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.

Continue reading

Toward a better music theory

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.

Jimi Hendrix, common practice musician

Continue reading

Hereditary units in music

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.

Nas -

Continue reading

Where does the “Egyptian” melody originally come from?

I know this melody as the cartoon snakecharmer song. Here’s a kid playing it on bass clarinet:

I’ve always wondered where the Egyptian melody came from. It turns out to be hundreds of years of old, and goes by many different names. You can find an excellent capsule history of it in William Benzon’s book Beethoven’s Anvil. The context is a discussion of a Louis Armstrong recording from 1928 called “Tight Like This.” Listen at 2:04 as Louis quotes the “Egyptian” melody and varies it a few times.

Continue reading

Why do I grimace when I concentrate?

The parts of your brain that do your abstract thinking are very tightly interconnected with the parts that control your muscles. In fact, some of that abstract thinking is done by the same brain regions that control your muscles. We don’t yet know why a specific brain region produces a given specific thought, but the overall pattern is clear: you grimace when you concentrate because in your brain (and in a lot of other peoples’ too), the brain regions controlling your facial muscles are also focusing your attention.

My musician friends use the term “jazz face” to describe the sometimes ridiculous expressions they have when they’re most deeply immersed in the music. Think also of Michael Jordan sticking his tongue out in the heat of play. And consider the fact that some people need to pace in order to think, or gesticulate, or perform repetitive manual tasks like knitting or splitting wood.

Original post on Quora

What is the evolutionary purpose of dreaming?

Dreaming doesn’t have an evolutionary purpose per se. It’s just an emergent property of the piecemeal way our brains have evolved, from the older and more automatic systems out to the newer, learning-enabled systems. I’ve seen it suggested by several different scientists that most animals go about their waking lives in a state similar to the one we experience in dreams: centered in the present, with little notion of past or future, just strong sensations and automatic reactions to those sensations. The theory, then, is that our lizard brains take over in dreams, but instead of experiencing the real world, they explore the memories accumulated in the neocortex.

Continue reading

Why has the human brain evolved so much more than any other animals?

The human brain isn’t “more” evolved. It’s just differently evolved. Our intelligence has its obvious advantages, but it carries some significant costs. Like Joshua Engel says, the big brain is metabolically expensive. It makes childbirth much harder for humans than for other mammals, too. Human babies have to be effectively born prematurely in order to fit the big head through the birth canal, and even so, it takes years for the brain to develop to the point where a person can function on the most basic level. Other mammals are up and walking in a matter of hours, and are ready to fend for themselves after a few weeks.

Continue reading