Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/July 1882/The Relation of Music to Mental Progress


By S. AUSTEN PEARCE, Mus. Doc, Oxon.

THE nature of music is threefold, like that of man to whom it appeals. Therefore, it may be regarded as a sensuous art, in that it delights the ear; as a psychologic art, in that it records the emotions, and requires mental operations on the part of the hearer for its due appreciation; and, as it involves agreements, differences, symmetries, complexities, etc., and order in apparent disorder, it may be regarded as a branch of science closely allied to mathematics.

The distances between the holes of a flute, the tension of a drum-head, the lengths of organ-pipes, the rapidity of vibrations, the intervals between recurring accents—in fact, all that may be surveyed and expressed in numbers in this art—give evidence of the mental power of the musician, irrespective of all considerations respecting the imagination or creative power in originating compositions.

The music of a people may be considered in direct relation to their supersensuous natures. From this point of view alone, strongly marked differences may be noted; for, by comparing modern Italian music with German, it is at once seen that the latter is developed more highly in an intellectual sense.

Our modern music is styled a new art, chiefly because it requires advanced mental powers of a special kind on the part of composers and auditors. Instead of being a succession of monotones, it is a complex web of many tones, that the hearer must analyze to understand and enjoy. In the ordinary church-quartet there are four such interwoven threads; in a symphony by Beethoven, many more. An elaborate tonal plexus demands from the listener considerable mental effort, unless he has acquired by study a "polyphonic ear," or the power of perceiving the relationships of all the parts heard simultaneously, as clearly as one, looking down upon a ball-room scene, may perceive the symmetrical forms of a mazy dance.

It is interesting to consider the birth of a new art, and gratifying to note that our modern civilization is marked by so rare an event. We need not, therefore, lament that at the Renaissance no specimens of Greek music were forthcoming; for these might have influenced the early composers, whose special duty it was to strive to express the new thought and feeling of the time, and of the Latin and Germanic races, not of Greeks or Orientals. When the mental sleep of the dark ages passed to the waking dream or semi-consciousness of the middle ages that led to the complete awakening, there was great productive activity in all branches of art.[1]

But, whereas, in architecture, painting, poetry, dancing, sculpture, dramatic representation, etc., models of classic antiquity were at hand, in the department of music nothing came to light but the didactic treatises of the Greeks. These works, which were printed in Holland in the original text and studied carefully by musicians, failed to exercise any marked influence on the art, for there were no actual compositions found that would illustrate the theories so carefully elaborated. Our modern art, therefore, is no Euphorion, born of a Faust and Helen—of Christian and pagan ancestry—for there was no artistic dualism in music at the Renaissance.

Although the Church had, in the Bible, a foundation for poetical and musical art, it neglected Hebraisms. Being reared on classic ground, its first hymns and poetic forms were Greek and not Oriental. But this early Church music could not supplant that which missionaries found in Western countries. Strong as the Church was, in many senses, in those days, it could not hinder the introduction and recognition of. the new polyphonic style. In this one particular it seemed powerless to dominate over the free spirit of man that thus formed for itself its own mode of expression. The musician was left unhampered in his actions, while throughout the Renaissance there was a constant struggle between the styles of the mediæval artists and the classic models of antiquity in all the other arts. To this day, music has, in a technical sense, remained free from all admixture with relics of the dead past; and, although some of these may be hereafter discovered, it is doubtful if they would prove more than merely interesting to those thinkers who are ever desirous of enlarging their conceptions of the art by studying that of other peoples.

Such specimens could hardly have any vital power, however highly they might be prized, being too foreign to the experiences and requirements of our age to find willing ears. And this not because sympathy with the emotions expressed would not be accorded, or that the few sounds of the lyre would not prove sensuously agreeable, but because the structure of the music, in the third sense mentioned above, would prove so strange.[2]

We can not here define the Greek scales, nor contrast Occidental music with Oriental, Gothic cathedrals with Grecian temples, dramas of Shakespeare or Kalidisa with those of Sophocles, as regards relative complexity and simplicity, but must proceed to point out that as civilization arose in the West, music at least kept pace with it, if it was not greatly in advance of the intellect of the time, as it is now, when even Beethoven's latest quartets remain as sealed books. It has been noted that it was an important factor in the general Western illumination, and was most truly of it, while the other arts were represented by specimens that were in it but not entirely of it. These arts of visible representation of known things requiring less mental power than the invention of new forms that have no counterparts in nature or geometry, it does not appear strange that, while painting, sculpture, and architecture attained highest perfection long ago, music continues to make rapid advances in several directions, to open new schools, to pass through various phases—now being developed in one direction, now in another—that this art is expected to reveal hitherto unknown possibilities in the future. We have already grown beyond the deification of the bodily man, and seek the mystic inner soul. This makes the art of music so greatly in requisition. Our successors may go deeper still, and altogether cease to make reproductions of tangible things.

The relation of musical art to literature and general progress may be seen illustrated in the recent history of Germany. After the Thirty Tears' War, which reduced her to material, mental, and moral poverty, she began to establish the Protestant religion, and to try to form into one coherent state a number of small principalities. Her literature was the expression of the national spirit, and yet helped to form this spirit. Luther invented the Choral, which remains to this day, not only the song of the Church, but the national song of the whole united people, their political song, their war-song, and one of the mightiest engines for developing in the minds and hearts of the people the sentiment of universal brotherhood. "Nun danket alle Gott," which won the battle of Leuthen, during the late Franco-German War, proved its influence over the people to be unimpaired.

