Musical expectations and cultural attributes in music
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  • Gisela Paterno

Musical expectations and Cultural attributes in Music

Updated: Jul 18, 2019



What is it determines what we like? Which template of musical determines our musical taste?

This can be related to musical expectations. This is basically how do we perceive any given musical template, these expectations are what we believe or think the way music has to go.

One root of this situation can be attributed to how we were musically nurtured since we are born. By musical nurture, I simply mean in what culture did we grow up and what kind of music did we listen by our environment, regardless if is in our home or simply all the music around us.

Let’s clarify it with these examples: If you were born in Beijing, you likely are familiar with sounds played on Erhu and written in folk music in a five-note scale, so-called the pentatonic scale. If you were born in Mumbai, you likely heard the sounds of the Indian sitar, probably composed with Indian Ragas with six-note scale, or if you were born in Tel Aviv, you surely would have heard the sounds produced by Klezmer music. We like what we like because we've heard it all our lives. We are comfortable with it. We understand it. We even could say it is comforting to us.


Let's assume that we grew up in London, or other countries of Europe or America… Well, we would have a Western musical template in our ear, in our memories. This will mainly consist of deeply ingrained expectations as to how music ought to sound.

What we consider sounding good or bad (which by the way are judgements upon perceptions) how music should go, or maybe, any breaks in the patterns, or just, let’s say, a violation of the expected. Is all related to cultural nurture and musical memory.

An example of this was when atonal music was created by the German composer, Arnold Schoenberg; he entered a brave new land. But it was a lawless land, there were no pre-fixed rules.

In tonal music, we knew that this set of pitches was to be followed by this set of pitches and then onto this next set of pitches. There was a hierarchy. Now, with atonal music, there is no hierarchy. All twelve pitches are equal, the composer had absolute freedom. That produced a break in the expectation of the Western listeners, as they desperately tried to “match” their template with this way.

Igor Stravinsky observed in his poetics of music that “nothing is more frightening for the creator and maybe for every individual. Nothing is more frightening than absolute freedom”.

At least with tonal music, the composer had a template of years of trial and error of tonal chord progressions and musical forms. So Schoenberg had created a conundrum of sorts.

This can lead us to think that every new music that we listen triggers an implicit memory that automatically relates to what is familiar to us, but that might not relate to the quality of it, but our own limitations. Every culture around the world establishes a norm, a template for what the music of that culture should sound like, how it should go.

These are not physical attributes of the music, they are cultural.

They are human, and they are local, and they are somewhat arbitrary. Wouldn’t be great if we could truly listen without past restraints and see what it actually presented to us?

#musiclessonslondon #musicteachers #musictuition #adultpianolessons #pianolessonsLondon

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