Archive for the 'Music' Category

Musical dissonance

I was thinking the other day about the topic of musical dissonance. Dissonance is a somewhat relative term—some people hear a piece of music and consider it sharply dissonant, others less so—but there’s some general agreement. Few would argue that there’s a lot of dissonance in Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes soundtrack.

I know some people who are really averse to musical dissonance. I know others, like myself, who don’t find dissonance particularly perturbing. It struck me that a lot of the people I know who dislike dissonance tend to be clean freaks – they’re unusually repulsed by bugs, filth and such. I wonder of there’s some correlation – is their distaste of dissonance (a kind of musical filth) related to their fear of general filth?

There’s some research into the neuroscience of all this. I found this essay online that synopsizes some of it.

A recent experiment dealt with this problem by attempting to minimize subjectivity, by measuring responses to dissonance. (1) Dissonance can consistently create feelings of unpleasantness in a subject, even if the subject has never heard the music before. Music of varying dissonance was played for the subjects, while their cerebral blood flow was measured. Increased blood flow in a specific area of the brain corresponded with increased activity. It was found that the varying degrees of dissonance caused increased activity in the paralimbic regions of the brain, which are associated with emotional processes.

Another recent experiment measured the activity in the brain while subjects were played previously-chosen musical pieces which created feelings of intense pleasure for them. (2) The musical pieces had an intrinsic emotional value for the subjects, and no memories or other associations attached to them. Activity was seen in the reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal areas of the brain. This result was interesting partly because these areas are associated with the pleasure induced by food, sex, and drugs of abuse, which would imply a connection between such pleasure and the pleasure induced by music.

BTW – here’s that Planet of the Apes. Brilliant stuff – I love the weird percussion bit around 6:35.

Over the Rainbow

Here’s a video I shot of myself playing a instrumental version of Harold Arlen’s classic tune.

Enjoying Audioslave?

A band I’ve never been impressed with is Audioslave (comprised of members of Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden.) But a while back I was jogging and put on some of their music. After I finished my run I was listening and thinking, “You know, I’m kind of enjoying this.”

But it occurred to me that maybe I was just experiencing a pleasurable runner’s high and then attributing that enjoyment to the music I was listening to. Maybe it was that the music put me in a pleasant state of mind but rather I was in a pleasant state of mind and attributed it to the music I was listening to.

The truth is, I suspect many things were happening there. Maybe the rocking Audioslave music did help boost my already exuberant feeling. Maybe to enjoy some music you need to be in a certain physical state. But this opens up a whole other debate—does much of our reaction to art and entertainment have to do with things outside those products? If I eat a Twinkie and watch “Game of Thrones” (which I’ve never seen) how much of my pleasure is from the Twinkie and how much from the show? If I take a soothing bath and listen to Mozart, again, from where does the pleasure originate? I think the answer is a little of both sources, but it does seem we are more willing to give credit to the entertainment product than our pleasant environment.

This would explain these experiences we’ve all had where we listen to an album we’ve loved in the past and for some reason it just doesn’t do it anymore. Maybe the enjoyment was never in the album.

The death of the cd?

One thing you notice about the Macbook Pro, like the one I am typing this on, is that there’s no CD player. I’ve found this to be a minor hassle since I have several cd playing devices around. But the removal of the cd player from the PC seems a curious decision on Apple’s part. It struck me, and I’m sure it has many of the conspiracy minded, that Apple may have done this to push their iTunes revenues. Users may find themselves in a situation where they want to play their favorite Tom Waits cds, but lo and behold they have no way to. So they say, “Fuck it, I’ll just buy an mp3 version from iTunes.”

Does this trend point to the death of the cd? It’s interesting to contemplate. I still burn cds of my music to give to people. How will I force them to enjoy my music when that option is gone? People have theorized the idea of “beaming” music to various devices for a while but I don’t see much progress there.

It’s worth noting, the death of the cd has been predicted before and it’s still around. But doubtless someday the silver disk will fall. And what will a world without cds looks like? Will it be a joyous utopia where people pluck music wirelessly out of the air for their enjoyment? Or will it be a savage realm where men are dragged from their houses and sexually violated before their families? I fear the latter…

Is artistic skill really about measurement ability?

Artistic skill is certainly a mystery. Some people struggle to paint or act or play the piano. Myself, I’ve struggled with music and writing and a few other skills. Let me tell you: progress has been slow coming.

I’m thinking about two friends of mine. One was a guy I knew in high school. I was in a band with him though he was a mediocre musician. He was, however, a great tennis player. I think he was ranked in the top ten of the state (Hawaii) for his age group.

I learned that after high school he took up painting and very quickly became a professional. To this day he makes his living as a visual artist. He’s had great success despite the fact that when I knew him he had zero interest in the field.

My second friend was someone I also met during my high school years. At the time, he was already a great pianist, songwriter and visual artist.

