Month: June 2007

Arguments, agreements, advice, answers, articulate announcements

On the heels of research that shows that music you find pleasant does, in fact, reduce pain (although, given what I find “pleasant,” I’m going to need a private hospital bed) comes this bit of fun: “Musical Intervals in Speech,” by Duke University neuroscientists Deborah Ross, Jonathan Choi, and Dale Purves. Ross et al. analyzed the vowel formants of everyday speech and found, more often than not, that the frequency relationships correspond to the intervals of the 12-note chromatic scale.

To test the hypothesis that chromatic scale intervals are specifically embedded in the frequency relationships in voiced speech sounds (i.e., phones whose acoustical structure is characterized by periodic repetition), we analyzed the spectra of different vowel nuclei in neutral speech uttered by adult native speakers of American English, as well as a smaller database of Mandarin.

… [We calculated] the distribution of all F2/F1 ratios derived from the spectra of the 8 different vowels uttered by the 10 English-speaking participants (i.e., the relationships in 1,000 utterances of each of the vowels). Sixty-eight percent of these ratios fall on intervals of the chromatic scale (red bars), and all 12 chromatic intervals are represented over a span of 4 octaves.

In other words, the 12-note scale isn’t so arbitrary after all. Interestingly, there’s preference for tuning systems in speech as well:

In so far as the observations here inform this argument, the observed ratios in speech spectra accord most closely with a just intonation tuning system. Ten of the 12 intervals generated by the analysis of either English or Mandarin vowel spectra are those used in just intonation tuning, whereas 4 of the 12 match the Pythagorean tuning and only 1 of the 12 intervals matches those used in equal temperament. The two anomalies in our data with respect to just intonation concern the minor second and the tritone.

That minor-second/tritone anomaly brings up a good chicken-egg question, given that composers who work with more chromatic than diatonic sounds tend not to explore alternate tunings so much: does a preference for crunchy dissonance mean that just intonation sounds “wrong”? Or is it that, in our predominantly equal-temperament world, it’s those clashing seconds that sound the most “natural,” so that’s where the preference comes from? As someone who likes the sound of diatonic music in pure ratios, but opts for equal-tempered dissonance in my own, I’m inclined towards the latter, but I would imagine this is a highly personal impression.

Anyway, turns out Harold Hill was right: singing is just sustained talking.

Generalization of the day

My wife works for Harvard, so we get Harvard magazine in the mail, sixty or so glossy pages recounting fabulous adventures of faculty and alumni. Anyway, this month brings a half-page of pithy remarks culled from a confab with John Adams, who picked up the Harvard Medal for the Arts this year, including this one:

Harmony is where the psychological meaning of the music is. [Twelve-tone composers] wrote atonal music, and at the same time Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin were having a fine time with harmony.

Here’s a fun game: try and come up with a context in which this out-of-context remark doesn’t imply that, say, the Berg Violin Concerto contains no harmony. (Or the Lyric Suite, for that matter.) How about Martin? Henze? I’m spending the week walking orchestration students through a section of Dallapiccola’s Variazioni that’s nothing but harmonic progressions. And those are just the composers, who, off the top of my head, seem to put their primary emphasis on harmony. Triads are nice, but there’s more than one way to meaningfully stack up those notes.

Marquette Interchange

Milwaukee, Wisconsin has joined the illustrious roll of American metropolises that have screwed over their classical radio listeners. WFMR is now—and I’m so glad I’m typing this on an empty stomach—”smooth jazz,” as a series of format changes left the city without its daily ration of Dave Koz, and, well, somebody’s got to fill that painful void, right? The Journal-Sentinel‘s Tim Cuprasin explains:

It’s part of a chain reaction that started with WKTI-FM (94.5) dumping its morning show to target younger listeners, which led WJZI-FM (93.3) to drop smooth jazz to target disenfranchised WKTI listeners.

Now it’s WFMR’s turn. General manager Tom Joerres explains that the switch came because of the “opportunity” presented by WJZI’s format flip.

You seize that opportunity, Tom! At this rate, all the stations in Milwaukee will keep grabbing each others’ sloppy seconds until the median demographic is about four years old.

Just last June, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett had proclaimed “WFMR Day” in honor of the 50th anniversary of the station, which had, with but one brief interruption, managed to keep classical programming going through a maze of frequency and ownership changes. I’m guessing you can probably pick up that proclamation for yourself if you make Joerres a good enough offer. You Milwaukeeans should be more careful with your civic institutions: the Brewers are having their best season since 1982. The last thing they need is a curse.

