In Christian chant, particularly Gregorian and Byzantine chant, there exists a practice of underpinning a song with an often monotonic drone, which is given the greek name of ison
. The ison
operates as a musical background to the melody as is demonstrated by this sample.
The musical craftmanship that is involved in the ison makes it easy to attribute a simply musical musical significance, in that the drone provides an all important canvass from which the melody can emerge. This attribution, whilst valid, nonetheless masks another question as to the importance of a baseline in other forms of music, whether it be classical, pop, metal, rock and electronica. The exclusion, or the deliberate distortion of the baseline, in many ways, seems to detract from the broad appeal of any musical piece. This raises the question then: why this almost universal addiction to bass within music?
The Christian music scholar, Jeremy Begbie, in his Theology, Music and Time,
provides a very tantalising clue with reference to chant, which indicates that there is a profoundly theological significance to a baseline in music. According to Begbie, the ison
, in its structure that lacks a beginning or end, is an unfolding of the eternal things, particularly the eternity of God.
If we were to extend this logic to not just chant, but all forms of music, then a clue may be yielded concerning the profound link that many millenials make between spirituality and music (a point made by a few interviewees in the final segment of Closer to the Edge by 30 Seconds to Mars
at 4:55), as well as the forms of self-transcendence experienced by concert goers in pieces with a powerful bass. The addiction to base, rather than a quirk in youth culture, is actually drawing upon a centuries old intuition on the sacramentality of music.
However, lest this point may be taken to mean an endorsement of all forms of music with a good baseline, it is important to note that such a drawing is parasitic, in that secular versions of the ison participate in an eternity that is very different from the eternity of the Judeo-Christian God. As Joseph Ratzinger once noted, the kind of transcendence celebrated in secular forms of music is one that makes the individual disappear into a universal collective, which is contrasted with a Platonic or Judeo-Christian notion of participation, whereby transcendence is actually what gives the individual its own distinct character.
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