Music and the Arts: Usability in Fact and as Metaphor.

This is a slightly modified text of the talk I gave at the Usability Professionals Association Conference in Scottsdale AZ in June 2003. It is still a work in progress. At the moment it lies somewhere between the chatty style of a live lecture, and the slightly more ponderous manner of text. I crave your indulgence, and would welcome comments and discussions.
Andrew Massey

1. Musical Instruments and Standardization.
2. Usability and the Puzzle of Music.

Main Argument: The Nature of Music.
3. The Unimportance of Music?

4. Music as a Natural Activity
5. The Artificiality of Music.
6. A Question of Evolution.
7. Origins of the Scale.
8. A Conjecture about Musical Perception.
9. Affect and Circumstance Separated.
10. Back to the Music: Fine-Grained Emotional Detail.

The Practicalities of Music.
11. The Evolution of Musical Technique.
12. Conflicting Constituencies: Usability Frustrations
13. Composers and Historicism.
14. Conclusion.

Music and the Arts: Usability in Fact and as Metaphor.


1. Musical Instruments and Standardization.


I am going to concern myself with metaphor mainly. The actual usability issues for musicians are pretty simple really - don't let Microsoft redesign the Grand Piano. A buggy Grand Piano 2.0 we can all live without.

Actually there is one simple point about the usability of musical instruments, which applies to many other gadgets as well. People spend their whole lives polishing their skills as performers, and the greater the extent to which they train and develop their mind and muscles for these tasks, the greater the disruption if design changes are sprung upon them.

To an unskilled pianist, changing the size of keys would make little difference. To Rubinstein it would be a catastrophe. I used to play the flute, but up-graded to a better flute that had just one key - the G# - different. I have never played the flute since.

There's nothing especially unusual in this. It is much like the QWERTY keyboard. But I think musical instruments represent an extreme case, revealing the principal that "constant design changes make truly skilled use impossible".

This is not the same thing as "successful" use. Design changes can ensure greater success precisely by reducing the need for skill. Any CD player plays Beethoven Piano Sonatas a lot better than I do.

And design changes can also overcome obstacles to skill - such as a sticky repeat action on a piano. But the point remains that in cases such as musical performance, where the refinement of skill is fully as important as the result of its use, unnecessary changes are a menace. Well, that's not very interesting, so I'm going to stick more to the metaphorical notion of usability.

2. Usability and the Puzzle of Music.


There are usability problems with Classical Music, but it's hard to pin them down, since it is not at all clear what music is for...... If our goal becomes clear, then, maybe, we can figure out if we are achieving it.

The evidence for problems lies in the fact that there are so many complaints. Audiences complain that they don't like modern music, or are sick of the old warhorses. The concerts are too early or too late; too formal and starchy; too many coughers. The players rebel against the tyranny of conductors and want more control. Conductors feel persecuted and resign. Composers feel ignored. Few people like their pieces. Orchestras are going bankrupt everywhere, while a few others announce new $50m concert halls. Is this really the best use of money? PR departments and management keep screaming that music is important and relevant, but to rather little effect. Audiences are too old, and always have been, but we don't want to dumb the concerts down just to attract young people. It usually doesn't work anyway. As a famous artist manager used to say: "if people don't want to come, nothing will stop them."

Notice that all these complaints come from a position of enthusiasm. People with no interest in music simply ignore it, without detriment to their lives. The voicing of complaints indicates that the speakers really like music, and want it to be better. The discontent is because it so often falls short of what it might be, and of what we instinctively feel it can be. All these problems, I think, come from mistaken expectations, and a lack of clarity about what is wanted, and what is offered.

A few years ago, after a concert in Fresno CA., I received letters from two audience members. One was complaining about the hideous modern music we had on the concert, and asking why on earth we did not stick to the proper classics, like Schubert. The other letter was complaining about the standard repertoire taking up too much time, and why didn't we do more interesting new music. The thing was, they were both complaining about the same piece! A Symphony by Tchaikowsky! What is to be done?

Main Argument: The Nature of Music.

3. The Unimportance of Music?


I take the term "Usability" generally to refer to the Human Being/Thingy interface, and so, by way of metaphor, I intend to talk about the Human Brain/Piece of Music interface, posing the questions: What is music? How does it work? What do we seek from it? - as if visiting from an alien planet.

There was a great cartoon in the New Yorker recently, in which one bunch of angry cavemen confronts another similar, and dominant group, protesting,

"Why is the Arts Budget always the first thing that gets cut, when we all know it is the only thing that separates us from the monkeys?"

