Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Music Jokes for the Holidays

My parents gave me a T-shirt that says, "E = Fb, The Einstein Theory for Musicians" which is pretty damn funny. But being the theory geek that I am, I had to think of a way to more closely mimic the theory of relativity in music terms. And I came up with one, with the added bonus that it involves an operation that only graduate music theory students ever hear about:

E = M4(C#)

M is an operation in pitch class theory, usually only associated with 12-tone rows and only as M5 or M7. The operation is a multiplier, multiplying the pitch class(es) that follow it in parentheses by the subscripted number. M5 and M7 are particularly cool because they convert the chromatic scale to the circle of fifths and vice versa. M4 wouldn't be very useful as a 12-tone operator, as the results on a typical row would end up with only three pitch classes, (0 4 8). But it will convert a C# (pitch class 1) to an E (pitch class 4). In other words: 4 = 4 x 1. And people say that music theory is hard.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Caroling or Wassailing, you make the call!

Many bloggers have been writing about Winter Holiday songs. Kieran lists four he likes: "Baby It's Cold Outside," "Quoi, ma Voisine, Es-tu Fachée? (Neighbor, Neighbor)," "Watchman Tell Us of the Night," and "Fairytale of New York." Commenters offer their own choices of interesting holiday songs, including a Jewish "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." John Scalzi asks what Christmas song you would expunge from the history of mankind if you had the power. His choice: "Feliz Navidad." Lynn Sislo lists her favorite Christmas songs, while Jaquandar lists both his favorite CDs and hated songs.

I like many Christmas songs, as long as they are only heard during the month of December. I used part of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" for a two-voice dictation in my theory final exam, I love "In the Bleak Midwinter" and "Lo, How a Rose is blooming," and every holiday we sing through about 20 carols in a single sitting. But just yesterday I heard the song I have decided is the worst Christmas song ever. On WFIU's daily jazz programming, many great jazzy holiday songs were being played, and some more questionable choices, including Jaquandar's despised "Two Front Teeth" as played by Spike Jones. But just as I was pulling into my son's daycare center, I heard something quite awful: "I Ain't Getting Nothing For Christmas." It's sung by a boy who has committed all sorts of horrible acts, and therefore will not be getting any presents from his parents. It combines horrible music, horrible lyrics, and an annoying child's voice. I submit this as the song that must be expunged from history.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Blogging minorities

A discussion started brewing over at Crooked Timber while I was on my hiatus, on gender and blogging. In the post, Kieran points out that bloggers may be more likely to link to people like themselves than to different people, an internet version of the old boy's club. Looking at my blogroll, I have 11 women and 28 men (and 7 group blogs). My percentage is rather higher than those mentioned in Kieran's post. I don't think this is due to my enlightened awareness of gender equity, but rather due to my field. In my first year at DePauw, I was at a new faculty workshop on teaching issues. We started discussing the issues of women as a minority in the classroom. But in music, women are usually the majority. I pointed this out, and said that the real issue in music classes was racial mixes. Black classical music students are very rare, despite significant efforts by universities, conservatories, and professional organizations. In my three years at DePauw, I've had only five black students out of about sixty different students in my classes. I never think about whether I'm treating female students differently from male students, but I have had qualms when correcting a black student in class or giving a black student a bad grade. I've never had a complaint, and I always base my grades and comments on objective criteria, but I still double-check myself sometimes.

I couldn't tell you what the racial makeup of my blogroll is, beyond a few bloggers who post their pictures. I had never even given it a thought until reading Kieran's post. However, I'm willing to bet that my blogroll is much more homogenous by race than by gender. The real question is, should I be more active in looking for differing perspectives on the world, whether they are female, black, hispanic, Republican, or Country-Western perspectives? How active are you in seeking the Other?

Monday, December 20, 2004

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

My apologies for the unexpected pause in blogging. Last week I gave my final exams and graded final projects, thinking I would still have plenty of time to blog. But then my kids got sick, I got sick, and my wife got pneumonia (she always has to one-up me). I suddenly had to nurse myself and everyone else in the family, while trying to continue some semblance of preparation for Christmas and finishing grades. I did not even look at blogs last week. The break was actually quite nice (other than the sickness stuff). But everyone is better now, and my grading is completed (well, I'm waiting for one set of grades from a co-teacher before submitting final grades for one class).

