Your Brain on Music – What is Music | WEEK 01 | The Musical Sequence
Immersed in a world of music at a very young age, I was very familiar with many of the constructs Levitin presented. It is not to say that it is common knowledge for everyone, but a lot of what was discussed I initially learned during my more formative years. When I was first learning the basics of music theory, most of what I learned was presented in such a way of absolutes, and at such a young age I simply took every bit of information without questioning the logic behind it. A,B,C on the cardboard box with rubber-bands violin was like learning to write the alphabet.
I never thought exactly how arbitrary a lot of these constructs were simply because they always made a lot of sense. Music doesn’t have the same arbitration as linguistics does – even when we speak, though societal constructed it is not the words we use so much as the intonation that affects the ultimate meaning of what we say. It circles back around to my initial interest of the exact mathematics of music. Mathematics, while also arbitrary is really a way to figure out how things work and why they work – music is not dissimilar. Levitin used the chapter to not only present the rules but give us a foundation for them globally, historically and scientifically. Petr Janata’s work further emphasized that rules sometimes are designed that way based on our own limitations. The only difference is really that the ‘why they work’ is something inherently more human and more emotional. Musicians ultimately rely on their audience to be designed with particular sensory instincts. As Levitin also mentions, it is not dissimilar from how we see cooking as a level of artistic chemistry. There are a lot of rules as to what works and doesn’t, but ‘what works’ is also something much more particular than the absolutes in math and sciences.
What was new to me was the history of synthetic music. Until recently most of my composition was purely acoustic, and minor sound design using libraries for video. It has allowed me to easily move and experiement with altering timbres, and generally when I would go about designing audio to my work a lot of it was taking traditional scales and going through the library of synthetic instruments until I could find the tone that seemed most apt. I even remember a sense of joy and delight as a kid when I could play the same song while manipulating its timbre on the keyboard. So I suppose as a small kid I found the same joy as Levitin did when he worked with Pierce. If we used the cooking analogy again, when it comes to baking you can use the same several core ingredients to make an array of different treats.
Explanations and rules can take the artistry out a lot the performance. I’ve seen it time and time again, in many of the arts – technical precision can mean nothing. Arguably it is those in maths and sciences that see the possibility to go beyond the initial rules that makes them great, no one cares how fast they are at solving differentials. I had two very different kinds of music teachers growing up. One was a pianist who worked as a jazz musician; the other was a professional trainer who would slap my hands if I didn’t hold my hands in the precise position to play the keys. I started out with the jazz musician, and most of the lesson were a lot about composition, improvisation. He would take me behind the piano and look inside and watch how the mechanism would work. Later I moved on because I wanted a level of classical training. While I appreciated how much she changed my habits, gave me a lot of structure, working with her made me lose a level of love for the instrument. The older I got, the more I began to wonder about the regimens we followed so strictly to play. It was at that time I stopped taking lessons with her and moved onto writing my own music, following a lot of the philosophies of my initial teacher.
It may be why I have more interest in animation and illustration than I do mimicking precise portraits or still lives– while they both require a level of mastery, being able to build upon that initial understand is what makes art expressive versus regimen. On this end, I really appreciated his nod to Davis’ use of breath. I’ve understood the impact of breath, but never really thought about the emotive response of the spaces between notes. Davis’ kind of breathing is truly unique and yet so core to his musicianship.