Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Garden

Nan's picture

Musical Ecology:  Sonic Preference or Prejudice?

There is a chortle out the early morning window that draws me outside. Any creature laughing, or even approaching a giggle or a chortle, has my ear.  The robin with its eager uneven step, deliberate always, allows us to think it has a jovial disposition because of its call, its cocky head, its ruddy-breasted hope.

Against an ostinato of crickets, their thick insistence blanketing the morning, one crow sounds as angry as the robin is jovial, that is to say probably not at all.  Still its raucous dark persistence from that branch grates on my attuned ear.  My ear is well-tuned to a well-tempered scale not a crow’s ill-tempered screech of simplistic percussive rhythms.

The tuning system of the well-tempered scale, like all tuning systems, is a system that is arbitrarily devised based on the choices of a particular culture.  What sounds harmonious to my ear, the particular pattern of whole steps and half steps, the chromatic increments that sound pleasing are what I have been taught to find pleasing.  “You have to be carefully taught.”  (Of course that song from “South Pacific” is about being taught racism.)

A tuning system in music is not “natural”.  It is a social construct.  Cultures may try to draw their systems of pitches from the raw acoustical facts of nature – the interval ratios of the overtone series which are objective natural acoustical facts first measured by Pythagoras.  But when we try to draw a musical system from those facts, we  end up with an infinite number of pitches.  So every culture makes a selection which is based on fudging the exact proportions.  Most cultures claim that their particular system is drawn from nature, and that it is the other cultures’ systems that are arbitrary.  But actually all the systems are arbitrary.  We tend to prefer the familiar sounds of our own systems.  Thanks to the globalization of western pop music, these sounds and instruments are washing over the world like an “invasive species”. (after a conversation with a composer)

What singers are welcome in my garden?  Do I welcome the crow?  I can feel the heft of my prejudice against this big dark squabbling intruder.  Can I accept that I prefer only smaller brightly colored birds to enter?  Birds whose beautiful songs delight my ear.  Apparently I possess a sonic prejudice that might exclude at least one bird from this tiny patched echo of country in an unwalled suburban community, if only I could.

See video