Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Oxford Companion to Music

I've had a copy of the tenth edition of The Oxford Companion to Music close at hand for thirty some years. It's the best single resource for information and insight into "classical" music I've ever come across, and is delightfully entertaining as well, due to the wonderful writing of Percy A. Scholes.

This opening paragraph of the entry on tempo is a great example of what is, to me, some of the best writing on music there is.

Tempo usually means 'speed'. Upon the choice of the best speed the effect of music greatly depends. Every composition may be said to have its correct tempo, but this is not capable of being minutely fixed without scope or variation, as to some extent circumstantial factors enter, such as the character of the instrument used (e.g. organs may greatly differ in their effect), and the size and reverberation of the room (a very reverberant room requiring a slower tempo if the music is to 'tell'). Moreover, the general character of the interpretation decided upon may affect the tempo: one performer may consider that a particular piece will be most effective if every detail be made clear (calling for a slower tempo) and another that it will be most effective if treated in a 'broad' style calling for a quicker tempo; and both these interpretations may be good ones. Further, a highly rhythmic performance at a slower tempo may give the impression of being quicker than a really quicker one with less rhythmic life. In fact, what matters is not the tempo the performer actually adopts but the tempo that the listener is led to imagine he is hearing, for whilst in science things are what they are, in art things are what they seem.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Military Mind Training

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think the Buddhist techniques of mind training can be helpful to music makers. This story on mindfulness techniques used by the U. S. Marines has some concise quotes on the general benefits of mind training.

Designed by former U.S. Army captain and current Georgetown University professor Elizabeth Stanley, M-Fit draws on a growing body of scientific research indicating that regular meditation alleviates depression, boosts memory and the immune system, shrinks the part of the brain that controls fear and grows the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation.

Four years ago, a small group of Marine reservists training at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., for deployment to Iraq participated in the M-Fit pilot program, taking an eight-week mindfulness course and meditating for an average of 12 minutes a day.

A study of those Marines subsequently published in the research journal Emotions found that they slept better, had improved athletic performance and scored higher on emotional and cognitive evaluations than Marines who did not participate in the program, which centers on training the mind to focus on the current moment and to be aware of one’s physical state. . . .

. . . . “It’s like working out in the gym,” said Ms. Jha, the director of contemplative neuroscience for the University of Miami’s Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. “Right now, the military has daily physical training. Every day, they get together and exercise. But the equivalent is not given to the mind. The more [these troops] practiced, the more they benefited.” . . . 

. . . Why the cognitive boost? The answer lies in neuroscience. Previous studies have shown that habitual meditation:

• Changes the way blood and oxygen flow through the brain;
• Strengthens the neural circuits responsible for concentration and empathy;
• Shrinks the amygdala, an area of the brain that controls the fear response;
• Enlarges the hippocampus, an area of the brain that controls memory

One thing I'd like to emphasize is that 12 minutes a day was enough to show a significant result. My friend Lama Tashi once said to me that a short meditation practice every day was far superior to great long sessions some days and none on others. I think that most music makers would agree that the same goes for practicing music. 

Generally speaking, though, I think all music makers could benefit from something that, "alleviates depression, boosts memory and the immune system, shrinks the part of the brain that controls fear and grows the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation".

Monday, December 3, 2012

Spider Silk Music

Here's a fascinating story out of MIT about using music to better understand the protein structure of spider silk.

. . . When the music was played, the least successful fibres — those consisting of strong protein molecules which didn’t stick together as a thread — created an aggressive and harsh composition. Weaker molecules which actually generated usable fibres led to much softer and more fluid compositions.
“There might be an underlying structural expression in music that tells us more about the proteins that make up our bodies,” said Buehler. “After all, our organs — including the brain — are made from these building blocks, and humans’ expression of music may inadvertently include more information that we are aware of.” . . .