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Since its beginnings in 1993 Tonal Refraction has been supported by contributions large and small from many individuals who value the impact.

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Tonal Refraction

In beginning Music Theory we learn about tones and their function in scales, chords, and so on. What we do not learn is that the word “rehearsal” is closely related to “hearse;:” it has nothing to do with hearing.  Nor do we learn that what a scientist has called “the music part” is not those tones, but what happens between them. What happens between the tones is a complex matter of hearing in combination with reactions similar to our taste in foods: sweet, sour, juicy, etc.  These responses, evoked by a composer’s genius at work in specific pieces, may be so strong as to make us uncomfortable with even the most familiar tones. Tonal Refraction enters the picture at the point where the Music Theorist leaves off.  As one eminent theorist said on first studying Tonal Refraction: “This is about what gets trained out of us,” i.e., our pre-conscious gut reactions to sounds themselves.  These responses impart meaning to music cognition. These reactions are more readily accessed using colors rather than words: lacking a vocabulary to objectify the way we hear and process tone, even the most accomplished musician may feel isolated within the remarkably individual act of hearing. This is potentially problematic when rehearsal strategies are in play.  What if you, the pianist, hear a certain sound entirely differently from your partner, the violinist?  How can you come to terms with your different perception? Is there something inherent in the composition that triggers your disagreement?  Is there some element – timbre, for instance, or overtones – that might make it meaningful rather than contentious? Tonal Refraction offers a way for each of you to visualize your reaction to the sound, first by using colors as in the video to the left. ******** Moving a colored pencil as if depicting the vibrations of a remembered tone effectively magnifies the speed of tone perception as if under a mental microscope. This has been shown to connect pre-conscious motor responses directly to the speed of hearing. This seemingly simple process has potentially radical implications for musical co-ordination at every level, affecting learning, sight-reading, listening, performing, concentration. • The fusion of external with internal hearing erases the barrier between tone and the perception of tone, giving immediacy to every note one plays. • Integrating external with internally directed hearing releases the fullest power of both composition and performance. Does everyone have access to this level of hearing? Perhaps. Does everyone want access to this level of their most private hearing? This issue is the ongoing subject of the pianoquitters newsletter. Tonal Refractions with detailed rehearsal strategies for Mozart’s G Minor Piano Quartet and  Schumann’s Waldszenen (summarized below) are available for purchase.  More information is available if you contact me directly.

Our Path Through The Forest

The pianist sizes up the notes and plays. It looks simple but it is not. With characteristic precision Schumann starts us on our path through the forest with a sound that commands attentiveness. In a moment of pre-conceptual response, having “heard” the cycle while in a deep sleep, it occurred to me that this opening D was the key to the entire opus. Using bright red for that D, I chose a palette of colors radiating out toward yellow for sharps, and to indigo for flats, only to realize, many years later, that red was altogether wrong to convey the sense of the forest, Schumann’s brilliantly chosen image for the piano’s puzzling acoustical specificity. The transition from structural clarity to freest lyricism was something I, a reader, could never have previously imagined. Tonal Refraction uses colors and a grid to access pre-conscious responses to tone perception. It arose out of memories of vivid childhood hearing and has completely transformed my understanding of music as a performer, teacher, and scholar. An adaptation of the full poster text appears to the right, depicting the steps between the first and last images. The book, with state-of-the-art computer graphic reproductions of the original graphics, is available for purchase.  I invite your inquiry.

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What is pre-conceptual hearing? It is hearing before we know what we are hearing. 200 times faster than any other sensory information processed by the brain (Hudspeth, A. J.: “How the Ear’s Works Work,” Nature, Vol. 341, 1989), it is hearing as children and animals hear. The piano sound I heard while fooling around as a toddler remained more real than the notes or “music”that became the subject of future study.

This changed when I read Sound and Symbol by Viktor Zuckerkandl (Pantheon Books, 1956-73). His validation of the logic inherent in this level of listening impelled me to a life dedicated to that primary level of music perception as a performer, scholar, and teacher.

Cultivating adult awareness of pre-conceptual hearing was the most difficult musical skill I have ever set out to master. I did it by listening without consulting the score to children and to the adult amateurs in the Mannes Extension Division Chamber Music program which I co-ordinated for over 35 years. (See N.G.: “Experiments of a Chamber Music Coach,” Chamber Music, Nov.- Dec. 2010) My goal was to hear as the students heard, rather than to assume that they could or should hear as I did, i.e., under the influence of standard notation.

Awareness of my own pre-conscious responses to hearing was enhanced by the use of colors and a grid with which I visualized tone relatedness as filtered through the many layers of association, memory, etc., that kept the music alive in my mind. I call the technique Tonal Refraction, using the word as Marcel Proust uses it to name the process whereby memory is constantly changing.