The Structure of Music as a Guide to the Human Cognitive Process

“Wonderful ideas do not spring out of nothing. They build on a foundation of ideas.” Eleanor Duckworth


Understanding is the recognition of a pre-existing structural unity, that never the less exhibits stylistic characteristics of the time and location of the particular cognitive event. Humans construct knowledge and understanding by relating specific data from a given set around the principles that make up the continuity of the primary subject. Examination of the fundamental structures of western music theory provides useful parallels in our efforts to comprehend the organizational functions of the mind and their role in the cognitive process.

In Western music, musical pieces consist of notes that are the building blocks of chords. Each chord has a designated label and position within the key-center (signature) of the piece. The relation of the notes and chords to the key-center determines the significance of that chord or tone. The analyst can account for and justify the existence of the key signature. It adheres to a set of rules that belong only to that particular key and yet the musician, to construct other keys, can transfer the rules. Roman numerals indicate the status and position of a given chord in a given key. The musician can transpose the chord positions (the Roman numeral position indicators), placing the structure of chordal relations into any key, because the guiding principles of chord construction remain the same across the keys.

Music begins and continues over time. The motion of a musical phrase or the function of a particular chord can only be determined in its relation to the phrases and chords that surround it. The significance of tone forms and the functions that they fulfill rely on the goal, direction and location within the key signature (ex. descending, ascending, tonic, dominant, discordant). The position of a chord within the whole can effect identical chords to such an extent that they play diverse roles. The outer voices of a chord construction can add richness to the progression. Chords may also be presented as inversions; each chord has four potential voicings, root, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd position. Music has a directed motion and cadence. The composer makes choices concerning how she will get from one chord to another as well as how to transition from one key to another. The directed motion of music, the sequence of a phrase’s motion and the function of its’ chords contribute to the prolongation of the structure of the key signature. The compilation of the individual parts reveals the underlying pattern of how those parts relate.

Western music is structured around a series of harmonics that exist in a series of overtones called the circle of fifths. This overtone series moves the listener beyond the prolonged role of the key signature into the harmonic and contrapuntal functions of phrases and chords. Each phrase and chord has a harmonic association to the tonic (key signature) or to the dominant (the V chord within the signature). Contrapuntal chords are ironic in that they generate a sense of voice leading. They appear between members of a harmonic progression and they create a sense of pressure leading in an ascending or descending direction towards the nearest tone that exists within the harmonic progression of the key. Although contrapuntal chords do not necessarily reside within the harmonic prescriptions of the key, they often serve to intensify the feeling of drive and direction of the key signature. There are many options for chord functions beyond the harmonic and contrapuntal chords. The types of motion influence the listener’s interpretation of the piece.

Finally, in an effort to elaborate on the construction of musical meaning it is necessary to examine tonality. Having clarified that the tonal center of a piece is its key signature, the tonic, we recognize subordinate tones and chords in their relation to the tonic. The harmonic relations can prolong a chord creating a tonal entity. The relations of these harmonies when the dominant chord ( V ) is applied can lead back to the tonic or can progress in to a relative key, which is called modulation. The tonic chord reinforces the structural coherence of the key signature. Any modulation could be temporary or complete; it could be related or unrelated to the key signature. However, the modulation does not change the key signature. The tones and chords exist in relation to the structure as a whole.

Music is a series of inter-related notes, scales, modes and overtones. Its’ chords are defined as major, minor, diminished and augmented. Tonal relationships, labeled triads, 7ths, 9ths, non-harmonic tones and passing tones, create specific senses of suspension or anticipation. Understanding relies on the accumulation of fragments that can be related to an underlying theme. Every fragment relates to and informs the structure of the piece.

Although I have chosen to describe the fundamental structure of music in a theoretical way, I specifically chose to use music as a lens to view human understanding because the theoretical structures of music are often learned without any meta-cognitive awareness of the theoretical structure. For many, music is intuitively learned. Many musicians use these fundamental relationships without ever learning to describe or define them. Music is a discipline that many people assimilate in unique ways, and yet we can all hear, create and understand some musical meaning without this theoretical instruction.

In conclusion, for understanding to exist the subject must have resonance with the individual. We all have music that we empathize with and music that we can not relate to. For some, music has the power to change the way they see the world forever. The structure of human understanding is deeply revealed to me through the examination of music. A person with no interest in the structure and meaning of music may not understand it as a lens into the workings of the human mind. In order to understand something we necessarily connect it to something else that we know already. These connections could be consonant, dissonant, or completely unrelated; however, they determine the nature of our understanding.


About m.a. wood

writer, thinker, musician, teacher
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