Comparing history to a stream, no doubt an urgent idea when new, seems nowadays less vigorous, especially regarding the arts. So also does belief in their continuing progress, as if any series of related events involved necessarily a destination.

Myself, I prefer to think of the arts as a museum or as a wine cellar. These comparisons would leave room for paying honor to great soils, great years, great workmen, also for preserving ancient methods. Museums and libraries are mainly devoted anyway to conserving works and ways that it is no longer practical to imitate.

Gertrude Stein used to say that nothing changes from generation to generation except what people are looking at. Actually, what people have thought they were looking at, arranged in chronological order, makes up whatever consistent fairy tale that history can be imagined to illustrate. And though repeating patterns do seem to recur in any such narrative, organic development is notoriously difficult to identify. In the arts, certainly, the creating, elaborating, and transmitting of techniques are basic procedures, but among these there are few long-term growths. They are more like inventions—say the fish net, the wheelbarrow, or pie crust—which once they have come miraculously into being stay on. And as for the game of “influences,” which reviewers, and sometimes even historians, like to play, it is in my view about as profitable a study as who caught cold from whom when they were all sitting in the same draft.

Nevertheless, since what people are looking at changes constantly, everything can seem to be changing. Also, the things that don’t change, like wheelbarrows and fish nets and pie crust, are always there. Playing games and eating and childbirth and death, for example, change almost not at all; they merely get arranged into stories about people doing them, into literature. And in this literature people move around and talk; sometimes they even sing. This makes for plays and films and operas. And in all these kinds of entertainment the element that affects people most intensely, that makes chills to run up and down the spine, the digestive apparatus to work faster, and the breath to hold or catch, is music. This element has no precise meaning and no dictionary. But it does provoke intensities; and it provokes these so rapidly and so powerfully that all the other elements—the verbal ones and the visual ones for sure—more often than not call on music’s transports for reinforcing their own cooler communications. Music’s lack of specific meaning, moreover, allows it to be attached to other continuities without contradicting them. The way that singing can give acoustical reinforcement to speech—can shape it, help it to run along and to carry—this is music’s gift to liturgical observances, to prayers, hymns, and magical incantations, as well as to mating ceremonials like social dancing.

The composition of music not intended for provoking movement or for singing, and involving no spectacle other than that of men at work, is a quite recent invention, dating as a public show from, at the earliest, about 1600. But its elaboration during the last four centuries has made of music in Europe and in the West generally an art independent of liturgical circumstances, of dancing, of poetry, even of the singing voice.

Now how can an activity without meaning hold the attention of people who are not doing anything but just sitting there? Well, it would seem that over recent centuries there has developed for instrumental music, if not a vocabulary of meanings, a way of suggesting things that is capable, shall we say, of halfway evoking them and thus of attaching its own intensities to quite a variety of thoughts.

These evocations are of three kinds. There is that of the human voice singing metrical verse or intoning unmetered prose. Everything verbal, from lullabies to oratory to rigmaroles, is receptive to this kind of treatment. Instrumental music of this kind is in Europe called strophic.

A second kind, though perhaps it should have come first—it is so ancient and so easy to do—is known as choric; and it can remind us, through a one-two, one-two beat, of marching, or through more fanciful countings-out, of dancing, either ritual and religious, or social.

There can also be attractions for the mind through the following of some tonal texture, as in Sebastian Bach’s fugal patterns. I do not know a Greek-origin word for this kind of music; but when it is enlivened by unexpected waits and irregular stresses, this exploiting of the surprise factor, as both Bach and Beethoven practiced it so masterfully or as we encounter it nowadays in a jam session, could be called, I suppose, spastic.

In any case, it is one of the things that instrumental music does, music that is made only for being listened to. And the assemblage of all these kinds of musical gesture—the poetico-oratorical, the movement-provoking, the intellectually complex and surprising—into a composition involving many kinds of variety is the very special achievement of our Viennese masters—Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. And what do all their grand sonatas and symphonies communicate? Anxiety-and-relief patterns, I should say, experiences cerebral from their ability to hold attention, but surely emotive and visceral in their immediate effect.


The continuity devices that purely instrumental music has employed toward these ends are the only discoveries I know of in music’s history that even remotely resemble new species. And they were certainly not arrived at by organic evolution. Even today they are so far from having a clear morphology that there is no textbook anywhere for teaching them, no Formenlehre, old or new.

