Software Musings

The Missing Thirds

Posted on: 29/05/2006

Chomsky put Locke’s tabula rasa idea—that we are born empty and learn everything from experience—to bed. The grammar a child hears completely under-determines the grammar of any natural language. The fact that a child learns a grammatical language (or, judging by the number of incorrectly spelled it’s I see around, the fact that some children do) indicates that the brain at birth is not blank but is pre-programmed to learn grammar—streaks in the marble slab.

A related question that has been raised many times concerns our learning of music. I’m sure that there’s an answer out there but I’ve never stumbled across it. Having a quick Google (as I believe the verb is) just now for “tabula rasa music”, I find that there is a pop group with the name Tabula Rasa. Looking at the picture of what I assume are the three performers on their home page, I can see how the name was chosen.

I sing a lot of Schubert Lieder, in particular from the Winterreise and Schwanengesang cycles. Number 9 in that last “cycle” (I put the term in quotation marks because it’s not really a cycle) is Ihr Bild. In my copy, for low voice, it is set in G minor. The story is simple (I think the genre is known as Country and Western): man sings while looking at a picture of a girl he has lost (whether by death or her finding a better singer is not made clear in the song), her lips in the picture form into her smile, tears roll down his face and, in a passionate final phrase he sings “Oh! I cannot believe that I have lost you”. Apart from the dog (which appears several times in the Winterreise cycle), this is definitely Country and Western.

Anyway, regardless of the genre, there is a dramatic and hopeless moment when the singer stops and the pianist plays two large chords, both rooted on G and both missing the third (B flat). The singer then re-enters to sing of the tears on his cheeks. The impact of those two chords is tremendous. I got my accompanist (a.k.a. wife) to play them this evening with the thirds present and the impact is gone. With the thirds missing the effect is one of emptiness and hollowness. With the thirds present the effect is of resolved misery.

So, was I and were you born with a musical tabula rasa? Have I learned that a missing third gives a sense of emptiness? Certainly when I was young I had a book on composing which listed the “flavour” of the keys: G Major—heroic, etc. This I can see as rubbish as tuning has changed over the years and what was in one key in 1900 is now effectively in another.

I may one day become a grandfather. If I prevented the mother playing the child any music while it is in the womb and then had her put it up for adoption by a Chinese couple immediately after birth, could it accept the 53-tone Chinese scale as easily as the western 12-tone one? I assume, pace Chomsky, that it could learn the grammar of the Chinese written and spoken language but the musical language, being less precise and more ambiguous, is presumably harder.

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1 Response to "The Missing Thirds"

Keys and the key to them.

Major keys:

C Absolutely A-OK
G A little sharp
D Slightly prickly
A Somewhat to the point
E Positively acerbic
B Distinctly hostile
F# Aggressively unpleasant
C# Psychotic
F Rather flat
Bb Low in spirits
Eb Feeling put down
Ab Somewhat depressed
Db Under medication
Gb Desperate
Cb Suicidal

And their minor relatives?
The same, only more so.
(Except for A minor, which is just the teensiest bit less so.)

P.S. Any pyramidic feedback?

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Disclaimer

The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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