Underlying structures of music (and language?)
In an earlier post, Usree linked a youtube video comparing Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” to Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly.” A background in music theory/composition will tell you that the majority of modern, mainstream music is based off a few pretty common chord progressions (copying the melody and tempo, however, is a completely different issue). This has even been the source of many music-related skits. One of my favorites:
A few medleys have been made that combine two or more songs. You have probably heard Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World”:
And here’s one I found amazing:
The vast majority of songs written nowadays use a pretty standard set of chords, and it’s difficult to produce an original chord progression that sounds “good” (obviously a subjective term).
The same way that music has underlying structures that makes it “sound good,” does language? Well the first step is to identify what I mean by “sound good.” To me, music that sounds good is music that fits a harmonic pattern or works in contrast to that pattern. By pattern, I am referring to the notes that fall within the key of a song. Songs are typically set to a key (like C major, or A minor) and this determines the notes which fit in the key. So if you’re in the key of C major, and you play the notes C-E-G (a C major chord), everything fits the key and it sounds pleasant. If you randomly change some notes around you’re likely to make the song sound horrible and dissonant.
The same idea can be applied to folk tales. Vladimir Propp, in “Morphology of the Folk Tale,” breaks down Russian fairy tales into 31 functions (note that he doesn’t claim that all folk tales contain all 31 functions, and the order may vary). For example, here are the first seven functions:
- A member of a family leaves home (the hero is introduced);
- An interdiction is addressed to the hero (‘don’t go there’, ‘don’t do this’);
- The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale);
- The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc; or intended victim questions the villain);
- The villain gains information about the victim;
- The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim’s belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim);
- Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy;
When reading a story, the reader expects a certain pattern of events to occur, and deviations are typically in contrast to the expected pattern. This is not to say that everything is predictable; surprises will occur, but for the most part, they will be logically integrated into the plot of the story. For example, in a murder mystery, you may be surprised by who the murderer is, but there is typically an explanation (even the lack of an explanation itself could be an integral part of the character’s identity). Of course, more creative writers will leave some things unexplained, but this also fits into the logic of the narrative (one can hardly expect the reader to be omniscient about all events and motives in a story). Within a Proppian analysis, each potential function of a story always fits within a very logical order, an expectation of what events can happen and why they happen.
So, to bring it back to music theory, a song in the key of C major will be based on the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The available chords will typically fall within this set of notes: C major (C-E-G), D minor (D-F-A), E minor (E-G-B), F major (F-A-C), G major (G-B-D), and A minor (A-C-E). Similarly, a story in the fairy tale genre will usually have the following plot (paraphrased from Propp): introduction of hero, villain enters tale, villain does something harmful to hero or hero’s family, hero leaves home to seek revenge/fortune/solution, hero is tested by a helper, hero succeeds at test, hero receives gift/reward which allows the villain to be defeated, villain is defeated and order is restored. Each event in a story is linked to the story’s genre, and there are only a certain set of events that can occur which fit appropriately within the expectations of the genre. For example, in a standard fairy tale story, you can’t have the hero willingly give up and let the villain win, or have the villain come to realize that he/she was wrong (without any external influence) and set things right. What makes a hero “good” and a villain “bad” is a logic to their actions and motives, a logic that fit within the overarching genre of the story.
Of course, you can have more complex characters, the same way you can have more complex chord progressions. You can throw in more textured chords, like a basic jazz chord can throw in a minor 7th note in the scale (so instead of just C-E-G, you can have C-E-G-B flat). You can make exquisitely complex chord progressions, but if the music sounds good, there’s more than likely a very logical placement of each and every single note.
Perhaps studying language is like composing music – it helps to understand the underlying structure of the composition. The same way a song will be in a certain key, words will have a certain frame. The same way a song will have notes that are better aligned with the key, there are words that are better aligned within the frame. The same way a song has a chord progression, words have a flow to them, a feeling of connectedness that links not only the words to each other, but to other words said in a different time and place by different people, but with similar meanings and intentions.