What is a Tonescape?

When you first started playing along with songs, you were drawing on intuitions that you’ve developed through a broad experience of music throughout your life. These intuitions are inarticulable in themselves, but you were able to represent them—or at least some of their useful aspects—using shapes on the keyboard. And this representation gave you a way to play with those intuitions, and to refine them.

As you played, you were reflecting something of your inarticulable experience off of a stable musical idea—the shape—and developing a way to articulate that experience. You progressed from being able to recognize the fit between a song and a shape, to being able to find the shape that fits on your own, and then to recognize more subtle changes in the song, and to articulate those changes in terms of changes within and between shapes and anchors.

But what, exactly, have you been refining by playing with shapes? Is it something that’s a part of the shape, or something that’s a part of you? What is it that emerges out of the relationship between you and the shape? Can whatever it is be separated from the shape?

One way to approach this question is to imagine that you have been working with collections of potential notes that may or may not take the form of sounding notes in the song, but are nevertheless present, and that constitute a real part of your musical experience. These collections of notes are represented by shapes on the keyboard, and they’re realized by playing with those shapes, but they are also something entirely separate from shapes. They are something more abstract than their instantiation in a diagram or on an instrument. They are a logical and perceptible space of possibilities, that’s set apart from any particular realization of those possibilities.

This is what you see, in a sense, when you look at the shape as a whole. It’s held outside of time, and it shows you the entire space of possibilities at once. But a shape’s ability to do this still depends on the keyboard.

A tonescape articulates this idea as a sound. This means that it doesn’t depend on any particular instrument, and so is a way of generalizing the idea to any instrument, including your internal instrument, while still remaining connected to an audible musical experience.

This is a strange idea. Is it really possible to represent a concept that’s held outside of time as a sound? Is it really possible to listen to a whole collection of notes, or a space of possible notes, all at once?

It’s worth lingering here for a moment, in this atemporal space of potential notes that we can somehow also hear. I don’t think I’ve ever spent time in such a place before.

But the shape, the tonescape, and the musical space they represent may also be a space of things you can do. And that brings us back to playing with a shape, or recognizing notes in a tonescape, or drawing notes out of a tonescape.

These are skills that require progressively greater amounts of experience playing with the collection of potential notes. You begin by pressing keys, then you press keys that correspond to sounds you’ve heard, then you replace the keys with concepts, like “One Higher” and “Two Lower” to identify the sounds you heard, then you use those concepts to draw the sounds out of the tonescape yourself.

So, throughout this process, you’ve been working with the same collections of notes, but you’ve been gradually moving that collection from a physical instrument to an internal instrument. And your internal instrument is ultimately what you’ll use to recognize these ideas in any physical instrument, or in any musical concept you come across.