Philip Gossett, on “feeling” sonata form:
You will not understand sonata form until you feel it in your bones. I had a math professor in college who told us, in the introductory calculus course, ‘Today I will tell you what a limit is and you will not understand what it is.’ In the intermediate calculus course, he said again, ‘Today I will tell you what a limit is and you will not understand what it is.’ In the advanced calculus course, he said, ‘Today I will tell you what a limit is and you will still not understand what it is.’ You have to feel it in your bones. It wasn’t until I studied sonata form that I understood what he meant.
I think I have a sense of what this means. I am sure I do not understand what a limit is. I definitely do not feel it in my bones. This was confirmed today when I sat through the introductory calculus course I’m helping to grade this quarter. The definitions looked familiar. I could definitely have recited them from heart if pressed to. I could do the simple example problems. But I was doing it mechanically. Plugging it into a machines and copying down the answer. I was not feeling it. Similarly, I can recite what sonata forms mean. But do I feel it?
In fact I suspect I probably feel sonata form a lot better than I feel the concept of a limit, even though I must say it’s probably not in my bones yet. Under my skin, at least. I can’t even say that for limits. I do have some slight sense of regret at relinquishing a math major. There is no question that I learn the most from math courses. Although upon further questioning I could not begin to explain what I mean by “most”. How is one to compare a quantity of skills or knowledge in math to a quantity of skills or knowledge in verbal reasoning? All I can say is that after every math course (except for the recent complex analysis horror), I’ve always felt that I’ve climbed a mountain higher than I have for any other courses. And this is measured not just in terms of exertion, but in terms of the mental tools I feel I’ve acquired. I literally feel like I have new machines in my brain. It does feel that physical. For philosophy courses one feels that one reaches certain summits from which the vistas are breathtakingly different. But one doesn’t acquire these summits. One can return to them for repeated viewings, but they aren’t inside oneself. Less of a permanent sense of gaining physical installations in one’s brains. I suppose learning math really feels like constructing new circuits in one’s brain. When the random math major-turned-music grad student I met at the Peter Serkin recital said that he “learnt a lot” from math, I understood immediately what he meant. But I find it impossible to explain this to people who have not taken substantial math courses.
Might be notable that of all the music people I am acquainted with, most of them were science or math majors in college. Small sample size of course. There’s only five of them whose college backgrounds I’m aware of. Four of these five were either actual science/math majors or intended to be science/math majors. Gossett himself said he wanted to major in math but eventually “saw the light”.
Today he threw out a whole lot of jargon all of which, thanks to the summer tuition I’ve been forking out big time for, I could understand. But I certainly wouldn’t have understood most of it if I had had only the minimum course prerequisites — a 100-level course or an ability to read music. (I wonder how he intends for those who can’t read music to do detailed studies of the scores which are apparently “required” texts.) Although it seems that most of the students in the class are non-music majors with significant practical musical backgrounds. My type, in other words. Funny how Gossett seemed to assume that this was the archetype of the student registered for that course. After expelling a string of jargon: “You’re all smart people who do things like chemistry, you should be able to understand this soon.” He also assumed a familiarity with well-known musical works. “You’ve all heard this” — cue opening chords of the Eroica symphony banged out on the piano with his typical vigour. Astonished that no one had read Egmont, he digressed into a rant on how nobody knows anything about theatre (I’m absolutely guilty as charged) — “Nobody knows anything of Victor Hugo except the Hunchback, but you’ve all seen Rigoletto, haven’t you?”
Cue Gilda’s annoying sickly sweet arias replaying themselves in my head. I’m off to bed.