The Art of Prolonging the Musical Tone by Colin Brumby

University of Queensland Press 

Tonality by Molly Malcolmson Gustin. Philosophical Library (New York)


Each work takes the same tone, which has an air of being composed from notes – presumably lecture notes, since each tends to harangue its readers.

   After analysing tone into its inorganic components (pitch, timbre, etc), Colin Brumby shows how its living substance can grow and develop into forms of symbolic feeling (melody, counterpoint, etc.). This could have resulted in a major work, fully justifying the sonorous tone of its text and subject. Instead it peters out into a 50-page brochure in which the writing is unpractised and the proofreading slack (eg whatever we may think of Schoenberg’s op 48 no 1 its name is not “mud”). The author is no auth­ority on the prolongation of the musical tome; which is a great pity. He is splendid at musical analysis; but books are a matter of verbal synthesis. If ever his brilliance at taking notes apart can be trained on putting words together, he will be the source of great illumination in a field which at present remains obscure.

    Molly Gustin’s (?Ph D) thesis is interesting and cogently argued. A formula of her own devising shows that diatonic sets of tones have a single pre­dominant root, While 12-note sets have not. However, her inference of acoustical properties from numerical symbolization seems to leave her theory rather weak, which may explain why she is so protective and indulgent about it. Thus according to the theory the diminished 5th ought to have a root; but we never hear it as having one; therefore it must have an inaudible root. No doubt the whole point of a root is in being below the surface, but this seems to go too far. Nor is it the end. To our further embarrassment, an interval (the minor 6th) which according to the theory doesn’t have a perceptible root is always heard behaving as though it had. I don’t find this species of audible root much more palatable than the inaudible root; neither is altogether easy to swallow.

    However, the whole field has been tilled with honest industry, and it later bears fine fruit. such as a useful system of Roman numerical analysis with graphs, and some weighty (though not crushing) objections to Hindemith’s theory of harmony. Much less appetizing is the culminating argument that given certain axioms (eg the desirability of unity, variety, etc.) “tonal music is absolutely better, relative to those axioms, than atonal music”. The relative absolute is a new and shaky construction. But in any case this is a non sequitur; the utmost the argument can sustain is that it’s easier to write good tonal than good atonal music. This seems an arguable proposition, and one which could only en­hance our admiration for the genius of Schoenberg – a service which Colin Brumby also performs for his readers by his searching analyses.

    So these two works also end on the same funda­mental tone, though you may find each too partial in one sense or another.        


The Musical Times, Aug. 1969 (p. 840) © the estate of eric sams