Now let us look a little into the permanent materials of music, which are tones, intervals, and their ordering in time. By time I mean measured time. The recitation of prose and poetry also exists in time, but that time is not a chain of fixed durations. Movies also are a time art; and their small bits joined together into a continuity, though this final cutting can be measured, every second of it, these bits really make up only a psychological pattern not meant to be perceived independently.

Music’s time patterns, on the other hand, are there to be noticed. Their rhythmic and metrical structure controls the tonal one so powerfully that it actually gives to music most of whatever clear meaning it may seem to have. Rhythm is therefore both a stable and a stabilizing element and can be viewed as a constant, something of which neither the nature nor the function changes, though its designs may be infinitely various. And these designs, for all their constantly recurring elaborations in different times and places, are limited by the inability of the human mind to perceive as a unit any count larger than two, three, or just possibly a fast five. Rhythm, therefore, is hopelessly tied up to footwork and to language, to meaning, to expression. It can copy, but it cannot grow or evolve. Speeds and loudnesses, moreover, being subject to choice by performers, are no firm part of any pattern.

The so-called “harmonic series”—all the intervals that can be generated from one fundamental bass tone—are another constant in musical organization. (See illustration on this page.) The pitch of the fundamental on which a composition is based can vary from piece to piece, or even from one performance to another. But the relation of that fundamental to its overtones remains the same whatever its exact pitch may be. These intervals are fixed by nature, and our awareness of them is very ancient.

Actually the Greeks knew much of what we know regarding the first dozen or more of these, the Hindus and the ancient Chinese possibly more than the Greeks. Their number, though theoretically infinite, is for practical performance limited to about half a hundred, or fewer. Mixing them gives great variety to sound color. Transposing them into a single octave for use as modes or scales is a convenience. Falsifying them to facilitate pattern-making has long been common practice, the European “tempered scale” of twelve equidistant semitones being already more than two centuries old. A somewhat less acceptable tuning practice is to mix the overtones of slightly different fundamentals. This produces an acoustical interference known as vibrato. Mixing those from distant fundamentals is likely to cause more complex interferences and to erase clear pitch. We call these mixtures noise.

Sound patterns made from scale tones, commonly called “music,” have long been thought to be good for the spirits and to give pleasure. Noise has no such reputation; indeed it is known to produce exasperation and bad temper. And though it is easy to compose noises into a pattern, it has been a fancy of only recent times to call such arrangements music. Modern art-workers, I must say, do like joining contradictions into a single concept. Nevertheless, the contradictory terms embodied in the idea of noise-music are not by any means terms of equal semantic weight. In fact the sounds of noise, being governed by no single harmonic series, are only weakly interrelated and thus cannot lend themselves nearly so well to acoustical structuring as the sounds of music do. Entertaining they can be, as we know from our percussion orchestras. And at places in Africa, notably Nigeria and the Cameroon, persons at some distance are said to communicate words without the help of any pronouncing voice. All this is both lively and useful. It makes a valued addition, in fact, to our repertory of ear experiences, and is capable, by isolating the rhythmic element, of encouraging rhythm’s growth in complexity. There is nothing wrong with it so long as it is not offered as a substitute for music’s ancient and visceral tone ecstasies.


Moreover, the harmonic series and its intervals are not only a delight, they are another of music’s constant elements. They exist in nature, and though refinements in their perception may (just may) show a history of progress, the way these are perceived is built into the human body. I am not a specialist in this matter, but I can tell you a few things I have read. One is about an experiment carried out some years ago in Switzerland that tends to demonstrate that musical intervals are received by the brain not as a mixture of tones but as a resultant of their overlay.

The experiment goes as follows. You channel into one ear a pure pitch electronically produced and low enough in volume so that there will be no convection by the skull. Into the other ear you feed a similar sound pitched higher by the interval of a fifth. According to the account published in Gravesaner Blätter, July 1955, the brain does not hear these two pitches as an interval but only as a noise. On the other hand, if you feed both tones into one ear, either ear, the brain will instantly recognize the fifth.1

More extended speculation about music’s relation to acoustical perception is to be found at the beginning of a very long book by a famous Swiss conductor, the late Ernest Ansermet. This is entitled Les Fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (or “The Basis of Music in Human Consciousness”). Its reasonings are derived from further evidence regarding the human ear’s attachment to the harmonic series, even perhaps of its evolution therefrom. This evidence, according to Ansermet, is that the semicircular canals of the middle ear have a shape, definable by natural logarithms, which compels the air within them to vibrate in response to the harmonic series, also governed by natural logarithms.