What I would have blogged about last week:

  • I listened to A.C. Clarke's Hammer of God (inspired by Kate Nepveu's review of audio books I checked my first book-on-CD out from the public library) in the same week that The West Wing has an asteroid hurtling toward the earth. That's just too weird.
  • Barnes and Noble has a big Thomas the Train setup in their children's area. This is a huge help when I need to get the kids away from their sick mother, yet I'm not up to strenuous activities. I sit and read, they play.
  • What did I read? I used birthday money to get Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment, Carpe Jugulum, and Wyrd Sisters; and Steven Brust's Issola. Entertainment reading, highly enjoyable and highly amusing while not being trite.
  • Political stuff, seen at Left2right and my brother's blog. I really like Left2right, for the thoughtful posts and for the intelligent comments from quite varied political perspectives. And I had to mention my brother since he actually posted again after a three-week hiatus!
  • That my blog is #6 in Yahoo for "Historical Mexican musical stars and their music." Who knew?

So, what did I miss?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

iTunes Troubles

I've been ripping my CD collection into iTunes, and I've come up with two concerns. First, it seems that every classical disc has a different format for presenting information. The iTunes categories of Song Name, Time, Artist, Album, and Genre are designed for pop/rock/jazz, not classical. Classical recordings usually have both performers and composers that you want to list, and iTunes only gives one category for both. Some classical CDs have the composer in the album name, but that doesn't work with a multi-composer album. Most pieces are multimovement works , so how to indicate both the name of the larger work and the individual movement or song is an issue. Some list the large work: movement under Song Name, some put the larger work in Song Name and the individual movement in Artist, and the worst ones put the larger name just for the first movement and then just give the movement names in Artist. This is a problem when playing individual movements rather than whole works.

That leads to the second issue, whether to join multi-movement works into single tracks for iTunes. iTunes allows you to join tracks together when ripping mp3s, so tracks 1-4 would be recorded as a single mp3 file. I think I'm at the stage of ripping separate tracks for each movement. I would like to have recitatives joined with their subsequent arias, but identifying those on each opera and oratorio CD will make the process much longer. While I would like to have a whole symphony show up when I listen to party shuffle mode, I also want to be able to access separate movements for teaching purposes (see Kyle Gann's plans for that.)

How have you dealt with these issues?

Perfect Pop

John Scalzi wondered how many perfect pop songs he had in iTunes that were exactly 3 minutes long. Chad Orzel listed his 3:00 songs, but suggested the need for a control list to compare the 3:00 list to. He chose 4:33 (or should I write 4'33"?) and still found a significant number of good pop songs. Scalzi responds with a new duration determined by starting with the most perfect pop song, "There She Goes" by The La's.
For my money, "There She Goes" is nearly impossible to beat in its pop perfection: from the tips of its chiming guitars to the bottom of its blissful lyrics, it simply doesn't get any better than this. If aliens came down and said that we had just shade under three minutes to justify our existence or we'd be evaporated -- well, I wouldn't necessarily suggest playing this song, but I might suggest someone put it on in the background while we boot up Stephen Hawking's voice synthesizer.

This song is 2:42, so John takes this as the duration to check, and finds it to be the winner. Chad agrees and everyone had fun sorting their iTunes list by duration (it makes for some interesting shuffle listening). I'm not a big pop collector, but in comments I did offer some pop tunes from the 20's through 40's, otherwise known as swing.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Dueling analysts

Scott Strader has taken up my challenge to analyze Chopin's 2nd Prelude in A minor. Okay, he actually answered this challenge several weeks ago, but for some reason I never heard about it. (Has anyone else noticed that Technorati misses a lot of links?) The analysis is found here, with reactions from me in the comments. Scott has a very nice score uploaded, so following the discussion is very easy. I've also added his blog, Message from the Ether, to my blogroll.

Journal Club: Farewell to the Crematorium

My students have made their last posts to The Musical Crematorium, scripts for presentations of scientific research on music. They each picked a journal article to present, and were required to completely script their presentation, accounting for necessary language shifts from a written format to an oral presentation. They gave their presentations on Wednesday and today, and turned in their final portfolios. Now I need to read and grade them! I will turn the administration of The Musical Crematorium over to interested students, who may want to keep blogging. I am quite happy with the maiden voyage of class blogging (for me), and plan to use this quite often in the future.

To make this post a double whammy of seminar stuff and Journal Club stuff, I will fill in some gaps of a few presentations.

