Sex and composition

by Michael

The piano plague: The nineteenth-century medical critique of female musical education.

Wellcome Trust blog screenshotAbout a year ago, I stumbled across the research paper with that title. I had no idea in what context the piano had been associated with the plague, but I wanted to find out.

I interviewed the paper’s author, James Kennaway, over lunch in spring 2012 and discovered that ‘die Klavierseuche’ referred simply to the rise in popularity of the piano throughout Western Europe during the 19th century. However, James had, in his turn, stumbled across the fact that several medical men writing in the 19th century were inclined to suspect the piano as an agent in the development of certain disorders among their female patients. That became the subject of his paper, and the theme led him to write a book, Bad Vibrations, about the many (asserted) associations between music and disease from that time to the present day.

Having spoken to James, I was keen to write about the piano plague episode specifically – but I wanted to avoid clomping all over James’s territory and writing about his research as if it were mine. So I wanted to explore some other angles: I spoke to a neuroscientist and a music scholar to try to understand better the context, both social and scientific, for these claims that popular music could be pathological music. The resulting feature article, ‘Piano plague in D minor’, was published in September.


When it came to writing up the piece, my memory stirred with hazy recollections of GCSE Music (I got a C, due in some part to a last-ditch vocal rendition of Bridge over troubled water) and the formal compositional arrangement of exposition, development and recapitulation. Could I adopt this musical structure for my article?

The ‘sonata form’, which was what I was remembering, had developed through the 18th and 19th centuries. Curiously, as it became more formally defined, composers began applying it more loosely, playing with the form as classical music moved from the Classical to the Romantic period. However, at its heart, the exposition, development, recapitulation structure was there, along with additional detail, including an introduction, transitions between themes, retransition and a coda. I liked this formal structure and decided I would essentially write a text sonata.

Then I read that the sonata form was generally used for the first of three movements (again, this was never a hard and fast rule) – so did I have to write two more movements? As it happened, I was already on that path.

When I went to interview Briony Cox-Williams at the Royal Academy of Music, she had shown me some of the historical pianos they have in their collection. At each of five or six pianos, dating from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th, Briony explained its provenance and qualities, and played me a piece of music from the time it was made. It was a lovely demonstration of the piano’s development as an instrument, and fitted in perfectly with a theme I wanted to explore – the piano’s development as a social object leading directly to the medical suspicion that would fall on it as a proxy for the upper classes’ suspicion of the middle classes (middle class women in particular) finding the means to express themselves.

So I was already planning on recording essentially the same tour that Briony gave me off the cuff as a piece of audio to go along with my feature (in the end, recorded with Briony’s PhD student Olivia Sham). It seems that a lot of second movements are andante (walking pace). This was a nice coincidence, because I could include the sounds of our footsteps as we walked from one piano to the next, which also helped establish the atmosphere of the piano gallery.

The third movement? Well, Tim Griffiths, the neuroscientist, had mentioned an old study that had located the part of the brain that sends a ‘shiver down the spine’ in response to certain music. I decided to ask all my contributors what music sent a shiver down their spine as a scherzando (little joke) to finish the piece.


Back to the first movement, though: it turns out that the rules of the sonata form, though often broken, were quite strict. The introduction had to be in the dominant key, as did the final theme of the exposition and the codetta that finishes the exposition, as well as the beginning of the development. The first theme had to be in the tonic key, as did the recapitulation and the end of the coda. There was scope in other themes and throughout the development section to play with other keys.

What did this mean in terms of written words, though? At first, I assigned each of my three contributors a key – James was the tonic key, because he inspired the piece; Tim was the dominant, the irrefutable sound of science, as it were; while Briony was perhaps the mediant or, better, the relative minor key, as her contribution focused on prejudices against women in music and more widely in the 19th century.

In my first draft, I even tried to start the first paragraph or two of each section with the letter corresponding to the relevant key (for a long time, the tonic I chose was F, which meant I had to start the introduction in C: “Could music really cause diseases…?” was the opening of an early draft). That didn’t last once I’d decided to use the relevant minor, however, because it was hard to start a paragraph with Dm….

Mood music

The sections of the sonata form also had moods or styles associated with them. The introduction was to be slower than the rest; each theme in the exposition should be presented in a contrasting style; the development should display tonal or harmonic instability; while the recapitulation should achieve resolution with a perfect cadence. Yikes.

So I started plotting out the piece. Rather than assign a key to each interviewee, I associated the relevant keys with a perspective – history of music (Dm), music and medicine (F), and neuroscience (C). At this stage, the piece was still in F, which dictated the order in which each theme was to be introduced in the exposition. It certainly helped make decisions about structure, but I found it rather odd having to keep the themes separate at the beginning of the piece. I think it works in practice, though, allowing those themes to be established before the boundaries between them get broken down in the development. In the recapitulation, the same themes emerge, but from different perspectives (in musical terms, the motifs return in a different key), which I hope makes the piece feel as if it has developed, transformed, even, through the reading of it.

Rather late in the day, my ‘Piano sonata in F major’ became ‘Piano plague in D minor’. I had found that the keys were associated with moods of their own in classical music, which I found interesting and another constraint on how to frame the piece. F was a calm key signature, apparently, while D minor was melancholy and womanly. Indeed, Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, has described D minor as “the saddest of all keys”. Well, D minor just had to be in the title after learning that. I’m not sure to what extent I adapted the perspectives to match the particular tonic, dominant and subdominant keys associated with D minor, but I doubt anyone would really ever know!

It was never a priority for readers to recognise the sonata form in my feature’s structure. I had played around with subheadings that referred obliquely to exposition, development and recapitulation – eg for the exposition, I had ‘Sex and composition’ – but couldn’t think of anything suitable for the recapitulation, so in the end, I let them be. They are now fairly overt clues for anyone who knows the significance of these terms – if such a reader could see parallels between my feature’s structure and the sonata form, then that would be rather pleasing … but it is an aside to the piece, which I hope is a good read for anyone, regardless of their grade in GCSE Music.