Archive for the 'Music' Category

Finding patterns in music

A while back, I linked to this page on, among other things, sound waves and how they relate to music. If you scroll down to the section titled “Musical Beats and Intervals” you see three diagrams showing three different pairs of overlaid wave forms. One is a very consonant octave set (something like a low C played over a high C), one is a relatively consonant 5th interval and the final one is a dissonant, ugly sounding interval. The point these diagrams make is that consonance and dissonance are not abstract properties of music, they are related to how two or more sound waves overlay on top of each other. Waves where the peaks and valleys generally line up sound good; waves where the peaks and valleys don’t consistently line up are weird.

The same is true with rhythms. If I take a drum groove played at 100 beats per minute and lay it on top of a drum groove at 200 beats per minute, everything should sound all right since the hits in the 100 beats per minute groove will correspond with every other hit in the 200 beats per minute groove. But if I overlay a groove at 157 beats per minute over a groove at 100, not much will line up and it will sound chaotic.

Now, this is no different in the first example using notes. Notes are really sound waves vibrating at certain frequencies. You could think of the peaks of sound waves as the “hits” in a drum rhythm. If you take two sound waves and the peaks line up most of the time you have something consonant. But the less they line up, the more dissonant they get.

So basically, when you hear consonant sound waves (or drum rhythms) your brain is comparing the peaks or hits and determining that they match and delivering a pleasant sound to your mind. But this comparison, this brain processing, is something we are unaware of. With two dissonant notes, we aren’t aware that the sound wave frequency rates are out of sync, we are just aware they sound bad.

And I suspect this is true with a lot of things. Our brain looks for patterns, for synchronicity. When it finds the pattern, it says, “yay, I like this.” When it doesn’t find the pattern it gets frustrated. But much of this processing goes on “under the hood;” we aren’t consciously aware we are doing it.

Is Miles Davis the music of atheism?

Readers may recall my classic post in which I postulated that as our minds have gotten more stimulated over recent centuries we’ve had less ability to focus on art. Baroque music was dense and complex because listeners of the day had the mental bandwidth to absorb it. Modern music is less complex (and usually shorter in length) because we don’t have the free cognitive processing power (because we’re too busy with the bullshit of life, the media, etc.) to pay attention.

There’s a knock against minimalism inherent in this theory. Minimalism is about using less—less musical notes, less colors and shapes etc—to make a point. If, according to my argument, complex art forms have lots of elements then art forms using less elements must be simpler and easier to grasp. And to some degree I do think minimalism became popular because —on one level—it’s easier to digest. But I also think minimalism is pretty sophisticated. When Miles Davis or Chet Baker used silence in a solo they were actually focusing our attention on that silence, kind of saying, “this nothing is actually something.” A lot of other modern composers and visual artists applied similar ideas. So what sounds empty and barren is kind of rich. But I freely admit, many people, myself at times, don’t get this richness and let minimalistic music’s use of space allow it to fade to the background.

There’s another interesting angle to approach this from. At the end of this article I commented on an idea of Jaron Lanier’s. He has a notion that modern communication technology (the internet, texting and so on) infantilizes us because it allows us to maintain a constant umbilical-cord-like connection to our fellows. We never have to be alone with ourselves. You could say this allows us to avoid confronting our essential aloneness, our separateness, not just from Mom but from the big guy, God. Is the music of Miles Davis asking us to confront our essential aloneness, even embrace it?

Gender inequality in the arts

Over at the web site (never heard of it before today) a post compiles comments from female authors who are able to pursue a writing career because of their husbands financial support. For example…

“Writing did come late to me, long after a many times disrupted career as a painter. I have worked different jobs, a few years as a midwife, studied art, became a mother of four and now I write in my spare time. My husband is financially supportive but kind of questions the writing stuff. Our youngest is still in school and after almost 25 years of working at home and from home I do feel I ‘earned’ the time I so desperately need to be creative. I take my husband’s reluctant sponsorship anytime and thankfully we are able to manage our humble life. Neither do I complain nor do I feel guilty. But boy do I hope this book will be published.”

It’s reasonable to ask how many male authors have a similar set up. That said, the article makes a decent point…

Every bestseller list is dominated by women and this is primarily due to their competitive edge. They can simply keep on writing, while being financially supported by their husbands. Some women feel guilty about this, while others see it as their husbands responsibly to be the breadwinner of the family.

