Sunday, March 29, 2009
An insane idea I had: to develop a Unified Field Theory of Music. Insane, because I don’t know what a “unified field theory” is, really, and I was a music major for only two years. I’m a hack pianist. My credentials suck. But I compensate with enthusiasm. I love the idea of describing how music works, where its essential power comes from, irrespective of era, genre, or my ignorance. ♫
Researching, I found record producer Daniel Levitan’s revelatory This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Expanding on Stephen Mithen’s “Singing Neanderthals” theory, Levitan says music represents a critical step in human evolution. This is probably the least interesting idea in the book, every page of which has some fascinating insight into the physics of music or the way our brains perceive sound.
Oliver Sacks’s amazing book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain says that Darwin called music an evolutionary aberration with no adaptive purpose (I think he was listening to Air Supply at the time). The preface cites E.O. Wilson, whose theory of biophilia (our innate feeling for other living things) causes Sacks to wonder if music might be a form of it, since music often feels alive. He adds, “There is now an enormous and rapidly growing body of work on the neural underpinnings of musical perception...”
Great. Way bigger brains than mine have stolen my thunder for their rhythm section. I’m both unqualified AND irrelevant.
But maybe I’ll naively stumble into some observation that a colder-eyed observer might miss, if I ditch science to come up with some good guesses, vague notions, and intuitions about how music do what she do. ♪
UPDATE: Come to find out, none of the music samples in this post show up anymore, because SeeqPod, the company that made the ingenious little widget I stuck in here several times, apparently went belly-up a couple of weeks after I posted this. I take full responsibility. And if I get time, I'll replace the widgets with Blip links or something. WAY less convenient, but it'll look nicer than those big gaps in the text. Sorry...
Before We Ditch Science
What’s the unified field theory in physics? Apparently, when quantum theory came along, its implications for atomic and subatomic physics contradicted Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Quantum physics can make sense of electromagnetism and the two (strong and weak) nuclear forces, but gravitation bolloxes everything up. Einstein spent the last half of his life trying to unify the four forces, coining the phrase “unified field theory” for what he was after.
Physicists say that the grand explanation for the interaction of those four forces will describe a oneness, a singular essence that manifests itself in all matter and phenomena. This holy grail is thought to be in the realm of string theory. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, says what he and his fellow nerds are seeking is “an equation an inch long that would allow us to read the mind of God.” This great little vid concludes with Kaku describing what he thinks the mind of God is.
Some specialists in M-theory (the M stands for “mother of all theories” or “mystery” or possibly “magic”) describe Kaku's "hyperspace” in 26 dimensions. But all seem to agree that matter is fundamentally “vibrating strings” a hundred billion billion times smaller than the nucleus of an atom. I love that it’s either 10 or 26 dimensions. Sounds like they’re really closing in on it. ♫
Wasn’t This Supposed To Be About Music?
The physics ruminations on harmony make me think that musicians should be working on string theory. Sound is all vibration, so maybe these subatomic vibrating strings are at the bottom of it somewhere, like zillions of tiny cigarbox banjos.
Let’s apply the four forces metaphorically. Maybe there are musical parallels for them: rhythm, melody, harmony…and what would the fourth be? dynamics? timbre? In a song, the lyric? There might more than four. In any case, it may be easier to describe how these things interact in music than it could ever be in physics.
But is there a problem to solve? What questions would a unified field theory answer? Could it define why some music is great and other music sucks, so that it’s not just a subjective matter of taste? Could it explain how music can give you goosebumps or make you cry? Is our question here something as simple as, “What makes music beautiful?” ♪
Vive Les Contrarieties
The biggest truth I know about beauty: it’s the oneness of opposites. This isn’t original with me. The ancient Greeks considered every art a reconciliation of opposites. Shakespeare was the Great Synthesizer (pre-Moog) of antitheses (“To be or not to be” is one example among thousands). Bach believed that the contrapuntal balancing of opposites in a perfect Fugue connected the human soul to God. Coleridge’s framework for literary criticism was his “principle of polarity,” Marcel Duchamp wrote an essay about the reconciliation of opposites in visual art, and the poet Eli Siegel developed a whole aesthetic theory of human life based on it.
