Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Music Making Delays Hearing Loss?

This article talks about how music training appears to delay some aspects of hearing and memory loss. My sense of it is that if you train your brain to get more out of it with music, then when there's less there, you can still do well on various tests.

In the study, researchers in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory discovered that older musicians had a distinct neural timing advantage. This was determined by measuring the automatic brain responses of younger and older musicians and non-musicians to speech sounds.

“The older musicians not only outperformed their older non-musician counterparts, they encoded the sound stimuli as quickly and accurately as the younger non-musicians,” said Northwestern neuroscientist and co-author Nina Kraus, Ph.D.

“This reinforces the idea that how we actively experience sound over the course of our lives has a profound effect on how our nervous system functions.”

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Composing Music

Over in this post, Kyle Gann says the following:

It felt as firm as though I had had a math problem with an incorrect answer, and I recalculated and got the right one. It “clicked.” Every composer knows this click, or should. It doesn’t feel as though I simply “liked it better.” Even though there is no objective criterion against which I can measure a phrase in a piece I’m writing, right and wrong answers come up. Because such judgments are made in the right brain, I suspect, there are no words to justify them. When I’m about done with a piece, I put the MIDI version on a CD and play it over and over in my car as I’m driving and – this is the crucial part – try not to listen to it. What happens, as I have my mind on other things, is that every wrong note in the piece jumps out at me and attracts my attention. This works, I think, because when I’m focusing on the piece (with my left brain), I can justify to myself anything I put in it, but with my peripheral (right-brain) listening, things that are wrong become impossible to ignore. My peripheral listening catches the mistakes. My conscious, analytical brain puts these oh-so-clever ideas in, and my intuitive, unfocused brain tells me the ones that don’t work.

I'd previously come up with the analogy that for me composing is game like and puzzle like, and that when you get something right there's the feeling of winning the game or solving the puzzle, but Kyle's description is much better and goes much deeper, and I agree that listening to a piece in an unfocused way is different, but hadn't realized it until reading this.

note to regular readers - the picture for this series of posts isn't here because I'm migrating from a five or six year old iBook to a brand new MacBook Air - and going from dial-up to wireless that's now available here on the farm due to a new cell tower not to too far away - and getting every thing organized, and trying not to look at music YouTubes all day (!) has slowed blogging.

Friday, January 13, 2012


I've often thought that where we are in the understanding of neuroscience and genetics will probably turn out to be analogous to where map makers were right after the Americas were discovered. This article linked on Boing Boing reinforces that notion, as it looks like there's more than just nature and nurture affecting who we are.

This post from a year ago talking about talent included this quote from a BBC article:

. . ."Like a jukebox, the individual has the potential to play a number of different developmental tunes. The particular developmental tune it does play is selected by [the environment] in which the individual is growing up.". . .

It turns out things are more complicated than that, and the complication is epigenetics.

. . . epigenetic processes—chemical reactions tied to neither nature nor nurture but representing what researchers have called a "third component." These reactions influence how our genetic code is expressed: how each gene is strengthened or weakened, even turned on or off, to build our bones, brains, and all the other parts of our bodies.

If you think of our DNA as an immense piano keyboard and our genes as keys—each key symbolizing a segment of DNA responsible for a particular note, or trait, and all the keys combining to make us who we are—then epigenetic processes determine when and how each key can be struck, changing the tune being played.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Composing Music

A while ago I blogged about composing a piece of music because a lot of people seem to think it's  a much more mysterious proposition than it really is. The tag for that series of posts is Vermont Song. One of the points made in those posts is that first you set your parameters - things like instruments, pitch set (scale), and meter - and then it's sort of like a game wherein you work to see what you can do musically within those parameters. 

So I was delighted to see Kyle Gann say in a recent post:

if you get an interesting enough scale, you can just explore all the inherent possibilities of that scale, both the ones you built into it and the ones that appear unexpectedly, and the piece practically writes itself.”

I quoted that in a comment and added: "That’s a wonderful way to think about composing – that you’re simply releasing inherent possibilities of a set of parameters – takes the conscious ego right out of the equation."

Kyle was talking specifically about one of his micro-tonal scales (this one has 36 different pitches per octave), but the concept can work for a bundle of parameters, not just one.

The phrase "conscious ego" might be one I start using regularly because it's a handy way of talking about what the lamas call "the self-cherishing ego", as opposed to the "neutral ego". In the case of composition, once you set the parameters, who you are will determine what you find in that space, there's no need to be constantly wondering what it is you want to say.

As I've mentioned before, the first time I hear a piece performed, or the first time I perform it for someone else, there's this amazing feeling of being in a waking dream state that I think is due to hearing how some part of me I'm not conscious of is being expressed.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Performance Diary

Over the past couple of weeks I've been involved in various performances: horn in concert band; a flute obbligato with the community chorus; flute and alto flute with the Presbyterian Ensemble Christmas morning; guitar, horn and alto flute with the great nieces at the nursing home; and horn with the brass group and a pipe organ at an Episcopal Sunday service yesterday morning.

Something about playing flute or horn with voices really moves me and seems to put me in a much better position to experience flow. I didn't get there this time, but was tantalizingly close. I think it must have to do with my experiencing the intonation and the balance blend with voices as being far more delicate than, say, the concert band. I think that's also why I so enjoy playing alto flute with flute and cello, and playing horn in the brass group - getting that wonderful ensemble feeling seems much more in reach, and that wonderful ensemble feeling is a big (necessary?) part of flow.

Right at the beginning of this series of performances I got the very sad news that someone I've been close to for forty years had passed away. She was a wonderful musician, which always seems to make it worse. So while playing all this wonderful Christmas music, there was this constant undertow of sadness. People didn't seem to really notice a change in my playing, but I sure did. If I were a higher level player, maybe I could have played joyous music more successfully while feeling sad.

The other way not being a high level player came into play was having technique issues to clear away before being able to interpret the music on the various instruments. Were I to give up all instruments but one, I could spend way more time on technique so as to not be caught short when wanting to perform. I really enjoy making music on various instruments, but there's a price to pay in having to drill on the various technique deficiencies that pop up in phrases here and there when prepping for performances.

In several of these performances we used carols I'd transposed down into flat keys some years ago, having added a keyboard book in the new keys for piano/organ, and people really enjoyed our playing and sound, and we really enjoyed playing in the comfort zones of our ranges. It's sort of like the old hymns mentioned in the previous post. Simply putting music in easy to play keys, just like playing music people want to hear, is a very high reward endeavor and I'm sort of baffled more people don't do it.