A book you should read

I’m currently reading On Immunity by Eula Biss, which is so good you can’t believe it. Recommended if you’re interested in vaccination, health generally, being a parent, gender, race, class, the history of medicine, Greek mythology, vampires, or if you just need an example of how to parse out a difficult subject in a warm and elegant manner.

On Immunity

Also, if you have money and want to make a well targeted public health intervention, I recommend buying a bunch of copies and handing them out in front of the Park Slope Food Coop and the equivalent locations in Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Laurel Canyon, Portland, and wherever else well-educated professionals aren’t getting their kids vaccinated.

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.

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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

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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 -

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Does free will exist?

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.

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Hawaii, part two

See the photos

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.

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May the weak force be with you

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.

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