"Speech Patterns Heard Early in Life Influence Later Perception of the Tritone Paradox" examines one of Diana Deutsch's main research topics, the tritone paradox. There is a musical sound called the Shepard's tone, which is designed to be registerally ambiguous. A listener can tell that a C was played, but not which octave placement of that C. It sounds much like an organ stop, with lots of different registers involved in a big bell curved amplitude arrangement. Deutsch found an interesting phenomenon when using Shepard's tones to examine the perception of musical intervals. When the two notes of the interval were spaced a tritone apart, exactly one half of an octave, listeners disagreed whether the first note was higher than the second note. With any other melodic interval there was complete agreement on ascending or descending sounds. But at the tritone, some listeners would judge the interval as ascending and others as descending. This particular article shows that the language learned as a child biases a person towards a particular frequency range, and thus affects how the tritone is perceived. This is a very interesting link between music and language.

"Music in everyday life" doesn't have any gaps, but it does describe an interesting experiment that many of you will find interesting, so I am pointing it out. People were surveyed via cell phone texting to find out what role music has in the span of a normal day. Many of the results are predictable, but one was quite surprising: most people listen to music in the company of others, rather than alone. I still wonder if listening to one's iPod while standing near other people counts as social listening, since the others can't hear the same music.

"Vowel Modification Revisited" is a less scientific article, and the presentation misses most of the science that is present. First a brief explanation of formants. All pitched sounds are made up of many frequencies, even if we only hear one frequency/pitch. The difference in the amplitude of upper frequencies cause the difference in tone quality that makes a clarinet sound different from a flute, a cello different from a trombone. When speaking or singing, a person changes the shape of his/her mouth, nasal passages, and throat to favor various ranges of frequencies. These ranges are the formants, which determine the vowel sound we hear. An 'o' has lower formants (usually only the first two are considered) than 'ah' or 'ee'. The article shows how singers alter the formants from typical positions as associated with a given vowel. Bright vowels, like 'ee' are made darker when singing higher notes. An article from Nature is a better scientific take on this subject, "Tuning of vocal tract resonances by sopranos". The authors have made an online page with sound files demonstrating the vowel shifts, and some additional definitions of formants and the physics of singing. Note the challenge to sopranos in the middle of the page, to make clearly perceived differences in vowel sounds at high registers. It is really a challenge to anyone with access to a willing soprano, to see if you can perceive vowel differences at high registers.

The other posts are on emotional intelligence and musical performance, the spatial perception of music, and absolute pitch (the technical name for perfect pitch). Thanks to everyone who did make comments on the blog. It meant a lot to the students to get feedback from "outsiders."

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

New part of the blogroll

I did it. I added a bunch of book blogs and author blogs to my blogrolls. I decided to listen to my rant about living life rather than career, throw caution to the wind, etc. I'm going to stop watching any TV other than West Wing and Scrubs. I'm going to try to limit my blogging, including getting rid of the Blogshares stuff. It was eating up time playing at "stocks" without any financial or intellectual gains. I'd rather read and write, and play the trumpet and piano. Of course, any way that I could go from $1000 to $10,000,000 in two months in real life would be welcomed!

Scholars for Social Responsibility

At the November joint meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, a group of music scholars met to discuss social responsibility, ending up with a document that was signed by the participants. This is a similar document to the one signed by participants at a similar meeting within the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in August. The AMS/SMT group has called themselves Scholars for Social Responsibility. They have a website that describes the agenda and the results of the meeting, and provides an opportunity for people who were not at the meeting to electronically sign the declaration. You do not need to be a member of SMT or AMS to sign, though you probably should be a professional scholar of some sort. Scholars for Social Responsibility have also started a listserv email list to continue the discussion.

I didn't attend the November conference, and I missed the meeting at ICMPC in August because my dinner took too long (caused by slow service and having the kids along). But as you can tell by any of my political posts, I strongly agree with the stance taken by both groups. I have signed the declaration, and will be taking part in the listserv discussion. I encourage any of my scholar readers to do likewise. The declaration reads as follows:
Prompted by the war in Iraq, waged by a coalition led by the US and UK governments, and in the light of the ensuing occupation and continuing violence and loss of life and property, we, the undersigned, comprising an international group of scholars meeting at Seattle, Washington, November 12, 2004:

* express our commitment to the principle of international cooperation and its application to the constructive, long-term resolution of international problems, and adherence to international law;
* encourage study of the profound moral and legal questions raised by the preemptive use of military power;
* peacefully oppose governmental, individual, and corporate acts that impede, disregard, override, or ignore the sanctity of human life;
* seek to promote these views throughout the international community.

Anyone signing now is listed separately as a Post-Conference signatory, so don't worry that you weren't at the meeting.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Evil twin?

terminaldegree has her own evil twin, so why not me? This one is more realistically dressed, has my hair and beard and glasses, and my overbearing intellectual abilities. Crap, I'm the evil twin!

They are big, they are large, they are huge, Giant Steps!

