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In Music Theory we learn about tones and their function in scales, chords, and so on.  We do not learn how it might be related to actual hearing.  We are not taught that “the music part” is not tones, but what happens between them, where listening combines with memory, emotion and with reactions akin to our taste in foods.  These responses, evoked by a composer’s genius at work in specific pieces, may be so strong as to make us uncomfortable with even the most familiar tones.

Tonal Refraction enters the picture at the point where Music Theory leaves off.  As one eminent theorist said, “This is about what gets trained out of us,” i.e., our pre-conscious gut reactions to sounds.  These responses are more readily accessed with colors than words: Josef Albers correctly compared tone to color.  Even an accomplished musician may feel isolated within the remarkably individual act of hearing. This is potentially problematic, but at the same time revealing about the drama inherent in the music we play.

Tonal Refraction, created by Nancy Garniez in 1993, was presented at three conferences of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition:

“Can People Be Made Aware of Their Pre-Conscious Responses to Tone and, if so, Would it Make Any Difference?” (International Conference, Seoul, 2014)*
“Sounds Invisible/Half-Heard” (Regional Conference, Harvard University, 2016: poster below)
“Tonal Refraction Reveals How the Alberti Figure Challenges Notions of Tonicity” (International Conference, San Francisco, 2016)*
* available upon request

There are different ways to use Tonal Refraction:

As a performer

As a listener COLORING TIME

Our Path Through The Forest

The pianist sizes up the notes and plays.  It looks simple but it is not.  With characteristic precision Schumann starts us on our path through the forest with a sound that commands attentiveness.  In a moment of pre-conscious response, having “heard” the cycle while in a deep sleep, it occurred to me that this opening D was the key to the entire opus.  Using bright red for that D, I chose a palette of colors radiating out toward yellow for sharps, and to indigo for flats, only to realize, many years later, that red was altogether wrong to convey the sense of the forest, Schumann’s brilliantly chosen image for the piano’s puzzling acoustical specificity.  The transition from structural clarity to freest lyricism was something I, a reader, could never have previously imagined.  Tonal Refraction uses colors and a grid to access pre-conscious responses to tone perception.  It arose out of memories of vivid childhood hearing and has completely transformed my understanding of music as a performer, teacher, and scholar.  An adaptation of the full poster text appears to the right, depicting the steps between the first and last images.  The book, with state-of-the-art computer graphic reproductions of the original graphics, is available for purchase.  I invite your inquiry.

sounds invisible-half heard pic.jpg

What is pre-conscious hearing?  It is hearing before we know what we are hearing.  1,000 times faster than any other sensory information processed by the brain (Hudspeth, A. J.: “How the Ear’s Works Work,” Nature, Vol. 341, 1989), it is hearing as children and animals hear.

That children hear and respond to sound at that level has been the basis of my lifetime devotion to experimental teaching.  This awareness was reinforced by Sound and Symbol by Viktor Zuckerkandl (Pantheon Books, 1956-73).  His validation of the logic inherent in this level of listening impelled me to a life dedicated to that primary level of music perception as a performer, scholar, and teacher.


Cultivating adult awareness of pre-conscious hearing was the most difficult musical skill I have ever set out to master.  I did so by listening without consulting the score to children and to the adult amateurs in the Mannes Extension Division Chamber Music program which I coordinated for over 35 years.  (See N.G.: “Experiments of a Chamber Music Coach,” Chamber Music Magazine, Nov.- Dec. 2010).  My goal was to hear as the students heard, rather than to assume that they should hear as I did, i.e., under the influence of standard notation.


Awareness of my own pre-conscious responses to hearing was enhanced by the use of colors and a grid with which I visualized tone relatedness as filtered through the many layers of association, memory, etc., that kept the music alive in my mind.  I call the technique Tonal Refraction, using the word as Marcel Proust does, to name the process whereby memory is constantly changing our sense of the past.

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