Monday, October 24, 2005

Some Essays on Music

1. How Keifus Got his Groove

Many people argue that musical taste is a purely subjective phenomenon, but I disagree: there is an obvious and sound biological basis for the art. From the very moment of conception, we've been surrounded by rhythmic thumping and wheezing, sloshing and swinging, beating and resting and repeating. We've grooved from the beginning to the diurnal, tidal, and seasonal inputs that affect our host, and then our own, bodies. We're bipedal by design and walking has its own left-right dipping cadence, in 4/4 time as all marches have always been, alternating a major and minor accent with an inferior pulse in the space between them. We run to a brisk half time, ONE/two/ONE/two, and it's all spelled out right there in the score. Getting cultural, speech has its own rhythm too, and English famously bops about in five-beat measures. Mentally, we have a knack for these simple prime numbers and we sense the multiples as such: the odd times--in three, five or even seven beats--present a special emotional frisson: in tune with our mind but challenging our animal kinesthetics.

But it's not all rhythm, and pitch is natural too. Our aural detectors are an array of miniature resonators, which stimulate our nerves in sympathy to only those sounds in tune with their own natural vibration, or in integer multiples or fractions of that mode. There is a reason harmonics sound good: they are stimulating the same group of cellular sensors but in different proportions. It's like one of those pin arrays that take the shape of solid objects, or like a digital image—each element is evenly spaced but the different intensity of each creates the overall pattern, and our minds just dig that symmetry. Dividing every frequency double into twelve parts was eminently natural,* since twelve breaks down nicely into halves, thirds, fourths, and sixths—harmonics that are easy on the ears—and part of the fun is finding those other, sometimes counterintuitively consonant vibrations that fit together--and Keifus, the extent of whose knowledge of music theory you're reading right now, still appreciates it when it comes together in an unexpected way. Because when it's right, you just know it's right.

Beyond that, it's all about emotional manipulation. Competently constructed music uses these rhythmic and tonal sequences of wrong and various degrees of right to drag you through some labyrinth of feeling, often depositing you somewhere other than where you started. It builds up expectation based on our biologically and culturally wired preferences, and then plays on it. Technical proficiency is not sufficient, and sometimes not even necessary, for producing the good stuff, but emotional proficiency sure is. Whether it's learned or intuited, a good musician can translate emotion into the language of chord progressions and rhythmic sequences and, well, move people.

*Although whoever the genius is who decided to label a twelve note scale with seven letters and then put it on staff of five bars is probably teaching the sytem to Satan's good-time banjo brigade now and for all eternity.

2. More About Music

Throughout my life, I have been slowly triangulating on music as an interest and hobby. This after a long denial of many influences--I grew up around a blugrass band and I was educated on a horn--but neither of these things had much of an effect on me for the first 30 years of my life. My Dad, the bluegrass player, was the same way--it's something about the Keifus genetic code--at early middle-age some trigger was pulled in both of us, and we discovered an itch that positively needed to be scratched. In my case, the bug came in the form one of the several mandolins that the old man built from scratch--the logical expression of his crafty expression and musical urge at a similar age.

Like Dad, there was something I completely missed in my formal music education (through no fault of my educators, to their undeniable frustration). To humans, music is completely intuitive [fray.slate.msn.com], but imposing the formal rules of it can obviate the basic principles. Rhythm is the basis of life, and tone is the foundation of our second-best sense. For so many of us however, formal education squandered this feeling for a poor, unintuitive approximation--a pile of crappy, compromising language, a bunch of words that belie the basics of Getting It.

Unfortunatley, unlike his craftsman father, your humble Keifus blew his edjumication on engineering and the sciences, culminating to date in several papers on the science of acoustics. And I find that the freshman musical formulae are pretty inadequate from the technical angle too. I find it weird that I've angled into music from two technical sides: the boring mechanics on one pole, and the fascinating technical basis on the other; and it's taken me many years for these two perspectives to finally wedge together and point toward the real, fundamental thing. I am loving the hell out of it, even while I envy those who were lucky enough to have the intuition from the get-go.

