Chou Wen-Chung

Writings by Chou

Single Tones as Musical Entities: An Approach to Structured Deviations in Tonal Characteristics

Excerpt from article published in the Journal of the American Society of University Composers, Vol. III, 1970

In recent years there has emerged a serious interest on the part of some composers in prescribing meticulously in their scores not only what are generally referred to as the physical characteristics of a tone but also the possible modification of or deviation from these characteristics within the life-span of such a tone. This reflects a growing auditory awareness of a supposedly new dimension in compositional resources — the so-called “deviations” in tonal characteristics.

One of the earliest sources on the Confucianist concept of music, Yueh Chi, states that “one must investigate sound to know tones, investigate tones to know music,” and that “without the knowledge of sound… one cannot speak of music.” It is therefore believed that single tones, rendered meaningful by their acoustic attributes, are musical entities by themselves as well as musical events within the context of a composition. This concept, the true meaning of which is often made ambiguous by frequent poetic and mystic references, is at the root of the means of musical expression in the East.

For example, the Indian sage Matanga in his Brihaddeshi defines the word svara (tone) as “that which shines by itself” and… as “the sound that generates an expression.” In practice, each tone in a raga is in fact treated as having its own specific expression within the expressive context of the raga. …What is even more interesting than the use of the raga (which specifies the pitch content and the motive content) and a tala (which specifies the time units, their groups and the stresses) is the use of gamakas, which are often translated as ornaments. But the use of gamakas is far more than embellishing an existing melody with certain simple devices as in Western music. The gamakas have their own expressive values and are the blood that brings life to the tones of a raga. They are assigned to specific tones according to the tones’ structural relationship within a raga. The execution of a gamaka can be highly intricate and can involve subtle inflections in pitch, timbre, and loudness.

In the Indonesian gamelan (an orchestra mainly consisting of pitched percussion instruments) the microtonal flattening or sharpening of certain tones of the scale by means of altered fingering or half-holing on the suling, an end-blown flute, so as to momentarily deviate from those played on instruments with fixed pitches is an interesting example of how pitch deviations are used structurally.

The fundamental concepts cited and the examples given, pertaining to diverse performance practices from singing to drumming, should clearly bear out my contention that in the East the so-called “deviations” are as much an integral part of music as the tonal characteristics, and are assigned as much a structural function as an expressive one.

In desiring to structure and to relate the deviations to one’s compositional ideas, one recognizes sound as “a living, evolving substance” — to quote Varèse — not rigid but pliable, during its brief or not so brief life-span, from the beginning of the attack to the end of the decay. But I hope the Asian examples and the experience of some composers and performers will convince all of us that many types of these deviations can be cultivated and structured.

In attempting to structure deviations, I think one should

  1. define certain deviations as truly independent compositional ideas;
  2. assign certain others as modifiers, serving to better define the standard physical characteristics.

Once the function of a deviation or a modifier is defined, one can then relate it to the norm if there is one, to its immediate environment contextually, and to the structure of the work as a whole. For instance, in the case of pitch deviation, one may have to decide first whether its function is purely within the tone as an independent compositional idea, or is used as a modifier in altering the intervallic relationship to other pitches. After this, one may then have to decide under which specific circumstance a certain pitch at a certain register with a certain set of interval relationships should be modified in a certain manner.

By Chou Wen-chung

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