Saturday, March 24, 2007

This is Your Brain on Music, part 1, summary

Daniel Levitin
This is Your Brain on Music

In 2006 Daniel Levitin's book This Is Your Brain On Music was published. I read about it in Salon. I don't usually take things in Salon that seriously because they're sirt if shriekingly paranoid half the time and often articulate political and social views that don't always gel. At any rate, whether or not their ideas make sense or are any good they can sometimes be an interesting read, which is really the most you can say about any magazine, and they had a review of this book that caught my attention.

Music, like almost any art, is the kind of thing where detailed study simultaneously demystifies and remystifies the nature of the art. When you figure out how to juxtapose two different chords whose roots are functionally a tri-tone apart and figure out how to do that in a piece of unabashadly tonal music it's just more fun all around than if you just stumbled on something without knowing what you're doing. Understanding how you understand music doesn't make music less fun.

It turns out there's debate as to how we understand music and what that means because there are competing explanations for why humans have music to begin with. Levitin approaches this topic from an evolutionary, socibiological angle (to simplify a bit and since he simplifies quite a few things I don't feel guilty doing to his work what he's done to the work of others, I don't think I'm really misrepresenting him).

The actual cognitive aspects of musical perception are what makes this book interesting. The first two chapters rehash so many basic points about music theory and in such a simplified way that anyone with a couple of years of music theory will find them dull. It was interesting to read that electrodes attached to the brain of a barn owl reveal that barn owls perceive rhythm in the same way we do. This simultaneously indicates that all animals have to perceive sound in real time at some comparable level but also that the governing intelligence behind perception may not strictly require sounds to be heard "as" music.

The most interesting part in the earlier chapters is that the ear itself does not do as much of the perceptual stuff as the brain. Air molecules hit the ear drum but it is the brain that grasps the distinction between discreet vibrations on the ear drum that might be the sound of my typing as I write this blog entry verses the sound of shuffling chairs in the living room upstairs where my roommates are having a meeting with some guests.

The capacity we have to perceive sound in direction is something Levitin could have explored in some more detail around chapters 3 and 4. That we can perceive in 360 degrees how we are immersed in a world full of sounds fascinates me but I guess I'll have to go for scholarly research on that rather than the pop science level Levitin is writing at, which is still interesting and informative. His explanation of how we learn to ignnore steady sounds like the sound of rain outside or the sound of a washing machine is a great explanation for how our alertness to sound connects to the need to be aware of dangers and of causal relationships between sound X and threat Y.

The book gets interesting for me as a composer around chapter 4 dealing with how we anticipate and perceive musical form. He uses language as a springboard and describes how we can recognize words as words despite constant variations in the lettering, font style, font size, the font itself. It's on page 113 for those who have read the book.
Here is an approximation of the effect Levitin uses but compressed into the first part of the sentence. Despite constant shifts in the font, font size, lettering style, and even the color of the letters you can still read the first four words of the preceding sentence because your brain has trained itself (or been trained by socialization, too) to understand that what I just wrote earlier is a comprehensible sentence. Levitin's example is on page 113 of his book, for those of you who have it.

Well, the same cognitive process that allowed you to read that sentence in the previous paragraph is what allows you to perceive musical form and recognize a melody despite a series of drastic transformations. Even if a tune is played at half speed or double time; transposed into any key other than its originalkey; even if the melody is transformed by means of modal mutation from major into parallel minor or from the dorian mode to modern natural minor; even through all of this you can recognize a tune. We know Greensleeves (i.e. "What Child is This?") whether it's played in the original dorian form or in the modern minor form because the melodic contours and rhythms remain unchanged despite modal mutation. Levitin doesn't flesh this out but he notes that perception of musical form tends to display activity in the left frontal lobe of the brain, traditionally associated with intellectual or abstract perception.

But this, too, may be simplifying a bit because we have been able to learn that perceiving music activates a whole range of areas in the brain, including lower segments of the brain associated with autonomic responses and emotion. Music moves us, obviously, but to perceive the emotional content of music we have to grasp its form and so a truly affecting piece of music will engage, at the risk of overstating Levitin's case, our whole brain and not just parts of it. What we have been discovering through research is that the left brain is involved in perceiving musical structure and that these regions are also involved in understanding sign language or any structure that must be conveyed over time (page 127-128). But perceiving musical form requires both sides of the brain rather than just the left side which is all that is in use for the perception of language structured over time.