From the nerdy direction, it's like the many fields in which I've dabbled, in that the jargon slows you down at the beginning. But musical language is really somethihng special. See, I get the language of harmonics: for stringed instruments or horns, that's the primary vibration, it's double, triple and so on. An engineer would call that the fundamental, second, and third harmonic, but in music, these words don't imply multiples, but positions in the ridiculous seven-note scale. So while a fourth may actually be the fourth, a fifth is actually the third, a second is the ninth, and it just doesn't get any better.

Part of the problem is that we hear logarithmically, but harmonics progress linearly. It makes for careful fingering, and we must progress to new strings if we wish to progress up the scale with fingers of finite width. But while the (logarithmic) chromatic scale makes a certain sense, the major and minor scales drive me absolutely batshit. I reiterate, whose retarded idea was it to label twelve half-tones with seven letters? And then put it on a five-bar staff? With slightly more thought, those sharps and flats could have been altogether discarded, and the notation could have been oh-so-much more intuitive.

(And still I wonder by what brilliance it was noted that seven notes Sound So Right, or is it just cultural bias?)

So yeah, I am one of those weirdos that wants to play more, the more I understand. Maybe I'll figure it out eventually. Rock on, dudes.

3. Musical Phraseology

My father has described bluegrass as traditional music played at ludicrous speed.* It's hard to listen to these tunes and not disagree--it's intimidating. For months, I had been trying to get my playing speed up (it's the damn right hand) at the exclusion of most other aspects of the instrument. And while it's helped the coordination, to be honest, I've really enjoyed learning new songs more than I have enjoyed the learning the lightning-fast physical skills.

Two weeks ago, Dad gave me a book that emphasized a more balanced approach, taking the time to stress rhythm playing, melody playing, and (it's about time) an explanation of the philosophies behind each.** (Poor Keifus has always been "book smart.") I like this approach a hell of a lot better than increasing the speed on the melodies I've memorized. In no small part, it's because I feel like I don't suck.

I need to elaborate on that. I've been trying for while now to get a feel for the four- or eight-note licks that fit "inside" a given chord. I figured that if I can get the hang of these bricks of sounds interlock to build a musical theme, then I'm in good shape. I've been realizing the degree to which music is a language.

This is a kickass revelation, because while I am a hack on the mandolin, I am not half-bad at stringing words together to express how I feel. Maybe there's hope yet at getting the hang of this thing.

The truncated alphabet of music, the ABCs, EFGs and their chromatic step-siblings make up the "letters" of music, which, like in language, define the sounds but don't really convey meaning until they are concatenated properly into words. These little melodic strings fit inside musical keys like sentence fragments inside a paragraph, the progression of which forms complete blocks of thought, segments of lyrical emotion. A song is a musical essay (three boring ABA paragraphs to the novice, but so much more to the maestro) placing it all together to convince the listener to get from here to there, from this feeling to the next, to some logical conclusion of sensation. When it connects, it is absolutely transcendent, but you get your share of obnoxious trolls too, irritating jingles that catch in your head and merely inflame your baser instincts. There is some expertise in both approaches.

The problem with my late-life music education is that I am learning it like a baby learns it. I must learn a foreign alphabet (Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, or what-have-you), difficult accents and sounds, and even as I get the general meaning of the words, there's a whole world of connotation and nuance that must be mastered to really get my point across. I'm maybe at the tourist phrase-book level of understanding right now. I can compose, in pidgin dialect, simple thoughts--how to find a bathroom or get a taxi--but I get enough of it to see the poetry waiting for me on the other side. Though I may always speak with the halting accent of a "music as a second language" immigrant, I can look over the horizon to the point when I am, however clumsily, able to express myself, and really, that's all I want.

Keifus

* Not his exact wording, but Spaceballs is a great flick. Dad would approve.

** If you are interested, the book is Dix Bruce's Getting Into Bluegrass Mandolin, the best educational reference I've found yet, by far. In addition to a well-developed approach, it has a CD to play along with, with tunes at both "learning" and regular speed, which is invaluable.

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