Assistant Professor of Music
Music, similar to language, has sentences that declare, implore, question, or exclaim
People often think of music as a language through which we communicate ideas. As with any language – musical or otherwise – syntactic structures enable us to form sentences that declare, implore, question or exclaim. In music theory classes, students learn an alphabet (A through G only!), compose with note pairs (these are called intervals) and build larger sound entities named chords. Once students learn how chords operate within keys they are ready to grasp the meaning of short statements – musical sentences – or harmonic progressions.
Cadence as punctuation and an intersection of students' listening abilities
A centuries old device called a cadence punctuates these statements – an aurally conspicuous event that marks the conclusion of a musical phrase. In this study I am concerned with language in two ways: first, it focuses on cadences as a musical element that has linguistic parallels as a structural marker. Second, I am interested in the way and the degree to which musical novices notice, perceive and verbally react to cadences. The intersection of the students’ aural abilities – inasmuch as they can identify and hear cadences, and their use of language in describing them lie at the heart of this yearlong project.
I chose the harmonic cadence as the focus of this study for a variety of reasons. First, as a “final stop” in musical phrases it is often quite audible, even for novices. Musical phrases are goal-directed statements that drive forward with intent, arrive at a significant harmonic juncture in a formulaic manner, and then pause before moving on to a new phrase. This moment of repose is one at which cadences occur. Second, cadences are musical constructs that have been at the heart of Western musical tradition since the early 1300’s yet are still used today in both Classical and popular idioms. Its centrality has to do with its direct impact on the way music is shaped, formed and structured into coherent segments. Finally, cadences are an example of a higher-order concept within a discipline (going beyond rudimentary terminology) but whose importance is nonetheless critical as students begin to gain ground in their understanding of the way music operates. As an instructor, I was curious to find out how much and in what way do entering students hear them.
A common pedagogical model used in teaching music theory students about harmony in general, and cadence in particular, is a large body of chorales (German hymns) by J.S. Bach (1600-1750). If you’ve ever opened a Christian hymnal, you must recall the basic layout: one page songs for four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) with text underlay in multiple verses, simple rhythm (usually a constant stream of quarter notes) and a frequent use of hold signs (fermatas in the technical lingo) to mark phrase (and textual) endings. The reason these chorales are often used is because they elegantly and compactly encapsulate Western harmonic language in terms of harmonic vocabulary, syntax, voice leading, and other factors. Composers from every period since J.S. Bach (including modern-day composers) have traditionally studied these chorales as part of their own musical training and used them as a blueprint when writing works of various genres.
The participants in this study, students in a first-semester music theory course at Elon University, listened to two famous chorales by Bach on four separate occasions during the fall of 2009 and completed a set of questionnaires relating to their perception and understanding of cadences. As the Implementation section will describe, the questionnaires ranged from a preliminary attempt to see if students could relate the experience of listening to chorales with the idea of “musical organization”, whether these novices were able to successfully connect between heard cadences and their visual placement on a simplified score, and whether they could explain various musical errors (harmonic, stylistic) occurring at cadence points through brief prose responses. Finally, in the last exercise, students were given the penultimate chord in a musical cadence and were asked to complete the final chord based on a recorded example (and using their emerging yet still fresh musical know-how).