Bach to basics

Alex Florescu
November 12, 2015
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

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Music database Spotify’s newest commercial endorses the replacement of words with music to communicate when you can’t find the right words. Perhaps without meaning to, Spotify may have tapped into the same consensus that Schutz and his team did.

A team of researchers headed by McMaster researcher Michael Schutz have looked into the patterns behind established compositions in musical history. The paper published in Frontiers of Psychology: Cognition focused on prominent European composers Frédéric Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Michael Schutz, director of McMaster’s Music, Acoustics, Perception & Learning Lab and associate professor of music cognition and percussion, has long been immersed in the musical world. He worked closely with Matthew Poon, McMaster Music alumnus, and other students, to analyze three 24-piece sets by Chopin and Bach.

“Music is very powerful at communicating emotion. In fact, that seems to be one of the core things that is important about music,” said Schutz.

“The common speech patterns we use to convey emotion show up in music,” Schutz found. These tools were employed by Bach and Chopin to infuse their compositions with emotion, using high pitch and fast timing to convey joy and low pitch and slow timing to convey sadness.

“It is one of the oldest issues in the whole field of music cognition. Darwin talked about how the way in which music communicates emotion seems to be paralleled to language, and Plato was speculating about these things as well. It’s a really old issue and certainly a very important one,” Schutz explained.

While the group focused on the structural cues crafted by composers, there is a secondary layer in which performers interpret those cues and cast their own impression over them. For the most part, this dialogue between composer and performer is separated by many years and even eras. A third layer is present in the audience’s interpretation, which varies among people who have heard the same piece performed.

In one sense, it is an intentional effect. These patterns aren’t laid out haphazardly and left to chance. Yet whether these composers could explain every choice is not quite so certain.

“Composers and musicians in general have very good instincts about what works for the perceptual system, but we don’t usually talk about it in those terms,” Schutz accounts.

Culture is another important factor to consider, as there are certain aspects of music, such as major and minor keys, which do not translate well across cultural boundaries.

“I remember a friend in grad school heard this one piece of music that he thought sounded so happy because it sounded roughly like our major mode, but it was actually a funeral song” remembers Schutz.

Other cues tend to be slightly more transferable. High and low pitches, and fast and slow timings tend to fall into this category.

“One of the things that I did not expect is that Bach and Chopin used these two cues in very different ways. Bach had a big timing difference for both of his sets of pieces, but for Chopin there was no difference between major and minor keys.”

There is an opposite pattern with pitch, where Bach preludes have the smallest difference while the Chopin preludes have the largest difference. This might have something to do with the versatility of piano sound that existed at their time.

“The cool thing is that it ties in with a bunch of studies that look at the basic way in which composers use cues changed in different eras . . . What minor meant seemed to change in a significant way in the Romantic era.”

When picking the composers, Schutz looked for a balance between major and minor pieces.

Around 80 percent of composers write in the major key. As such, Chopin and Bach were chosen for their equal representation of both modes.

The study is based on previous findings on metronome markings or pitch themes.

“I think it’s the first time we have the complete section, where you are looking at all the voices. The harmony matters, it is not just about the melody. It builds on what’s been done before but in a bit of a different way.”

Explorations such as these have direct implications in musical education, for performers and significantly for composers.

Photo Credit: McMaster Humanities

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