A book you should read

I’m currently reading On Immunity by Eula Biss, which is so good you can’t believe it. Recommended if you’re interested in vaccination, health generally, being a parent, gender, race, class, the history of medicine, Greek mythology, vampires, or if you just need an example of how to parse out a difficult subject in a warm and elegant manner.

On Immunity

Also, if you have money and want to make a well targeted public health intervention, I recommend buying a bunch of copies and handing them out in front of the Park Slope Food Coop and the equivalent locations in Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Laurel Canyon, Portland, and wherever else well-educated professionals aren’t getting their kids vaccinated.

Digital audio basics

Before you can understand how digital audio works, you need to know a few things about the physics of sound. This animation shows a sound wave emanating through the air from a circular source — imagine that it’s a drum or cymbal.

Spherical pressure waves

As you can see, sound is a wave, like a ripple in a pond. Imagine that your ear is at the bottom center of this image. The air pressure against your inner ear is rhythmically increasing and decreasing. Your brain senses how wide those swings in air pressure are and how often they’re happening, and you experience the result as a sound.

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Internet blues

Recently, WNYC’s great music show Soundcheck held a contest to see who could do the best version of the 100 year old song “Yellow Dog Blues” by WC Handy.

Marc Weidenbaum had the members of the Disquiet Junto enter the contest en masse. I did my track, put it on SoundCloud, and promptly forgot all about it.

A month later, I was surprised and delighted to learn from Marc’s blog that the contest winner was Junto stalwart Westy Reflector.

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Participatory music vs presentational music

In this post, I’ll be doing some public-facing note-taking on Music As Social Life: The Politics Of Participation by Thomas Turino. I’m especially interested in chapter two: Participatory and Presentational Performance. We in America tend to place a high value on presentational music created by professionals, and a low value on participatory music made by amateurs. It’s useful to know that there are people in the world who take a different view.

Turino divides music into four big categories:

  1. Participatory music. Everyone present is actively doing something: playing an instrument, singing or chanting, and/or dancing. For example: a bluegrass jam, campfire singing, a hip-hop cypher.
  2. Presentational music. There’s a clear divide between the performers and the audience. Audience members might dance or sing along, but they are not the focus. For example: a classical, rock or jazz concert.
  3. High-fidelity recording. A document of a live performance (or a convincing illusion of such.) For example: a classical or jazz album.
  4. Studio sound art. A recording that was constructed in the studio using techniques other than (or in addition to) people performing in real time. For example: a late Beatles album, or any pop song since 1980.

Turino devotes a lot of his attention to three examples of participatory music cultures:

Aymara ceremony

Shona witch doctor

Contra dancers in New Hampshire

This last group might strike you as the odd one out, but Turino sees more commonalities between the musical experience of American contra dancers and participants in Shona rituals than he does between the contra dancers and audiences at, say, a bluegrass concert.

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Play with your music theory

Last week I put together a new set of music theory videos.

These videos are aimed at participants in Play With Your Music, who may want to start producing their own music or remixes and have no idea where to start. I’m presuming that the viewer has no formal background, no piano skills and no reading ability. This would seem to be an unpromising place to start making music from, but there’s a surprising lot you can do just by fumbling around on a MIDI keyboard. Playing the white keys only gives you the seven modes of the C major scale, with seven very different emotional qualities. Playing the black keys only gives you the G♭ major and E♭ minor pentatonic scales. From there, you can effortlessly transpose your MIDI data into any key you want.

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Everyone can and should be making music

I have a strongly held belief about musical talent: there is no such thing. Every neurotypical human is born with the ability to learn music, the same way the vast majority of us are born with the ability to learn to walk and talk. We still have to do the learning, though; otherwise the capacity doesn’t develop itself. When we talk about “musical talent,” we’re really talking about the means, motive and opportunity to activate innate musicality. When we talk about “non-musicians,” we’re rarely talking about the Oliver Sacks cases with congenital amusia; usually we mean people who for whatever reason never had the chance to develop musically.

The NYU Chorale

So what if almost everyone is a potential musician? Why should you care? Because participation in music, particularly in groups, is an essential emotional vitamin. We here in America are sorely deficient in this vitamin, and it shows in our stunted emotional growth. Steve Dillon calls music a “powerful weapon against depression.” We need to be nurturing musicality wherever it occurs as a matter of public health.

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Fractal music

Continuing my series of posts on the ways that science might explain why we like the music we like. See also my posts on the science of rock harmony, harmony generally, and Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Quora user Marc Ettlinger recently sent me a paper by Sherri Novis-Livengood, Richard White, and Patrick CM Wong entitled Fractal complexity (1/f power law) determines the stability of music perception, emotion, and memory in a repeated exposure paradigm. (The paper isn’t on the open web, but here’s a poster-length version.) The authors think that fractals explain our music preferences. Specifically, they find that note durations, pitch intervals, phrase lengths and other quantifiable musical parameters tend to follow a power law distribution. Power-law distributions have the nifty property of scale invariance, meaning that patterns in such entities resemble themselves at different scales. Music is full of fractals, and the more fractal-filled it is, the more we like it.

Mandelbrot zoom

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Can science make a better music theory?

My last post discussed how we should be deriving music theory from empirical observation of what people like using ethnomusicology. Another good strategy would be to derive music theory from observation of what’s going on between our ears. Daniel Shawcross Wilkerson has attempted just that in his essay, Harmony Explained: Progress Towards A Scientific Theory of Music. The essay has an endearingly old-timey subtitle:

The Major Scale, The Standard Chord Dictionary, and The Difference of Feeling Between The Major and Minor Triads Explained from the First Principles of Physics and Computation; The Theory of Helmholtz Shown To Be Incomplete and The Theory of Terhardt and Some Others Considered

Wilkerson begins with the observation that music theory books read like medical texts from the middle ages: “they contain unjustified superstition, non-reasoning, and funny symbols glorified by Latin phrases.” We can do better.

Standing waves on a string

Wilkerson proposes that we derive a theory of harmony from first principles drawn from our understanding of how the brain processes audio signals. We evolved to be able to detect sounds with natural harmonics, because those usually come from significant sources, like the throats of other animals. Musical harmony is our way of gratifying our harmonic-series detectors.

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