Music I’ve Loved : 4

“Kongero” – Swedish acapella chorus singing

Kongero – Several times over the past few years this delightful female chorale group has visited my region of Quebec offering surprisingly uplifting, and warming, concerts in the middle of deep winter. All four of these ladies have powerful but flexible voices and spend their energies finding and adapting old traditional Swedish folk songs or stories, along with a sprinkling of some contemporary stuff. The singing carries a natural percussive quality inside of it as they oscillate between soft and booming volumes or one and many voices.

Harmonic 3rds – An interesting feature of this Swedish vocalizing is the regular presence of harmonic thirds within their harmonies, as opposed to the usual more familiar even-tempered thirds we have come to hear as ‘normal’. In the first sample (above) listen to the delicious extended ‘AAAH’ which the group performs beginning at about 1:50. A perhaps clearer but briefer example also occurs as a held out note at the very conclusion of the song. The harmonic third conveys a haunting character for many listeners, myself included, and it has also been described as ‘dark’. It is certainly the interval which Pythagoras and Plato were aware of in their descriptions of the Harmony of the Spheres. It is a more natural musical interval than the modern Western third which has been invented and imposed upon classical music beginning in about the 17th century (more about that below for non-mathaphobes). Because of this it appears regularly within the older traditional scales and melodies of numerous ‘primitive’ musical cultures in the world who simply followed their ears. Examples are ancient musics from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, the Arab world, and most prominiently in the raga music of India, where it remains preserved even within so-called classical music. Once you get the feel for distinguishing it from the tempered 3rd, you can begin to hear it more easily, and may perhaps recognize it often in the second video sample (below).

The Harmonic Series – In nature, sound has a wonderful layered physicality to it. Every tone, say from a draught issuing through a specifically sized opening in a concrete doorway to plucked lyre string is actually composed of many sequentially-pitched tones, each one exactly a multiple as ‘high’ as the original one. So the first harmonic is twice the original frequency, the second harmonic is three times the original, and so on. These separate tones are all present simultaneously and are called harmonics. The base or lowest tone is the most prominent in volume and is called the fundamental tone. As you ascend up this range of harmonics they quickly becomee less and less audible. The purity and depth of a sound is connected to the richness of its present harmonics. When the earliest synthesizers were developed, their tones produced zero harmonics, only the fundamentals. Which is why they sounded like robotic clarinets.

The tempered scale for Western music arose as a consequence of the evolution of pianofortes and the need for symphonic orchestras of many different sorts of instruments to be in tune with one another. The octave, which is a completely natural phenomenon, was divided into an ascending series of twelve distinct notes. If you take any note, say a C1, then there exists another note exactly one octave higher than it, C2, meaning that C2 vibrates at exactly twice the frequency (wavelength) as does C1. So far, this is all completely normal. All normal ears can instantly recognize what an octave sounds like — it is inherently pleasing! But in order to allow for 12 different keys, the interval between frequency C1 and C2 had to be divided by a factor of twelve. 1 + 1/12 = C#; 1 + 2/12 = D; 1 + 3/12 = D#… and so on all the way up to C2 = 1 + 12/12 or 2, which is double the original. This forced many of the notes on a keyboard to be slightly off from their true harmonic counterparts in nature. But the tradeoff was considered ingenious and necessarily acceptable in order to allow composers to create in many scales and for symphonic instruments to be designed in tune with one another. (Before this agreed convention, things like pianos and harps had to be delicately retuned every time a piece in one key was to be followed by a piece in a different key during a concert, say D minor followed by A# major. You can imagine that the work was prohibitive.)

How far off is a natural harmonic third from a Western tempered third, you might wonder? Choosing C as a fundamental tone, a math analysis of the frequencies involved reveals that there is a difference of about 2/1000ths of an octave between the harmonic natural tone E and its even-tempered counterpart E. That small amount is enough for the ears to detect a decidedly different sound color.

_______RS

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