Thursday, March 09, 2006

Music and language

[Warning: some weird material ahead!]

Since I started playing flamenco guitar, I spend most of my practice time working on my right hand technique, and little, or no time at all, doing left-hand exercises or studying theory. Both my theoretical knowledge and my left-hand technique (developed through all these years of jazz playing )are more than enough for playing flamenco, but those tricky "rasgueados", "picados" and "golpes" are something I still need to practice a lot (I still find it unnatural and rather awkward to play solos - called "falsetas" in flamenco" - without a plectrum!). However, flamenco is more than just the music itself and, of course, much more than just the mere technique. Flamenco, like jazz, is a way of life, a culture, and one needs to inmerse himself in it so as to appreciate the art that lies underneath each note or chord. For this reason, I am also interested in learning the basic flamenco concepts, and I'm trying to learn them as most flamenco players do, that is, without any "classical" (or let's call it "formal") knowledge at all. So I forget that I know about musical notation, throw away all those harmonic concepts that I use when I play jazz, and start completely from scratch. And doing it I am not only introducing myself a little bit more into the amazing realm of flamenco, but also gaining a new point of view over music itself, which gives me some new ideas to think about. Let me share them with you:

There is something in linguistics known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it. The question is: does this apply to music? For example, flamenco players do not have a "formal" musical knowledge (i.e. for most of them, expressions like "tritone substitution" sound greek), but of course they have some kind of knowledge, a rather deep one in fact. And that implies using some specifical jargon to transmit it. Since this jargon is not the same as the "standard" one, one might think that this can have some sort of influence on the music itself, loosely aplying the underlying ideas of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Here is an example. There are two basic scales in flamenco: the "por alto" scale, and the "por medio" scale, which correspond with E phygian dominant and A phrygian dominant scales, respectively. "Por alto" can be translated as "at the top", because the usual fingering for the E major chord involves the lower strings (the lower string is tuned at E, in fact), which are at the top of the neck, and "por medio" means "in the middle", because the A major chords involves fingerings in the "middle" strings. What difference does it make to conceive and name this scales as depending on the position of their roots on the neck of the guitar, and not as depending on the position of that root on the chromatic scale? Moreover, what difference does it make to consider them as "natural" and usual scales and name them as such with "familiar" names, or using such exotic names as E phrygian dominant (which is, indeed, the fifth mode of A harmonic minor, which is itself a A minor scale with a raised seventh (wow!) )? Using the "standard" names, it is clear that both scales are "the same", but with different roots, while the flamenco naming does not give any clue about this relation. Does this have any influence in how the relation between those scales is percieved? Many similar questions might arise when comparing both jargons, since they hardly have anything in common, not only when talking about scales, but also when describing rhythms or techniques, or even some more "ethereal" elements of music, such as feelings or tones.

Since the guitar is the main instrument in flamenco, most of the jargon is constructed upon it, as we have seen with the "por alto" and "por medio" scales, which can also have some influence on the way musicians understand what they play.

I guess most of this thoughts and questions are useless, but it is never a bad idea to think about what one plays and the meaning of it. The more you think when you are not playing, the less you have to think when playing and the more you can feel. And that's what music is all about: feeling. Isn't it?

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