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.
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.
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.
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.
Probability is a deeply weird and disturbing topic. The harder I look at it, the weirder and more disturbing it becomes. I find the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics to be the least weird and disturbing way to think about it.
Lovely as it is here in Kona, it does have kind of a Disneyland quality. Anna did a great job of getting us out of the tourist rut for our second day here. She was poking around food web sites looking for interesting places to eat. That led her to a discussion of sustainably-sourced fish, and from there she started reading about aquaculture. It turns out there’s some interesting stuff going on with fish farming right nearby, so being the colossal science dorks that we are, we thought we’d go check it out.
Kona Airport is on a big lava plain sticking out into the ocean. It’s surrounded on three sides by an industrial park owned and run by the awkwardly named Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority. It’s the site of a former alternative energy project that now is home to all kinds of aquaculture and related ocean science. While an industrial park next to the airport might seem like an odd place to visit during a tropical vacation, know that it’s still Hawaii, so there are the same incredible black rock beaches and palm trees and exotic foliage as everywhere else.
I follow science news the way normal dudes follow sports. If you’re geekily inclined like me, you may have heard that the particle physics people are getting closer to producing the Higgs boson. You may have wondered what that is exactly, and why you should care. The science press has nicknamed the Higgs “the God particle,” which is poetic but doesn’t move me any closer to understanding. Here’s my best effort to wrap my head around the idea — maybe you’ll find it helpful, or at least entertaining. If you’re a real scientist and want to clarify or correct anything I’m saying here, please jump in on the comments.
The sun was on my mind today anyway, it being so nice and cloudless outside. But days like today also cause me anxiety. I’m a fair-haired sunburn-prone type, and my dad died from skin cancer, a combination of Scandinavian genes and long hours as a young guy on a ladder helping Grandpa paint houses, plus many more hours on boats and beaches with no sunblock. I stick to the shade, wear hats and generally play it very safe, but still, I feel some dread about the amount of radiation I’m getting from the great thermonuclear reactor in the sky.
My dread does have an upside. It’s fueled a lot of fascination. The sun is a bottomless source of interest if you’re a science geek like me. Continue reading →