It was ever thus. The Arts hardly matter when it comes to a choice between String Quartets and Septic Tanks.

So we have, for instance, the curious situation that in High Schools there is very little attention paid to music, and yet music is a hugely important component in the lives of most teenagers, involving fads, loyalty, excitement, and contempt. It powerfully defines group identity.

Music is pretty important to the rest of us as well. Vision may be the dominant "input" sense for most people. Language may be the strongest mode of "output". But music, second only to the sense of smell, has power to recall, to evoke, and to let our emotions flow.

Question to ponder about Art: If music conveys or engenders emotion, does that mean that Art imitates life? Answer: No! Life consists of Art. It includes art. Art is the furniture of life. Art is in fact a lot more interesting than most people's lives. That's why they go to movies, read novels, and listen to music. So that they can live a little!

Emotion in music is not a pale imitation of "real" emotion. It is real emotion. It's the emotion you feel when you are listening to a piece of music! For many people, especially professional musicians, that's the principal emotional content of their lives.

Perhaps it is not taught much in schools because we feel it doesn't need to be. It can be ignored, in the certain knowledge that it will not go away. Kind of like breathing or excreting. You don't need many courses in those. Or sex. There are plenty of sex classes, I know, but mainly in the hopes of preventing sex.

So maybe music is just such a completely natural and integral part of our lives that it really needs no investigation or explanation.

4. Music as a Natural Activity


The trouble with this attitude is that it reinforces the assumption that music is no more than something you listen to, especially Pop music on CD and the Web, and Classical Music, that you sit and respect in cold blood: No coughing, no sneezing, no cell phones, don't move.

I'm not knocking attentive listening. After all, it's my life. But for most of human history it has not been this way. Music has been something you DO!

You dance, you sing, and almost always in groups. So a major component of the musical experience is the shared activity, the sense of community in bands, choirs, orchestras and dance groups.

Maybe the nearest thing we have nowadays to the good old music of past millennia would be the Rock Concert, with everybody, performers and audience alike, moving around and joining in and making lots of noise.

At such primal events, we can see that tremendous power of music over an unskilled audience. Music is natural, instinctive, immediate in it's appeal, visceral in its effect, immune to language divides, un-dependent upon former experience and initiation.

It hits us like the wind, the rain, lust, beautiful landscapes, delicious peaches, falling in love, fear in the dark. We really do not need to spend boring hours of study or initiation to enter into its world.

By comparison, football and chess make NO SENSE AT ALL, unless you first memorize the rules. You have to learn a new language before you can understand it, but there are millions of cases of both children and adults unexpectedly hearing some totally unfamiliar music, be it Balinese Gamelan, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Gregorian Chant in the Abbey of Solèsmes, Maria Callas singing Kundry, the Rolling Stones live, or the Chicago Symphony playing Mahler's 3rd ------ and being immediately blown away and changed for life. It happens.

5. The Artificiality of Music.


But music is not natural. It is invented. There is nothing like it in nature, and it is very difficult to produce. It has taken centuries of discovery and elaboration to come into being. Granted, there is birdsong, and that fact alone hints that music must be at least based on something natural, something hidden, yet available to species other than Homo Sapiens.

But music, as we know it, depends on deliberate human fabrication.

The ubiquitousness of music makes us forget just how very odd it is. "Organized Sound" is a common definition. But the sounds that are organized are very specific sounds, not found in nature, except from our own voices.

Apart from our voices, it takes the construction of the most elaborate and complex machines to create the sounds needed for music. For many people a few centuries ago, a collection of musical instruments would come close to being the most ingenious and sophisticated gadgets they would ever encounter. Just think of a large Cathedral organ before the days of motorized transport.

By far the oddest feature of music, so ubiquitous that we take it absolutely for granted, is the fact that it restricts itself to a set of fixed, steady, pitches. Notes, like Eb or C#, and thence the scale; any scale. The sounds we were surrounded by as we evolved our sense of hearing covered the full sweep continuous spectrum of frequencies from the deepest rumblings to the highest bat-squeaks, and all mixed up chaotically. Nothing stable. You don't hear a B flat in the forest, or a C# from a waterfall.