Our learned conductor argues further that twelve-tone-row music, which uses only twelve intervals, all tempered and all uncorrectable on keyboard instruments, is a road leading to no musically pleasurable destination. Arnold Schönberg, its inventor, has been said to boast that this method of composition would assure for at least two more centuries the predominance of German music. Myself, I find that in the music of the chief twelve-tone masters—Schönberg, Berg, and Webern—though it bears many marks of individual genius, the actual sound of its built-in off-pitchness tends to be sensuously not very satisfying. Also, I see no reason why music today should seek to perpetuate a German domination. Neither can I do more about the new researches on musical hearing than to hope they are right. And I cherish this hope because I like music to be in tune and to sound well. I also think that the intervals when sounded in tune have a great variety of expressive power, whereas twelve-tone-row music has always tended rather toward monotony of expression.

What I do hope for sincerely is proof that not only do intervals exist as an experience built into the brain but that chords as well may turn out to have a real existence. From my own experience I would willingly award this to six of them, which any musical child can recognize. They include the major and minor triads, the diminished seventh, the dominant seventh, the augmented triad, and any three or four notes out of a whole-tone scale. All mixtures outside of these I tend to identify as either real chords with added notes, as tone clusters, or as agglomerates. Real chords sounded simultaneously can, of course, create a polychordal complex, and the acoustic principles that govern the use of these in composition, as well as the psychological ones involved in their perception, merit investigation by composers as well as by psychologists. Polyharmony is after all a natural extension of the contrapuntal principle.

Moreover, in spite of Arnold Schönberg’s practice of treating all the intervals as having equal rights, whether they are scored in stack-up to look like chords or laid out in a row like melodies, we all know, I think, that they differ in strength, by which I mean their power to build a loudness. Also, they may well differ in expressive intensity, in their relation to our built-in awareness of them, and thus to some kind of pleasure-pain gamut. In Berlin at the Institute for Comparative Musical Research there is an instrument that produces electronically (that is to say, in a pure state) the first fifty or more of them; and among these there is a major seventh so sharp, as related to our experience of this interval in its more common varieties, so sharp that I found hearing it actually painful. The belief of Alain Danièlou, the institute’s former director, is that the whole interval gamut is allied to our repertory of feelings. And though it is far from certain that any such relation is codifiable verbally, we may well be able to experience fifty shades of emotion.

Certainly we have no such number of names for identifying them. And they unquestionably vary in their affect through associations, proximities, colorations, stresses, and durations—their rhetoric, in short. Actually I see no reason to deny that the constants of music, which begin with rhythm and meter and go on to cover all the possible combinations of tones within any harmonic series, are not only structural elements for aiding memory but expressive vocabularies as well. Not dictionaries of emotion, not at all, but repertories of device for provoking feelings without defining them.

Now the defining of our sentiments has long been a preoccupation of religions and of governments. And the most powerful of these tie-ups has always been music’s marriage to poetry. Music has no connection at all with touch, taste, or smell; and Muzak piped into art galleries has never taken on. Films and dancing do require music, but they don’t want it overcomplex. Actually Igor Stravinsky’s most elaborate ballet scores—Petrouchka, say, and The Rite of Spring, even The Firebird—have tended to shed their choreographies and to survive purely as concert pieces.

More durable matings have long taken place between music and words, and the music in any such union is likely to prove stronger than the words. How often has a fine melody worn out its verse and taken on another! Or crossed a frontier and changed its language! Tunes move as easily from the secular to the sacred as from the Ganges to the Mississippi. And all that is part of the way things change in what people are looking at.

What does not change, or hardly at all, is the way words and music fit when they do fit. That too seems to be a constant. Instrumental styles vary with fashion, but the singing of prose and poetry changes little throughout the life of a language. During the Middle Ages, so long as Latin was for Western Christians the language of worship, the musical settings of liturgical texts, being monolinear, could be melodically quite elaborate. For much of this time, of course, Latin was a dying language, immobilized by its plethora of long vowels and by the progressive erosion of its quantities. Nor was understanding it essential. No wonder Church music tended toward the flowery and the complex.

