Some Clues to Social Harmony from Music
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Part of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991). Prepared in the process of envisaging the group dynamics of the World
Parliament of Relgions
In a group or gathering, music may be used as a metaphor to view each role or
individual as a note, a chord, a musical instrument, or as a melody. The issues of group
integration can then be interpreted as:
- - what kind of music can the group as a whole play -- and what does
- - how do the group members relate to one another to ensure their appropriate
contribution to the music?
- - what of the distinction between rehearsal of classic or popular pieces as
opposed to composition and improvisation of new music?
Hints of these possibilities are already evident in common use of: "the same old
refrain", "his usual number", "blowing his own trumpet",
"the note they are sounding", "singing the same tune", etc
A tone is characterized by four attributes: pitch, timbre, loudness, and duration.
Musical sound can be regarded as having two dimensions, vertical and horizontal
A. Horizontal Harmonic Organization
Namely organization over time. Music structures time and this may be seen in terms of:
- (a) Tempo, as the pace of the fundamental beat of the music or the rate at which
tones are produced. Groups (and individuals) may also be perceived as having a tempo, some
being "faced paced", etc
- (b) Rhythm, as an ordered alternation of contrasting elements (of whatever tones)
grouped instinctively by the mind into twos and threes, stressing every second or third as
a beat to convert a monotonous series into a succession of strong and weak beats. There
are six principal rhythmic modes or metres (also in poetry): trochee, iamb, dactyl,
anapest, spondee, and tribarch. Rhythm unregulated by metre may be considered a seventh
- (c) Melody, as an organized succession of groups of musical tones, involving
repetition (with the same phrases repeated), contrast (of a completely different phrase),
or variation (such that despite the change its identity is conserved).
In the case of horizontal organization, the focus is on "where the music is going
to". This is of course helpful in understanding how an integrative goal may be
understood and how the status of different goals has been brought into question through
the evolution of understanding harmonic possibilities.
How does a group endeavour to structure time? How are the different notes or
melodies inserted into the meeting space and how is their meaning held over time?
B. Vertical Harmonic Organization
Namely the sum total of what is happening at a particular time. The emphasis here is on
the vertical relationships, if any, between tones.This includes the results of notes that
sound against each other in counterpoint. In, the case of melody and accompaniment, it
includes the underpinning of chords that the composer gives to the principal notes of the
This can be broadly defined as the sound of two or more notes heard simultaneously
(even if sounded one after another and so integrated by the hearer).
- (a) It is the succession of harmonies that give a piece of music its distinctive
personality. Harmony is an optional additional form of organization or integration. Rhythm
and melody can exist without harmony and in fact most of the world's music is
non-harmonic, using unharmonized melodic lines often with a sophisticated rhythmic
- (b) The concept of harmony is not an arbitrary creation. It is based on certain
relationships among musical tones that the ear accepts almost reflexively, especially the
octave, fifth and fourth. Are there natural harmonies between psycho-social functions,
namely the "notes" sounded by individuals? Is it appropriate to accompany one
note by another to create a chord which imbues the activity of the group with a higher
The interplay of consonance and dissonance is the very foundation of harmonic music:
- (a) Consonance: This is the normal range of tone combinations accepted as
implying "repose" by theorists and composers during a given period. Dissonance
refers to any sound outside this range. Many attempts have been made to link consonant
with pleasant, smooth, stable, beautiful, and dissonant with unpleasant, grating unstable
and ugly. These may prove meaningful in a particular context, but generalizations to a
- (b) Dissonance: This is recognized as the prime element creating movement in
harmony. When the ear recognizes a certain harmony as unstable within the given musical
context, it "demands" that this instability or tension be rectified by
resolution to a stable harmony. Without dissonance music would be hopelessly static. The
historical development of music can be sen as the exploration of different approaches to
the treatment of dissonance so that the musical flow is an ordered alternation of tension
In a group, but especially in society as a whole, it is usual for advocates of a
proposal, a model, a method, a cosmology or an ideology, to propagate it as though it
alone should achieve dominance -- effectively excluding alternative approaches. Within the
musical framework this can lead to pieces which are either immediately monotonous and
boring, or whose interesting characteristics quickly become an intolerable imposition
unless balanced by other pieces in the musical diet (cf. the life cycle of a hit record).
