The theory of music theory
November 19, 2019 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Is there a book that is the music equivalent of Gilles Deleuze’s books “Cinema 1: The Cinema-Image”, “Cinema 2: The Time-Image”, and Roland Barthe’s “Camera Lucida: Reflections of Photography”?
posted by gucci mane to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
For mystical/theoretical music theory, maybe take a look at W. A. Mathieu's "The Harmonic Experience".
posted by dum spiro spero at 1:28 PM on November 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think lots of stuff John Cage wrote fits this description.
posted by oulipian at 1:54 PM on November 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

So ok, I've read a fair bit about music theory, but absolutely nothing about photography or cinematography. Can you say what it is about those books that you're interested in / what a comparable music theory book would need to look like?
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:55 PM on November 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

Hmmm, that’s a hard question for me to answer. The Deleuze books are basically (and I’m talking very basically here) a theoretical examination of cinema, and cinema’s attributes. Cinema-1 goes into theoretical detail about the “movement” of cinema, and discusses and classifies certain details, such as how montages work and the actual frames of film. He argues that cinema is not the movement of still photographs (which present an illusion of movement) but are actually an image in and of itself due to the movement itself. Cinema-2 I haven’t completed yet, but it revolves around how the concept of time works within cinema, and it is sort of a complimentary book to the first, although both of them can be read alone. I haven’t read the first in a long time, there’s a lot more to it than what I described (and I may have described it very poorly). You may benefit from looking for a free copy of it online?

“Camera Lucida” by Barthes is...basically a rumination on photography and the way photography affects and works on spectators. It’s not as “academic” heavy as the Deleuze books, but Barthes was a semiotician who has academic books, and this one is a much easier read. It’s also a weird eulogy about his mother, whom he was very close to, and the book discusses a photograph of him as a child in his mother’s arms (if I remember correctly). The funny thing about the book is that Barthes died right after it was released (or he died right before it was released), and a lot of people think of it almost as a eulogy for himself, which is funny due to the fact that Barthes was a semiotician.

Maybe that doesn’t answer your questions, but I like the Deleuze books because they give you a very academic, distilled, theoretical look at cinema and a way to engage with cinema in an extremely detailed, but almost metaphysical sense. I like the Barthes book because the writing, while sort of academic, is more hallucinogenic and wavy in its form. It’s almost poetic the way he writes about photography, and about his mother, and when put into the context of his death it makes it all that much more magical.

So here I have two books on these art forms: photography (still photography), cinema (the movement of still photography), and now I’m looking for one in the auditory spectrum as a way to almost complete this trifecta. I recently started learning about Jacob Collier and the concepts of “negative harmony”, and he presents this theoretical concept in a way that is fascinating to me by illustrating a tree with its leaves growing upward, which would represent the overtone series, but there are also roots growing beneath the ground, which would be the undertones, and you can take those undertones to create a negative harmony. You’d get things like C-Major turning into G-Phrygian when you take that undertone series and derive chords or scales from it, and the undertone series does not exist within nature, it is a purely human creation. He discusses polarity and the way that chords and keys along the circle of fifths can be negatively polarized along an axis. You’ll have to check out some YouTube videos on this, they are really interesting.

So for a music theoretical book, I guess I am looking for something that gets deep into the concepts of music theory itself, beyond the typical cultural discussions of things such as “why do these chord progressions elicit these emotions”. I want to examine music theory in a way that is almost metaphysical.

Not sure if that makes any sense :/
posted by gucci mane at 2:35 PM on November 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

Rick Beato’s Beato Book?
posted by Seeking Direction at 3:18 PM on November 19, 2019

Yeah, The Harmonic Experience might be right. It's a weird book — he wants to teach you a lot, textbook-style, about math and harmony, which you might find uninteresting, but he also wants to ground the concepts he's teaching you in the phenomenology of experiencing different combinations of sounds together.

Another interesting-and-weird book that makes a good counterbalance to it is Harry Partch's Genesis of a Music, which uses the same math and the same harmonic concepts but goes in a very different direction. (Roughly: Mathieu thinks that ambiguous combinations of sounds, which allow multiple interpretations in an approximate way, make music richer and more interesting. Partch thinks those ambiguities and approximations are bullshit, and an honest melody or harmony should be one thing exactly. Both talk a lot about the inner experience of harmonic ambiguity.)

