The Sense of Music

Ever since I first heard of the St. John’s undergraduate music curriculum, I have really wanted to get a taste of something similar for the graduate students. Basically, all the freshmen at St. John’s have a required class called “Freshman Chorus” in which they learn to sing a corpus of songs together over the course of the year. Then in their sophomore year, they take a music tutorial in which they read a text called “The Sense of Music” by Victor Zuckerkandl and some supplementary passages from history that investigate the basic elements and significance of music.

The graduate students do not have any music education, which I think many of us regret. Music is such a profound part of life, yet many of us–even if we have some knowledge of an instrument or who to read music–have never reflected very deeply about what it is and how it works! So anyway, after yearning for something like that myself and sensing that there was a similar desire in my classmates, I decided to host a music study group this semester. We are reading together “The Sense of Music” and also learning some songs from the undergraduate curriculum.

For the last two weeks we have been looking at melody. What is a melody? It seems like a very simple question, but really, it’s quite complex. One might be inclined to say “a series of notes arranged in a song” or something like that, but the problem with that is that you can play any song in any key–so it’s not the notes that make the melody but it’s more the relationship between the tones that form it. And the relationship between those notes is informed by the whole song, you cannot really get a sense from two or three notes in isolation. Given the pattern of the whole, like what key the song is in, tones color one another  in unique ways, causing tension and resolution, emotional resonances, etc.

We have not only been talking though. Last week we started singing one of the first songs that the undergraduates learn: Pange Lingua Gloriosi, a Gregorian chant with text by Thomas Aquinas. I think we start with chant in order to look at a simple homophonic song, in which the melody is so clear and the relationship of tones to words is so important. Also, chant does not have a set rhythm or meter.

I was surprised by people’s openness to singing the chant. I think many discovered for the first time the mesmerizing quality of such music, especially when one is participating in making it. The way voices singing in unison, blending together and resonating in a space, can be so pure and lovely is something i have often delighted in.

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