With the Protestant reform, a German syllabification came into use. With the English prayerbook of Edward VI, 1549, patter was discovered, for that is basically the character of Anglican chant, as it is a propensity of spoken English. In Italy and France, where Church Latin still survived, the seventeenth-century invention of musical tragedy in the vernacular, or opera, forced the local languages to find each its own musical characteristics.

My point is that when any language becomes a mature language, with a dictionary and a grammar, almost immediately the musical wing establishes a prosodic declamation for singing it. And this prosody remains. Instrumental style in music shifts constantly, vocal style very little. Here is therefore another constant element. Just think of Italian opera from Claudio Monteverdi to Luigi Nono. The handling of words in recitative, aria, or arioso has hardly changed at all, even when the vocal treatment was at its most florid. The stories of Italian opera have changed a little, and the music illustrating them quite a lot. But the words-into-music factor has hardly moved at all. The same is true in French opera from Lully and Rameau to Debussy and Poulenc. And if Pelléas contains little in the form of aria or setpiece, its vocal line is nonetheless French recitative that Rameau himself might have written.

The German cantatas of Schütz and the oratorios of Sebastian Bach are vocally of the same family. And the songs of Franz Schubert were so clearly the model for all who came after, including Hugo Wolf and Mahler, even for Arnold Schönberg, that Richard Wagner himself, the master of them all for theatrical German, could so nearly copy Schubert’s practice while enlarging it for the stage that one might almost call the singing parts of any Wagner opera just lieder louder.

A special treatment of the vocal line needs to be mentioned here, which is that of Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and which he called Sprechstimme. This is a stretching out of normal German speech cadences to their farthest limits, with no precise pitch controls observed save by five accompanying instrumentalists. It is not quite melodrama (or speech-to-music); rather is it a sort of yelping-to-music all the more effective for its exaggerated naturalism. And the vocalist’s role in these twenty-one tiny pieces is actually easier to perform than would be any onpitch musical line jumping about like that. Moreover, since the German language often does jump about and feels right doing so, the voice part of Pierrot is not unrelated to the recitatives of Jesus in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or to the upward full-octave swoops of Brunhilde’s battle cry in Wagner’s Die Walküre.

As for Igor Stravinsky’s cantata in French, Perséphone, and his English opera The Rake’s Progress, though they contain what seem to be faults of prosody, they do come over as language quite clearly. And their resemblance to classical French or English declamation is much closer than any parallel that might be drawn between their instrumental textures and those of historic composers English or French. English musical declamation from Tallis through Purcell, Handel, Sullivan, and Britten is virtually unchanging, especially if you recognize Anglican chant as one of its sources. And the extremely high ranges in certain songs of William Flanagan, or of the Italian Silvano Bussetto, are merely flights of musical fancy. They do not alter very much the vowels or at all the stresses of spoken language.

In enumerating the musical elements that are not subject to change, no matter how much the ways of using them may vary, I must not omit to point out that the invention, elaboration, and eventual abandonment of technical devices do tend to follow a repeating pattern. That pattern is especially clear with regard to the historic periods of music’s successive expansions. I speak of the West, of course, of Europe, of the music we know as ours. In Asia, Africa, and Indonesia, music may not behave the same way. From this distance the musics of India and of China-Korea-Japan seem relatively permanent, at any rate subject to changes in method that come about far more slowly than with us.

Our musical energy-booms, if I may call them that, have averaged over the last twelve hundred years an active life of about three centuries each. I refer to the monolinear music of early medieval times, which after its codification in the time of Pope Gregory VII created a large and fully written-down repertory, came to the end of its creative strength in the twelfth century. At that time a contrapuntal music very different in methods and procedures, as well as in expressive content, had been invented. Originally called organum novum (or a new tool), this music was no longer monolinear but composed as two and three tunes made for being heard together in pitch relations governed by intervals of the harmonic series. These were primarily fifths, fourths, and octaves, with secondary permissions accorded to major seconds and minor sevenths; also, to allow for fluidity of movement, to passing thirds and sixths.2 Superposing on all such elaborations metrical observance no less elaborate came to produce in the fourteenth century liturgical music of a high complexity.

