The Toccata Syndrome

Just as in the last post about volume, let’s have a look at something that is found in Melosophia, but definitely also in the world at large.

ornament5bWe are always, well, many of us most of time, impressed by music that is hard to play, and musicians who can play very fast. This is a central aspect of “virtuosity”. That that word is related to virtuous and virtue is often forgotten, if known at all.

The word “toccata” is related to touch. Grove defines it as A piece intended primarily as a display of manual dexterity, often free in form and almost always for a solo keyboard instrument. I would suggest that the toccata is Yang in quality, outwardly directed, active, showy, manly.

It or its principle can be seen as a sort of bragging, sometimes even a circus act.

piano hoffnungAs a classical musician I have to admit that this impulse — not one of our highest impulses — is alive and well in the classical field, in many a pianist and singer, not to mention violinist and bassoonist.


The impulse sometimes grows into a syndrome.

As a music critic I quite often meet with new, contemporary music that has gotten joyfully stuck in this groove. I would call this groove the Toccata Syndrome, in turn part of larger stylistic trend that I call neo-populism.

Let me clarify neo-populism. After many a year of totally ignoring the audience (and of course being ignored BY them) some composers felt a great longing to return to the fold and a great thirst for the energy drink Applause. Like a dehydrated wanderer in the desert they almost started hallucinating about success with the public, about being carried in the streets by a cheering mob. Some of them turned to writing toccatas (not necessarily calling them that).

I myself write quite difficult music at times but not with a view of eliciting a great roar at the end. But this is what I hear in some modern pieces where the final applause almost seems to be a calculated part of the piece. The cheer comes right after that incredibly virtuoso run that ends in a fabulous tutti chordBravo!!!

Talk about being a like-whore, or applause-whore.

Those are maybe too harsh words, because this show or demonstration of what one can do, as composer or musician (I recall a conductor almost committing hara-kiri during Ravel’s Bolero, a piece that practically plays itself) seems to be, if not Universal, at least very human. And by no means only a male impulse when you consider that females — in more subtle ways — are just as much showing (off) themselves and their “talents”. The stress need not be on playing or singing but on lifting up, stretching, accentuating, coloring, exposing.

In this non-musical, non-obvious sense many women have even more toccata impulse than men. “Display of manual dexterity” can be the putting on of make-up


Enough talk, let’s have some music. Here is a example of not manual but pedal dexterity, very much in the toccata spirit.

And now, fasten your seat belts! Here comes a musical firework from the man whose playing tells you (at least me) to practice more….

Finally an example of a more contemporary “toccata”. Wait for the roar at the end.

You might object that I am too critical here. Why heap abuse on a natural impulse?

You could be right. As to these three examples, the first I find impressive, the second fantastic, in execution and the ingenuity of the arrangement. The third disturbs me a bit.


Because it makes me, the listener, a mere admirer. The focus is on what the musicians are doing, on technique and dexterity. I discover really nothing about myself, more than that I am impressed.

The best music, I would suggest, goes both ways; it points both to the music/musician, and to the listener. It includes them both in a marriage that one could almost call “democratic”. Which is not the case with a football star and football supporters. Or a virtuoso musician and a wildly cheering audience.

By all means, let us musicians show the world what we can do. But let that doing also include how SLOW and SOFT we can play….


This article is not about music but only one aspect of it: volume. This is also something very important outside of music. (However, it is also an aspect of what some call “Musica humana”.)

How do we dominate our surroundings, prove our worth and raise our status? There are many answers to this, but one popular way to do this is by VOLUME.

Volume can pertain to music, noise or merely amount of output.

Let’s look at the last example first. I was once mailbombed by some angry young men. They sent 6000 e-mail containing trash to my mailbox. This was an act of aggression, of course, proving (or so someone thought) strength, muscle and ability to hurt.

This can of course have a negative effect. If I publish 100 posts on Facebook every day (volume) many will think that I am a tiresome figure and unfollow my posts. My (facebook) status would go down, not up.

ornament5bNow let’s leave the online world and move to a living room or coffee house and study another kind of social dynamics.

The people in the room speak with different voices, with different volumes. Some are very soft-spoken, some shy and hardly audible, while others have voices that carry far.

A thin, wiry member of the congregation stands up. After having surveyed the room for two minutes he is now convinced that nobody else has anything of Real Worth to say — so he is going to teach everybody a lesson. (Standing up is in itself a sign of high status; think of a classroom with sitting students and standing teacher. It is easy to understand (see) who is supposed to be knowledgeable and “wise”.)

The thin guy does what many of us do at times; he uses his voice to dominate his surroundings. With a certain tone, volume and inflection. All of this, if not his words, says “Listen up! What I am going to say is IMPORTANT. I am RIGHT and you should just shut up and accept it.”

Few of us use say those exact words; many of us use our voice to say just that. Dominance through sound, not word, is a somewhat jungle-like behavior.

Me Tarzan, you Shutup. Me Politician, you Try to silence me if you can.

ornament5bHowever, things can become even more jungle-like, for example when we move out into the street.

I spend a lot of time sitting at sideboard cafes, reading, writing, watching people. Obviously a lot of traffic is flowing by. Cars, pedestrians, motor cycles. As we know both cars and bikes are capable of making growling sounds, reminiscent of lions and tigers. VRRROMM, WRRROOOOOOOOM!!

Just listen to this inner-city wildcat.

On a small scale drivers use a short version of this when waiting at a red light. Pedestrians might not know why they suddenly feel an urge to run across the zebra: often it is because the driver has produced this motor stress sound, a mini-wrooom.

One can argue that the maxi-wrooom, of which I unfortunately hear a lot, is childish. My hearing is very sensitive, for me it’s almost like torture.

But childish or not, the driver stepping on the gas is somewhat reminiscent of the speaker who thinks that he is right and everybody else should LISTEN UP. He takes a large part of the auditory blanket, occupies a large part of the soundscape.

Nobody is allowed not to notice him. (I write him because I this mainly concerns males, both speakers and drivers. Women have other tricks.)

There is a saying “Loud noise, small dick”. I wish this was taught in lesson one in driving schools.

While some of us are trying to raise our status by volume, both in traffic and in the living room, many actually see it as lowered. As somebody said, just because you silence somebody does not mean that you have convinced him.


Volume of course in itself does not mean loud volume, even though I have used the word in that sense. We have an interesting saying: “it speaks volumes”. This does not concern decibels but meaning (a meta level).

We can clump together both meanings: It speaks volumes when you try to dominate your surroundings by volume.

There are people who are very soft-spoken and never raise their voice, but they have around them an atmosphere that is — loud and clear. We can call it inner security or certainty, calm self-trust. We hear it with other ears than the psychical.

This is another way to show high status and prove worth: without trying. Not everybody is listening on that channel, of course. We are often duped and seduced by appearances.

Who did Roxanne fall in love with? The stupid but handsome Christian — while the brilliant, sensitive but long-nosed Cyrano was left in the shadows. That is, until Roxanne came to her (higher) senses and understood that what she really loved in Christian was his words… which were really dictated by Cyrano. At last she saw who and what she loved, but then it was too late, Cyrano was already dying.

Ah, the romantic ramifications of this. I think the world is generally impressed by loud volume, seldom by soft-spoken inner strength. In the next Yuga perhaps.

ornament5bBut even before that we can note that volume can be both soft and loud, and that soft Yin can actually be stronger than hard Yang. This is the Taoist attitude.

Water is the strongest (most supple) elements, partly because it never breaks but goes around things. And when it wants, it collects itself into a roaring (yes) Tsunami and crushes everything.