A few opposites we find unified in great music:
There are others. Those three are pretty obvious, though. Anyone who’s ever marveled at the “simplicity” of a song like The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and then tried to play it on the guitar knows how true that first one is. Even if you don’t fully understand the math that all music is based on (patterns of rhythm and pitch intervals can all be described numerically), you may sense the logic in a piece of music—but what makes it move you is something else, something emotional that seems to be communicated directly from the composer or musician to you. And I can’t think of anything more satisfying in music (or any art, really) than the fulfillment of an inevitable pattern in a surprising way. Think about the piano coda at the end of the original “Layla.” It seems to come out of left field (left ventricle?), and yet somehow is completely prepared for. Perfect.
All those pairs of opposites imply a meeting of the familiar and the strange. I don’t remember where I first heard the idea that the difference between something genuinely beautiful and something merely “pretty” is that beauty has an element of strangeness in it. That’s always seemed true to me. Those Asian-sounding semitones in the bridge of “Julia” by The Beatles, especially the way John Lennon sings them, are unlike anything else in popular music, a strangeness woven through a familiar, lilting guitar pattern.
Update: Dammit. The Beatles MP3 police apparently put the kibosh on "Julia." But the rest of the tracks in this post should play.
SeeqPod - Playable Search
And is there anything more oddly affecting than the almost affectless bleat of Miles Davis’s muted trumpet over the lush chords Bill Evans lays down on “So What” or “Mediterranean Sketches”?
Maybe the best way to open an inquiry of opposites, and thus, beauty, is with melody. We all know melodies, we hum and whistle them, they stick in our heads, and they burn lyrics in our memories. They’re most of what we mean by “I know that song.” A memorable melody makes a claim on your brain that you can never renounce.
Because of the way we experience music, Oliver Sacks says that remembering a melody isn’t really remembering at all, but reliving the music in the present. He quotes the philosopher Victor Zuckerkandl: “Hearing a melody is hearing, having heard, and being about to hear, all at once. Every melody declares to us that the past can be there without being remembered, the future without being foreknown.”
Even that explanation is paradoxical, holding opposites together. To me what it means is, when you sing “I heard the news today, oh boy” to yourself, the whole song is there with you. Your ears may actually hear only the melody and the words, but by singing the song, the rest of the music comes alive in your mind and body. You’re experiencing the feel of the song.
To get to the meaning of that, we need actual melodies to point to, hear in our heads, and explore the workings of. So I’ll end this first post with my starter list: unique, memorable, carved-in-rock melodies from nearly every Western genre (classical, sacred, folk, jazz, show tunes, country, pop/rock), trying to find in each category at least one “pure” melody (unforgettable even without words), at least one transcendent marriage of music and words; and one that plays against its orchestration or chord changes in a remarkable way.
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
“Ode To Joy”
The Willow aria from The Ballad of Baby Doe
Ave Maria (Schubert)
Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming
Were You There?
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
Somewhere Over The Rainbow
My Favorite Things
Send In The Clowns
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
San Antonio Rose
Help Me Make It Through The Night
The Spiraling Shape
Thanks to SeeqPod, one of the coolest music sites on earth, you can listen to some of these and then hum them to yourself the rest of the day.
SeeqPod - Playable Search
Better yet, look up tunes you think should be on the list, then check them out to make sure the melody's as distinctive as you thought. You may be surprised.
I thought I’d be most sure of the pop/rock melodies I wanted to use for this, but the genre in which I’m least versed (country) seems like the best, most exemplary group of all. As a little bonus coda, here's a pop melody I didn't know was great until I heard a country singer spin it into gold:
SeeqPod - Playable Search
Next, I'll take one of these tunes and pull it apart to show how it works. It may be like dissecting a frog, but I hope to learn something new. Meanwhile, I’d love to get some suggestions for other great melodies, especially from rock and pop songs. What’s stuck in your head? Is there a song whose melody simply delights you? Why do think it’s so memorable? Any ideas you have, really. I’ll share my Nobel Prize winnings with you. ♪♫