Naming of Parts

The quote of the day is from Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, his survey of the intellectual precursors of Marxism-Leninism, about the 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet, author of the momumental Histoire du France:

One remarkable device of Michelet’s has since been exploited and made famous by the novelist Marcel Proust…. The more important actors in Michelet’s history often produce sharply varying impressions as they are shown us at different ages and in different situations—that is, each is made to appear at any given moment in the particular role that he is playing at the moment, without reference to the roles he is later to play. Michelet explains what he is doing at the end of the fifth book of the Revolution—”History is time,” he says; and this evidently contributed in Proust’s case, along with other influences such as Tolstoy, to his deliberate adoption of that method of presenting his characters in a series of dramatically contrasting aspects by which he produces the effect of the long lines on economics charts fluctuating back through time.

If you’re like me, first of all, my condolences, and second of all, then this passage made you think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Much is made of that work’s various “transformations” of the opening rhythmic Morse-code “V” motif, but really, they’re not so much transformed as just presented in different surroundings that create the sense of the motif having undergone some crucial change. This is a common enough occurrence in Romantic music—think of the Liszt Sonata in b minor, or the opening and closing of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -Leben, or the idée fixe in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, to name some more famous examples—that it’s not unreasonable to point to a common Romantic idea as the conscious or unconscious spur to the technique in both its literary and musical guises: the notion that there’s something about human behavior and human nature that’s essentially irrational and unknowable, that the Enlightenment idea of a clear, understandable chain of causality and motivation is a naïve illusion.

But it seems to me that the “thematic tranformation” shorthand we use for this is misleading. It’s not what changes about the motif that’s important, it’s what stays the same, at least from a Romantic standpoint. If a theme is transformed organically and clearly such that it ends up a materially different theme, then, in this sense, it’s a Classical influence—the knowable process—rather than a Romantic one—the unknowable leap. And yet we associate the whole idea of “thematic transformation” primarily with Romantic composers.

This is a retrospective association. Take Schoenberg’s 1933 essay “Brahms the Progressive.” Schoenberg is using the example of Brahms to expain his own preference for developing, non-repeating melody. He traces examples of irregular, asymmetrical melodies and phrases from Mozart through to his own work, with a special emphasis on Brahms. The analysis is all on the level of gradual transformations of motives within the melody.

The most important capacity of a composer [Schoenberg writes] is to cast a glance into the most remote future of his themes or motives. He has to be able to know beforehand the consequences which derive from the problems existing in his material, and to organize everything accordingly. Whether he does this consciously or subconsciously is a subordinate matter. [emphasis added]

I would venture that any Romantic thinker would take issue with that last sentence—the difference between conscious and subconscious motivation would have mattered very much indeed to them, with the true artistic impulse being found in the latter. And its the fundamental unknowability of consequences that many of the Romantics considered vital—it’s one of the main reasons they considered Shakespeare a kindred spirit. But the point is not that Schoenberg is some sort of hypocritical Romantic, the point is that when we consider atonality and the 12-tone method to be just an outgrowth of late Romanticism, and, in fact, when we consider atonality and the 12-tone method to be the one and the same thing, we blunt the usefulness of a term like “Romanticism” by lumping in music that is philosophically dissonant with some of the movement’s most basic premises. And, not incidentally, we’re failing to take Schoenberg at his word:

Analysts of my music will have to realize how much I personally owe to Mozart. People who looked unbelievingly at me, thinking I made a poor joke will now understand why I called myself a ‘pupil of Mozart’, must now understand my reasons.

Schoenberg got it right: serialism is the result of a neo-Classical impulse, not a Romantic one.

This disconnect between the philosphical and artistic terms we most often use to characterize musical styles and the actual non-musical ideas associated with those terms is something I find more amusing than appalling, but it points up the need to be careful not to blithely assume that one leads to another. A lot of the composers we tend to think of as “late Romantic,” in particular, were actually after an artistic experience more in the spirit of the Classical era, their Wagnerian vocabulary notwithstanding—Rachmaninoff, for instance, or post-Rosenkavalier Strauss. Conversely, the juxtapositions and surrealist structures of a lot of “neo-Classical” composers (Stravinsky, Satie, Les Six) seem to be more in sympathy with Romantic literary ideas of fragments and non-linear narratives. Names are useful; realities are more interesting.

My philosophic search / Has left me in the lurch

Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine that you’re presenting a concert. You let in half the audience with no preparation, no instructions, just have them take their seats. But you give a pre-concert talk to the other half of the crowd in which you encourage them to enjoy themselves, and point out certain landmarks in the music that the audience will be surely glad to notice. Guess who has the better time?

Knowing our human weakness for suggestion and self-delusion, you might think it was the second bunch. You’d be wrong. Researchers Jonathan Schooler, Dan Ariely, and George Loewenstein actually tried this: they had a bunch of volunteers listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, dividing the volunteers into four categories. The first received no instructions. The second were told to try to be happy. The third were told to try to monitor their moment-to-moment happiness. The fourth were told to try to do both. They had the volunteers assess their own mood both on a numeric scale and by adjusting the smile/frown on a representation of a face.

