Day 57: Tuesday
Good morning Zak,
“When man wanted to make a machine that would walk he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg.”
Descending melody is a universal in world music. Every culture that we know of has some examples of melodies that generally start high in pitch and end low. Ethnomusicologists think this is simply due to the nature of our physiology: whenever someone breathes out to sing a melody, they start with a lot of breath and end with very little. This makes it natural to descend in pitch toward the end of a melodic line.
If I were to indulge myself in speculation about this, I might even take the explanation a step further. It seems like downward motion is a pretty universal part not only of our physiology, but of all of nature in general. I mean, here on earth, things pretty much always move downward if nothing stops them. Water, tree branches, trees themselves… I guess in that way descending melody is a lot like Cage’s 4’33’’; it’s the sound of nature when people don’t interfere that much.
The so-called “lament meter” in ancient Hebrew poetry is probably an example of this. Although we don’t have direct evidence of the original melodies, the lopsidedness of the poetic meter itself seems to evoke a diminishing energy toward the end of the verse. The first part of the verse (the first “colon”) is generally longer then the second.
I feel like there’s something inherently lament-ful about this kind of verse structure. Isn’t it kind of sad how everything on earth eventually falls back to the ground and dies? Everything except for some small amount of helium, which, I understand, escapes the atmosphere because it’s so light.
But the really strange thing is how relatively rare this melodic typology is within Western concert music. Our melodies tend to climax about two-thirds of the way in. In a sense, you could maybe say our musical tradition is about contrasting the entropy the natural world with the creative energy of human life.
“Right, well, I mean… this piece behind me, I call it ‘The Afous II.’ And, I mean, it’s really about how confusing, you know, society is. Because, you know, it’s all a jumble, isn’t it.”
A river or a waterfall might tend to flow downward, but human discourse generally moves the opposite way: I say something, you say something, and eventually we reach some kind of logical consequence… an agreement or a main point or something like that. Contrary to the entropy of the natural universe, human conversations, or “language games,” tend to snowball, accumulating more energy as logical discourse progresses.
Here’s a a very famous lament, which climaxes, no less, toward the end of each strophe.
God, who created all that comes and goes
and shaped this faraway love,
give me strength, since I already have the intention,
so that I see this love far away
in reality and in a fitting place
so that rooms and gardens
shall seem to me to be new palaces.
-Jaufre Rudel, source