Melody and the Feeling of Thinking

Klee VAST rosenhafen Paul KleeFrom the previous post we can sum up rhythm and meter as the musical elements associated with will, life and movement – the rhythmic durations as a more inner movement of the soul experienced in feeling, and the pulse as a more physical-plastic movement, evident through the close connection between music and dance. If this is the feet and limbs of music, then melody is its head. Melody is where the heart can enter the head Rudolf Steiner says:

Through melody feeling becomes available for the head, the real feeling. Through melody the heart is pushed up into the head, so to speak. It becomes free through the melody, as otherwise in thinking (Vorstellen). Feeling is clarified, purified. (Steiner GA 283, Page 138)

Melody is the element in music that is experienced most akin to thinking Schönberg observes in his Harmonielehre. Olivier Messiaen calls it the “noblest element in music” which rhythm and harmony should serve.

The proper element of melody is the pitch-dimension as such; it lies in the experience of high and low tones, of ascension and descent, as an inner height and depth. If one were to express a melodic line with arm movements, one would spontaneously and naturally follow the height-depth dimension of space in the rendering it. It is an interesting question to ask whether this is merely an external metaphor, or whether it is in fact expressing something essential. One could of course imagine that high pitches as such had nothing to do with the word “height”. What does it mean that high tones are “above” low tones? If these concepts is to have any meaning it must somehow refer to an inner felt reality. Is it so that in the melodic experience of ascension and descending, music bring us into contact with a virtual but real soul-space, with height and depth, light and dark? According to Rudolf Steiner, this experience of ascension and descending is a real movement of the soul, and its movement is measured or noted relative to the body: in moving upwards, consciousness moves in the direction of “the spiritual”, and low pitches means going “into” the physical body. (GA 278, page 118)

Melodies are also movement. It is at one and the same time an inward experience of height and depth, light and darkness, and an experience of movement. In the melody we experience the unfolding of lines and contours, as if we were listening to a living sounding imagery, whether in the lonely line of the solo that rises above the accompaniment or in all the complex of lines that weave into each other as polyphony or a melodic mosaic. The melody is the voice of music. In this we can feel the movement of thinking; the feeling of movement, life and will-like force that lie in the domain of rhythm, is in melody experience as a kind of moving thought. The musicologist and music philosopher Ernst Kurth points to this dimension of movement in the melodic line:

“Out of the depth of the life-energy there emerge different specific expressions of forces of a bodily as well as spiritual kind. One of these and perhaps the most strange, at least the richest of the specific appaerances, is the energy of movement in which the musical experience and imagination releases itself, and which expresses itself in various forms of tension. In it lives the basic feeling of work, of a “doing”. Its most obvious form is encountered in any melodic phrase as a power running through it. It is an energy which drives the train of tones in its individual form and thus works through each of its tones; not less important is that one cognizes it as the force running between the tones, not as a connection given after their completion, but as the carrying unity.”

Aus der Tiefe der Lebensenergie lösen sich verschiedene spezifische Äusserungsformen von Kräften körperlicher wie geistiger Art. Eine davon und vielleicht die merkwürdigste, jedenfalls an Sondererscheinungen reichste, ist die Bewegungsenergie, in der sich das musikalische Erleben und Vorstellen entladet und die sich in verschiedenen Spannungsformen äussert. In ihr lebt das Grundgefühl des Wirkens, einer «Arbeit». Ihre einfachste Form erkennt man an jedem melodischen Gebilde als einen durchtragenden Zug. Es ist eine Energie, die den Tonverlauf in sein eigentümliches Bild treibt und damit auch jeden seiner Töne durchwirkt; nicht minder wesentlich ist, dass man sie als die zwischen den Tönen streichende Kraft erkenne, nicht als nachträgliche Verbindung, sondern als tragende Einheit.» Ernst Kurth, Musikpsychologie, 76f.

In this text Kurth points to a dimension which is something more than the purely audible sounds. The “energetics” of music, its “force”, “psychic movement” or “work” circumscribes a flowing reality which is a unifying formative power of the musical configuration. He points to this when he stresses that the unity or wholeness of a melody is not something derived from its tones, but that rather there is an “original unity” out of which the tones are “released”. The unity of a melody is “a continuum of tone-movement rather than a sum of tones”. (Musikpsychologie, 78 and 82) In playing or singing we know this from the feeling of how one tone is a continuation of a stream running through it and continuing into the next. Also when beginning a phrase the initiative must begin before the physical sound is released. We donate life-forces from our own bodies in playing and singing.

This energetic aspect of music is for Kurth in a sense the real music. “The most essential aspect of melody is mobility…The primary elements of melody are the tone and the sensation of motion.” [quoted from Rothfarb page 8] This energy or movement streams not only through the tones, but also in between them – as can be experienced clearly in the pauses of music, which are not empty but often an especially intense and active movement. Therefore: “As a most general and primal concept, melody represents a path of motion over which a tone, as an imaginary body, travels”. [Rothfarb page 8]

The essence of music is psychic movement, as moving forces beneath the audible surface. Kurth translated the idealist distinction between the phenomenal world of appearances and the noumenal level of reality as the real creative forces behind phenomena into the distinction between acoustic sound and the real movement and force of musical experience.