Yet music, in all its versatility and complexity, depends upon a fixed and limited set of discrete pitch frequencies, which have to be very accurate to work. Quite specifically, it is the set of 12 notes per octave that you find offered by the keys on a piano, organ, clarinet, flute, oboe, etc. Anything outside these, any of the infinite number of notes between the notes, are heard as "out of tune", causing distress, causing pain almost. Violins have smooth fingerboards, meaning that you can get all the in-between notes just as easily as the members of the 12-note set. In consequence, violinists have to continue practicing for their entire lives, just to be able to avoid trespassing on the forbidden territory. Harmonies are destroyed by out of tune playing.

Birdsong is exquisite, I will grant, (at least the song of the Hermit Thrush is, I am less impressed by crows) but you never heard a C major chord without a human being making it.

Other aspects of music are more easily related to pre-musical human life. The phrasing of a melody is much like the shape of a spoken sentence in language. Going up to increase tension, coming down in pitch and speed to convey relaxation - these are features directly connected to language, or at least to pre-linguistic vocal expression.

Rhythm is an extension of dance, walking, running, breathing, heart beats , all the periodic cycles of our lives. The climactic structure of music, when present, has a lot in common with the telling of a tale, the presentation of a banquet, the course of a battle, and yes, with the fulfillment of sexual desire.

I must confess here that when describing music as being "natural" or "unnatural", "natural" was a word I picked partly for rhetorical and theatrical reasons, in order to point to the contrast between musical sounds and the sounds we hear about us in the natural world without human intervention. I'll grant you that music is completely natural in the sense that an internal combustion engine is natural. They both obey the laws of physics that we did not invent. But on the other hand, neither of them would be here without the agency of people. And like internal combustion engines, sophisticated music is complex.

Western Classical Music of the past 3 centuries is one of the most complex and exacting disciplines known - appealing especially often to scientists and mathematicians. Composers spend years perfecting a work that takes mere minutes to perform. People give up their childhood to practice 6 + hours a day, just for the chance to become a performer. As a species, we are both committed and very good at it.

6. A Question of Evolution.


This raises a wonderful evolutionary conundrum: How did it come about that we evolved to be skillful at things that didn't exist while we were evolving?

I think I'll repeat that.

How did it come about
that we evolved to be skillful
at things that didn't exist
while we were evolving?

And the answer, of course, is that we didn't. The things that we turn out to be skillful at, they evolved, through the agency of trial and error, as artifacts of deliberate ingenuity, so as to match our capabilities and to engage our conscious minds. In a word: usability.

It's rather like what Kant pointed out about our ability to perceive the world around us. What we can perceive is constrained by the equipment we have for perception. Similarly, our skills are constrained by our equipment for being skillful.

So Music and the Arts evolved as products of human culture. They evolved in such a way as to suit us. They are a form of brain-tickling, exploiting untapped potential inside our skulls. Music somehow taps in to skills we acquired for other purposes, during our own evolution. Notice that this does not imply that we understand the mechanism. It was discovered entirely pragmatically.

Here is my conjecture:

As we evolved our sense of hearing, one of its most crucial uses was to be able to distinguish one sound from another. It is important to be able to discriminate between the sound of your soul-mate offering you dinner, and that of a tiger about to eat you.

It helps to be able to tell the difference between wind and rain, and to know which direction the broken twig sound is coming from.

Any of you who have worked with sound recording equipment, especially the wave-form depiction of sound rendered by a computer, knows that no matter how many sounds are entering the microphone, the result is a single wavy line, representing air pressure over time. It is impossible, so far, for a computer to effectively separate the sound of an oboe from that of a cello playing at the same time. Yet we do it effortlessly. My guess is that the brain somehow sorts out which components of the overall sound belong together as a spectrum, as the signature of a particular source, and then presents its results to our consciousness as what I call a "synthesized sensation", based on information that has been decoded and interpreted before it gets to the conscious level. Colors, similarly, are interpreted by a pre-conscious decoder. When we see blueness, that is a qualia created in our cerebral cortex as a result of lots of sense data we are not directly conscious of: -wavelength of light, relative intensity, the hue of the ambient light, color contrast with other things in the field of view. It is a marvel of interpretation, and not just a simple 1 to 1 accordance of frequency = color. Yet it emerges as a synthesized sensation - a simple, unitary "blueness".

We know from common experience that sounds, as we perceive them, also have a simple, irreducible, recognizable quality. A clarinet has a particular sound quite different from that of a trombone. We can distinguish vowel sounds coming from a single speaker. These are complex interpretive achievements that computers cannot match very well yet. And many of these characteristics turn out to have a lot to do with overtones and the harmonic series, though not in a simple way. It is partly the different relative strengths of overtones that create the qualia, the sensation we become aware of as a vowel, a person's voice, an instrument. It is this spectrum signature that enables us to recognize the many notes of a violin melody as all belonging to the same curve, the same gestalt, no matter how high or low it gets, nor what other sounds are going on at the same time. This is a pretty powerful discriminatory capability! And it hinges upon many things, but particularly upon grouping together the frequencies that belong together, arising from a multiplicity of simultaneous harmonic series.