There is of course no musical continuity between the succession of such separate pieces
of music. The challenge lies in the way in which the relationship between distinct
"voices" is approached. This is of course basic to polyphonic music and
symphonic integration. In music such as the fugue however, the relationship between
"competing" voices is explored within a musical continuum. This represents a new
level of integration. In effect the concept (strategy, model, etc) is explored, inverted,
countered, distorted, etc within the overriding set of rules which permit a new level
of freedom. The rules ensure a more exciting balance of tension and harmony.
The key to such integration lies in the time dimension which music effectively
organizes. Somehow the potential for organizing the time dimension in which competing
perspectives are presented and countered needs to be better understood. Perhaps it is
linear time which is the trap, as many have argued. There is the possibility of a new
level of integration in the interplay between competing alternatives.
On the one hand the theory of harmony provides a script which could be decoded
to provide insights into new relationships between opposing views. But on the other hand
there is a need to learn to treat the interplay between such views as a pattern which
could be represented in musical form.
In the case of a group meeting there is some merit in seeing it as a "broken
pattern" or cycle, vainly trying to get together a coherent tone or harmonic pattern.
It may also be seen in terms of polyphony and the challenge of competing voices. But in
the light of the historical evolution of harmony, the value of moving the gathering
through a series of consonant and dissonant "chords" to a tonic goal may be
viewed as somewhat simplistic -- although perhaps only achieved in rare cases. The closing
phases of most conferences reveal the superficiality of that goal. The possibilities of
integration need to be "liberated" from the simplistic understandings of social
"harmony" which prevail.
EVOLUTION OF HARMONY
For Western music, harmony has evolved over the centuries
Vertical harmonic organization (the moment)
- (a) Ancient Greece: Harmony based on the succession of tones within an octave.
Scales were used as a basis for singing in unison. Melody was synonymous with harmony.
- (b) 6th to 9th century: Use of any 12 such modes (scale patterns of tones and
semi-tones) in which the notes also had characteristic functions.
- (c) 9th century: Only the simplest "perfect" harmonic ratios were accepted:
fourth, fifth, octave. This allowed the addition of one or two voices which exactly
paralleled the original melody. Later these voices acquired melodic independence,
possibly moving contrary to the original melody.
- (d) 12th to 15th century: Inclusion of other intervals, thirds and sixths, and in
some cases, seconds and sevenths. This was associated with the development beyond
3-part scoring to 4-, 5-, and 6-part scores, thus further enriching the harmony of
- (e) 15th century: Introduction of additional notes outside the mode, thus
breaking down the distinction between the 12 classical modes and foreshadowing the
major/minor mode system.
- (f) 16th century: The tonic, or keynote, triad then became the point of departure
and of arrival in a composition and in its component phrases.
- (g) 17th century: Greater emphasis was then placed on expressive melodic line
harmonically underpinned by a base line as the generating force upon which harmonics were
built (often by improvisation) -- contrasting markedly with the interweaving of parts
of equal importance.
- (h) 19th century: Deliberate use was then made of unresolved harmonies (unstable
chords used as self-sufficient entities) and of ambiguous chords. Although rooted
in tonality, every possible device is used to complicate or obscure the tonal sense.
- (i) 20th century: Use of chords seemingly conforming to classical practice but which are
resolved in unexpected directions. Tonality exists in the sense that there are
extended stable areas that give the impression of being in some definable key, but the
intense use of notes outside the scale of the basic key (chromatism) makes it nearly impossible
to group the unity of a work in terms of its adherence to a clear tonal plan.
- (j) 20th century: Use of atonality, abandoning the traditional duality of consonance and
dissonance (eliminating the concept of a single predominant key as tonic). Break away
from traditional scales in recognition of the power of context and the sense
of a continuum between consonance and dissonance.