Whether the sound of it was ever as complex to the ear as it appears in score would depend on the technical sophistication of those who heard it. In any case, toward the beginning of the fifteenth century these particular complexities were quite rapidly abandoned. Their replacement for the Renaissance centuries, roughly the fifteenth and sixteenth, was a polyphony far easier to follow, being dominated by the more sentimentally appealing thirds and sixths and even by common chords. But eventually that music too went the way of all repertories.

For it is not humanity’s habit with music to incorporate its predecessors’ high skills into those used by succeeding generations. It is rather that these skills, along with the kind of expressivity that they deal in, tend to be abandoned whenever a new kind of expression, embodied in a new technique, comes into favor. And if the high practices are not altogether lost, that fact is due to their preservation in manuscript and occasionally, in some privileged liturgical corner, of a permitted archaic practice. Such survivals also tend to disappear eventually, so that even the notation of yesteryear’s music now needs scholarship for its deciphering.

In cases where older music survives along with the new, the older tends to assume an antiquarian rigidity. Establishments may go on performing earlier music, but nobody writes new music in the old way. These simultaneous existences are visible today in Japan and Korea, where an ancient court music is still preserved and taught, still played as a homage to history, while the new musics—Eastern, Western, and pop—carry on virtually the whole of music’s creative life.

It is visible too in Roman Catholic churches, where every modernism, after repeated papal denunciation, finally gets admitted to the service. A researched version of Early Medieval repertory was decreed in 1906 to be the authorized music for Catholic worship. And twentieth-century styles of composition have still more recently been blessed in an encyclical of 1946. But the ancient Gregorian plainchant, however devoutly performed, is not a method by which anybody today is likely to compose. And to make survivals further precarious, the ecumenical rules, ordering services to be held no longer in Latin but in any convenient vernacular, will inevitably put our still enjoyed modernisms, along with the revived plainchant and restorations of Late Medieval organum and Renaissance polyphony, all of them right back into the library.

Today’s music may also be approaching the end of a major expansion. Everything we can still feel as ours dates from, at the earliest, around 1600. From then, or a bit earlier, come the Anglican chant, the Lutheran hymns, the opera, the ballet, the oratorio. Also the fully developed keyboard instruments such as the pipe organ and the harpsichord with their terraced dynamics, all those blessed violins which made possible the orchestra, and the pianoforte with its facile crescendo.

In the late eighteenth century the stiff continuity-textures of canon and fugue came to be somewhat abandoned in favor of the freer, almost organic expansions of symphonic and chamber music. We call the noblest of these layouts—as used by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—sonata-form, thought that term was unknown to any of these masters. The historian Paul Henry Lang once told me that he had found the word only as far back as 1838, when Schubert, the youngest of them all, had been dead for ten years.

It is these masters, rather than Bach and Handel, who occupy the central position in today’s repertory. And it is the codification of their practices in harmony, free structure, freely differentiated counterpoint and rhythm, and eventually, by Berlioz, in orchestral scoring, that define current music. So also, of course, do the operatic procedures of Mozart, of the Italian and French theater composers, and of Richard Wagner.

Also, with the impoverishment of noble patrons through the French Revolution, and with the building of public halls for the orchestra’s growing possibilities of loudness, a paying public had come into existence. And along with this came publishers, managers, copyright laws, and a vast reorganization of pedagogy. All these still exist. They are today’s musical establishment, enlarged of course by the recording industry, which preserves (though for how long we do not yet know) performances of the central repertory and also of music’s outlying regions. These last include every kind of music available in every part of the world. And music of all kinds is also distributed by radio and by recordings to every part of the world, indeed to every hut and palace in it.

All this has created not only a codification of the Baroque and Romantic repertories but also a sales empire so large and so powerful that its eventual collapse, if earlier empires are a model, can be easily envisaged. The date of such a collapse is not available to me, nor do I see it as imminent. Empires take a long time to fall. I must say that many composers in our time have seemed to be working toward a speedup of such destruction. And along with these intellectual efforts there has taken place through radio and the jukebox such a massive distribution of music’s mere presence that inattention has long been quasi-universal. And inattention, as we know, can kill anything.

