Sunday, November 21, 2010

Overdoing Music

In this post about John Cage, Kyle Gann says:

If I no longer listen to the 1950 String Quartet, it's because I listened to it so frequently in my younger years that I kind of overdid it - most Mahler falls in the same category.

It's obvious, once you think about it, that your experience of a particular piece of music can change over time as you listen to it more or less often than other pieces. I'm always bugged by critics talking about a piece of music as if their personal experience with the piece were the only possible history one might have with it. Some time back, Pliable, over at On An Overgrown Path, used Buddhist mind tools to talk about how our experience of music is not a static thing, but constantly evolving and changing.

For sure, one thing involved in all this is what the neuroscientists are telling us about our being attracted to a mix of the expected and the unexpected. The more you listen to a piece, the more difficult it is for it to surprise you. 


This article is more interesting than particularly helpful.

When it comes to conducting complex tasks, it turns out that the brain needs rhythm, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Specifically, cortical rhythms, or oscillations, can effectively rally groups of neurons in widely dispersed regions of the brain to engage in coordinated activity, much like a conductor will summon up various sections of an orchestra in a symphony. . . 

 . . . "It is like the radio communication between emergency first responders at an earthquake," Canolty said. "You have many people spread out over a large area, and the police need to be able to talk to each other on the radio to coordinate their action without interfering with the firefighters, and the firefighters need to be able to communicate without disrupting the EMTs. So each group tunes into and uses a different radio frequency, providing each group with an independent channel of communication despite the fact that they are spatially spread out and overlapping."


I've linked Mark Changizi before, and this is a new interview with him previewing his book due to be published next year. He has some very interesting ideas and I look forward to seeing him lay them out in a more full and detailed manner.

What is new here is my view of how culture goes about making language and the arts good for our brain: Culture’s trick is to make language and the arts “mimic nature,” just the thing our brain *is* designed to absorb.

I refer to it as “Nature Harnessing.” . . .

 . . . Writing has culturally evolved so that written words tend to look like visual objects in natural scenes (in particular, natural scenes with opaque objects strewn about).

Speech has culturally evolved so that spoken words tend to sound like natural auditory events (in particular, events among solid objects).

And music has culturally evolved to sound like humans moving in our midst — music is a fictional auditory story of a person moving about in our vicinity.

The strategy in each case is to understand the structure found in the natural environment, and check whether this “natural signature” is found in the cultural artifact. . . .

 . . . So, in my view our visual and auditory systems (and all sensory systems) have an essential plasticity needed to learn to recognize the natural environments the animal inhabits. But these mechanisms will generally be comparably terrible at learning utterly unnatural kinds of stimuli.

To get language and music into us, I claim, the key plasticity that mattered was not some special human plasticity, but “cultural plasticity,” i.e., the ability for cultural evolution to “learn” how to harness us.

Embodied Music Cognition

It somewhat belatedly dawned on me that I should check Wikipedia to see what they had to say about embodied cognition and that led me to this article.

Cartesian dualism had a tremendous impact on cognitive science and in particular also on cognitive musicology. Influenced by Gestalt psychology, music cognition research of the last decades of the 20th Century was mainly focusing on the perception of structure, that is, the perception of pitch, melody, rhythm, harmony and tonality. It considered music perception as a faculty on its own, completely dissociated from musical action. Instead, in studies on embodied musical activity (such as listening and music performance), subjects are invited to actively engage in the signification process. This engagement is articulated by means of corporeal expression which can be measured, analyzed, modelled and related to the musical stimulus. Descartes' idea that mental activity is of a separate order from body movement is refuted and, in fact reversed.

I could wish for less of the post modern lingo so beloved by modern academics, but the notion that embodied cognition deals a final blow to Cartesian dualism is a powerful one. It's also interesting to note that the motion capture technology coming onto the scene these days will be a valuable research tool on this front. The more we understand how gesture helps us know ourselves and others will surely help us make music in more effective ways.

Dancing and Personality

This article is about research looking at how one dances can reveal personality traits. They had a bunch of people go through personality tests and then put that info with results of their dancing being analyzed via "motion capture" technology. 

The researchers found strong correlations between certain dancing styles and each of the personalities. They also discovered that different personalities danced in different ways depending on the music.

This sort of research is in its early days, but it makes intuitive sense. In my experience, various personality types go about learning how to make music in different ways in the physical realm as well. 

This post is also a good place to paste in the final couplet of a W. B. Yeats poem (Among School Children) sent along by our Vermont readership in response to my talking about gesture.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Music Mapping Speech

The notion that the minor third often suggests sadness in music has been around for a long time. What's new in this article is the connection made to that interval being present in sad speech as well.

The tangible relationship between music and emotion is no surprise to anyone, but a study in the June issue of Emotion suggests the minor third isn't a facet of musical communication alone—it's how we convey sadness in speech, too. When it comes to sorrow, music and human speech might speak the same language. . . 

