Why do people love music so much?

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.

Partying in the stone age

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.

Will musicians ever be replaced by robots?

A Quora user asks whether artificial intelligence will ever replace human musicians. TL;DR No.

David Cope and Emily

If music composition and improvisation could be expressed as algorithmic rule sets, then human musicians would have reason for concern. Fortunately, music can’t be completely systematized, much as some music theorists would like to believe it can be. Music is not an internally consistent logical system like math or physics. It’s an evolved set of mostly arbitrary patterns of memes. This should be no surprise; music emerges from our consciousness, and our consciousness is an evolved system, not an algorithmic one. We can do algorithmic reasoning if we work really hard at it, but our minds are pretty chaotic and unpredictable, and it isn’t our strong suit. It’s a good thing, too; we may not be so hot at performing algorithms, but we’re good at inventing new possible ones. Computers are great at performing algorithms, but are lousy at inventing new ones. Continue reading

Why isn’t repetitive music boring to listen to?

A Quora user asks why we don’t get bored when listening to repetitive music. This is related to the equally interesting question of why we can play repetitive music without getting bored. Why is there so much joy in repetition?

"Chameleon" by Herbie Hancock

Humans are pattern recognizers. You’d think that once you’d learned the pattern of a repetitive piece of music, it would quickly get boring, and then annoying. Sometimes, that is in fact what happens. I don’t enjoy Philip Glass’ music; it makes me feel like I’m stuck in the mind of someone with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. But I adore James Brown and Fela Kuti, and my iTunes library is stuffed with loop-based hip-hop and electronica. So what’s going on? Why do I find Philip Glass annoying, but not James Brown?

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My process of composing music

Quora user Jennifer Ha asked me: What is your process of composing music? She goes on:

For me I have to wait for the right inspiration given to me very irregularly. But it seems others can compose with chords deliberately. How do you compose, and do you feel proud of it all the times (i.e. know you couldn’t have done better)?

I have two methods of composition: improvisation and collage. I use the computer for both. At the moment, my software of choice is Ableton Live. Before that I mostly used Pro Tools and Reason. It’s been a long time since I “composed” something on a piece of paper (except for music school assignments.)

Composing with Ableton Live

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Getting ready for the recording studio

Here’s an interesting Quora thread about what you should know before booking a rock band session. I can’t improve on the excellent post by Bruce Williams, but I have a few things to add.

The challenge of recording is 10% technical and 90% psychological, especially if you’re inexperienced. You may be as cool as a cucumber onstage and then turn into a nervous wreck when the tape rolls. Your band may be great friends until the time pressure of the studio brings out unsuspected conflicts and dysfunction. Fortunately, all of this stuff can be prepared for.


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Is it boring to play repetitive music?

Quora user Andrew Stein asks:

This is actually quite a profound question. It gets to the heart of the major conflict playing out in western music right now between linearity and circularity.

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Did Yoko Ono break up the Beatles?


Paul McCartney joined John Lennon’s skiffle band in 1957, when they were fifteen and sixteen, respectively. George Harrison joined the following year, when he was fourteen. (Ringo didn’t join the band until 1962.) Who were your friends when you were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen? Imagine yourself intensely and inseparably joined with these same people professionally, socially and creatively, thirteen years later. When I was in my late twenties, I certainly wouldn’t wanted to have been trapped in a series of windowless rooms with my high school friends under enormous pressure to be brilliant. It would have been a miracle for the Beatles to keep a good working relationship any longer than they did under the best of circumstances. And the Beatles’ circumstances were not, emotionally speaking, ideal.

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What is an octave?

Octaves are notes that you hear as being “the same” in spite of their being higher or lower in actual pitch. (Technically, notes separated by an octave are in the same pitch class.) Play middle C on the piano. Then go up the C major scale (the white keys) and the eighth note you play will be another C an octave higher. The “oct” part of the word refers to this eight step distance up the scale.

From a science perspective, octaves are pitch intervals related by factors of two. When a tuning fork plays standard concert A, it vibrates at 440 Hz. The A an octave higher is 880 Hz, and the A an octave lower is 220 Hz. Any note with the frequency 2^n * 440 will be an A. It’s a central mystery of human cognition why we hear pitches related by powers of two as being “the same” note. The ability to detect octave equivalency is probably built in to our brains, and it isn’t limited to humans. Rhesus monkeys have been shown to be able to detect octaves too, as have some other mammals.

Original post on Quora

How does jazz work?

Related: my top 100 jazz tracks.

Rather than attempting the impossible task of explaining how everything in jazz works, I’m going to pick a specific, fairly mainstream tune and talk you through it: “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis, off the 1961 album by the same name.

First of all, here’s the original version from Snow White.

Once you’ve got the tune in your head, listen to the Miles Davis recording.

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