On April 19, 2011, the New York Times published an article about the work of Daniel J. Levitin in his attempts to measure the elements that lead to expressivity in musical performance. In brief, he had a fine pianist record on a Disklavier a Chopin Nocturne, then used the exact measurements of touch and time to make a ‘blueprint’ against which other performances might be graded. Then they tried ‘tinkering’ with variants – only to find that everyone liked the original version best. I wrote the following letter to the Science Editor of the Times they didn’t use it, but I thought it might interest you.
To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons
I read your article with considerable amusement. Your scientists are proceeding in exactly the same way as those experimenters who kill a butterfly to try to find out how it flies. When it's dead, it can't fly -- so you must find a different way to analyze it.
Music is alive. There is no music – no sound -- on a page: just some black and white symbols which indicate pitches and rhythms. Each person who looks at it interprets it differently. Even the same performer can't do it exactly the same way twice. We are dealing here with the elementary laws of physics: not only those of sound, but those of energy, of motion. Water, for instance, always follows those laws -- whether in a brooklet or a lake or the ocean or your water glass. It's always responding to the forces around it. Think of a storm at sea: the waves are not all at the same height, they don't crest and break at the same moment, they never repeat exactly what they did before -- yet each time they are exactly following the laws which govern them.
Music moves us when the composer feels and expresses that emotion, when the performer recreates that vision, and when the listener is open to experiencing it. Music follows those same physical laws. When a piece is begun, it sets up a certain energy. If the performer is moving within the same currents, the piece becomes alive and we hear a great performance. If not, we are not so much disappointed as dis-engaged. It didn't 'lift' us, because it didn't fulfill our expectations – or our hope that perhaps, this time, it would be exactly right. One can make an analogy to theater: Juliet is on the page, and each performer says the same lines. But each performer plays her differently -- there are thousands of variables at work here that resist any standardization. The character either comes alive – or doesn’t.
In another analogy, the page is exactly like a recipe -- and we don't eat the page. We love the result of the page when all the ingredients are fresh and in the hands of a master chef. The composer imagines sound, and makes a very imperfect 'chart' of her vision on the page. The performer must recreate the vision, trying to find the precise spark of energy which ignited the creator. Do we ever hear what the composer imagined? Is there such a thing as a perfect performance -- so that we never need to hear the piece again? Not for me. The possibility is always there, tempting us to try once again. The music lives in those imponderable, unmeasurable attempts. It is never precisely the same. It waits for us to make it live. Maybe this time we'll begin to understand what makes it fly.
Copyright 2011 Melodious Accord, Inc..
All rights reserved
To obtain permission to reprint any part of this newsletter
Send requests in writing to
96 Middle Rd. Hawley, MA 01339