The question naturally comes up, why? For something that seems to have little practical value like music the way we experience it as background sound in a shopping mall; or listening to some jazz masterpiece reduced to music you listen to while you're on hold; or the set list at your favorite band's concert in your town; why is it that music affects is so? Why is it that people can sing from memory songs they heard twenty years ago?

An interesting partial explanation for this that Levitin offers along the way is that in adolescence the brain is closing up its soon-to-be complete set of neural networks for perception. The way my brother would put it is that it's medical/scientific proof that people decide rock music is dead once they have grown up and that the new stuff has no soul or is crap. What has changed is not really musical style per se but the perceiving brain. The brain gets gone making its set of ocnnections and unless people continually seek out new styles of music (by new I mean styles that really are different from what they like, not merely finding new variations on a sound in which they've comfortably found their style-listening rut) the brain hits an end point, so to speak.

Unsurprisingly a crucial element in musical structural perception involves memory and it's in chapter 5 that Levitin has his most interesting material. Levitin introduces, in chapter 5 the debate between two theories of memory. One theory has held that memory functions as a record-keeping function, comparable to a VCR tape; while the other theory holds that memory allows us to retain relational observations without necessarily retaining all the details about the things we remember. It doesn't take long to see how both theories fail due to reductivism and Levitin spends quite a bit of time in chapter 5 explaining how each theory hit roadblocks in lab research in the 1990s. A theory that is now getting preference is the proposal that memory is connected to cues and that if a person is presented with the right series of cues for memory that they will remember something. This accords with common sense and the anecdotal experience of quite possibly every human on the face of the earth!

It also explains why people can remember things with a high degree of accuracy in some cases but not in others, and why people with brain damage can be incapable of remembering some things accurately. But more to the point for the sake of this blog, it demonstrates that memory and perception turn out to overlap when it comes to how we perceive musical form. We simultaneously construct or infer a musical form from a song as we're listening to it, or any music we have heard before or never heard before. Hindemith explained this in A Composer's World fifty years ago saying that if we hear a piece of music and our minds can't get around the form presented to us our reaction is bewilderment or amusement.

Between the summaries of Hindemith and Levitin in their respective books it's easy to suggest that memory is vital to the perception of musical form. If a form is too simple we find it dull and if it is too complex we find it infuriating or frustrating or simply puzzling. Our capacity to perceive musical form is mediated by how our memory developes. This is not a point Levitin necessarily makes, or makes a primary concern in his book, though.

I'm going to skip the content of the other chapters as they are sort of interesting but not so interesting I want to write an even longer blog entry than I planned to write. Suffice it to say that research suggests that there are no prodigies on the basis of "talent" so much as a vast amount of practice and training. As Hilary Hahn has said in interviews, she was never a child prodigy, just someone who practiced a lot.

Levitin spends his last chapters attempting to sort out what purpose music serves. A number of scientists have dismissed music as nothing more than aural cheesecake, some useless by-product of evolutionary adaptation. Levitin refuses to concede this particular point and attempts to explain music on other grounds. There are no cultures that have no music so music can't be dismissed as aural cheesecake if every culture has it. And if it is merely the by-product of evolutionary adaptations what adaptations were those? Levitin argues that musical ability is a form of sexual selection. Any ancient human from fifty centuries ago who had the leisure time to sing and dance was advertising to prospective mates that he had the time, health, mental ability, and will to sire offspring and, perhaps more importantly, enough time left over to RAISE those kids. Levitin argues that this means that music is not useless since it seems to be one of the main means for a man to attract a woman. Considering how many songs over the millenia are love songs it's pretty hard to ignore Levitin's point. Levitin also notes briefly that in every culture available for study music and dance are constantly linked.

Scientists who think that music is just useless sound probably haven't examined the nature of memory enough. Why is it that so many children learn the alphabet through song? Scientists who think music serves no purpose might want to consider whether something is lost if they go on a date and there's no music anywhere. It seems to have a history of setting a mood.

So this is a basic run-down on the more interesting ideas in Levitin's book. I think it's a good summary but some questions seem to linger. Certainly I can tell you conservative Christians who aren't inclined to assume a Darwinian explanation won't exactly dig Levitin's assumptions about music as an evolutionary development and may not buy his attempt to explain musical idioms in human cultures as chiefly being a form of sexual selection. But interacting with Levitins ideas and study and the way this may be read in interaction with biblical literature is something I will set off in another post.