I myself have wondered whether the book market is corrupted by this kind of patronage. Are the price of books driven downward because many authors are willing to produce at a loss (one supplanted by their spouses’ incomes?)

I’ve actually seen something similar in the world of music though with a gender twist. When I was in the L.A. country music scene there were a couple of guys (who shall remain nameless) who seemed to have no problem putting out quality albums year after year, often featuring top-shelf players. I was always unclear on how they made this work. Were good session musicians donating their time simply because they were impressed with the songwriting? Were these guys managing to simply sell way more albums than I was? I finally started to hear that at least some of these guys had wives with great incomes. While the wives may not have been supporting their husbands music careers, the need to put food on the table was certainly mitigated.

I suppose it has always been this way and probably always will be.

My music blog

I feel I should make note here that I have a blog on music theory and guitar playing I’ve been posting to for a while. It’s over here.

The most recent post is called “The Secret to Learning” and is probably of interest to non musicians.

Whenever we attempt to learn something—an instrument, a language, a piece of software, skateboarding, whatever—it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You see what the greats of the discipline do and think, “How can I ever get to be that good?” You pick up a book on the topic and it’s 400 pages long, written in some arcane nomenclature. It can all seem like too much to handle.

But there’s a secret to learning that I will reveal here with a thought experiment.

Let’s say’s you kidnap a man at gunpoint and stuff him in a room. Then you play him those Pimsleur French language learning CDs over and over for 8 hours a day. (Also make sure to feed him!) Whether this guy wants to or not, he will learn at least some French. The information will be coming in and his brain will take note of it. He won’t be able to “not learn.”

And that’s the thing with learning. It’s automatic. We think it requires great effort but if you expose yourself to the right information it will sink in. Obviously there are smarter, better and more organized ways to learn, but it’s really about exposing yourself to the material. Your brain takes care of the rest.

Anyway, I find that reassuring for some reason.

Hierarchy in music and society

In the realm of music there is the genre of what’s called “atonal music.” Basically this is music that avoids a key center. So while standard music is usually said to be in the key of C, or F#, or whatever, atonal music cannot be said to be in key. If you think of the key of most music as being its center of gravity, you could thinking of atonal music as kind of free floating. (In fact atonal music is often used for scenes of outer space in movies.)

In essence, what atonal music is doing is refusing to create a hierarchy of notes. In regular music, the most important note is the same as the key center. For example, C is the most important note in a song in the key of C major. It’s usually the starting and ending note of the song and it’s the note being hit when we feel a melody or musical phrase has “settled.”

My suspicion has been that atonal music grew out of the philosophy of communism and generally anti-hierachical political thought. To that way of thinking one thing should not be more important than any other. Including notes.

I was reading a book this morning on music and it made an interesting point. The whole class system of music which involves keys and hierarchies of notes really came about in the 1700s—right when the complex class system of people was cementing itself in Europe. So I must ponder that while it may be true that atonal music represents a political philosophy, so too does standard key based music.

Of course, part of why communism never really caught on (when it did it basically had to be implemented at the threat of a gun) was because hierarchical notions seem ingrained in our social intelligence (as they do in the intelligence of monkeys, birds and even ants.) And with music, something just feels right about key centers. And atonal music, while at times interesting, is challenging to listen to. It seems like we are wired for hierarchy in both social behavior and music.

Thus I have spoken.

Finding patterns in music

I’ve been thinking again of my idea of a master flow for all art—the idea that all art is basically about presenting tension and then resolving it with calm. (Well, not all the time—the final jump scare in a lot of horror movies leaves the viewer with unresolved tension.)

Maybe tension is not the best word to use here though. Maybe we really mean questions. For example, when a zombie shuffles onscreen in a movie, he brings with him questions. What’s the zombie going to do? Is he going to eat our protagonists? When the zombie is beheaded, those questions go away; the problem is solved.

In storytelling the questions are easy to see. But what about music or other forms of art?

In music, perhaps we need to think not in terms of questions but of patterns. When we have a predictable pattern we are confident in what’s going on. When we have unpredictable patterns we are not. So what’s a predictable musical pattern? A steady beat is an obvious example. If we can tap along with it we are predicting the next beat and are rewarded when we tap in time. If a beat is unsteady we don’t really like it. And there are at least two kinds of unsteady beats: beats that are unsteady because the person performing sucks (which we find frustrating and amateurish) and beats that seem deliberately askew, as in the music for horror films. For this second kind we feel like we’re being deliberately foiled, there’s something aggressive happening. We feel under attack. (Granted, these sensations are all pretty subconscious.)

