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Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 6

How the Right-Hemisphere understands Harmony

Some­where in the dim dis­tant reach­es of my mem­o­ry I recall being told of the modes in music that minor was sad and major was hap­py. But what key is nos­tal­gia, which is often a mix­ture of the two emo­tions?

This old def­i­n­i­tion is, of course, a vast sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and with no real basis. If you stop to think about it, the key of A minor includes three major tri­ads and the key of A major has four minor tri­ads. The mate­ri­als being so sim­i­lar reminds me of the cen­turies old debate among philoso­phers on the fine line between plea­sure and pain.

Actu­al­ly, com­mon sense, sup­port­ed by clin­i­cal brain research, tells us that in fact it is melody, not har­mo­ny, which con­veys the emo­tions to the lis­ten­er.1 There appear to be spe­cif­ic melod­ic pat­terns which are sat­is­fy­ing and which come genet­i­cal­ly with birth. The great book on this sub­ject, for con­duc­tors, is the The Lan­guage of Music by Deryck Cooke (Oxford and New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1959). Cooke, after much study, presents a very strong case for spe­cif­ic melod­ic pat­terns which com­posers across sev­er­al cen­turies all seem to iden­ti­fy with spe­cif­ic emo­tions.

Cook, to quote an exam­ple, says that Do-Mi-Sol-La-Sol con­veys the feel­ing of child-like inno­cence (think Humperdinck’s “Four­teen angels guard my sleep”). But the same with the sub­sti­tu­tion of a low­ered La becomes acute pain. I invite the read­er to sing these exam­ples, but to not con­duct them as you sing. You will feel a phys­i­cal dif­fer­ence and you feel your right-hemi­sphere con­trol­ling your face as your singing takes you from child-like inno­cence to pain.

I have come to believe that the essen­tial con­tri­bu­tion of Har­mo­ny to Music is not to cre­ate emo­tions, although it can sup­port them, but rather to cre­ation motion, the motion from one beat to the next beat. The chord of the dom­i­nant sev­enth clear­ly has such a strong force to go for­ward that it dri­ves you nuts if it doesn’t resolve.2

It is a com­bi­na­tion of all these fac­tors which results some­times in a cir­cum­stance where a com­pos­er will have a strong feel­ing which can only be expressed by the pow­er of a sin­gle acci­den­tal in the melody. In such cas­es the per­former or con­duc­tor has a heavy respon­si­bil­i­ty to con­vey in per­for­mance just the nec­es­sary empha­sis of this altered tone, not too much and not too lit­tle. Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, the begin­ning of the sec­ond move­ment, the Funer­al March, of Beethoven’s Third Sym­pho­ny. In this move­ment, Beethoven is begin­ning a sym­phon­ic jour­ney in C minor, but already in the fourth bar there is an F sharp, a note not found in C minor. The the­o­rist has a name for this F sharp, NON-HARMONIC TONE (ILLEGAL ALIEN). But this is mis­lead­ing, for it is a very impor­tant note. The right-hemi­sphere hears this not as a curios­i­ty of the­o­ry, but as pain. Beethoven was remind­ing us that when some­one you know dies it can cause pain for you.

The first chal­lenge for the con­duc­tor is to find a gen­uine artis­tic com­pos­er whose work is an hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion of feel­ing. That is not so easy to find these days. Then the con­duc­tor must recre­ate this hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion of feel­ing to his play­ers. This is best done on a non-ver­bal basis, through his demeanor, his facial expres­sions and a con­duct­ing style which reflects the emo­tions. What we owe the audi­ence is emo­tion­al hon­esty, through and through. You can­not fool the audi­ence any more than you can fool some­one with a pho­ny smile.

Actu­al­ly, the brain makes this con­duct­ing chal­lenge a very easy one to accom­plish. Con­sid­er the cen­ter field­er in base­ball: a ball is hit toward him and his only thought is catch the ball. The right-hemi­sphere solves com­plex prob­lems in the affect of grav­i­ty, wind fac­tors, height and dis­tance, etc., and solves it so fast that the cen­ter field­er begins to run the instant the ball is hit to the exact point where the ball will fall. You will nev­er see a cen­ter field­er run­ning left when the ball is going to his right.

The very same thing hap­pens in con­duct­ing. With only a sim­ple thought, a par­tic­u­lar emo­tion and the music asso­ci­at­ed with it, the right-hemi­sphere takes over face, body and baton in order to com­mu­ni­cate this emo­tion. How­ev­er this only hap­pens if the con­duc­tor knows the score on a right-hemi­sphere basis and does not look down at the score. If he looks at the score, he sees left-hemi­sphere gram­mar, his face will go blank, the body expres­sion dis­ap­pears, and the stu­dents will look away from his face.

The per­for­mance, no doubt, will con­tin­ue with utter pre­ci­sion, fine into­na­tion and tone qual­i­ty, but he will have failed the com­pos­er, his play­ers and his audi­ence. He will be reward­ed by the audience’s tepid applause which char­ac­ter­izes polite dis­in­ter­est.

David Whitwell


  1. I acknowl­edge that all melodies have har­mon­ic rela­tion­ships. []
  2. Every­one will recall the famous inci­dent in Pots­dam when Bach was invit­ed to a recep­tion where he would meet, for the first time, the king. The local Kapellmeis­ter was play­ing back­ground harp­si­chord music for the recep­tion and was look­ing for­ward to see­ing Bach, who was by that time quite famous in Ger­many. When Bach entered, the harp­si­chordist was so moved that he stopped play­ing, leav­ing an unre­solved chord hang­ing in the air. Bach imme­di­ate­ly walked across the room and resolved the chord before turn­ing to meet the king. []