Dark Side of the Moon as a tryptich and the structural function of the dorian mode

Here we are, the post I threatened to write earlier about how Dark Side of the Moon, as a concept album, uses the signature i-IV dorian chord change as a structural device and a harmonic leitmotiff to explicate the textual motiff of endless cycles, or a highly secularized variation of "vanity of vanities" or "a breath of a breath, everything is a mere breath". If Ecclesiastes were re-worked so that it wasn't Jewish but atheistic British-navel-gazing you'd get Pinkfloyd's magnum opus. And I still happen to like the album. In fact I appreciate it more now than I did in the past, I just happen to like Stevie Wonder in all his cheesiness a little better because he's the greater musical genius. But enough of that digression on Stevie.

The tracks on Dark Side of the Moon are listed as follows and include several chord changes I'll mark off in brackets:

1. Speak to me/Breathe (e minor)
2. On the Run (um, not quite tonal)
3. Time (F sharp minor, coda reprising Breath)

4. Great Gig in the Sky
5. Money
6. Us & Them

7. Any Colour You Like
8. Brain Damaged
9. Eclipse

The first actual song opens up with an e minor to A major chord vamp that serrves as the introduction to the whole concept album and lays out the most common harmonic motiff in the songs. "On the Run" is a piece of electronic music that has several chromatic bass lines moving by means of glissandi (for want of a better word) under a rapidly moving static line that oscillates around G with pentatonic notes (g d b d e, as best my ears can hear them). "Time" is written in F sharp minor with a standard i III VII progression at its core. These two songs don't employ the dorian mode and use natural minor or phrygian elements. Of course "Time" recapitulates "Breathe" with new lyrics and returns us to the dorian chord change that began the album.

The closing track on the first side of the record is "Great Gig in the Sky" This song presents us with a simple binary form that is played just twice but to great effect. On the LP this closes off the first half and it opens with an interesting and lengthy chord progression:
(all chords are held for one measure of 4/4 unless otherwise indicated)
b minor
F major
B flat major
D minor
G minor
C major
G minor
C major
F major
B flat major
C minor
F major
B flat major (half measure)
E flat major 7 (half measure)
B flat major (two measures)

This chord progression takes a full minute before the keys the keys slide up into G minor and the band oscillates between G minor and C major for Clare Torry's solo. This section lasts for about a minute and serves to provide a static harmonic point in the song to contrast with the fairly violent but steady harmonic changes in the opening section. The transition back into the first section comes through half measure shifts from G minor to D flat to G flat to B minor before playing through the entire sequence a second time, this time with greatly reduced textures and dynamics.

I find this interesting as an overall composition because the chain of fourths guides the whole process except at three points where a tritone substition or oblique motion are employed to affect a key change. For the most part the dorian mode is the underlying harmonic vocabulary of this piece even with the key changes. The tritone substitution is the first significant alteration of the harmonic motif, which makes sense since the song is about death, the one part of the cycle of life that we arguably can't completely reconcile ourselves to even if we claim we can.

"Money" is obviously the opener on side B. This is a simple blues number in b minor that is predominantly in 7/4 in the outer sections and 4/4 in the middle. It creates the impression of a ternary form despite being essentially a set of variations on a theme because of the change from assymetric to common meter.

"Us & Them" is in D major, the relative major to the preceding song. At the risk of putting it crudely the song uses a prettified variation of the chords we hear in "Louie Louie". Tonic, submediant superimposed over a droning tonic, passing to a dominant chord, which proceeds to a subdominant chord and on back again. This is a chord progression that in terms of functional harmony sounds cool but doesn't go anywhere, per se. This works well for the song's lyrical conceit that things don't change, that cycles of violence, death, bigotry, and decay continue on and on.

The chorus consists of the chord changes B minor, A major, G major 7th (probably), and C major. Once again a violent sequential change takes place but this time instead of a tritone substitution like we saw opening "Gig" we get a stepwise descent in root movement that sets up a rising root movement of a fourth to the neapolitan chord of B minor, which is used as a subtonic for a harmonically weak transition back in to D major for the second verse. The chords are still moving in predominantly stepwise motion but they've been deprived of the harmonic pedal point that existed throughout the verse and have been subjected to change through oblique motion. If the verses sustain the motif of the set-upon, indifferent "Us" the chorus introduces the motif of "them", who invariably break in upon our indifference and destroy our peaceful indifference, usually through violence or simple death. Fun, huh?

