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Book Review: Dancing with the Muses: A Historical Approach to Basic Concepts of Music by M. Zachary Johnson

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Listening to music, to paraphrase the Lovin’ Spoonful, can trigger a smile “that won’t wipe off your face no matter how hard you try.” That the “magic’s in the music and the music’s in me” is perfectly captured in the main title of M. Zachary Johnson’s Dancing with the Muses, a rewarding and resourceful book which focuses on “the phenomenon of living linear motion in music.” It offers instruction in melodic coherence, the elements and foundation of melody in interval, scale, and time; the art of mingling lines in “many voices”; and the fundamental makeup of harmony. If any of these lesson plans evoke aridity, abstraction, and academia, or passports to the pedantic perhaps, the subtitled A Historical Approach to Basic Concepts of Music is nevertheless not — despite the connect-the-dots abstracts in the science and math involved — “like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll.”

No matter how much the method to the Muses madness is like trying to tell a reader the historical approach, Johnson – whose music has been described as “the first serious Romantic music to be produced by a composer who is part, not of the 19th-century past, but of the 21st-century future” – intended to present the essentials and concepts of music chronologically. At the same time, he acknowledges the sheer amount of minutia, the inundation of detail with which the music historian must deal. The game plan? Sift through the facts of history to “find the key turning or milestones … and gain a broad perspective in order to embrace a wide range of relevant, interrelated facts.”

Johnson also takes an interrelated, interdisciplinary approach to his subject with his proposal that his book does not affirm or exemplify a split between musical theory, music history, and the philosophy of music. The three are integrated. Fields of knowledge do not exist as independent aspects of the one reality we perceive.

We see this practice of combining forces played out in the fact-heavy first chapter, “Melodic Shape.” Johnson, though he has spent many years teaching pre-college students, and is on the faculty at Hofstra University and the Preparatory Division of Mannes College the New School for Music in New York City, brings his systematic syllabus-minded skills to the fore for a reason: The purpose is not to overwhelm or intimidate, but rather to afford an all-embracing overview. “In order,” Johnson puts it, “to provide the overall framework, [a] holistic immersion comes first.”

So cue the dancing muses as we plunge into that deep end of the first paragraph of the first chapter – when “”we have our first meaningful experience of [music] and our first strong response to it,” which becomes that magic in the… “melody and feeling.” Johnson builds on the subject of emotion in music, within the historic structure, as evoked by further complexities and richness, patterns and pitches, lines, and shapes. As the muses fade, Johnson spends – as a good way to study line shape — a couple paragraphs with the old method of writing a “cantus firmus or fixed voice,” looking at the process of composing in both analytical and creative terms, and breaking out the graphic visual aids in scale, staff, notes and such, for some advanced fine-tuning.

Segueing seamlessly into the philosophic end of Johnson’s view of music history – corresponding to the blended-by-design fields of knowledge – Chapter 1 gives sway to a biographical bent in which significant thinkers in music theory are tapped for their contributions to the school of melodic shape shifting and pitch connections over time. Going back to the rational and secular Greeks, Johnson cites Aristoxenus, a musician-philosopher student of Aristotle who thrived around 335 B.C. As writer of the definitive summary of the musical system and ideas of this golden age — while lending central focus to the subject of melodic coherence — Aristoxenus’ concept of “continuity and consecution” of melody constituted the Greek scale system, which was passed on to the Western World.

With some solid technical foundations laid, then, Johnson goes on to point out – though these names and more details may come up later in the book — some more milestones in the fostering of melodic shape’s ways and means from such innovators as Guido of Arezzo, an 11th century Italian monk who furthered our understanding of the musical scale, and musical notation using a staff of horizontal lines, in addition to other advancements. Johann Joseph Fux, an Enlightenment era Viennese composer, codified the principles of polyphony and attended to the issue of line shape as well as created a step-by-step method for teaching the principles of poyphonic composition. Heinrich Schenker, a Viennese pianist, teacher, and theorist of the Romantic era, devised a new theory of the “cognitive connections the mind makes among notes sounding over time, and a method for notating these connections using an adaptation of music notation.” Concerned with not only long gone eras but also more contemporary times, Johnson diligently cites Charles Scott Sherrington, whose work in neural science had applications for the science of musical perception; also remarked upon is the philosopher Ayn Rand, who, in her 1971 essay “Art & Cognition” posited the value of the brain’s sensory-integrating action.

The template of Chapter One, with its comprehensive and cohesive fusion of history, theory, and philosophy, splendidly sets the tone for the rest of Dancing with the Muses’ take on the account of concepts of music, and their coming to be. Between “Interval” and “Primacy of Line vs. Primacy of Chord,” “Scale,” “Time,” Polyphony,” “Tonality,” “Counterpoint,”and “Harmony” — the usual suspects — are covered in a not-so-usual, refreshing and precise manner.

The exemplary Chapter 3 on “Scale” can be singled out for its clarity and structure. “There is no question more crucial to music than the nature of the music scale,” Johnson emphasizes. “It is the basis of all aspects of the notes used in music…” The author goes on to not only reiterate and drill the bit about this “integrating framework of music, and a crucial determining factor of music’s emotional content,” but he also takes pains to explain and set up the three-stage chapter formation by which he will explicate the nature of the scale, including absorbing anthropological and historical data.

With the framework of history or philosophy to bolster a topic, a chapter takes on added appeal, lending a layer of comprehension that bears out Johnson’s “holistic view of cognition and emotion” in an approach that allows for the “presentation of knowledge as much as possible in the form of stories.” In this regard we get, within Chapter 5 and “Polyphony,” some fascinating sequence of events in which (in one side of two concerned schools of theoretical metaphysics) Plato’s philosophy of the Ideal finds transitional traction into the Gregorian chant, which developed into this many-voiced art of combining lines in a musical fabric. In the subsequent chapter, “Tonality,” Renaissance art comes into the big picture.

Finally, What Johnson also ensures is included in the overall perspective of Dancing with the Muses’ integrative, historical look back are further original outlooks, including a new biologically-based theory of rhythm, and an explanation of the way that volition, free-will, is manifest in music — in the system of tonality. He also demonstrates that the diatonic scale is a timeless and universal cognitive pattern, not a “Western social construct” but a phenomenon natural to the human auditory system. The book also offers a more realistic assessment of the role of the church in music’s past.

All taken into account, then, Dancing with the Muses is just about note-perfect as a concise teaching aid, a reference of essentials, and captivating chronicle that can turn a reader into a believer that the magic’s in the music — and its history, theory, and philosophy.

Dancing with the Muses is available at M. Zachary Johnson’s websites, www.MZacharyJohnson.com and www.DancingWithTheMuses.com.

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