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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Language and the flat nine

The flat nine is a cool sounding chord extension. So I have an Eflat 7 flat nine in a song, right after a Cmaj7, etc...  The flat nine of E flat would be D. [correction: E]

But those words are meaningless, if you don't know what that sounds like. I myself barely know what this sounds like, because my ears are not that good.  I couldn't sing one for you on the spot. I could sing an octave and then up one half step, that's what it is.  I couldn't recognize one listening to music.

It seems inadequate, then, to say we think in language.  We can certainly use that label for that interval, and make ourselves understood, and understood to our own selves too, writing it down for future reference. But is the manipulation of such signs without understanding their meaning thinking? To really make the flat 9 the object of thought one would have to already be thinking musically, not just manipulating the signs of another system of thought--language.

Words cannot express, we say...  But it is a fallacy to think words ever express anything. I could try to evoke this in a poem:

"Ah, the flat nines of Bill Evans make me think of magnolia trees!"

You might get the illusion of understanding here.  The language is not really evoking the music, it is just gesturing toward it, and the person reading this line won't figure out what it really sounds like.  Words have their own sounds, and I guess those will never sound the same as any flat nine either.  Even people who claim that the referent doesn't matter won't read poetry in languages they don't understand semantically.  Of course, if we already know what magnolia trees in bloom look and smell like, then we can evoke them in a poem. The reader without this knowledge can substitute a similar kind of memory and go along for the ride.


Vance Maverick said...

D is the seventh degree of E flat, not the ninth. The "flat nine" would be F flat.

If you know Bruckner, think of the opening of the third movement of the 9th symphony.

Jonathan said...

I call that note "E."

Vance Maverick said...

Calling it F flat emphasizes its role as the ninth -- or as the sixth degree of A-flat minor. E is for most purposes equivalent, but the other name highlights a particular understanding of the chord and the interval. The tradition of using the more difficult/pedantic spelling of the note is rooted in classical music, but the justification largely applies in jazz/pop as well.

Do you have any examples of language "really evoking" music? The goblins in Howards End, perhaps?

Jonathan said...

Yes. I know about those conventions of enharmonic naming of notes. I'm not particularly crazy about keys signatures with more than five accidentals, or the concept of a B Sharp or C flat, etc... You can probably tell I've never had a music theory course. I guess I should take the step of understanding all this more technically or theoretically. I remember asking someone once: how can you have six flats when there are only five black notes on the keyboard? It's a good question to ask to see whether someone is good at explaining things like that.

Vance Maverick said...

Learning more would be totally worth it for you.

One way I think about note-spelling is to start with a scale-centric view of music theory. In most Western music, there is usually a current effective scale, and this scale generally has seven notes. Using the full armory of sharps and flats means that we can name the seven notes of that scale using the seven note names. To take A-flat minor, for example, it's A flat, B flat, C flat, D flat, E flat, F (flat or natural), and G (flat or natural). Using B natural or E natural to represent the third or sixth degree would mean reusing a note name for steps of the scale that (in Western music theory) are distinct, not related by alteration.

Jazz definitely pushes against the assumption that there's a clear current scale (but of course classical music had been pushing against it for a long time -- even Bach stretches it).