But the scale? Where did that come from, and why?

7. Origins of the Scale.


If you happen to take just the first, and strongest, interval other than the octave in the harmonic series - what we call the perfect 5th, the frequency ratio of 3:2, - and then build a 5th upon a 5th upon a 5th, and so on, what you get (if you transpose notes back down through octaves to bring them all close together) is precisely the amazing 12-note set that I mentioned, and that is sufficient to yield music from the chorales of Bach to the mighty symphonies of Mahler.

As another way of deriving the scale, or our set of useful notes, there's the harmonic series itself, of course, and Pythagorus' famous monochord. Note that that was a gadget, not a natural phenomenon, designed to reveal a pattern behind things, as math does, not imitating normality, as representational painting does.

As a matter of fact, the harmonic series doesn't get us very far in constructing a scale It does have some limited explanatory power when it comes to harmony, though only as a norm from which actual music strays. Very few notes on the scale are actually members of the harmonic series, and most members of the harmonic series, (from note 7 onwards,) are not members of the scale. It really doesn't matter which scale you are talking about either, whether diatonic scales, pentatonic scales, chromatic scales, whatever. The fact is that the sound-world of music comes from moving about a set of discrete pitches, specifically the 12 -note chromatic set of notes I mentioned already. That is the miraculous simplicity behind the unprecedented complexity of western harmonic music.

Its use as a chromatic scale is not, in fact, very interesting. I know of no good music that uses it simply as a scale; it is too featureless. But it is a closed set of pitches that is, in principal, unbelievably ancient, and that has powerfully withstood the innovation of quarter-tones, and all the other stuff that computers and sampling have made possible.

Another way of deriving our note-hoard would be this: You could play, say, a major scale on an instrument, like a violin, which, with its smooth fingerboard, is capable of playing any note, including the infinite set of "out of tune" notes. You could then play a scale that sounds the same, but starts on a different note of that first scale. Each different starting note will bring into play one or more new notes, not present in the original scale. If you exhaust all the possibilities, you will get, once again, the complete 12-note set. No less, no more. The old clavichords and organs had 12 notes per octave. 12 notes seem to be it.

Many of you may know that this is not quite as neat as I imply. There are problems in constructing a workable 12 note set for mathematical reasons that I don't want to bore you with, but even then, the disputes are more about how to get that Eb to sound in tune, rather than whether there should really be 14, 23, or an infinite number of notes in the octave. Remember, playing extra notes on the violin is no problem at all, if anybody wants to, and making a guitar with 13 frets to the octave would be simple. In fact, it has been done!

A workaround for this mathematical tuning problem was hit upon around Bach's time in the early 18th century. Bach demonstrated the viability of this system by writing "The Well-tempered Clavier", a set of pieces that uses one and the same harpsichord in every possible key, major and minor, without having to stop to re-tune the strings in between. He certainly boosted the usability of keyboard instruments!

From this point harmonic music took off. And by "harmony", I do not just refer to pleasurable simultaneous sounds, but to an entire system of structural chord progressions spread out over time, which gave large-scale architectural properties to music, enabling the convincing composition of huge pieces.

This eminently workable universe of 12 notes of equal accuracy became the basis for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Schoenberg's strange dissonances, the explosive complexity of Boulez, the Beatles, every commercial jingle you hear on TV, all of the Thistle & Shamrock, and even most of "Hearts of Space".

Attempts have been made to extend it, but to no great benefit. Its importance has been as great as that of the calculus, writing, and the wheel.

8. A Conjecture about Musical Perception.


So it's not so much that music exploits the sounds of ambient nature. It doesn't. But it uses a specific hidden fact about all sound to gain direct access to the pre-conscious sound discrimination systems of the human brain. The intervals between musical notes, held carefully in tune, mimic and expand upon the internal physiognomy of sounds we normally decode at the pre-conscious stage of perception.

Music uses a simple truth, normally hidden from us by the chaos of actuality, just as the universal laws of physics are hidden from us. These, I conjecture, are aspects of sound that we did not evolve to be conscious of, but which play a role in the pre-conscious formation of the sensation we hear as sound.

As regards the emotional power of music, well, sound has powerful emotional connotations. A plausible theory of emotion is that emotions are pre-rational ways of guiding the actions of organisms. Emotion is a way to control the actions of a conscious creature, either before reason, without reason, or over-ruling reason. Emotion makes you do the appropriate thing, without needing to understand why. So it makes you feel like your true self. It seems to reveal your own self's desires. And many emotions are triggered by sound. That tiger about to eat you. So there must be some hard-wired connection lodged in our pre-conscious minds, linking particular sounds with particular types of emotion, much as Chomskyan Deep Structure unconsciously underpins our ability to use language. And it works fast! Love, fear, anger, relaxation, passion; all these are tapped into directly by music, and it does that without requiring any specific circumstances to pin them to. Hence the feeling of "truth deeper than words".

Also note that harmony, in order to be effective in creating novel "emotion-structures", needs to fool the brain into hearing the contributions of 50+ players as a single sound. Otherwise, we can hear how the trick is done. If not played perfectly together, we can separate out the notes that contribute to, say, the Tristan Chord. This is why players spend lifetimes trying to play perfectly in tune, and perfectly together. That's why the Cleveland Orchestra gets the big bucks. It's in tune, and together. That was George Szell's legacy. When the members of an orchestra succeed, by being perfectly co-ordinated, they actually deprive the brain of the information it needs to discriminate and disentangle the sounds. Top quality playing is not just a luxury; it is of the essence; important in the way that accurate machining of the components of a jet engine is important.

In short, then, as musicians, we separate out the elements that used to belong to a single sound, refine them into fixed pitches of matching sonority, then we recombine them into complexes nature can never yield, and put them together in a way that enables us to trick the mind into thinking it is hearing a single sound, instantly triggering an emotion we would otherwise never experience. Music is, if you like, fictional emotion.

9. Affect and Circumstance Separated.


When confronted with a powerful emotional experience, while participating in or listening to some great musical masterpiece, many people will search for the source of that feeling. The only handles we have on feelings are the handles we have on their causes. So we strive to find out what the music is "about". In doing this, we assume that emotion and situation, affect and circumstance, are bound together. You are sad when something makes you sad, angry when annoyed, startled by a surprise.

But it is not necessarily so. Affect and circumstance can be uncoupled. A depressed person may feel anxiety or melancholia, but not be able to figure out why. Or, conversely, he may see with total clarity that his life is a meaningless failure, yet feel emotionally numb about this “objective fact.” This uncoupling does not feel right, though. Indeed, a disconnect between our feelings and our situations might serve as a simple definition of psycho-pathology, so it’s not surprising that we resist admitting to any uncoupled affect. In normal life, feelings are tied to circumstance, situations are drenched in feeling. That’s how we make sense of life.

So, when engulfed by an emotional wave, we seek its source. What is making me feel this way? What could make me, or the composer, feel this way?

Confronted by the emotional power of music, with no circumstance attached, except for a pianist in white tie, we rationalize. This music, we might say, is ‘about’ the happiness of a spring morning. The composer is able to communicate his own personal feelings to us through the power of his genius. But this is pure rationalization. It is a narrative explanation of a situation that could cause a person to feel the way we do. The desired affect/circumstance bond is reinstated. But, as an explanation, it is not true, nor is it necessary. The Arts are precisely the areas of human activity where affect and circumstance can be uncoupled safely, letting us explore, in our imagination, situations we have never been in, and emotions we have no reason to feel. The emotion is caused by the music. Period. The fact that we are very uncomfortable with this situation explains both the attraction and the ineffectiveness of program music.

Program music is music that is supposed to tell a story or paint a picture, be it “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or Vivaldi’s “The Seasons” - music that in some way conjures up the missing ‘circumstance’ that would justify the emotion. People love these explanations and cling to them. Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is never performed without the program notes telling us that the first movement is “Summer Marches in”, the second “What the flowers tell me” and so on, even though we all know that Mahler disavowed these titles. They may have been a handy starting point for him when first composing the music, but he wanted them suppressed, and insisted the music did not “mean” them.

Moreover, music is notoriously bad at depiction. There’s a great story about Erik Satie. The first movement of Debussy’s “La Mer” is subtitled “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea.” Satie is reported to have quipped “I particularly liked the bit at a quarter past eleven.”

I have seen no end of children’s concerts where children are asked what they think the music is about. They rarely guess the ‘correct’ answer. How could they? Music simply does not have assigned meanings in the way that language does.

