Friday, August 19, 2011

Musical Intervals and the Glass Bead Game

This blog has been quiet lately because I've been preparing for the big fun of SoSA, but I wanted to not neglect the Glass Bead Game (GBG) side of things.

In January I posted about tension and release as a kind of "universal mechanic" for so many kinds of creative activities. If we ever do build a common symbolic language for a GBG, one could reasonably expect that tension and release would be somehow written into its DNA.

A few years ago, I began thinking about using the intervals of western tonal music as building blocks for a possible GBG language of tension and release. Over and over again, people describe the various intervals as having specific emotional connotations.  A perfect fifth is majestic, a minor third is sad, and so on. I was going to list some links, but there are just too many... just Google music, intervals, and emotions to see dozens. (German speakers, see also "Affektenlehre.")  The lists don't always match up exactly with one another, but they have many commonalities that I've encapsulated into the following table.

Click for bigger version. Yes, I'm aping 1e AD&D trade dress.
The emoticons were built up from the 4 categories listed by a music teacher named Dan Jones in an online PDF book: nice, nasty, neutral, and nostalgic. It's also interesting that Tufts University's Music Cognition Lab did a study where they found that people's speech patterns often used the intervals that correspond to specific emotions -- when speaking with those exact emotions. These associations may not be arbitrary conventions, but really worked into our own DNA!

For GBG design, the full set of 12 semitones may be too complicated to start with.  Most musicians pick a key in which to compose, where there are only 7 out of the 12 to play with. In rock and pop, sometimes the musicians just rely on "three chords (I, IV, V) and the truth!"  :-)

One thing I did was to take the 7 standard intervals of a key and try to create a list of generic "plot development" tropes, or generic narrative steps that occur in most stories. Here's what I came up with:

I.  EQUILIBRIUM:  Presentation of an equilibrium situation. At the beginning of a story, this equilibrium is likely "unstable," and at the end it may be "stable." Also, this chord can be used when new characters/themes enter or exit.

II.  AID:  Characters are helped, or are given information.  This aid propels characters closer to resolving tension.

III.  INTERLUDE:  A "non-functional" episode that neither increases nor decreases plot tension. Used for ambiance, comic relief, diversion. (Songs in musicals?  Asides to the audience?)

IV.  COMPLICATION:  Characters are hindered by something external, which raises tension.

V.  ACTION:  Characters take decisive action with the goal of resolving tension. (Actions may inadvertently raise tension, however; e.g., "tragic flaws" or melodramatic misunderstandings).

VI.  EVALUATION:  Characters make a decision, formulate a desire or goal, or recognize the problem at hand.

VII.  EXPOSITION:  Revelation of information to the audience, via direct exposition, foreshadowing, flashback, tying up loose ends. Not explicitly functional from the characters' point of view, but needed for the audience to experience the story properly.

I didn't list the octave (VIII) since that's just a flavor of the tonic (I).  I used the emotional characters of musical cadences to help figure some of these out. For example...

V-I is an "authentic cadence" that corresponds to traditional ending of an action-driven story. The protagonist takes the final action, and wins!

II-V-I is a jazzy "turnaround cadence" that is a variant on the above. Han Solo flies in to help Luke survive the battle, and Luke then goes on to destroy the Death Star.

IV-I is a "plagal cadence" that is less satisfying than many others. In stories, it's probably the Deus ex Machina where everything is wrapped up with an unexpected bolt out of the blue.

V-VI is a "deceptive cadence" that really doesn't end the story. Scarlett O'Hara says "I'll never go hungry again!" and the music swells, but then there's a few more hours of movie left to watch!

What to do with these?  I certainly wasn't interested in plodding through dozens of stories and diagramming them.  (If anyone else is interested in doing the work, more power to ya!)  The big goal is to build new forms of art using these kinds of universal building blocks, but my stumbling block is always with the form that will take. Are we really talking about a completely new art form (which would require viewers/readers to be wholly re-trained in how they appreciate these things)? Or can we present these associations using standard media? I've already blathered about some of the tradeoffs one must think about, so I'll just stop here for now.


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  2. Gayest thing ever... This has been so useful for me thank you so much!