Music and literature thence went hand in hand down to the school of the Romanticists, in which the middle ages became the ideal, and appeals were made to the national pride of the German. Then Wagner produced art-works that are similarly founded on national myths, and are more ambitious in scope and intention, as well as in musical and dramatic structure, than any works of his predecessors. Let us now take a broader historic but a narrower musical survey.

The Church accepted the musical teachings of Pythagoras and the astronomical theory of Ptolemy; and thus, for some unknown reason, progress was retarded. When the world accepted what the Church rejected, progress began in both sciences. For Ptolemy had demonstrated a new "section of the canon" by which our modern major scale was scientifically determined, and justified, and which made our harmony possible.

The invention of counterpoint in the north of England in mediæval times, and the subsequent practice of canonic forms of imitation, led to the general treatment of music on scientific methods by composers, however it obtained among the populace. In China we find music among: the uneducated classes as unlike that of the musical mandarins as can well be imagined.

Subsequently, the discovery of harmony in nature opened a new realm to the musician. It was a revelation. It provided him with a scale of sounds analogous to that of color in the spectrum, and he soon determined the proportions mathematically. Hence a new science arose within the art of music, by which the composer no longer proceeded by a kind of "rule of thumb," but with a perfect knowledge of the ratios of speeds of vibrations, at which sounds would combine to form chords, as chemists after John Dalton learned to make new compounds unerringly.

The musician followed up the soft whisperings of Nature, until he found that each tone was attended by myriads of other tones as truly as attendant planets, asteroids, etc., surround a primary sun.

Heretofore music was made to conform to certain laws of proportion when viewed horizontally on the paper, but now it was made to conform to another series of laws, when regarded horizontally; the art of fugue was seen to be one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind, and the great universities in England instituted examinations for degrees in music, making the projection of an eight-parted fugue or canon in silence the supreme test of the mental prowess of each candidate.

It is thought that the opera was intended to be a resuscitation of the Greek drama, in which all was to be elevated and made musical. The music, however} differed but little from the prevailing style. It is also thought that at the Crusades, when we learned so much from the Arabians, in mathematics, etc., we also acquired their musical systems, which are marvels of ingenuity and complexity; but these were utterly rejected, and the Arabians, on their part, refused to admire the little we could then accomplish with the new science of harmony. So little did our music take its rise in the East (although all our instruments originally came from thence), that the Irish harps and harpers were sent to Italy, where they gained the praises of Dante and Galileo. The Italians subsequently sent their sons westward, to learn counterpoint, as Americans now study in Europe.

In early times music was much more troublesome to learn than it is now. The instruments were difficult to tune, and keep in tune; and the notes had to be identified by the ear. Now, a deaf or ignorant performer may provide himself with the tonal system ready-made and symmetrically laid out as on a piano-forte finger-board. The complex nature of the new art demanded such a simplification, and some arrangement by which an executant might operate many notes at the same time. The advances made in the physical sciences generally, and especially in pneumatics, hydraulics, electricity, and acoustics, aided in the improvement of organs.

The mere act of reducing the musical dream to positive statement in writing marks a mental advance, especially when it is remembered that this notation has proved capable of recording conveniently the most highly elaborated forms of modern compositions. It is far simpler than the Chinese notation, and more direct than tablature, which gave directions how to find the notes, instead of indicating them directly by letters that form a kind of algebra. With this notation the musician has been able to avail himself of the printing-press, and thus to spread his apparently indescribable imaginings broadcast throughout Christendom. Singularly enough, his harmonies are still unappreciated elsewhere.

The study of comparative psychology has been followed up. Hence we now find in the works of Chopin an ideal reflection of the sorrows of the Polish people, long suffering from quarrels not of their own making; and, in the passionate music of the Italian, a marked contrast with the deeper-felt expressions of his Teutonic neighbor. Modern introspection, as in Byron's "Manfred" and Goethe's "Faust," finds its counterpart in the overtures of Schumann and Wagner, whose "Faust Overture" is acknowledged to be a portraiture of a definite soul-state.

Although the drama has declined, modern music has become preeminently dramatic. A symphony by Beethoven is an idealized form of the Shakespearean drama, rather than that of the Greeks; for it has not a mere trio of parts, but many; and a complex scheme of plots and counter-plots, incidental passages, etc. Its voices are persons (in the sense of personare, "to sound through"), and they are heard simultaneously, not merely consecutively. The Wagnerian opera, therefore, that employs both visible and invisible characters, shows an advance worthy our present attainments.

It was stated above that, while other artists are occupied with the tangible forms of the external, visible world, the musician is busily engaged in the study of the human soul; yet it must be remembered that he has had to seek for the germs of his art in nature, and that these were hidden from him so deeply that they were hidden long.[3]

His resonator must be constructed to re-enforce some particular note which he supposes to be sounding, whereas the telescope of the astronomer reveals many unsought objects at once. And while the painter finds his forms and colors openly displayed, the musician must evolve his from within. He creates both form and spirit, and so entirely, that we can form no notion of the smallest tributary melody in any work we have not actually heard, or the score of which we have not seen.

If our civilization endures or progresses, there can be little doubt that the music of the future will continue to give evidence of the fact, even if it should not contribute to the general advancement.

  1. See article in "The Popular Science Monthly" on the "Imperfections of Modern Harmony," vol. xvi, p. 516.
  2. See article on "Oriental Music," vol. xviii, p. 241, in "The Popular Science Monthly."
  3. See article on "The Modern Piano-forte," p. 700, October, 1877, in "The Popular Science Monthly."