This fact alone sheds an interesting light on the relationship between words and music. In opera, in program music, in song settings, it is not so much that music provides the appropriate emotion for the words. Rather is it that the words are used like lenses, focussing the specificity of the feelings conveyed by the music. The combination of a situation referred to by the words, and the immediate affect created by the music, lets us open our hearts to the emotions in a way we might not be willing to do in the presence of disembodied music alone, and which the words alone would be insufficient to support.

Pieces of classical music that have been around for ages, ignored by the general public, can suddenly become very popular after being used in a movie. Feelings that were always potentially there, but not widely perceived, suddenly become available once pictures, tied to the music, point us in the right direction and give us, as it were, permission to feel.

10. Back to the Music: Fine-Grained Emotional Detail.


At a point like this in the discussion, it may seem as though the actual music has been thrown out with the literary bathwater. In focusing on our emotions, and the imaginary situations they seem to belong to, or the real situations we presume the composer was telling us about, and how this has enriched our repertoire of experienced emotion - in focusing on all that, haven’t we forgotten about the poor, innocent little tune, the oompah accompaniment, the cymbal crash, the clever descending bass line? Aren’t we losing sight of the sheer yumminess and sensual clout of music? Its musicality?

It need not be so. I think the reason it seems that way is this. We tend to think of emotion as a vague wash of feeling, a generalized attitude in the background that colors the way we act and react to life. We have a rather poor vocabulary for referring to emotions, (though not as poverty-stricken as our vocabulary for smells) and the boundaries between different emotions are, linguistically, ill-defined. Sadness, grief, nostalgia, wistfulness. Anxiety, fear, despair, worry, hopelessness. It’s hard to define the boundaries, if there are any. Perhaps these groups merge into each other like colors in a rainbow, or on a color palette. We also tend to assume that emotions come at us one at a time. We are sad, or we are glad. To be both (crying at a wedding) seems paradoxical and embarrassing, or guilt-inducing (feeling relieved at a funeral.)

But the fact that our language for naming emotions is poor and generalized does not mean that our emotional experience is that way. Happiness may pervade our whole day, but feelings, affects, fluctuate second by second. At the funeral, you are sad for the husband, glad the bitch is dead, guilty for feeling that way, relieved you can admit the fact to yourself, surprised to see so many flowers, gleeful that there are none from the office, anguished to see the daughter without her husband, angry at the brother’s smug grin, and contemptuous of the cousin’s fake tragedy.

Our emotional lives are as fine-grained as the details of our circumstances. There is an emotional detail for every practical detail. Normally, we only refer to emotion when it becomes constant enough and pervasive enough to color a whole swath of time, when it becomes strong enough and sustained enough to spill over everyday matters, and amount to a mood. But the detail is there, and, when hearing music, focused upon.

So the tune is still there. Every single note of the music has its own particular emotional burden, its own dance-step. Insofar as music is organized sound, its import is organized affect. Our emotions can be as detailed, sequential, and logical as any other activity; following a recipe, proving a theorem, expounding a philosophical argument. Just think of the emotional tennis match involved in persuading a 6-year old to go to bed!

So - though we may grope around, and think we need to find some non-musical circumstance to account for the affect, and then assume that the music somehow points to it, or expresses it, that is not necessary. The music is itself the circumstance. The infinite details of the music engender the infinitely detailed emotional experience we encounter. It is the tune itself which is sad, the harmony who weeps. I share the heartbreak of Schubert’s sustained inner string parts in the slow movement of his C major Quintet. Note that “sad”, “weep”, “heartbreak” are just blunt metaphors, but how clumsy is musical terminology: "sustained inner string parts in the slow movement of his C major Quintet"! But fortunately we don't need words, just ears.

The Practicalities of Music.

11. The Evolution of Musical Technique.


Now, how it actually works in specifics, - who knows? But mastery over this medium has been an empirical matter, a pragmatic research project, for centuries. It has been discovery by trial and error, and the technical terminology of music - passing note, dominant 13th, syncopation, canon, interrupted cadence, tonal or real answer - this terminology, though rather intimidating, is much more useful than any external philosophical analysis.

Once a couple of crucial steps got underway, the evolution of music could begin in earnest. These were 1) the making of instruments that could reliably play in tune, and 2) the invention of a system of notation that would permit, and could record, elaborate experimentation. Both of these were well on their way to being in place by about 1,000 years ago. Up until then, naturally enough , there was no such thing as a composer.

