Sunday, November 01, 2015

Finding the right question

I just realized I was asking the wrong question in my current research agenda. While finding out if average listeners are aware of the timbres involved can satisfy some curiosity, it is not the real thing I want to know. At one point David Huron told me that all researchers need to ask the God Question: "if you got to meet God, and ask Him one question, what would it be?"  My God Question is "How can I help people get the most out of music?" And then I narrow that to encompass my specific interest in timbre: "Does awareness of timbre positively affect music appreciation?"  And for that I can see if teaching a listener about timbre causes physiological changes when listening, and if it changes aesthetic responses in post-listening questionnaires or in-listening rating systems. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What Do You Hear?

When you listen to music, do you notice the lyrics, the melody, the harmony, the rhythm?  What about the instrumentation?  There is very little research out there on how cognizant the average listener is to the sources of musical sounds, beyond singers’ voices.  I am interested in figuring out how to do research in this area.  There are some established tools in music psychology:  brain scans (fMRI, EEG), physiological responses (pulse rate, galvanic skin response, breathing rate, muscle twitches), behavioral responses (attention span, listening choices), post-listening questionnaires, during-listening questionnaires, and continuous feedback with dials or iPads.  
Many studies on the edge of this question look at listeners’ preferences, or on the ability to consciously identify instruments in various settings.  But this doesn’t answer how often listeners think about sound production and timbre while listening, and whether an increased knowledge in these areas would affect listening habits and musical enlightenment.  
I believe music has the ability to affect our emotions, our intellects, our spirituality, and our relationships with each other.  And I believe that the intellectual study of music (music theory) can increase the effectiveness of these affects.  This is why I teach music, why I listen to music, why I perform music, and why I research music.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

One month later

Welcome to Night Vale celebrated their one-year anniversary with climaxes of many plot lines, including Cecil's courtship of Carlos, the Apache Tracker, and the city underneath lane five of the bowling alley.  And, in symmetry with the very first episode, the Weather is provided by author Joseph Fink.  His "Sunday Morning Stasis" has echoes of "Our House" by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, though with more complex poetic design and a different style presented for the bridge.  The verses are sung with a doubled voice effect, with background vocals added for the chorus.  But the voice becomes singular for the bridge, with the acoustic guitar much more aggressive.

The Sunday morning stasis is both the sleepiness and comfort after a night of fun, and the feeling of a long-term relationship that depends upon stasis to keep going.  Within the bridge the singer is alone, imagining what it would be like if he left, and not liking the potential results.  While the relationship could be Carlos and Cecil, it could also be the relationship between the podcast and the audience.  A year has passed, yet audiences have not tired of this rather quiet podcast based on community radio. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

2+2+3 = Math Rock!

In the 24th episode of Welcome to Night Vale, the Mayor goes into the Dog Park, and returns to announce that she is stepping down at the end of the year.  The weather for this episode is purely instrumental, "Biblical Violence" by Hella.  A good example of math rock, much of the piece is in the asymmetric meters of 7/8, 9/8 (2+2+2+3), and 11/8, though the closing drum solo in standard 4/4. 

The form is created by shifting grooves established by the guitar and drums, with no real melody. 
The opening section has a lopsided feel, with two big beats followed by a rushed 1.5 beats, filled by slightly frenetic drums on that second "half" of each measure.  The guitar groove is a neighboring figure between I and IV in D major.  This section ends with a sustained chord under some drum spurts, with unclear or asymmetric meter of a different pattern than previous.

The second section is even more uncomfortable, with an insistent F# in the guitar that is interrupted by more flourishes in other notes, while the drummer seems to be in a different rhythmic country.  This country shares borders with the guitarist, and there is a decent translating dictionary, but they speak decidedly different languages.  This repeated one-measure groove moves on to a third section in 11/8 that has gaping holes to create the asymmetry.  The drummer has decided to move to another country that is also on a different world, playing around with small rhythmic ideas completely at odds with the guitarist's groove.  The second section comes back again, and then the first section, creating a large arch form:  ABCBA. 

The magic is that after the Tower of Babel feeling of the B and C sections, the return of A no longer feels lopsided, but rather like a welcome stability as the two musicians cooperate on the groove in a clear tonic expansion.  This desensitization to asymmetry makes me wonder about the purpose of the song title.  "Biblical Violence" is evocative, either as a confluence of positive and negative energies or as a condemnation of the violence done in the Bible or "inspired" by the Bible.  As our culture produces more depictions of violence in ever greater degrees, we are desensitized to the lesser forms of violence, perhaps the more biblical forms of violence? 