Where "Us & Them" ends is to use the C major chord to create a deceptive ending that leads straight into "Any Colour You Like", which is just a big jam session on i IV but this time in D. "Brain Damaged" retains the tonic-subdominant chord progression but through modal mutation presents them to us through alternating dominant seven chords. D7 G7 D7 E7 G D E7 G D through the verse.

The chorus gives us G A C G, played twice, with a quick transition of B minor, E minor, A to get back into the verse. What's interesting here is that the chromatically altered supertonic lets the band retonicize G as the tonic of the chorus in place of D. That's one of the great things about repeating phrases is that when you employ a harmonic sequence in transposition it does the modulating for you and the listener can expect it.

The final song is basically a classic passacaglia, a compound meter piece with a steadily descending chord progression. D C B flat A throughout to the final cadence in D major.

Now despite the fact that LPs are supposed to be flipped over for a continued listening experience the album wasn't designed with the CD format in mind. But this is an album that, whatever it may lose in getting transferred from vinyl to CD (I don't feel like getting into the debates of audiophiles while I'm writing about this as a song cycle) there is an advantage to cramming the album on to a single disc.

And it is in the CD format that the tryptich pattern becomes apparent. The first song opens with a i-IV progression and "Gig" opens with a tritone substition but eventually gets us back to the i-IV but in a new key. From here follow two more songs before we get another appearance of i-IV, this time in the key of D minor. This is why I've color-coded the three different segments to show how the triptych plays out on CD. The keys in which the signature harmonic gesture occurs are E, G, and D, a sort of extension of the chord progression of "Time" but without any cyclical resolution back to tonic.

But I would never say the members of Pinkfloyd or their production team actually planned the songs as a song cycle in advance, even though a case could be made for that. They planned a concept album dealing with the life cycle but the modulations and harmonic gestures seem more to have come from what comes easily to the fingers rather than through deliberately mapping out every key change and chord change across the entire album. I don't mean this in a bad way but if you're in a rut exploring the same set of ideas then a concept album is a good way to go because your literary and musical gestures will overlap and reinforce each other. This is why I think Dark Side of the Moon actually is a concept album and Seargant Pepper is merely considered to be one, because Pinkfloyd created a musically cohesive whole where the Beatles didn't.

The keys the songs are in are all keys we'd expect a bass and guitar driven band to play in rather than keys that a keyboard player might pick (i.e. there are no songs except "Gig" that employ flat keys. The first side of the album tends to have pieces in E minor or F sharp minor while the second half of the album is predominantly in D. I think the overall effect is that the songs have moved down in overall pitch (a gimme, since that's how it works for the string instruments). It reinforces the downer motif of the album and the persistence of the dorian mode and chains of fourths reinforces the idea of the lyrics that the life cycle is what it is and everything would be perfect if it weren't hopelessly screwed up. It's a kind of art rock exposition on the theme of Ecclesiastes but without any hope, as such.

I still love this album because the musical vocabulary at the formal and harmonic level reinforces that lyrical conceit of the album as a whole. I think this is why the album holds up well and is also why some people don't like it and have gone so far as to say there aren't any really great songs on it. I think that particular view and explanation is patently silly but for people who are looking for individual knock-out songs that you remember apart from any context then, yeah, Dark Side of the Moon doesn't give you that; instead Pinkfloyd gives you a type of rock gestalt. If you listen to it all the way through you can hear that the album is a great deal more than the sum of its pretty good parts. Since no one in the band that I'm aware of is Jewish or Christian my comparison of Dark Side of the Moon to Ecclesiastes is purely speculative on my part. For you it may just be a great rock album or a total bore. I'm just blogging here to lay out the structural and harmonic things about the album that still make the album fun for me to listen to seventeen years after I heard it for the first time.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Legends, Atanas Ourkouzounov & Mie Ogura

Well, this is the new CD by Atanas Ourkouzounov and Mie Ogura and it's a fun little album. I've been listening to it for a while and it's mainly all new material or recently arranged material. The only stuff on here that has been recorded before is Ourkouzounov's Labrynthes, which appears on his first CD Contes de Balkans that he recorded with the Ourkouzounov Ensemble.