Volume is another way music can offer patterns. If a song is going along at a certain volume, the volume itself is a kind of pattern. If the song suddenly gets loud (as certain classical pieces do) the tension goes up. Whoa, I didn’t see that coming, we say.

Musical harmony (two or more notes played at once) also offers predictable and unpredictable patterns. In harmony you have what’s called consonance (roughly speaking: pleasant sounds) and dissonance (ugly sounds.) Each sound is of course made up of wave forms of vibrating air. The wave forms of consonant notes match each other pretty well; their peaks and valleys basically line up with each other. Not so with dissonant notes. Check out this description of a wave form of two dissonant notes (The graph can be found at the “Musical Beats and Intervals” section at the link.)

Observe (look carefully) that the pattern of the resultant is neither periodic nor repeating (at least not in the short sample of time that is shown). The message is clear: if two sound waves that have no simple mathematical relationship between their frequencies interfere to produce a wave, the result will be an irregular and non-repeating pattern. This tends to be displeasing to the ear.

Of course, we don’t think: “Wow, those wave forms are out of synch.” We just think, “That sounds weird.”

There’s an added component here. Psychologists will tell you that some people are novelty seekers, while others are more conservative. Are novelty seekers more accepting of dissonant or less patterned (rhythmically, volume-wise etc) music (modern classical, jazz, some heavy metal, industrial)? I dunno… maybe… it wouldn’t surprise me.

Related: another post of mine on musical dissonance.

The narrative form in cinema

I’ve been thinking a bit more of my notion that all art forms are basically about creating and relieving drama (or tension as some call it.) It strikes me that film is an interesting art form to examine as it really is a combination of different art forms. Film uses storytelling, dialogue, music, framing and various other devices. To really build drame well, all these tools need to work in concert.

For example, let’s say we wanted to write a movie scene that captured a sense of mystery. Here’s some bad dialogue.

Bob: What was that sound?
Mary: Huh… I dunno, I didn’t hear anything. It’s probably the neighbor’s cat. He always prowls around when I leave food outside and I did this morning.

Bob: Oh, ok.

Much better would be something like…

Bob: What was that sound?
Mary: You heard it too? It sounded like it was coming from inside the walls. But that’s impossible… Isn’t it?

But film can’t just stop at dialogue. The music needs to be spooky too. If some Katie Perry song is playing in the background it deflates the mood. You need some creepy, Bernard Herrmann-esque chords to amp up the tension.

And the framing of the camera comes into play. If the camera just positions the characters in the middle of the frame… BORING! The camera should shift uneasily, like the view of a person itching to make a break for it.

You could say that in all these art forms a language has arisen than communicates a mood such as suspense. But, just as with spoken language, repetition becomes cliche. Certain music sounds creepy but corny. So artists have to be always experimenting to find the new thing that audiences will find novel and exciting.

Thus I have spoken.

Musical musings

What makes a song work? Is it a few components or many pieces working together to build towards a greater whole?

Some people will say something like, “The reason I like this song is that I like the chorus” implying that the chorus and only that is what drives their appreciation of the tune. (My brother, years ago, prompted some thought on my part when he said he didn’t like songs, he liked “parts of songs.”)

Other people will imply that they like the whole song. I find myself really observing that what makes me like a song is many different elements. As the song progresses I might first note a tasty lyrical turn of phrase, then note the catchy part of the chorus, then note the pleasant additional of a mandolin on the second verse, then note the intriguing opening lick of the guitar solo, then note how the final chorus is delayed by a bar creating a disorienting sense of anticipation. It’s the culmination of all these things that pushes the tune into greatness.

Thus I have spoken.

Celebrity scumbags

Adam Gopnik has an interesting bit on a new biography of Sinatra that seems to confirm that, yes, Sinatra was a musical genious, and yes, he was also a thuggish, mob associating asshole.

I have to pause and tell the great Sinatra joke told by Shecky Green. “Frank Sinatra saved my life once. He said, “Okay, boys. That’s enough.”

Anyhoo, Gopnik does some interesting wresting with how to appreciate a musician’s artistic legacy while still staying aware of the brutality they engaged in.