Once composers existed, however, their purposes and goals evolved over time. Not too seriously, I divide the aims of composers into three main periods.

Period 1, in which the principal function of the composer is to provide for the enjoyment of the performers, much as a novelist writes for the pleasure of the reader. Anybody who happens to be sitting around listening is welcome, but beside the point. (Madrigals, consort music, chant, chamber music.) The archetype for this period is an evening of madrigals, all of which sound pretty much the same to the captive listener, but which give the singers endless fun.

Period 2, in which the composer is less concerned with the happiness of the players, but rather uses them as a means to entertain the audience, much as a playwright uses actors to entertain an audience that probably never sees the written script. (Music from Mozart and Beethoven onwards, including Grand Opera, and the monumental works of Berlioz, Bruckner, Wagner.) The archetype for this period would be the cymbals player in a Bruckner Symphony. He has almost nothing to do, but sits on stage looking spiritual for an hour and a half, just to strike his cymbals once, electrifying the audience.

Period 3, which thankfully we are fast leaving behind, would be the period in which the composer is not much concerned with either the performers or the audience, but primarily seems to be composing in order to impress other composers, in dueling displays of complex technique, carefully explained at Summer Schools and conferences.

12. Conflicting Constituencies: Usability Frustrations


From this there emerges the realization that there are four natural constituencies that do not share the same central values, and that therefore do not have the same hopes and desires in relation to their music. They are:

Audience - Players - Supporters - Composers.

These groups have different demands, often hidden by the fact that they seem to be co-operating on a joint venture; the performance. Consequently they are likely to have differing views about what is good, and what is successful. Their estimate of the performance’s “usability” for their own purposes may vary widely, and these hidden differences can mask many misunderstandings about the nature of music, and what the solutions to its problems may be.

Constant appeals from management and marketing to keep music alive, to attract younger audiences, to support modern music as a living, vibrant tradition, and appeals from others to give more power to the players, to show more respect for the audience, to reach out to the community with music from different ethnicities - all these things are missing the point or, rather, the multiplicity of points, and they don’t work as solutions, since the problems have not been identified yet.

1) The general audience wants to hear music it already knows and loves. There are good reasons for this. It is very difficult to really perceive a piece you have never heard before. Musicians don't. The performers onstage will have been practicing it all week. The speed of recognition is much higher for things you already know than things you don't. Repetition is GOOD. (Why else buy CDs and DVDs? Why practice?) Also, some members of the paying audience are not particularly interested in music at all, but find the ambiance of a concert relaxing. As Sir Thomas Beacham wickedly remarked; "The British don't understand music, they just like the noise it makes."

2) The musicians want to play music that gives them satisfaction, challenges, and interest, without abusing their instruments, making impossible study demands, or boring them stupid. Essentially, musicians want to be admired, so they want the audience to have a good time responding enthusiastically, but do NOT want to keep playing the same tired old pieces over and over again, nor do they want to be thrashed into the ground studying immensely difficult new stuff.

Above all, they want to have some outlet for their own individual artistic abilities and insights. Remember that to be in an orchestra at all, you have to have shown considerable individual talent very young, to have worked hard under strict tutelage for many years, and to have won a competitive audition, in which your own personal projection of artistic character is the crucial ingredient. Then, once accepted into the orchestra, you spend your time playing what management tells you to play, exactly in the manner the conductor demands, and (especially if you are a section string player,) you will only be noticed if you mess up. No wonder the level of frustration among orchestra players is so high.

3) The sponsors and supporters want to be sure their institution, to which they are attaching their name, will be respected and admired, not just in the local community, but also in wider comparison with similar institutions around the world. This gives them a vested interest in safety and respectability. It does not make for fresh energy, but the philanthropists also need to be seen to be on the side of ‘innovation’ and those other buzz-words, (pushing the envelope out of the box to get ahead of the curve in pursuit of excellence.) So they tend to be encouragers of politically correct newness, and things that smack of ‘success’, such as competitions, which automatically create winners, and vanity trips to Carnegie Hall. None of this, fairly clearly, has much to do with music itself, except insofar as it is an incarnation of culture. But without the supporters there would be no music. So a natural tension between the goals of donors and foundations on one hand, and the professional artists on the other, is built right in. This is usually concealed under a cloak of diplomacy, and a pretense that a performing arts organization, such as an orchestra, functions under similar market forces to, say, an advertising agency. But this is not true. As Sir Thomas Beacham remarked; "The secret of running an orchestra is to get 95% of the people to pay for what 5% of the people want."

