Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"This Is Your Brain on Music": why (and how) we listen

Does it help to know why you can't get the music of Pink Floyd or Mozart, Adele or Miles Davis out of your head? This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin (2007) makes the reader at least consider the effect of music on the human mind and its functions.
Levitin's theorizing is a bit of wobbly science in an early stage, what might be called psycho-accoustics; his writing is more of a kind of wool-gathering of anecdotes and side-trips into how musicians achieve their effects that support his ideas, rather than extensive research. In a subjective sense, that's how music works: it's an extremely personal response, whether we're hearing it in a comfortable chair at home or charging into battle.

From the Beatles to Coltrane to Disney soundtracks, Levitin layers on a lot of how music is made, how certain keys in the musical scale carry emotional weight, why we respond to tempo and even individual instruments in particular ways. A lot of this, of course, used to get discussed in classrooms in "music appreciation," but no longer.

Paradoxically, the daily wave of music that surrounds us should make books like Levitin's more interesting to the general reader, and maybe that's why many of his examples hinge on pop artists. Here's one example:

... Joni Mitchell had sung in choirs in public school, but had never taken guitar lessons or any other kind of music lessons. Her music has a unique quality that has been variously described as avant garde, ethereal, and as bridging classical, folk, jazz, and rock. Joni uses a lot of alternate tunings; that is, instead of tuning the guitar in the customary way, she tunes the strings to pitches of her own choosing. This doesn't mean that she plays notes that other people don't – there are still only 12 notes in a chromatic scale – but it does mean that she can easily reach with her fingers combinations of notes that other guitarists can't reach (regardless of the size of their hands).
... A string that is pressed on ('fretted') has a different sound than one that isn't due to a slight deadening of the string caused by the finger; the unfretted or 'open' strings have a clearer, more ringing quality, and they will keep on sounding for a longer time than the ones that are fretted. When two or more of these open strings are allowed to ring together, a unique timbre emerges.

By retuning, Joni changed the configuration of which notes are played when a string is open, so that we hear notes ringing that don't usually ring on the guitar, and in combinations we don't usually hear. You can hear it on her songs 'Urge for Going' and 'Refuge of the Roads' for example.

... But the chords Joni plays, as a consequence of her unique composition and guitar playing styles, aren’t typical chords: Joni throws notes together in such a way that the chords can't be easily labeled. ... Joni's genius is that she creates chords that are ambiguous, chords that could have two or more different roots. When there is no bass playing along with her guitar (as in 'The Circle Game' or 'Urge For Going'), the listener is left in a state of expansive aesthetic possibilities.

Because each chord could be interpreted in two or more different ways, any prediction or expectation that a listener has about what comes next is less grounded in certainty than with traditional chords. And when Joni strings together several of these ambiguous chords, the harmonic complexity greatly increases; each chord sequence can be interpreted in dozens of different ways, depending on how each of its constituents is heard.'

Of course, Levitin makes clear throughout that the physics of music is something most musicians themselves have a difficult time explaining. The author's website has links to many of the songs in the book, page by page, for those who want the much simpler task of hearing what effect Levitin is describing.

While some of his conclusions may be up for discussion (the "sound of a tree falling in the forest" debate gets a surprising "no" answer -- so much for the laws of physics) a lot of his book is very comforting: music, beginning with rhythm, has been a human component for a long time, and is intricately connected with many human activities.

This is Your Brain on Music
won't change the reader's listening habits, or musical preferences -- but at the very least it should sharpen an awareness of the role music plays in our everyday lives.

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