Note-Metaphor Project

How Do the Smallest Units of Sound Relate…?

In the case of music from differing cultures, approaches and disciplines playing together, how can musicians use underlying metaphors to bring fundamental differences of technique and sound into meaningful aesthetic relationships with one another?

Further, what benefits can come from performing and studying “trans-traditional” music through artistic research; and how, to those ends can we best focus and document it both scientifically and artistically?

Dr. Jeremy Woodruff, Senior Scientist for Artistic Research at the Künstlerisch-Wissenschaftliche Doktoratsschule of the University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz, is the leader of the research project.

Words for what we call “notes”:

• “Swaras”

• “Perdes”

• “Naghmas”

• “Yīn”

• Further sound unit names: “grains”, “licks”, “tones” etc.

Connections between the fundamental units of sound („notes“) in music are
reflections of the way the transfer of meaning takes place between precepts of
personal and societal, human and the „natural“, in different cultures/subcultures.
„Note“-relationships can therefore also deliver perception into transcendent
connections (beyond the quotidian/ human) through sound.

What we are dealing with in relation to the difference inherent in cultural
terminologies for the „note“-concept are, on the one hand, metaphors. These
metaphors („notes“, „swaras“ etc) have become to be thought of as factual/literal objects. They can therefore be described as „sedimentary metaphors“. But exactly for that reason, their root metaphorical meaning tends to structure our way of thinking about music on a subconscious level even more.

On the other hand, these differing note-concepts epitomize various (sub)cultural
disciplines of pedagogy, training, and aesthetic education/taste in the way that
different individuals listen and imply obeying a particular model, state or way of
being through one sound at a time as these sounds differentiate and connect
themselves to the foregoing and oncoming notes.

From February – April 2023 the former Ensemble Extrakte Berlin worked with Jeremy Woodruff as Musical Director to delve into musical collaboration, exploring „note“-metaphorical differences as the guiding principle.


„Notes“ as mistranslation: hidden metaphors of sound units:

A universal examination of the concept of note, shows extreme differences in how this smallest unit of written sound is named, heard, conceived of and deployed in practice in different traditions of music. Indian swaras, Chinese 音乐音符, Arabic naghmas, Korean 도레미파솔라시, and Turkish perdes, although they could all be translated as „note“, each follow a very different philosophy and musical behavior due to their separate cultural and music-sociological histories and contexts. In fact, the eurological notion of „note“ can contain within it the same metaphorical impulses and possibilities as other musical cultures, but at a different scope or level. Instances of this will be identified and used as handles for experimentation in this project.

As an example, the etymology of the English word „pitch“ for example, shares its
meaning the „sense of slope, degree, inclination“; it also means a „highest point or reach“, for example as it was used to refer to the „height of an arched roof above the floor“. So that we can see the architectural metaphor here is paramount.

In eurological music, true to the requirements of the utility that this architectural
metaphor elicits, a single note („note“ obviously taking its etymology from written music on a page), like unto the specifications of a brick or stone for a building, has a very exact, metric measurement with which it then of necessity is associated, that is, directly implying a specific tone frequency, held for a specific duration.

Generally in non-eurological traditions however, the basic note (swara, perde,
etc) is a more fluid unit which is understood to move organically in idiomatic
ways around a region of sound, usually depending on the mode, raga, or maqam for example. Or, as is often the case in East Asian classical music, it operates according to specific narratives or poetic concepts which are inherent in that note’s underlying provenance and place within a set of hierarchical relations (an
anthropomorphization of the note or other metaphorical transformations). Timbre differences amongst traditions follow other sonic metaphorical preferences as well.

Also the way in which the dimension of pitch height is not explicitly visually
represented as height on a line in non-Eurological tradition’s musical notation
systems has far-reaching implications for the imagination of music. Annotated or
illustrated solfège notation types perhaps can capture musical metaphors better that go against the high/low metaphor of pitch height in different ways. Note-concepts that describe its provenance and narrative function in a hierarchy of other sonic symbols could also be better contained in novel forms of music notation that don’t even use a line as its primary visual metaphor for the ongoing time dimension. A descriptive notation (in words) can take a more global approach to the time parameter, for example.

Ramesh Vinayakam’s Gamaka Box notation system takes it’s cue from the metaphor of sound unit (swara) as a „region“ to represent interstitial space (pictorially like the negative space of the movement between notes not shown in conventional staff notation), less as a picture of pitches, than as movements, of actions. We use the metaphor of movement when we speak in music of „leaps“, or a host of other terms such as „andante“. The metaphor of a path, or „steps“ is also in this category. Gamaka Box captures the trajectories of these spaces of music as a movement-based notation.