From Casper, I find out about this interesting analysis of Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Not only does Ian Houghton (or is it Tommy Flanagan, hard to tell) provide a possible explanation for the chord progression, he provides a nifty visual presentation in real time to the music. The explanation does lack some important details, which I will try to deduce.

The chords are arranged around three key areas, B major, G major, and Eb major. For each key, the chords follow the typical jazz (and tonal) progression II - V - I, so in B major the progression is c#m7 - F#7 - B . The key areas are separated by major 3rds (G to B, Eb to G, and B to Eb(D#), known as the chromatic mediant relationship (keys a third apart but sharing the same major or minor mode). Ian (or Tommy) calls this the ditone relationship, and points out that B, G, and Eb equally divide an octave into three parts. The author also points out the quadratone relationship, which is quite unnecessary. The quadratone progression from G to Eb can be explained as a descending ditone.

What the author really misses is how the individual chords progress from one to the next. The first five chords of "Giant Steps," F#7 - D7 - G - Bb7 - Eb, move directly from the V of B major to the V of G major. This cannot be waved away as a "ditone progression" without further explication. Instead, we need to look at what notes are shared between the two chords, and what is changed. F#7 has the notes F# A# C# E, D7 has F# A C D (rearranged so commonalities can be seen). The F# is the only shared note between the two chords. Two notes slide down a half step (A# to A, and C# to C), and one note slides down a whole step (E to D). Viewed from the neo-Riemannian perspective I posted about earlier, the original F#7 chord was transformed by a few operations to become D7, those operations part of a large pattern that governs the ordering of all the chords. Dealing with seventh chords is more complex than triads, though Adrian Childs has developed a neo-Riemannian system for seventh chords: "Moving beyond Neo-Riemannian Triads: Exploring a Transformational Model for Seventh Chords," Journal of Music Theory Vol. 42/2 (1998), 181-193. Analysts have used other explanations for this progression, from strange altered pivot chords to theories of altered dissonance and consonance patterns. But none so far have provided the nice animation that Ian/Tommy did.

Since music analysis is just an attempt to explain the logic of music, why a melody or chord progression sounds like it makes sense, what is your analysis of "Giant Steps?" Do the first five chords make sense to you? If so, how do the chords seem to belong together?

Monday, December 06, 2004

New and Improved Snake Oil?

The United Church of Christ, in which I was raised as a youth, is trying to advertise on all the major networks. While the main news is that CBS and NBC have rejected one ad because it criticizes other churches for condemning homosexuals, the linked article quotes a professor of marketing who cautions about churches advertising in the first place:
Ellen Garbarino, assistant professor of marketing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said church advertising, like a pitch for soap, can help provide consumer awareness and lead to sampling. Then it's up to the church to keep a new member, she said.

But the UCC might face a consumer backlash, according to Garbarino, who said people expect ads on cars and candy, not necessarily churches.

I remember the Mormon church advertising regularly when I was a youngster in the '70s. That was the only way that I even knew what a Mormon was, growing up in Wisconsin suburbia. The Episcopal Church tried advertising a few years ago, but I haven't heard any mention of it since, other than regular sponsorship of the local NPR station by several local churches. The point is, church advertising is not exactly new. Thus I would expect a marketing professor to have statistics to back up claims for caution. Perhaps Prof. Garbarino does have such stats, and was cut short by the reporter. In that case I criticize the reporter for creating the incorrect impression that mainline churches have not regularly advertised before.

(via Marcus Maroney)

Fighting amusia, one tin ear at a time

From PZ Meyers, I find out that I too can be a superhero.

I think I used less restraint than PZ, opting for the thigh high boots, the cool visor (the glasses provided were too big to adequately show my own), and a cool Pharoah beard (they didn't have a Van Dyke like mine). I managed to resist the jet pack, though I was tempted by the big wings. The ring is used to bring about harmonic resonance, naturally.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Journal Club: Rats and Mozart

This is actually an old article, published in Music Perception's Winter 2003 issue. But the title is great, and it's on my mind because I had my seminar students read the article and prepare a group presentation on it. (Their last writing assignment is to prepare a script for a 10-minute presentation on a research article about music and science.) The title of the article is "Do Rats Show a Mozart Effect?" by Kenneth M. Steele. The article examines the results of another article, "Improved maze learning through early music exposure in rats," in Neurological Research, 20 (1998). This earlier article is by the grandmother of the Mozart Effect, Frances Rauscher (with co-authors). She first claimed that listening to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K 448 increased spatial reasoning in 1993. This claim sparked all sorts of Mozart for Baby products as parents hoped to make their wee ones geniuses merely by playing some classical music to them. Music educators also hopped on the bandwagon, using the results to justify more support for music programs in schools. Recent studies by one of Rauscher's associates have attempted to generalize the Mozart effect to Alzheimer patients and epileptic patients. Alzheimer patients listening to Mozart did better on a visual-spatial task; epileptic patients had fewer seizures, even if in a coma!