- (k) 20th century: Emphasis on performer improvisation/interpretation catalyzed by
indeterminacy procedures making any concept of overall harmonic direction irrelevant.
Musical composition is currently in a phase of intense experiment. Although concepts of
classical harmony have lost their importance, it is not a question of the dissolution of
harmony but rather of the uses to which such harmonies are put, and the changing
relationship of harmony to musical structure -- and the emergence of a new, fundamentally
Horizontal harmonic organization (over time)
- (a) Up to 15th century: In the use of 7 to 12 harmonic modes, the harmonic goal was
governed by the given scale pattern. Although chants were sung unharmonized and in a
rhythmically free manner, there were constraints and there was a proper final note
for a modal melody.
- (b) With the development of melodic independence between voices (polyphony) and the use
of dissonances within the composition, emerged an emphasis on the resolution of such
tensions through consonances at the end of compositions as the point of arrival. This
reinforces the idea of the cadence, or the finality of the keynote of a mode on which
pieces normally ended.
- (c) From the 16th century: Devices such as the suspension were used as a way of enhancing,
through dissonance, the resolution to consonance and the sense of completion of the
final chord. In a suspension one note of a chord is sustained while the other voices
change to a new chord. In the new chord the suspended note is dissonant. One or two beats
later the suspended note changes pitch so that it resolves into, or becomes consonant
with, the chord of the remaining voices. This reinforced awareness that harmony moves
through individual chords towards a goal.
- (d) 17th century: The concept of a key was developed as a group of related notes
(belonging to either a major or minor scale), plus the chords formed from those notes, and
the hierarchy of relationships among those chords. The keynote, and the chord built on it
is a focal chord towards which all chords and notes in the key gravitate. Given chords
assumed specific functions in moving toward or away from harmonic goals, the main goal
being the tonic key or keynote - of which there were a total of 24 possibilities.
These derive from the 12 major key scales and 12 minor key scales (each of 7 tones). The
most common movement from chord to chord is through "strong" intervals
(fourths, fifths, seconds) which have the' fewest notes in common.
- (e) 18th century: Modulation, or change of key, became an important factor
because it allowed the composer to exploit the listener's ability to sense the relation
between the keys. Modulation was usually to a "dominant" key which was a
"strong" interval" apart. After the modulation there is a process of return
to the initial key. During this process the harmonic movement tends to pass rapidly
through many chords and often with momentary diversions into many new keys thus dramatized
as unstable -- and in this way lending greater impact to the eventual return to the
stability of the original key. This modulatory scheme from tonic to dominant key and
back to tonic key formed the basis of large-scale musical forms, although often with
additional refinements (such as secondary dominants) to strengthen the sense of
completion of the tonal journey.
- (f) 19th century: There was increasing disavowal of modulation, in terms of any tonal
goal. By deliberately failing to resolve dissonances, or by creating ambiguity
so that it was unclear whether resolution had been achieved, the status of the harmonic
goal was redefined. The listener was called into an active role to respond to the
"questions" raised by the unresolved elements and to define the unity to be
supplied. This blurring was also counter-balanced by an emphasis on continuous,
goal-less melody. Two simultaneous tonalities (polytonality), neither dominating the other
as a tonal goal, were also used.
- (g) 20th century: With the advent of serialism, no single note could any longer serve
as a harmonic goal. Whereas melody, from being synonymous with harmony (Ancient
Greece), became the surface of underlying harmonies (16th century), and then bore its own
harmonies (into the 19th century), serialism provided a melodic sequence out of which
harmonies were generated. Such harmony effectively became the surface, or final
result, of melody.
Contemporary music may be said to be "goal-free", or to call upon the
listener to be responsible for any goal he chooses to derive from the music. The emphasis
is very much on: the response of the individual listener, the context to which performers
respond (including audience response), and increasingly the process of improvisation. The
goal lies in appreciation of the moment whatever the range of sounds which define it.