Partch is also one of the originators of the idea of "undertones," so that would tie in to the stuff you're already reading in an interesting way.

Both of those books are bricks, though. Neither one will make much sense if you don't know at least a little conventional music theory to start with. And both are pretty fringe — Partch actively wanted to tear down modern European-descended harmony, Mathieu likes the music but thinks almost everyone teaching it is full of shit, and both are total mystical weirdos.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:19 PM on November 19, 2019 [12 favorites]

I went to a strange college where we studied music strangely using two strange books that might appeal to you: Victor Zuckerkandl's The Sense of Music and Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Zuckerkandl was definitely going for something like a metaphysics of music, but there is some interesting stuff in there about music theory. Schiller's is a much better book about human appreciation for the arts in general.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:39 PM on November 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

A quick Google turned this edited collection of essays up, which might provide some starting points for further investigation.
posted by Chairboy at 5:33 PM on November 19, 2019

Wow, was not at all expecting to be beaten to the punch on Partch. Definitely check out Genesis of a Music, it’s the very first thing I thought of when you mentioned Deleuze.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 5:43 PM on November 19, 2019

not a book, but i found a lot of value in the teaching company's how mathematics and music relate (seems to be "free trial"-walled).

two other books: daniel j. levitin's popular science book this is your brain on music, which i keep meaning to read, but haven't yet, and hazrat inayat khan's the music of life, which is more sufi spirituality than music theory.

i don't think you're going to find negative harmonies or phyrigian modes in either of those though. um, i saw june lee's interview with collier, and am pretty sure he cited his development of his notion of negative harmony to ernst levy's a theory of harmony, which he described as a classical composition book from a time before jazz. (search engine autosuggests sites offering pdf's of that one, but i wasn't certain i wanted to click on any of them).
posted by 20 year lurk at 6:09 PM on November 19, 2019

You’re referring to a long history of music theory and philosophy and science of mind, although I don’t think there’s a “Deleuze” of the genre (thank god). Semiotic theory has however been a thread that links music and other arts in this domain.

Here’s some randomly chosen classics:

Victor Zuckerkandl - Sound and Symbol
Peter Kivy - The Corded Shell
Leonard Meyer - Emotion and Meaning in Music
Fed Lerdahl (my longtime colleague)!)! - A Generative Theory of tonal Music (with Ray Jackendoff) and Tonal Pitch Space
Suzanne Langer - Philosophy in a New Key
Nelson Goodman - Languages of Art
Patel - Language, Music, and the Brain
Higgins - The Music of Our Lives
posted by spitbull at 4:20 AM on November 20, 2019 [6 favorites]

By the way, reading in this literature — as in film theory — usually means wading through acres of pseudoscience by philosophers who don’t do actual science.
posted by spitbull at 4:26 AM on November 20, 2019

posted by nebulawindphone at 5:51 AM on November 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Perhaps David Byrne's How Music Works could serve as a palate cleanser between weighty tomes?
posted by Bron at 6:15 AM on November 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Oh the closest thing to a “Deleuze” figure in modern sound studies and media studies (broader than “music” as such) is Friedrich Kittler and his most influential book is Discourse Networks. Good luck.
posted by spitbull at 12:52 PM on November 20, 2019

Haven't read it, but when I was looking for a "theories of sound" book for a performance theory class, this was on the shortlist.

FWIW I ended up pairing "The Grain of the Voice" from Barthes' Image, Music, Text alongside "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and talking about the history of autotune, which was a lil too specific and probably more specific than you're looking for. Next time, I'll return to this thread to prep :)
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:05 PM on November 20, 2019

Oh yeah! There is also "The Sound Studies Reader" which has plenty of potential jumping-off points for you including people like Kittler, Derrida, Barthes, Attali, etc.
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:12 PM on November 20, 2019

The crucial entry point for sound studies for me is Jonathan Sterne’s *The Audible Past,* now a classic. It isn’t a study of sound as such, but of the history of the mediation of sound. And an argument that mediation is the fundamental object of inquiry.
posted by spitbull at 9:23 PM on November 21, 2019

« Older Best resources for colorwork knitting?   |   What kind of soles do I want on these boots? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments