphor allows the syllables to flow through the continuous sound of the voice and still be differentiated from each other.

There is no 'attack' to a non-breaking wave (see Phrasing in Contention) in general, even though there may be in particular. So nothing is lost.


 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Lelia Loban 2017
Date:   2005-07-15 14:00

I think that phrases are ending-oriented, too, in speech and in music. The end of one phrase sets up the beginning of the next, unless it really is the end of the ending. That "finishing" sound is instantly recognizable not only to people but to animals. My Shadow Cat recognizes musical endings, including end-credits film music, when she hears it. She knows the difference between the end of a phrase that leads to another phrase and the end of the piece. She stands up on my lap and yawns as the ending approaches, and then at the real end, she jumps down, clearly expecting me to stand up. She's done this many times with music she's never heard before.

There's a lovely example in the score for the film version of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," when the kids need to go down a trapdoor guarded by Fluffy, the monstrous three-headed dog. Music makes him fall asleep. Someone has left a magical harp playing by itself. The kids take advantage of the chance to move Fluffy's enormous paw off the trapdoor, but then the audience hears ending music coming from that harp.

When I saw the movie in the theater, even little bitty kids who couldn't know an arpeggio from a bicycle reacted to hearing the arpeggiated resolution to the dominant of what had been a quiet, background-y, drifty and aimlessly-phrased piece of music. The music sounded barely noticible, but as that significant arpeggio began--and it was the *only* clue--the kids in the audience went on full alert, sitting forward eagerly, chattering and buzzing, expecting calamity, just *knowing* that the music was ending--and sure enough, the harp does stop playing at the end of that arpeggio phrase, and all three of the dog's heads wake up, slobbering and snapping wth rage. I think that often the phrase-ending is what jumps out in the "cocktail party conversation" example of speech, too. The beginning *or* the ending attracts attention. The ending makes us expect what's coming next--and sometimes we're fooled (by Bruckner's false endings, for instance), and that's interesting, too.

To hear the audio, click on the "Scorch Plug-In" box above the score.

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-15 17:08

Lelia Loban wrote:

>> I think that phrases are ending-oriented, too, in speech and in music.>>

I know what you mean -- however, in all this discussion, I have been using the word 'phrase' to mean, 'a group of notes that lies under a slur written by the composer' -- so a 'classical phrase' only means such a group of notes written by a classical composer like Mozart.

It's in that sense of the word 'phrasing' that one can come to say, "classical phrasing is 'beginning-oriented'". (To say that such a phrase was 'ending-oriented' would mean that it culminated in its final note.)

It seems to be very difficult to restrict the use of the word to this meaning. Your post, Lelia, though incorporating much intelligence, insight and charm (as usual:-), nevertheless has the effect of muddying these particular waters.

I'd love to have you see clearly the power and beauty of the other approach, which allows a classical composer to write one phrasemark over a setting of, "We can be", and another phrasemark over the setting of "happy", and have both phrases be beginning-oriented, even though there is continuity between the two phrases, and the second phrase bears more weight.

See the details of 'Phrasing in Contention'.


 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: clarispark 
Date:   2005-07-15 19:48

I personally thought your original post was quite interesting.

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Lelia Loban 2017
Date:   2005-07-16 12:19

Tony, I think I do understand what you mean (as I notice in passing that I wrote "dominant" above when I meant "tonic"...duh...), and sorry about muddying the waters, but -- oh, wait a minute, I'm not sorry! Really not doing this just to annoy you, but, more mud: I think that some phrases *are* ending-oriented in the sense that you define the term and that many composers deliberately play ending-oriented games to focus the listener's attention. In such music, whether we're passively listening or actively playing, I think we listen for the place where the slur stops, or for the dramatic punctuation point that often follows a series of slurred phrases (a staccato note or series of staccatos, a sforzando, a dramatic diminuendo with a soft "bump" at the end, etc.), in order to orient ourselves. We're invited to stop and look around (listen around) to find out where we are.

Aside from the "Harry Potter" example, where the ending of the slurred arpeggio is also the ending of the music (probably not the best example, for that reason), I'm thinking of operas and musicals in which a group of people sing at cross-purposes. How is it that we can sort out who's saying what? We're listening for the declarations and we can recognize them because those phrases have the quality of ending.

Charles Ives took that type of phrasing even farther in all-instrumental scores, when he sent different groups of instruments meandering off into completely different but simultaneous melodies. I'm pretty well convinced that a listener can't make sense of that thickly-layered, heavily dissonant music except by hearing it as ending-oriented. Otherwise, it's just too frustrating. We're beginning five things at once -- five horses tied to our arms, legs and head, and galloping off in five directions. Somehow we've got to shuck off the tethers, scramble onto one of those horses, ride that one and just watch the other ones go, instead of getting pulled apart. (Okay, that's an atrocious metaphor, I admit it, but I can't think of a better one right now.)

Even the Baroque composers sometimes played with the listener's strong attraction to endings: Bach, especially in his organ music, winds out some of his harmonic progressions to the point where they're nearly unbearable and then reels them back in, sometimes so suddenly and cleverly that the first time I played or tried to play them, I started laughing just from the surprise (several places in Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, for instance--too difficult for me, and I butcher it, but who can resist it?).

