Friday 10 February 2012


In Shannon and Weaver's "Mathematical Theory of Communication", Weaver gives a wonderful quote from Arthur Eddington from "The nature of the physical world":
"Suppose that we were asked to arrange the following in two categories  - distance, mass, electric force, entropy, beauty, melody. I think there are the strongest grounds for placing entropy alongside beauty and melody, and not with the first three. Entropy is only found when the parts are viewed in association, and it is by viewing or hearing the parts in association that beauty and melody are discerned. All three are features of arrangement."
Weaver then comments that he believes Eddington would also allow the inclusion of "meaning" along with beauty and melody (this is particularly interesting since Shannon - in the main part of the book - explicitly excludes discussion about meaning, only concentrating on information).

Both meaning and melody are interesting me at the moment. This morning I heard this very famous melody of Mozart. It is captivating - and I found myself asking "why?"

D'Indy has a similar attitude to melody as he does to tonality (which I blogged about here: D'Indy highlights the relationships between melody, rhythm and harmony, but he generally sees in melodic phrasing a tightening - a making of effort - and a relaxing movement (repos), much in the same way as the ascent up the cycle of 5ths and descent down it produces a 'lightening' and 'darkening'. I think there's something in this, but I don't find it as satisfactory an explanation as his thoughts about tonality.

 My feeling on hearing the melody from the Mozart piano concerto is clearly one of 'effort making' and 'repose', but more fundamentally than that, it grabs my attention. It is this 'attention grabbing' - that melody acts as a thread by which the music can be traced, both as it happens and in my mind, which fascinates me most. I am wondering whether this is an aspect of 'attachment'.

Shannon talks of the statistical variances of signals and the importance of Markov processes.. he uses melody as an example. But seeing it as a Markov process doesn't account for the fact that the melody would have no coherence if each successive signal didn't become meaningful to me. And in being meaningful, I believe that it may be a manifestation of a sensual process which becomes fundamental to my viability as I listen: I have a stake in what happens. Mozart knows what it is to have a stake in what happens, and knows what to make happen in order for us to have a stake in it.

But then I think about this short piece by Webern:
There is a melody there too. But for many people listening to it, the experience of 'attachment' that I described for the Mozart will not be the same. There is something about the sensual productions here which may indeed repel. But for others (perhaps those who know the music), this is equally beautiful. Just as with the Mozart, we hang on every note, every articulation - a performance is special and meaningful. 

The question in all this is "what is the difference between the listeners that the attachment to the melody is different?" That's a question for which I feel myself tentatively edging towards a proposal.

1 comment:

@njhoughton said...

Terrific post Mark. I used a metaphor of innovation as a virtuoso performance and your emphasis on melody and performance resonated with me ... chrz Neil