“Once In A Lifetime” is a simple but remarkable tune based on a simple but remarkable scale: the major pentatonic.
Like its cousin the minor pentatonic scale, major pentatonic is found in just about every world musical culture. It’s also incredibly ancient. In Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, a paleontologist plays an unmistakeable major pentatonic scale on a replica of a 35,000 year old flute made from a vulture bone.
I was asked on Quora to give a list of my favorite hip-hop songs, because what better source is there than a forty-year-old white dad? (I am literally a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar.) I did grow up in New York City in the 80s, and I do love the music. But ultimately, I’m a tourist in this culture. For a more definitive survey, ask Questlove or someone. These are just songs that I like.
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.
The more I learn about biology, the less I believe in free will.
All of our behavior results from a bunch of molecules bouncing around according to the laws of quantum mechanics. Seen that way, we don’t have any more free will than pebbles being tumbled down a river. We think we have free will because we can’t predict the future, and because our immediate experience is full of so much ambiguity.