I don’t want to say these talents came “easy” to these guys but they definitely seemed to have had a head start. They hit the ground running so to speak. So what could that advantage be? I’m posing an interesting theory here: Artistic skill is really an ability to measure.

Think about it. A lot of art is actually about measuring certain kinds of distances. This is most obvious in drawing and painting and other visual arts. You draw a person and the head looks too big for the body and people aren’t impressed. You sculpt a figure and one arm is too short and the work looks ugly. To do a good job with (representational) art every element needs to be sized correctly in relation to the other elements.

With music, the role of measurement is a little trickier. Consider this though: it’s not uncommon to find people who really seem to play by feel… they just reach for the note they want and it’s there even if they can’t explain how they know how to find it. I suspect that if you have a refined ear (particularly if you have perfect pitch) you develop a sense of how far notes are away from each other on the musical scale (which is really just a tool to standardize certain sound vibrations to pitches.) You may not know the terminology that a certain note is a major third away from another but you “know” it on an unconscious level. Then you pick up an instrument and quickly learn that to get “this” music interval you move this finger from here to there, and to get “that” one you perform a different move.

I myself have long struggled with music; I don’t think I have any kind of “magic” ears. But occasionally even I have found myself locating notes or chords via this intuitive process.

What does this have to do with my two friends? Well, I mentioned that the first one was a great tennis player. Tennis is also about distance measurement—where is the ball in three dimensional space? I wonder if the measuring skills honed in tennis could be applied to visual art? And with my second friend: could his twin skills— art and music— support each other? Is his real talent not so much drawing or playing piano, but gauging kinds of distances?

Part of what got me thinking about this is looking at myself. I recently, after 20 years, got back into drawing. I’m not great (Here’s some samples.) but what I find is that drawing is much easier than I remember it being. I used to take a stab at drawing something—say, a muscular male superhero—and it would take a few tries to get something passable. (And my female figures fucking SUCKED!) Now I find myself hitting something decent on the first try.

Like I said, I haven’t practiced art for years. But what have I been doing? Music, in particular, playing guitar and piano. Has that practice been building up a larger skill—measuring—that I’m now applying to art. Maybe. Who knows?

I think I’m going to do some drawing.

What the hell is happening to country music?

Not long ago I wrote an article about Blake Shelton’s comments on the direction country music was going in. The crux of my argument there was that (and this might surprise people) I’m not opposed to country music’s attempts to modernize its sound.

Now, in recent months I’ve noticed a definite trend towards country music songs sounding more like rap and hip hop tunes. This video, for example, not only borrows rap’s rhythmic cadence, it borrows the “chicks and booze” party atmosphere that seems to populate rap videos.

What to make of this? A lot of folks might argue that country has sold its soul. It’s certainly hard to see how this music connects in any meaningful way to traditional country like Hank Williams or Willie Nelson.

Of course, we can then ask what it means for music to sell out. The presumption, I believe, is that the form’s practitioners are making music that no longer reflects any kind of or organic evolution, it is instead merely a land grab of popular trends. I’m not sure what’s really happening here. I’m pretty far removed from what rural teens* are up to, but I do get a sense that they do both embrace roots country and modern pop. (“A little bit of Hank and a little bit of Drake” as the song above says.)

* This statement presupposes that rural teens are country’s music’s target audience which may or may not be true.

That said, I can’t help watch this video and feels like it’s some kind of weird parody video they might have shown on SNL Ten years ago. This stuff seems and sounds pretty strange to me.

Music animation

Here’s a new animation storybook I did featuring one of my longer, classical style pieces. It tells the story of some aliens who face some of life’s challenges.

Musicians: just go home and die!

A while back I discussed an interesting speech that examined the economics of the modern rock business. The crux of the speech was that, for various reasons, the bulk of profit made from selling music was going to fewer and fewer performers.

Today I find an interesting new report that mirrors this. It describes the current music business as a “superstar economy.” Lady Gaga and Kanye West reap gazillions while superior artists such as myself eat cat food. The article notes that the advent of this superstar economy is actually at odds with what seemed to be the promise of digitized music. If digital technology makes it cheaper to record and distribute music, the argument went, we should see profits spread to a wide spectrum of musicians who are no longer blocked from the public (as they were in the days when a big upfront investment was need to get an album out there.) But…

In fact digital music services have actually intensified the Superstar concentration, not lessened it (see figure). The top 1% account for 75% of CD revenues but 79% of subscription revenue. This counter intuitive trend is driven by two key factors: a) smaller amount of ‘front end’ display for digital services – especially on mobile devices – and b) by consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actual hinders discovery.

That second point is interesting. Basically, human beings can only keep track of so many music choices, so most of us just go for what everyone else is going for. “I don’t want to shift through millions of song files so I’ll just listen to this Beyonce record everyone is talking about.” The promise of a democratic marketplace ran up against the limitations of the human mind.

