Note-taking for Learning of Culture with Lisa Stulberg
This week, we read another cornerstone of the sociology canon: Émile Durkheim on where religion comes from.
The book is very much a product of its time, with continual and annoying references to “primitive” religions and peoples. No question that Durkheim’s methodology doesn’t pass contemporary muster. But his theoretical insights are on point.
[R]eligion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of the assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states in these groups (10).
You could substitute the word “music” for “religion” and this paragraph would still be true. This is food for future thought.
This post is public-facing note taking on Music Matters by David Elliott and Marissa Silverman for my Philosophy of Music Education class.
This chapter goes after the big questions: What is music and why does it exist? I love chewing over this stuff.
My computer dictionary says that a melody is “a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying.” There are a lot of people out there who think that rap isn’t music because it lacks melody. My heart broke when I found out that Jerry Garcia was one of these people. If anyone could be trusted to be open-minded, you’d think it would be Jerry, but no.
I’ve always instinctively believed this position to be wrong, and I finally decided to test it empirically. I took some rap acapellas and put them into Melodyne. What I found is that rap vocals use plenty of melody. The pitches rise and fall in specific and patterned ways. The pitches aren’t usually confined to the piano keys, but they are nevertheless real and non-arbitrary. (If you say a rap line with the wrong pitches, it sounds terrible.) Go ahead, look and listen for yourself. Click each image to hear the song section in question. Continue reading
We’re attracted to music for the same reason we’re attracted to fire: it’s been a critical survival tool for us for hundreds of thousands of years.
Music cognition is one of the first high-level brain functions to emerge in infants, coming long before walking and talking. It’s also one of the last to go in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Music (and its twin sibling dance) are fundamental tools for soothing infants, for attracting mates, and for motivating and bonding groups ranging from kindergarten classes to infantry units. It enables us to both express our emotions and to actively modulate them, both within ourselves and among one another. Music is one of the very few known cultural universals. It’s incredibly ancient — there’s good reason to believe that it precedes language in human evolutionary history. There’s plausible speculation that it precedes bipedal walking as well. It’s no great mystery why people like it.
The real mystery is why we in modern western civilization developed the perverse idea that music is a frivolity. Steven Pinker, an otherwise very smart person who should know better, describes music as “auditory cheesecake.” Here in America, we relegate music-making to highly skilled experts, while most of us participate in it passively or not at all. We shouldn’t be surprised that depression, violence, drug abuse and suicide are epidemic in our country, even among our unprecedented levels of wealth, stability and safety. Lack of musical participation is both a cause and symptom of our unhappiness, and it demonstrates the failure of modern civilization to meet our emotional needs. In other human societies, probably in most of them throughout our deep history, music has always been a part of daily life, on a level with cooking or gossip. We would be wise to restore routine music-making to its proper place in the center of our lives.
Provoked by this Quora thread, which includes an answer by Hans Zimmer.
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.
There’s an interview on the Creative Commons blog with Disquiet Junto instigator and Aphex Twin historian Marc Weidenbaum. It’s full of his usual keen insight.
Here are some key quotes. Continue reading
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.
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.
Update: a version of this post appeared on Slate.com.
I seem to have touched a nerve with my rant about the conventional teaching of music theory and how poorly it serves practicing musicians. I thought it would be a good idea to follow that up with some ideas for how to make music theory more useful and relevant.
The goal of music theory should be to explain common practice music. I don’t mean “common practice” in its present pedagogical sense. I mean the musical practices that are most prevalent in a given time and place, like America in 2013. Rather than trying to identify a canonical body of works and a bounded set of rules defined by that canon, we should take an ethnomusicological approach. We should be asking: what is it that musicians are doing that sounds good? What patterns can we detect in the broad mass of music being made and enjoyed out there in the world?
I have my own set of ideas about what constitutes common practice music in America in 2013, but I also come with my set of biases and preferences. It would be better to have some hard data on what we all collectively think makes for valid music. Trevor de Clerq and David Temperley have bravely attempted to build just such a data set, at least within one specific area: the harmonic practices used in rock, as defined by Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Temperley and de Clerq transcribed the top 20 songs from each decade between 1950 and 2000. You can see the results in their paper, “A corpus analysis of rock harmony.” They also have a web site where you can download their raw data and analyze it yourself. The whole project is a masterpiece of descriptivist music theory, as opposed to the bad prescriptivist kind.
Another thought-provoking Quora question: Are there any hereditary units in music? The question details give some context:
In his blog post “The Music Genome Project is no such thing,” David Morrison makes an edifying distinction between a genotype and a phenotype. He also makes the bold statement “there are no hereditary units in music.” Is this true?
Morrison’s post is a valuable read, because it’s so precisely wrong as to be quite useful in clarifying your thinking.
In his book Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, David Huron does some fascinating speculation about the evolutionary origin of laughter. Continue reading