Now the ideas that evolution is a constant and that perpetual enrichment of the musical art is inevitable are ideas I have been endeavoring to disprove here, or at least to discourage. And the thought that music, for all the present hypertrophy of its distribution, may be in one of its historic declines regarding creative energy is one that has been pressing itself upon me for some time. Nor do I perceive any prospect of a major renewal.

The practical methods of Baroque and Romantic music, their exploitation, expansion, and codification, as well as their embodiment in a repertory of concert and theater pieces that both professionals and straight music lovers can accept, all that seems to have come to term about 1914. The constants of music have not altered, but their utilization within the assumptions of our recent centuries would seem to have reached some kind of a terminus. Their high point of interior organization and of expressive intensity had already come with the work of the Viennese symphonic masters roughly between 1775 and 1825. Some amplification of volume, extension of length, and intensification of sensuous appeal have taken place since, but these achievements too had all been pretty well finished off, I think, by World War I.

One may point out also that the United States came to participate in this European history at only about that time, too late to have taken a major part in music’s major branchings out or in any decline of its flowering. Our musical needs therefore and our contributions, if any, are likely to lie outside of Europe’s narrative. Our folklore and our jazz, now studied in many European academies, are phenomenal creations. Indeed, they may lead us elsewhere than toward joining Europe. If jazz could replace classical counterpoint, it might justify our abandoning the classical line. I find such an eventuality quite improbable. But I have observed that the commercial establishment, by fighting jazz relentlessly, has strengthened it. Also, that in its fight for life, black music, jazz, has developed a remarkable ability to reject impurities. Actually it is a persecuted chamber music with nearly three-fourths of a century’s history of survival.

Among our century’s incompleted efforts, music for electronic tape has not lived up to what many thought was its early promise. Neither has noise-composition. As for the arithmetical overlays that some had put faith in for renewing music, the twelve-tone-row method has now, in spite of a vigorous burst after World War II, virtually faded away. The aleatoric, or accidental, ways of composing have probably, except for John Cage, now approaching seventy, lost much of their attraction for the young. Stochastics, or the calculation of probabilities, has one brilliant adherent, Yannis Xenakis. And the electronic big machines, though valuable for calculation, have actually invented nothing. Processed sound effects are what their taped products most strongly resemble.

The philosophers of modernism show, along with some hope toward music’s renewal, a notable willingness to abandon most of its past except for teaching purposes. But there is also among educated people (today a mass public in itself) a distaste for being manipulated by managers and marketeers. The composer Milton Babbitt has even proposed that musicians go underground. To a laboratory, I presume, in which tape composers would work alone or in small groups.

This idea is a tempting one for circumventing the addicts who make up most of music’s public, including the opera fans, the electronics wing, the rock-music youth, and the more intellectually oriented but no less maneuverable school-and-college trade, the complexity-lovers. Obviously the only way to escape from them would be to turn toward something fresh. But there is very little available in music today, or in any contradictory non-music, nothing existing anywhere to my knowledge that was not in existence thirty years ago.

The question often asked, “Where is music going?” is to my mind unanswerable because I cannot see it going anywhere. Nor is anyone standing on its bank. Music, to my view, is not a stream in which a composer drops his line and with luck pulls up a fine fish. Nor is it a mysterious wave-force traveling from past to future which may, also with luck, carry us to higher ground. It is not like that at all. It is merely everything that has been done or ever can be done with music’s permanent materials. These are rhythm, pitch, and singing. The first, being mainly imitation, is highly communicative. The second, let us call it harmony, is calculative in the handling, intensely passional in the result. The third, the words-and-music operation, appeals to everybody and is the avenue, almost the only avenue, to lasting fame. But it is also a discipline, never forget, and a game, like chess or contract bridge, to be played for high stakes against religions, governments, and music’s whole secular establishment. That play, which will decide your life or death as an artist, cannot be avoided.

The purpose of this essay is to warn young composers away from a relaxed attitude toward their art. Look out, I say, lest its permanent pitfalls trip you. Music itself is not in motion. But you are. So do be watchful. Please. Unless, of course, you are a “natural” and can write music without remembering its past. But that involves the discipline of spontaneity, the toughest of all disciplines. Just try it sometime.

This Issue

December 17, 1981