 . . .Since the minor third is defined as a specific measurable distance between pitches (a ratio of frequencies), Curtis was able to identify when the actors' speech relied on the minor third. What she found is that the actors consistently used the minor third to express sadness. . . 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Learned Emotive Expression

This story is about a study seeking to determine which of our emotive vocal expressions are instinctual and which are learned.

It now seems that only expressions of laughter and relief are instinctive, whereas other emotional outbursts need to be learned from other people. To find out which sounds are instinctive, a team led by Disa Sauter of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, asked eight deaf and eight hearing individuals to vocalise nine different emotions, but without words. These included fear, relief, anger, hilarity, triumph, disgust and sadness. It turned out that the only two easily identifiable emotional sounds made by the deaf participants were laughter and sighs of relief. "They seem to be the strongest," says Sauter. . . 

. . . The panel found it easier to guess all the other emotions if the sounds came from the hearing individuals. Even screams of terror were much less obvious from those who were deaf.

"This means that for many kinds of emotional sounds, hearing the sounds of others is an important part of development for our sounds to be understandable to others,"

To me it's not too much of a stretch to think this goes for musical expression as well, that we learn the stereotypical ways our cultures go about expressing emotions through music and try to do the same with our own music so as to be comprehensible. And within single cultures there are subcultures that pursue different aspects of those stereotypes. Thinking that the genre we like the most is the best might just mean that's the one we've listened to the most, have learned the most about, so it speaks to us more completely.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Flute Diary

Yesterday I played flute with the Presbyterian Ensemble at the opening of the Sunday service. Besides flute there are - clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax, trumpet, trombone and two Eb tubas. I played well enough, and got a very nice compliment from the organist, but felt I hadn't stayed away from the horn long enough to let my lips have that fine control the flute needs, especially on the higher notes. I wasn't able to get 100% of the full tone I can sometimes achieve when my lips aren't horn fatigued.

Besides the band concert on Thursday, on Friday I spent a lot of time on the horn running through the five parts of an arrangement of four Christmas carols I'm working on and the rehearsing it with the Friday group. Then Saturday played no horn, but lots of flute with Dr. Andy on the cello. I'm pretty sure that for me, no other combination of instruments is more appealing. Others might be as good, but cello and flute have a complementariness and completeness of sound that can't be bettered.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Horn Diary

Yesterday was a red letter day in my horn career. The band played for the veterans in the town park and I got a number of compliments on my playing from band members afterwards. I hit all the exposed little solos and flourishes well, and did a creditable job hitting all the off beats. We did three Sousa marches, a medley of God Bless America and America The Beautiful, a medley of all the service songs strung together, and The Star Spangled Banner. Except for dropping down to 2nd horn parts for the off beats in the service medley I played all 1st horn. 

Using a phrase of Jeff Smiley's, last piece of the puzzle to fall into place for me has been holding the horn up off the leg to play it instead of letting it rest on the leg. The middle of my back between the shoulder blades and up to the bottom of my neck is sore, but it's worth it for the way the horn vibrates so much better giving a better tone (and more volume as I'm still the only horn), combined with my having more delicate control of how much pressure I'm exerting on the mouthpiece because of the flexibility getting it up off the leg allows. I also get to move my torso more, which makes everything more fun and less rigid physically and mentally.

All that work this summer on the F horn has a lot to do with this, along with our new band director getting off the sight reading wagon earlier than others have and giving us a set list to be responsible for several weeks before the concert, which really helps remedial players such as myself have a chance to focus on a few pieces to clean up.

The other thing that made yesterday special was a number of veterans coming up to me afterwards, giving me a firm handshake, looking me in the eye, and saying very emotionally how much they appreciated the band's coming out to play. These events are emotive transactions more than performances and that kind of response still sort of amazes me.

In the two year's of blogging post I thanked all the regular reads, and here I want to thank the Regular Reads: Horn again. In the five years I've been playing horn I've not had a single formal lesson. I've picked the brain of brass players and band directors at every chance and used the Farkas book and the Smiley book. But it was the horn bloggers giving so freely of their expertise on those blogs that helped put all that in context and make choices amongst the various ways of approaching the various issues. And it was through blogging I found the Smiley book, which was the single thing that kept me from giving up about a year ago.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Psychological/Physiological Interface

This article discusses new research indicating meditation improves one's health down on the cellular level. Music is not mentioned, but there's this (emphasis added):

"The take-home message from this work is not that meditation directly increases telomerase activity and therefore a person's health and longevity," Saron said. "Rather, meditation may improve a person's psychological well-being and in turn these changes are related to telomerase activity in immune cells, which has the potential to promote longevity in those cells. Activities that increase a person's sense of well-being may have a profound effect on the most fundamental aspects of their physiology."