Whereas his first CD included just chamber music for the guitar this new disc on Gendai Guitar contains some solo guitar works, which is nice. Both his first and second CDs are full of chamber music, though, so if you pick up a disc of his expecting solo stuff be prepared to get tons of chamber music instead. It's one of the reasons I like his work.

You can find this CD on Gendai Guitar's website, though you will have to navigate the Japanese version of the website and share some emails with them before they'll be able to complete your order--that is, of course, unless you read Japanese fluently but I don't read Japanese at all.

Product number is GGCV1003

I had planned on making a basic track listing and then writing about things from there but now that I'm finally blogging I want to make this relatively short and sweet. If you have any love for chamber music for classical guitar you really ought to buy this CD. Repertoire for the flute and guitar is fairly rich and there are lots of great pieces out there. We can all find at least some recording of Histoire du Tango, Castelnuovo-Tedesco's charming Sonatina, and if you do some digging there's even more than one recording of Koshkin's Sonata for flute and guitar. And those are all great pieces. But Ourkouzounov is doing his own thing, which is a good thing, and why I got his second CD. First get Contes des Balkans and then get this CD.

The CD opens up with Quatre Legends, four short movements with evocative titles (I'll just use the translated titles). Masquerade opens with an upbeat dance in a dark, dorian cast. The Macedonian song is a beautiful slow piece that also has some dorian elements. Naughty Petar comes across as a pretty vivid musical portrait of a little boy (or an older fellow who's the wrong kind of boy at heart) who women don't necessarily want around. This piece uses great special effects from both flute and guitar to create a musical portrait. Ourkouzounov employs harmonics on the guitar to suggest how sneaky Naughty Petar is and the shrieking breath-tones Mie Ogura produces on the flute, well, if you hear the pieces you'll get a very clear musical portrait. It's the most intriguing and amusing of the four pieces and something I'd like to take a stab at playing one day. Traditional Fair is the last piece in the opening set and it most resembles Ourkouzounov's earlier works from his CD Contes des Balkans from the KLE label. It's got a great propulsive drive to it and shifting accents and rhythms.

The next track is actually unusual for Ourkouzounov on this CD and his previous CD. "Toryanse" Tales is a work for solo guitar, it's actually long compared to his other works (almost 10.5 minutes) and it's unusually dark and brooding for him. There are a lot of coloristic and spatial elements to this work but in a really good, way sort of like a fusion of Brouwer with Takemitsu of the sort you might hear in Hika.

Ourkouzounov or Ogura proceed to transcriptions of Romanian Folk Dances from Bartok. These are all great because, well, almost anything from Bartok is great anyway. Labyrinthes is a three-movement work that appeared on Ourkouzounov's earlier CD with the Ourkouzounov Ensemble. In case you have the Ourkouzounove Ensemble CD this is still worth having even if you've heard it on the earlier CD.

Next comes "En Bateau" by Debussy arranged for flute and guitar. It's a nice arrangement, as all the arranged works on this disc are. Ourkouzounov steps into arranging jazz on this disc and ventures into flute/guitar transcriptions of Gershwin and Jarrett. It's great stuff and speaking as an American I'm happy to say (for whatever this may be worth) that I think Atanas gets what makes jazz fun to listen to and fun to play. I don't think I've had this much fun listening to an album of flute and guitar music since Nikita Koshkin's incredible Oratorium CD on the Kreuzberg label.

As can be heard on his first CD Ourkouzounov loves to play with special effects that are unique to the instruments he's writing for and things like key clicks, multiphonics, and breath-tones show up regularly. While I admit that in some of his earlier works this could sometimes feel just a tad gimmicky to me he's really nailed down how to use these kinds of coloristic effects without over-doing them now. Plus he's always good at employing a musical form that is appropriate for the ideas he's exploring.

I admire that he devotes so much material on both of his CDs to chamber music. This means that when he takes a few spots on record to record solo guitar works or works for guitar duo he's always picked pieces that are really interesting and not just the usual suspects that are all great music but end up taking on the quality of filler because so many guitarists have recorded them already. It's also nice to be able to put on a CD by a guitarist composer I like and hear how he is both branching out into things he hasn't recorded before and still exploring aspects of his musical voice from his earlier work. I wish Atanas the best and hope to keep seeing more CDs from him down the road. Atanas, if you happen to read this, consider putting out a CD of solo music some time down the road. Toryanse Tales has gotten me interested in hearing more of your solo guitar repertoire.