To assess the impact of our experimental manipulations on happiness, we examined the changes to individuals’ responses to the critical happiness questions before and after listening to the music. The results of this investigation provide preliminary evidence that both monitoring and efforts to maximize happiness can actually impair the achievement of happiness. …[M]onitoring happiness significantly reduced happiness as indicated on both the numeric happiness scale and smile-face happiness measure. …[T]rying to be happy also reduced individuals’ hedonic experience, albeit primarily by reducing the reported mood.

The title of the paper says it all: “The Pursuit and Assessment of Happiness Can Be Self-Defeating.” In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert sums up why:

Two reasons. First, we may be able deliberately to generate positive views of our own experiences if we close our eyes, sit very still, and do nothing else, but research suggests that if we become even slightly distracted, these deliberate attempts tend to backfire and we end up feeling worse than we did before. Second, deliberate attempts to cook the facts are so transparent that they make us feel cheap.

I wish I had found this research 12 hours earlier than I did, since it puts a rather provocative spin on just about everything that was said at yesterday’s Engaging Art confabulation between ArtsJournal and the American Symphony Orchestra League. The event was partially a hive-mind brainstorm on how, or whether, to change the classical concert experience to attract more and younger audience members. There was lots of talk about increasing interactivity, about engaging the audience in conversation, in making them feel as if they had a hand in creating the experience. Schooler, Ariely, and Loewenstein’s research would suggest that this would reduce the overall pleasure of the experience, since thinking about what makes you happy tends to interfere with your ability to be happy—they compare it to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: “[I]ntrospection about happiness may be impossible because introspecting affects (and potentially undermines) happiness.” There’s also the complication, reiterated again and again throughout Gilbert’s book, that what people say makes them happy almost invariably doesn’t.

But it also suggests that the traditional, temple-of-art music-appreciation presentation (which I’ve always rather liked) is self-defeating as well, since it promotes monitoring of the experience. You’re encouraged to listen for landmarks, to notice things, to sense the connection between the local and the global. And it turns out that all that encouragement just gets in the way of the joy of listening.

The first point I find mildly counterintuitive to my own experience, but the second I find really counterintuitive. A fair portion of my listening takes place on the analytical side, and I don’t feel like it reduces either the experience or the memory of that experience. In fact, if I’m deluding myself at all, I would bet that it’s in retrospectively enjoying a performance more—my tendency is to store away the good parts of a concert, and let the mediocre moments fade from memory.

What’s going on here? I admit that I don’t know; but my gut feeling is that it has something to do with the fact that my own musical education was primarily physical, and only secondarily intellectual. I started with piano lessons long before I knew what chords were called, what sonata form was, what orchestration meant. My primal experience of music was getting my hands dirty with the actual building blocks themselves, not just watching somebody else construct the house and learning the name for the pattern of bricks. So in listening to a piece, my ear starts mapping out the form and the flow intuitively, not because somebody has just told me to.

If this is indeed correct (and I’d love to know if there’s any data out there—I couldn’t find any), then it would suggest that the best way organizations could spend their outreach money is in simply buying instruments and getting them into the hands of kids. Anecdotally, this fits in with the corresponding decline of applied music education in public schools and classical mindshare in popular culture; my own experience is that getting rock fans to listen to Mozart can sometimes be a tough sell, but getting rock musicians, even self-taught ones, is a piece of cake.

It also suggests that the best concert experience would be the most neutral and music-focused, and that any form of window-dressing, be it old-fashioned or new-fangled, is just a distraction. Odd—you may be thirsty, but if you have to have the well pointed out to you, the water isn’t as sweet. It turns out what jazzes us the most is serendipity.

Germ-Free Adolescents

Miscellaneous dispatches piling up here at Soho the Dog HQ:

From the Fighting the Good Fight desk: Project STEP turns 25. You can wring your hands about the state of music education, or you can quietly, modestly, and effectively do something about it.

From the Hell Is Other People desk: Here’s an article managing to condescend to symphony patrons and NASCAR patrons simultaneously. Never have so many ostentatiously italicized foreign words been deployed with so little effect! And what’s wrong with cowboy hats anyway? (Bonus: this letter, in which a reader brags of stifling a nine-year-old fellow audience member. Fight the battles you can win, I guess.)

From the Kill a Slow Work Day With a Surreptitious Downloading Project desk: just in time for the solstice, Jon Savage picks the 50 greatest teenager songs of all time. (Yes, X-Ray Spex made the list.)

And from the Good Things Come to Those Who Wait desk: Meet the Composer announces their 2007 Commissioning Grants. It’s a lot of the usual suspects, but this one caught my eye: Christian Wolff is writing a new piece for the Callithumpian Consort. Having heard an absolutely bang-up performance of some Wolff Exercises by the Callithumpian’s student wing, [nec]shivaree, I’m psyched.