The form in which we become aware of psychic events is nothing more than their final effect in perceivable impressions, their surface. Music and its audible counterpart, the impressions of sound (the concrete outer layer) relate to one another as Will and its [phenomenal] expression, as force and its resultant effect, as abstract ideas and their concrete realization. [Rothfarb page 11f]

This energetic level, the work or forces that is experienced as psychic motion is for Kurth the “inside” of music, and all the parameters (metric impulses, rhythmic durations, harmonic tension and melodic lines) bring this to expression in various ways. In the melodic element, which is everything having to do with movements of height and depth, we can feel this movement as a kind of living imaginative thinking in a virtual moving space. When we hear and feel the difference between high and low tones, this is a feeling which is associated with the head and thinking, than for example the feeling of rhythm.

As Ernst Kurth writes in his Musikpsychologie, the musical space is indistinct, more a felt space than cognized [119], but still part of the music experience and not just an abstract idea added to it. “The sense of space is immanent, it is inextricably linked to the original process; movement.” Although the musical space cannot be compared to the outer physical space, we experience actual inner movements in an inner space without extension. The music takes place in an imaginative space, a space where time is not an outer category as it is in our physical “dead” space that seems to be independent of time. Therefore, it is perhaps more correct to say that music creates a space rather than happens in a space. In the inner space of the music experience, time and space are one and the same. The feeling of thinking that lives in the movements of a melody is an inner movement in an inner space created out of movement.

In the previous post I suggested that modern music attempts to effectuate a transformation of the relation between meter and rhythm, and thus of the relation between the soul-forces. In the melodic dimension a similar transformation could be seen as the consequence of breaking with tonality.

Tonality is of course a consequence of a specific pitch organization and of the rules and conventions in using these tone-relations, both results of a historical development. Gaining an understanding of this is obviously an enormously complex matter, which involves the historical and cultural conditions for the emergence of various tone-systems, where the psychological aspect is just as important as the acoustic understanding of the tone and its natural overtones. But one aspect can be brought forth here concerning the intensification of the feeling for the movement of musical imaginative thinking.

The pitch dimension includes of course both melody and harmony in music. In classical tonal music based on the scale of seven tones the harmonic vertical and melodic horizontal dimension work together to effectuate an integration of the musical elements into a unity. In a phrase beginning and end are ideally speaking determined by a convergence of melody, harmony and rhythm in which they all contribute to an organic breathing of the musical flow. The lines of the melody follow an organic birth and death; generally speaking a phrase begins on downbeat – a formative impulse of incarnation – and ends on an upbeat – excarnating and dissolving the formative impulse. The tension and release of harmonic progressions follow this scheme – usually beginning more or less neutral – often in tonic – developing tension through progressing, and then releasing tension in the end; or if leading directly into the next phrase, ending on tension (the dominant) in a way that creates a suspense and expectation for the next phrase. This is an idealized portrayal of course, but precisely on this background melodies can weave above and beyond these breathing impulses and we can feel when rhythm or harmony do not follow this organic wholeness. This is in short, the function of the cadence; the tension-release of the tonal harmony. Classical tonal music can therefore be said to be organic both in the sense of creating an organic wholeness between the musical elements of the architecture, and in the sense of being grounded in the natural incarnation-excarnation rhythm of the incarnated soul which finds its foremost expression in the rhythm of breathing.

In romanticism this aspect was at once both intensified and partially overthrown. Richard Wagner, whom Schönberg considered a forerunner in the musical transformation that was to come, is at one and the same time a great organisist, and one that begins the break with the organic. Famous is of course Tristan where tonality already tentatively supersedes itself by making harmonic tension quasi constant, but also the unending melodic line that goes beyond the organic phrase modeled on human breathing is part of this development.

Atonality can be heard as continuing this development of going beyond the organic unity. Perhaps most obvious is the lack of the grounding experience that the cadence creates. Breaking with this principle of tension and release, home and away, a free-floating situation opens in which one “feels the air from another planet”. Musical language undergoes a process of deterritorialization as the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari would say.

When the melodic line is released from the integrating wholeness created by the cadence and tonality, it must be held together in a different way. The lines are no longer drawn in a musical landscape with given nodes and focal points, the melodies are no longer expressed in a musical language with a given syntax. In short, the relation between the tones of a melody are no longer felt as evident and instinctual. Because it is not integrated into a feeling of wholeness, the melodic line becomes more “independent”, it is emancipated. Schönberg considered atonal music leading to dodecaphony as growing out of the emancipation of the dissonance. But this has the effect also of emancipating the musical elements from each other, and thus also the soul-forces activated or felt in them. (Generally one says that Schönberg emancipated the melody, Stravinskij rhythm and Debussy the dimension of harmony and timbre.) In this way the will-forces must also enter into listening. Listening to a melodic line of Schönberg one must – arguable more than in tonal music – inwardly and actively do the gesture for it to make sense. If in melody we feel the movements of thought, in much modern music this feeling must be actively “will-fully” felt.

In this activity, sensing musical gestures and waves may also begin to be experienced as virtual movements, waves and contours with a certain objectivity and “independence”. Listening becomes more conscious of a participation in a virtual time-space where one feels the movement of thinking. But feeling the movement of thinking in melodic movements means already sensing thinking as will; and, as is to be explored later, this subtle soul-experience is already close to the experience one has when thinking is spiritualized. Pure thinking, Steiner says, is the same as pure self-actualizing will, and this transformation of thinking turns it into something which is of a musical nature:

[Through] “meditation and concentration [we] transform what is otherwise mere logical content into something in the thought itself that is of the nature of music. [Thinking] “acquires an inner life” [and] “stream into a kind of musical element, that is however a real cognitive element – we become aware of a rhythm, a spiritual rhythm present at the ground of things.” (GA 83 01.06.1922)

Gafurius's Practica musice, 1496