Friday, April 20, 2012


I am listening to Penn Jillette on the Nerdist podcast, and he just talked about the fear of being wrong.  He was riffing about a quote, and then pointed out the best way to find out if something is true is to say it publicly.  If it is wrong, you will be corrected.  It is only when people are willing to be caught being wrong that the truth will out, that learning will happen.  Penn is notorious for appearing fearless in stating his beliefs, and his willingness to admit when he is wrong.  But he just admitted that he still has fear of being wrong, but is also brave enough to continue despite of that fear.

I realized that this is my problem with my current writing block, and with all my previous writing blocks.  I am afraid of being caught being wrong.  Occasionally I let myself relax and write something outrageous.  Apparently I did so in my first blogging contest* entry, inspiring one judge (I think Nico Muhly?)  to call the post right, wrong, brilliant and infuriating. I also used to have a lot more humor on the blog, until with one post I manged to offend someone who let me know about it.  And since I'm not a sociopath, I do want people to like me, and therefore made the bad decision to curb my humor, especially the sarcasm.  Going through a divorce also hit me in the 'nads of affirmation.  Sometimes divorce makes people more bitter and cocky.  It made me self-effacing, questioning who I was in a very quiet way while trying to remain strong for my kids.  I've come back from the divorce, but I still have less bravery than what's good for me, something I need to fix.

So, I will make bold statements, always with the effort of being correct, but without the need to have my inner lawyer triple check each statement for accuracy.  I leave that to you, gentle readers, to point out to me in excruciating detail how I am wrong.  First up:  the key of a piece still matters in this world of equal temperament with a population of non-APers.  I'm taking this from the perspective of the listener, not the performer, though the comfort-level of the performer will affect the listener's experience.  Equal temperament did away with the characteristic "mistunings" of different keys that led to the various key characteristic charts.  And while Dan Levitin showed that most people can sing their favorite songs within a half-step of the original recording, the majority of the population cannot identify what key they just sang in, unless they studied the score (a statistically insignificant part of the population).

I believe keys matter for two reasons.  First, the timbre is affected by the key, and this is perceivable by the listener.  A string instrument that plays more open strings will have a different sound than playing more stopped strings.  An Ab4 has a different color than a Bb4 on a trumpet, due to different pipe lengths and compromises made in the instrument design.  And key choices will affect whether the music is in the high, middle, or low part of the instrument/voice's range, which will directly affect the color of the sound.  Second, the choice of key will affect that piece's relationship to surrounding pieces.  If Bach or the Ramones play everything in G major, a certain tension is created by the static nature of the timbre/key.  If a movement of a symphony is in an distantly-related key to the previous movement, the listener will experience a frisson of doubt that these movements belong together, or at least a reset of subconscious expectations. A pump-up within a song may be cheesy, but it is noticeable, because of the perceived relationship.  I have a question.  Is there an example of a pop or rock album that has a pump-up between songs?  (Song 1 is in C major.  Song 2 is in D major.  Song 3 is in Eb major, etc. etc.)

*Congratulations to Jennifer Rivera for winning, and to all of the finalists for some great writing.

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