Stock Musical Phrases

The music theorist Robert Gjerdingen has been pushing his theory of schemata or stock musical phrases since the 1980s, but it was only with his delightful compendium in 2007 (Music in the Galant Style) that he truly became a household name for musicologists. While analyses of eighteenth-century masters like Haydn and Mozart can get away with avoiding specialized or complex theories, schemata hit a sweet spot of simplicity and specificity that makes them difficult to ignore. I’m bringing them up for two reasons here. They will be the first proper musical topic in my attempt to link musicology with Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology. (Chapter 3, following two chapters introducing OOO ideas and methods.) I’ve also recently gotten stuck while working on the preceding chapter about how OOO pans out in methodology, and I’m hoping this post will help joggle me forward.

Schemata in galant music (such as Mozart) are basically just two-part progressions containing around four or so events and lasting for a fair chunk of a musical phrase (a few seconds). If we take Mozart’s famous “easy sonata” K. 545 as an example, the first two measures comprise what Gjerdingen would call an opening gambit. It has just three events. The top part goes from the first scale degree (the tonic or “1”) to the leading tone right below it and back again: 1-7-1. The bottom part goes 1-2-1. In the two bars right after that, Mozart presents the single most typical galant riposte to an opening gambit, which Gjerdingen calls the “Prinner.” Here, the top voice descends stepwise 6-5-4-3 and the bottom voice descends in parallel, 4-3-2-1. Then he simply repeats it in a stretched-out version (four bars) followed by a cadence on the dominant or fifth scale degree. So the opening phrase goes opening gambit, Prinner, Prinnnnnner, cadence.

Cadences have long been recognized as stock gestures, but Gjerdingen’s work is crucial for describing and labeling the vast occurrence of similar formulaic elements elsewhere in musical phrases. In the background to his project is a critique of the idealized view of the artist (or the good one anyway) as a savant who is “liberated” from practical and social imperatives, a view which often goes together with the old assumption that artistic ideas arise from a primordial access to noumena or a welling-up of subjectivity. If you associate this critique – plus the notion of conventionalized schemata – with the art historian Ernst Gombrich (Art and Illusion), then you win the prize! Gjerdingen’s earliest writings acknowledge Gombrich’s influence.

More foregrounded in Gjerdingen’s recent work (including his 2007 classic) is his critique of music theories that would, in his view, wrongly apply modern musical habits to the analysis of past music. He claims modern listeners have become “less sensitive” to the established models of galant music, and his not-so-subtle implication is that we can finally gain access to ancient ears with schemata. “[C]ognizance of the Prinner and other similar patterns need not be irretrievably lost. We can, through an archaeology of musical utterances, dust off the galant schemata and listen to what they have to tell us about this courtly mode of musical thought” (59).
Continue reading “Stock Musical Phrases”

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Interesting ruination of Radiohead’s “Creep”

A few months ago, Open Culture posted a couple videos of Nirvana and Radiohead songs that have been modified by a digital tinkerer named Oleg Berg. I was particularly curious about the “Creep” one.

What interests the author of the article (Josh Jones) is that Berg has reversed the modes of these songs. The Nirvana tune used to be minor. Now it’s major. The Radiohead tune used to be major. Now it’s minor.

Fun fact: the whole band giggles whenever Jonny tries to roller-skate.

After Jones observes that the original minor key of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is “an essential vehicle” for its anxiety and rage, he notes that the Radiohead song does something a little more complicated.  Continue reading “Interesting ruination of Radiohead’s “Creep””

Musicology and Peter Wolfendale

There are two reasons I am bringing up Peter Wolfendale here. One is that I was just reminded of him when I noticed that a fellow named Louis Morelle has recently applauded Wolfendale in an article titled “The Trouble With Ontological Liberalism.” Wolfendale, the confident anti-follower of Graham Harman, need no longer proclaim in a published book that his voice has been silenced, since it echoes unchanged in the hills of France.

My second reason has to do with my own project in musicology. At a baby shower in Brooklyn some time ago, I met a philosophy graduate student who had glanced through Wolfendale’s article “The Noumenon’s New Clothes.” He said he thought it did a good job, even though he was not up on speculative realism. (In other words, the article plays its role well for non-readers of its target.) “Very rigorous,” he said, and did I know it was expanded into a whole book? I was appreciative. I wanted and still want to avoid writing a dissertation that applies object-oriented ontology (OOO) to musicology without incorporating some good criticism. My own evaluation of what it does and doesn’t do for musicology would then get strong support…

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Ce n’est pas un cliché banal. Continue reading “Musicology and Peter Wolfendale”

Creative Unoriginality–Two Videos on Film Music

Two recent videos on film music make nice companion pieces and cry out for more commentary.

1) Tony Zhou (Every Frame a Painting) recently put up a video about bleh music in blockbuster films. The video is ostensibly about Marvel Universe music, but Zhou really means big budget action movies from the past decade or so.

2) Dan Golding has responded. He extends his thoughts to film music in general.

I’ll address each of these and see if they can be reconciled.

Continue reading “Creative Unoriginality–Two Videos on Film Music”