The problem is, laboratories that attempt to replicate the Mozart Effect are more likely to fail than succeed. Steele cites twelve studies that failed to produce the result, and two that did produce the effect. The two positive results have been explained by arousal or preference differences, not priming of the spatial reasoning parts of the brain. In efforts to counter the claim that any Mozart effect is caused by arousal (liking the music), Rauscher and some colleagues showed the Mozart effect in rats. As rats do not share our cultural preferences, any effect must be neurophysiological.

Rats were bred in the presence of a repeating loop of the Mozart sonata, Philip Glass's Music With Changing Parts, or white noise. Pregnant rats were exposed to one of these conditions for 12 hours each day through gestation. The birthed rats were exposed to the sound for another 60 days. Then the rat pups were run through a maze. Groups were trained on the maze with one of the sounds present, so some were exposed to the same sound but other groups were exposed to a different stimulus. The Mozart-reared group did best in learning the maze, regardless of what music was played. Sounds good, right?

The problem is, rats are born deaf. They cannot perceive any air-borne sounds until 11 days after birth, and no skull-conducted sounds until 7 days after birth. So no sound signals were reaching the rat fetuses, and no sounds for the first week of the 5 week testing. But the rats do get 4 weeks of sound, and the mothers could be affected, right? Well, rats hear frequencies effectively between 8,000 Hz and 32,000 Hz. The entire piano keyboard ranges from 27.5 Hz to 4186 Hz, so even the highest piano note is below the rat's threshold of perception. Even at the loud levels of the study (65-70 dB) the rat could perhaps hear some notes within the piano range, but only about 1/3 of the notes of the Mozart sonata assuming no masking effects of noise from ventilation fans and computers.

Steele claims that the "effect" on the rats was a litter effect, genetic disposition of the rats, as all the Mozart-reared rats came from the same mothers. He also points out other questionable procedural methods of Rauscher's group, choosing groups with no blinding procedures to keep scientist bias out. So the answer is, rats do not show the Mozart effect. Thus, any observed Mozart effect in humans (which is still controversial at best) is still best explained by arousal rather than brain re-wiring.

Update: Rereading this, I decided to point out that Rauscher has responded well to her critics. She emphasizes active music making over passive listening for any cognitive improvements. And Rauscher did not make outlandish claims of boosts to IQ in her reports. Newspapers misused her research (no surprise there), as did music educators and various companies. Rauscher only claimed an effect on the cognition of spatial relations. I also found out after writing this post that Frances Rauscher is an accomplished cellist as well as psychologist. She has a bachelor's degree in performance from Julliard, and even soloed with the National Symphony Orchestra. (bio here) And finally, while I think Steele has pointed out some serious flaws to Rauscher's research methods, I don't think he has completely disproven the legitimacy of the Mozart effect either.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

What do we live for?

Various scientific bloggers have been lamenting the low level of scientific knowledge as exhibited by the masses. PZ Meyers fumes over the 45% of Americans who believe in young-earth creationism. Chad Orzel points out that 34% of women believe the Sun goes around the Earth, that 24% of the population thinks sound travels faster than light, and almost half of Americans do not know that the Earth takes a year to orbit the Sun.

It is sad that people do think Science is Hard, but I can point out similar swathes of ignorance in the arts and literature, in philosophy and religion, that have just as much an effect on peoples' lives. American society puts far too much emphasis on earning money. Careers are picked for salaries more than personal enjoyment, as shown by all those country-western songs. Education is geared towards getting those high paid careers, both at the college and secondary levels. We need to emphasize the things that make us want to live: art, music, culture, philosophy, religion, education for its own sake. Right now self-enrichment is defined by how many toys a person has, when it should be about how many ideas a person has thought up and how many beautiful things a person can appreciate.

The three R's are fine for the beginnings of education, as they provide the basis for all other learning. But very quickly Reading and (w)Riting should be replaced by the Humanities and Social Sciences. (a)Rithmetic should be supplemented with the Physical Sciences and Logic. Fine Arts and Foreign Languages should be started at the very beginning, not in 5th or 7th grade. Physical Education should be injected with Nature Appreciation. These are the things worth knowing, not "How to earn a living."

But then, I'm a musician teaching at a liberal arts college, so I may be biased.