This is, of course, at odd with a mantra that was popular in the 1990s—that more choice was better for consumers. At a certain point buyers say, “enough choice – just pick something!”

The end of the creative class?

I’ve mentioned the book “The Age of Insight” which I found quite interesting. It was about many things including the exploits of various artists that lived in Vienna around the turn of the century (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, etc.) One thing I recall from the book is how these men really struggled to come up with unique art. They experimented with different ideas and incorporated a lot of the discoveries of that era’s science into their art. (Klimpt incorporated images of blastocyst cells in his painting, for example. ) Their art was more than just pretty pictures—it had meat and substance*.

* Visual artists of the day were spurred on by two pressing challenges—1) the advent of photography that rendered realistic painting somewhat moot, and 2) the rise of the Freud and the idea that one’s “inner world” might be a more fascinating place than the outer world.

I think this trend lasted through the 20th century. Think of jazz musicians, existential filmmakers, Robert Crumb, psychedelic music etc. Whatever you think of this stuff (I, personally, find most psychedelic music laughable though I applaud the band Ultimate Spinach) it was art with a lot of thought behind it.

This was art made by what I would call the creative class. These were artists (of all disciplines) exploring the world, making art not for any obvious immediate use (like being used in a greeting card or as a portrait.)

I’m not sure you see much of this today. With the decimation of the value of content in the digital age, I’m not sure it’s viable to make art that doesn’t have immediate use.

There was a book that came out several years ago called “The Rise of the Creative Class.” I never read it but it would seem to dispute what I’m saying. But examine this blurb about the books (From the book’s Amazon page.)

He defines this class as those whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. In general this group shares common characteristics, such as creativity, individuality, diversity, and merit. The author estimates that this group has 38 million members, constitutes more than 30 percent of the U.S. workforce, and profoundly influences work and lifestyle issues. The purpose of this book is to examine how and why we value creativity more highly than ever and cultivate it more intensely.

This creative class is creating for a (usually commercial) reason. I absolutely agree that creating a web application can be a very creative pursuit—after all, I’ve been part of that process—but it’s different from explorational creating, from the act of creating to “find your voice.” We value creativity today if it has short term payoff, not so much if the benefits aren’t immediately obvious. Art now has to immediately find its value in the marketplace.

I should be clear, I realize there’s some crossover here. Artists making “for immediate use” art often spend their off hours making more esoteric art. But the general trend I find troubling.

Big data and pop music

I’ve talked a bit about the work of computer scientist David Cope who has developed several software tools that compose music. The exact methodology he uses is complex (he’s written several books about it) but his programs have ably output hours of music in the style of various classical masters.

In one of his books, Cope comments that he has not used his software to write pop music. This is partly because he isn’t interested in pop music and partly because he concedes pop music is about a lot more that just the notes on a page (which is what his software is fundamentally creating.) Pop is also about the tone of instruments, their hip factor, and a lot of contextual baggage the performing artists bring to the song (their personal history, persona etc.)

Nonetheless, I think it’s inescapable that computers will be composing pop song in the future. Or more likely, computers will be helping humans compose pops songs.

But, then what? Cope’s software can generate thousands of variations on a basic tune. Say someone does the same with a pop song. You have 10,000 versions of a certain melody in A minor. Obviously nobody wants to listen to all of them to find the “best one.”

But what if you could look through a data pool of what listeners were listening to and spot upcoming trends? For example, two years ago you could have noted, “Gee, it looks like people are really digging music with these wonky low end gurgles… I bet dub-step will be popular.” Basically, you would note what properties of music seemed to be getting popular and aim the computer composed music towards those styles.

But where would you get this data? This recent NY Times piece, noting that music analysis company Echo Nest has been bought by Spotify, may offer clues.

The Echo Nest is one of a handful of companies specializing in the arcane but valuable science of music data, examining what songs are being listened to by whom, and how. It makes this information available to its clients, including major media companies like Sirius XM, Clear Channel and Univision, which use the data primarily for music-related apps.

“Analyzing music preferences is something we’ve been doing for a long time,” Jim Lucchese, chief executive of the Echo Nest, said in a joint interview with Mr. Ek. “But being directly wired in, and sitting alongside the Spotify team, will give us the ability to push products a lot faster and learn a lot faster than we could before.”

I suspect Echo Nest is, right now, just analyzing “big picture” music trends, like “people are digging hip-hop country songs.” I think eventually they could move towards more granular observations like “major scale melodies that climb high over three bars and then fall down in a giant octave leap in the fourth bar are getting popular,” or “Synth timbres that sound like a theremin and glockenspiel are getting big.” That data could then be used to power the computer aided composition of pop music.

I’m not saying this is a good thing; it worries me. It could certainly lead to an arms race of musical ideas that would result in fads burning out faster and faster. But I think it’s the future.