Sunday, March 29, 2009

Music, Melody, Oneness, Vibrating Mind of God

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
Scarborough Fair

Lush Life
Autumn Leaves
The Wedding

Somewhere Over The Rainbow
My Favorite Things
Sunrise, Sunset
Send In The Clowns

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
San Antonio Rose
Help Me Make It Through The Night

I Will
Good Vibrations
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. ♪♫


Mr. Taylor said...

For an example of beauty through what first appears to be a blatant error you should listen to "The Crisis" by Ennio Morricone. The simple repeated melody walks up a simple scale; 1, 2, 3, 5, but each time the third is played-as if there were a problem with the piano they recorded- the minor 3rd is also played. The dissonance caused by the half step of difference in the middle of such a simple melody starts as a pain in your ears, but by the end of the 2:47 song it is the most beautiful mistake you can imagine and you feel like it has been with you since before you heard the song.

I really like this post. Keep it coming.
This is Dan Taylor's son.

Mr. Taylor said...

Also, if you chase it with Debussy's "Claire De Lune" they play off each other beautifully. Those two songs back to back are one of the only musical experiences I can feel rather than analyze.
I highly recommend it.

It's worth the 99 cents on iTunes, but here is a video featuring the song.

And a cool claire de lune video to follow it:

Jasph said...

Wow. I just listened to "The Crisis" and could barely believe my ears. Then I walked over to the piano to play that little figure. I'd call it unheard of, but now I can't stop hearing it. Amazing!

Thanks so much for turning me onto this.

And I'm intimately acquainted with "Claire de Lune," so I can imagine how it might follow. Hack that I am, I once spent a month learning to wreck that thing. Now when I look at the sheet music, it's almost incomprehensible.

Keep your hand in it, Riley. There's nothing like the grief of trying to play after neglecting your chops for a few years. Or in my case, 15. It's awful.

Great to have a musician weighing in here. Thanks again.

Kellybelle said...

You so brilliant, you can't post but once in a while. Your head would pop off. I like E.O. Wilson he's on Radio Lab alot. You like that?

Jasph said...

Hi ya LL Kellybelle, you're swell, do tell. I've heard of Radio Lab, but have never (to my knowledge) listened. I hardly do anything except work, raise kids, Twitter, and ignore my yard. But I got a new script going, and so far it seems really funny. We'll see...

Thanks for dropping by. I'm heading over to epthaptha Maharabharata or whatever I can't remember the name of, just to see what you're doing.

scotland said...

Well my goodness...and again we're looking for something akin to a philosophers stone. Just to throw some esoterica into the mix, the music theorist/composer Joseph Schillinger,and yes hyper-intellect, suggested that every structure that exists materially or temporally represents a compound trajectory. The efficiency of distinct curves is demonstrated in their unique relation of a tendency to it's realization or outcome. This is the first indicator of how common or uncommon something will be perceived to be. It also suggests whether it falls into being categorized as representative of achieving a positive or negative response in terms of fulfilling the expected trajectory or not. In this way he presents a psychological dial with two zones divided into four quadrants.
Where the positive and negative zone hemispheres meet at the top of the dial we find a condition of simplistic normalcy, Like the repetition of an intervalic pattern such as an octave. The progression from the top of the dial may move either positive or negative toward the bottom of the dial where they both meet again as phantasmagoria coming from the negative zone and fantastical coming from the positive.

Anyone who wanting a good laugh would enjoy reading the anecdotes Schillinger uses to suggest the extremes of zone placement. One in particular has to do with various scenarios on the purchase of a fountain pen at the downtown 5 and 10 cent store. I can't present it here,but think for example of the difference between buying a pen that seems just like any other fountain pen, it writes,runs out of ink from time to time.It's totally unexceptional in every way when you get it home and probably gets lost in a drawer before long. Then there's the pen you buy and when you get home, a knock comes on the door and news that you mistakenly bought a pen left on the sales counter by the Maharajah of Bhadapur. I mean this guy had a very cool imagination, for some one who's complete theory covering every art medium was titled The Mathematical Basis for the Arts.

Surprisingly Schillinger's students included Glenn Miller, George Gershwin, Carmine Cappola and notable others entering the early celluloid arts.
Schillinger himself composed the first written piece for Theramin and was a close friend of its inventor by that name, Issac Theramin the same man who invented the first electronic sound generating oscillator.

As for me, it's all in knowing when and how you can follow and or break the rules and theories and fly by the seat of your pants to discovering something further within your own crafting a part of the greater sphere of significance, a personal journey.

scotland said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jasph said...

Ahoy, Scotland.

I was once well-versed in Schillinger, but now I get him mixed up with Shrödinger, probably due to the influence of cats in my life.

I don't get the distinction between "phantasmagoria" and "fantastical" in their respective zones on their fabled dial. But I like how far you're taking this. And I love the fountain pen anecdote (or the idea of it), even though I'm not entirely sure how to apply it.

Hope your spring is sproinging.

Unknown said...

Oh thank Dog you stopped twittering long enough to continue your well-worth-reading Blog. I’ve missed it so.

And even though I can never rise to the level of discourse that some of your friends bring (I’m talkin’ to YOU, Scotland), I will occasionally try to add an obtuse comment now and then – especially if the subject is Movies or Music.

Hi, I’m Kirk, and this is my story:

When I was a kid, my brother’s Sgt.Pepper album had a skip in it at the point when John sings:

“…the English army had just won the war --click-- won the war --click-- won the war --click-- won the war…”

After years of hearing it this way, I now expect it whenever I hear the song – to the extent of having the hairs on my neck begin to rise in anticipation. But the skip never happens.

And then your blog offered up the line “I heard the news today oh boy…”, and I started to feel my cringe coming.

(I’ve since made an appointment with Dr. Sacks)

Jasph said...

I really gotta get this thing to notify me when people leave comments.

But the reconfigured software (which ditched half my links and makes everything harder) is so obtuse. If I can figure this out, I'll have won the war...
won the war...
won the war...

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