Shouldn’t this push aside the malicious gossip? Why does the other crap matter at all? It matters because if art and the lower reaches of journalism and biography converge on a single point of common purpose, it is in being truthful about human beings as they really are and not as we would have them be. History is what we have to struggle to remember even when legend is more pleasing. It would be nice if Sinatra had been a good guy with a few regrettable friendships rooted in Jersey simpatico—it was a lot worse than that. It would be nice if J.F.K. were a family man with a sometimes-wandering eye—the truth there, too, is more ravenous and complicated. None of this need diminish our admiration or even our love for them. Humanism is made from a faith in humans, as they actually are, flawed and real, screaming devilish threats at casino managers and then singing “Angel Eyes.”

And then, one of the things you learn ever more certainly as you grow older is that all art is made in the image of the artist. It can often be articulated as an opposite, with all the low spots in life thrust forward in art, as with Sinatra. But it is some sort of picture. It isn’t supposed to be so; high-minded people are supposed to pull life and art apart, trust the tale not the teller, and all that. But if an abstract artist makes pictures only of white, there is a white moment, or knight, somewhere there in her past, bugging her still. Sinatra’s painfully bipolar nature is exactly the pattern of his best music, with “swinging” records continually succeeded by sad ones, again and again, and though this is obviously partly a response to the oscillating commercial demands for dance music on the one hand and make-out music on the other, it isn’t just or mainly that. No one else even attempted it quite this relentlessly. We have “Songs for Swinging Lovers” and “Only the Lonely” because Sinatra was a desperately driven man with a melancholic depth. This doesn’t make up for other people’s fractures and stitches, not remotely. But there the albums are, and there he is, a whole man, made up of broken parts, like everyone else.

I pause to think of my own reaction to these sorts of conundrums. I can still certainly enjoy Sinatra’s singing (especially when backed with Nelson Riddle’s fantastic arrangements) but the nature of who Sinatra was is never far from from mind. And these days, when I hear the music of the Beatles, it’s never far from my mind that John Lennon beat a guy almost to death (for implying that the Beatle was a homosexual.) When I hear the music of the Foo Fighters it’s never far from my mind that the entire band distributed AIDS denialism. When I hear Eric Clapton it’s never far from my mind that he once went on a racist tirade onstage.

That said, I still enjoy their music, at least when it’s enjoyable. (Some of the Foo Fighters stuff is pretty mediocre.) I think what bothers me more is not the various crimes these artists committed but the fact that they were allowed to get away with it. Had they not had the power of celebrity and iconic status they would have been imprisoned or at least reviled. But most people don’t seem to be even aware of these crimes (it’s only recently I heard of Lennon’s behavior.) It’s the double standard tolerated by society that bugs me.

The narrative form

Lately I’ve been thinking about the narrative form, which could be thought of as the structure that stories follow. These stories could be novels, comic books, movies, even music. I think there’s one basic form that all stories adhere to and we’re all familiar with this form even if we don’t think about it. And we know it when it’s wrong. For example, consider this story:

Bob wakes up and goes to work. He has a project due but since he did a lot of work on it early he has no problem making his deadline. Suddenly a ninja with a sword appears and chops of Bob’s penis. Bob spends several months in the hospital. He begins to question what he wants to do with his life. He meets an older nurse and they begin a platonic relationship. Bob moves in with the nurse. A fews years later he takes up windsurfing. Both he and the nurse find their relationship fading. Bob eventually moves to Arizona and takes ownership of several cats.

That’s an example of not following the narrative form. That story was weird and boring.

Good narrative form should have contrasting sections of drama and calm. (The story above has one dramatic bit and a lot of weird calm) with the dramatic parts becoming more prominent, rising to a crescendo which resolves all or most of the problems.

One thing I find interesting is that this form applies to music even though music can never actually tell a story (unless it has accompanying lyrics or film or some other storytelling device.) Music has dramatic parts and calmer bits and good music contrasts them. Even pop songs often follow a model like: Verse (calm) / Chorus (dramatic) / Verse (calm) Chorus (dramatic) / Bridge (calm or dramatic)/ Chorus (dramatic)/ Another chorus (Even more dramatic!) (How can a chorus be made to be more dramatic? It might be louder or have more instrumentation or “busier” melodies or chords.)

So why is this? Why do humans prefer this narrative form? Why don’t we tell stories like my story about Bob above? Is it somehow ingrained into our genes in some way? Or just a fluke?

Another question: is this form consistent across all cultures? Maybe Easter Islanders did tell stories like my story of Bob above.

My suspicion however (backed by being familiar with stories and music across various cultures) is that there is a kind of universal narrative.