To hear the audio, click on the "Scorch Plug-In" box above the score.

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-16 12:31

It's not to do with hearing, it's to do with playing.

"I'm(semibreve) go-ing(two minims under a slur) here!(semibreve)"

We hear the phrase 'going'(two notes under a slur) going to the 'here'.

But, just as we don't make 'ing' more than 'go' when we speak, we don't play the second of the two minims louder than the first -- in the classical style, that is.


 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Lelia Loban 2017
Date:   2005-07-16 23:52

But playing *is* hearing. At least, musicianship is hearing.

>But, just as we don't make 'ing' more than 'go' when we speak, we don't play the second of the two minims louder than the first -- in the classical style, that is.>

Offhand, I can't think of an example of the "wrong" phrasing in Mozart or Beethoven, that's true ; but some of the pre-classical composers and wrote that way, and I don't think their music suffers for it. The only reason G. F. Handel (one of my fifty or so favorite composers) would avoid stressing the second minim would be to add even more syllables with an even odder stress: "I-yi-yi-yi-yi'm go-ee-oh-ee-wo-ee-oh-ee-OH!-ING! here!" Then he'd take it up a fifth and sing it all over again, with the phrase all split up, so that the basses boom, "Go! Go! Go-go-go-ee-oh-ee! Go! -- Go go GO!" while the sopranos sing the whole phrase. Then he'd take it down a third and fugue it.

I don't think the differences between English and German, sometimes cited as the reason why Handel wrote so many notes per syllable, can possibly account for this practice. That explanation doesn't make any sense. He knew how many syllables the English words had. I think he deliberately wound out those extra syllables to delay his endings and to keep his audience in a state of suspense / anticipation / heightened alertness. But if his chord structures were so simple that we anticipated too easily, then we'd dismiss his music as "sewing machine Baroque." He was a genius at keeping his music just complicated enough to keep musicians interested without alienating the non-musicians.

I think a lot of the humor in P. D. Q. Bach comes from taking that ending-anticipation too far. Where Handel would add his syllables and then proceed with harmony and counterpoint along fairly conventional lines, Shickele jumps around the circle of fifths unconventionally while adding a few more syllables to every key change, and when the singers run out of breath, he throws in a coda. Often he never does work his way back to the tonic and sometimes he just crashes to a stop with some big splat of adjacent minor seconds. This mess sounds funny (instead of just sounding bad) because we know where we were expecting to go instead.

To hear the audio, click on the "Scorch Plug-In" box above the score.

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Bob Phillips 
Date:   2005-07-17 01:54


Thank you for spending time embellishing this discussion. I think I'm in love. How does one obtain the sort of insights you have (and Tony's, too)?

I'd love to have the musical breadth to be able to recognize the things you see/hear.


Bob Phillips

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-17 06:25

>> Offhand, I can't think of an example of the "wrong" phrasing in Mozart or Beethoven, that's true ; but some of the pre-classical composers and wrote that way, and I don't think their music suffers for it.>>

Again, all I want to say is that you can play any composers, Mozart and Beethoven included, in either way. It's not that they wrote in that way.

All I'm talking about is how you customarily read their slurs, and about the effect that has when multiplied by the number of musicians doing it. And that 'customarily' is important, too.

What you write is very interesting, but about something else.

It takes about 15 pages (PIC) to go into the details, so I can't do it again -- I have to catch the bus to the airport:-)


Post Edited (2005-07-17 06:26)

 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2005-07-18 13:01

Actually, it would be best to give an example, to show on what quite low, but nevertheless I'd say important level I'm talking:

If you look at the first Trio of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, the one that doesn't involve the clarinet, you see that the music consists of a collection of two-note phrases.

Now, if you're the first violin, it can seem to you that you should 'go' from the first upbeat note to the second: 'tee-yah' -- because that's a quite natural musical response, and it's what the harmony could be thought to do. And the other players might have analogous reactions, according to where in the bar their phrase lies.

But, the harmony, and the music, does that anyway. It doesn't need the players to underline it. In fact, if the first violin avoids underlining it, phrasing instead in a beginning-oriented way, the 'cello emerges from the texture -- and then the other instruments in turn.

What that means is that the surface of the music has a continuity, even though the individual parts may not seem to, to the players.

That's a simple viewpoint, and you can see that it can be subverted by other considerations -- like, that the first violin has an appoggiatura in the second phrase. But it's a viewpoint that many players don't even consider, and that makes a big overall difference to performances of this music.

What I'm talking about is what is 'normal' in the style.


 Re: The Cocktail Party Theory of Classical Music
Author: sdr 
Date:   2005-07-19 13:41

There is a particular aspect of the "Cocktail Party Theory" which makes sense to me: as a listener/hearer, it is very different if someone is *speaking to me* vs. my overhearing a conversation between people speaking to each other. As an audience member during a musical performance, I am a much more engaged listener if the musicians are speaking to me. One of the alienating aspects of some Miles Davis performances or other small jazz groups, for example, was that they could/can be so "introspective" that the musicians all speak amongst themselves and leave me out.


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