13. Composers and Historicism.


4) Lastly we come to the composers, the descendants of the great masters that created the standard repertoire from nothing. Composers, naturally enough, want their music to be heard and admired. But there is something specific about creative artists, and it causes no end of trouble. The impulse to be creative rather than re-creative is the instinct to search and explore. Writing music is not so much expressing how you feel, as it is finding new ways of using musical materials for the joy of discovery. The need for originality does not arise from the nature of art, but from the psychology of the artist. Thus, often, the impulse to be new is essential to the artist's activity, but irrelevant or actually damaging for the quality of the eventual artwork. Consider, for instance, ludicrously wrong-headed new productions of Shakespeare and Wagner.

It is of the essence for composers not to repeat the past, since that is not discovery. But the more composers of the past came to be respected and canonized, and the more complex the masterworks became, and the more sophisticated notation became, the more difficult it became for composers to come up with something new. Or so many of them thought.

And this is where a divergence occurred between the secret mechanism of music that I have been describing, and the surface techniques by which it is created.

Because of the technical nature of western harmonic music, and the fact that, in the history of human culture, it is very, very recent, its evolution to fit our way of perceiving has been brought about by gradually increasing complexity, as the maximum possible sophistication of gesture was explored for the first time. This has been interpreted by many music historians, and most composers, as an inevitable historical law, somewhat like Marx's Dialectical Materialism. But that is a mistake. The constant increase in complexity was a trend for a few hundred years, but never a law of nature. It was circumstantial, not essential.

As modernism developed in music, many composers felt that the observable trend towards dissonance in recent centuries had to be continued. It was the only way forward. The result was that while new techniques in music made perfect sense when considered in terms of contrapuntal elaboration, that magical meshing with our brain’s innate way of hearing was slipping away.

This is the error of historicism. Thankfully it is losing its grip as composers come to discover new paths to tread without losing contact with players and listeners. Neuroscientists now tell us that consonances and dissonances actually stimulate different parts of the brain, so when some people say "it isn't music", to them, it isn't.

I must clarify that I am not asserting that all dissonant music is bad. I am a major fan of it. The Second Piano Sonata of Pierre Boulez is one of my all-time favorite pieces. My own music usually uses a system derived from Schoenberg's serial techniques. But it is pointless to deny that "modern" music is more esoteric in its appeal than tonal music, just as Beethoven is too heavy for many people with little musical interest at all.

Nor am I suggesting that it is only the more extreme music that is damaged by historicism. An enormous amount of 20th century music of otherwise conservative slant has a wearying grayness about it. Pointless acidity of detail abounds, meaningless rhythmic irregularities stumble, present because the composer had a bad conscience about being too conservative, or because conservative manners would be openly ridiculed by his colleagues. This is what we used to call music written by the "wrong notes" school.

Before this error of historicism was dropped, there was a lot of special pleading and rationalization. Composers came up with all sorts of self-serving arguments about the language of the past being "worn out" and no longer able to speak for the times. This is a violent age, they would tell us, and they have the mission of speaking the truth.

This is nonsense. If Mozart is not relevant any more, why do people keep buying tickets for Mozart Festivals? Although the composers want to legitimize their new music, the audiences want to hear good music, and don't really care who wrote it, and care even less when.

All this confusion is evidence of the continuing mysteriousness of music, and the fact that none of us really knows what it does.

14. Conclusion.


Music has been empirically designed to work seamlessly with the human consciousness, without that consciousness needing to be aware of what is happening, or how. In so doing, it has become a wonderful model of usability, in that it functions completely transparently at a level much lower down than our conscious preferences and desires. It gives us a sense of confrontation with reality.

Although it produces as many problems as any other human activity, and whereas so many gadgets require us to think like machines in order for them to be useful to us, music is a triumphant instance of the reality around us being reinvented and restructured so that it behaves like, and in fact becomes, the contents of our mind.

Andrew Massey
This is a transcript (revised) of a talk given at:
"Ubiquitous Usability"
The conference of the Usability Professionals Association
Scottsdale, AZ., June 2003.
© 2003 Andrew Massey

Andrew Massey has been, variously
Assistant Conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra
Associate Conductor of The San Francisco Symphony
Associate Conductor of The New Orleans Symphony
Music Director of The Toledo Symphony
Music Director of The Rhode Island Philharmonic
Music Director of The Fresno Philharmonic
Music Director of The Michigan Chamber Orchestra
Visiting Scholar: Brown University
Senior Lecturer in Music, Middlesex University.