The song is not over after the arch, but rather introduces a fourth section, D, that has a new asymmetric feel, before returning to the C section and the B section.  Rather than finishing with another return of the A section to create a variant of the arch form, stability is established in a fifth section.  This last section is in 4/4, with the guitar establishing a straight-ahead groove between I and vi chords, with a heavy emphasis on the bass line.  The drummer solos over this groove, not fighting the meter but not helping to establish it either.  There is always a sense of remove between the two musicians, though a deliberate one.  Is biblical violence an act of aggression against the misunderstood other, through a lack of communication?  Even this last section is misleading, as a very short coda returns to the violence of the D section as a teaser for an abrupt ending. 

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Camping can be a bummer

Episode 23 of Welcome To Night Vale is "Eternal Scouts," about two local Boy Scouts who become the first to ever achieve the rank of Eternal Scout, a cause of celebration and despair.  The Weather for this episode is John Vanderslice's "Too Much Time," in which he wakes up from camping on the beach, and bemoans his lost love.  I'm including two different performances of this piece.  The first one is the studio version used in WtNV.  The second is an arrangement done with Magik*Magik Orchestra.  I find it interesting how the orchestral sound brings out different aspects of the music. 

The first thing I noticed about this song is the melisma at the end of the first and third lines for each verse, on "and," "[for]ever,"  "and," and "and" respectively.  This oscillation between scale degrees 6 and 7, with that little pause after the first note to make some of the words almost stuttered as it transitions from "sand" to "and" or "mat" to "and"gives a plaintive tone to the piece right away.  We know that the singer is not happy to be out on the beach.  The choruses continue the plaintive sound with the faux sobs "ah ah oh."  

The original, with synthesized string sounds have more unclear harmonies.  The brightness of the sounds, combined with the reverb causes a bleeding between chords and clashes of overtones within the chords, so the tonic chords feel less settled than in the orchestral version.  The dynamic flatness of the studio version makes the singer seem less disappointed, perhaps because the recording techniques create an extra boundary between the singer and the listener.  He becomes less real, with more artificial emotions.  The live performance is still restrained, the singer is resigned to his fate.  But the emotion seems more present, even if the strings are rather rigid in their rhythms.

Why is it that so many pop/rock/indy tunes avoid minor keys when they are about sad subjects?  That is still a powerful trope across almost all cultures, so why avoid it?  Perhaps it is too easy, or perhaps playing in minor keys is too hard.  There are groups like the Gregory Brothers who shift the modes of popular songs, showing the power of modes to affect mood.  Perhaps artists like John Vanderslice want to temper the emotions being expressed, to make them more nuanced.  

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Joss Whedon is a badass"

Sorry for the break, the end of the semester is nigh.  I have been feeling the pressures of grading, administrative tasks, and getting  smacked onto my ass by a virus.  But the next Weather in the WtNV sequence is fascinating.  "Winifred" by Seth Boyer is about a character from Joss Whedon's TV series, Angel.  The song is sung from the perspective of Wesley, her on-and-off-again lover.  He is lamenting her death at the hands of a demon who created a hole in the world (hence the motto of the song).  This is a fascinating re-appropriation of filking within a supposedly separate science fiction setting.  Do people from Night Vale regard Winifred as a TV character, or as a real life scientist who got zapped by Illyria (All Hail Illyria!)?  The episode of WtNV is "The Whispering Forest," released exactly a year ago.  It mentions nothing about demons or physicists or vampires, so the Weather has a less direct connection. 

The lyrics have an inconsistent POV.  The verses are sung about Winifred in the third person, as Wesley tells someone else (who?) first about her character, and then about the actions being taken by Angel and Spike to save her.  The chorus and the bridge address Winifred directly, and occur after she has died.  All the sections share the same key, though the chorus emphasizes the major mode much more, whereas the verse starts with a circle of fifths on the minor sixth chord and destabilizes the final tonic chord with added sixths that make the cadence slightly deceptive.  The bridge features secondary dominants that also create a curious whimsy to the lyrics, "Oh, you silly Winifred, getting yourself cursed like that!" [Paraphrased.]  Is Wesley in denial about Winifred's death?  When he himself dies, he asks Illyria to pretend to be Winifred, so this could be possible.  (I haven't watched the whole series, I'm not an expert on this by any means.) 

There are also interesting instrumental connectors between the sections.  Each verse ends before the musical phrase itself completes, as if the singer gets lost in thought.  The guitar continues on to transition to the chorus.  Each verse also starts with an introduction, establishing the chord progression for the verse.  Are the verses flashbacks?  That would explain the shifts in POV.  the instrumental breaks are the musical equivalent of the wavy lines:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

C Pop!

Dengue Fever provides the Cambodian weather for episode 21 of Welcome to Night Vale.  "Sni Bong" roughly translates from Khmer as "Love You."  The verses are sung in Khmer, the chorus is sung in English.  I wonder if the podcasters deliberately chose an Asian language band for an episode about traveling to Europe.  It could be a commentary on the obtuseness of Americans who treat all foreign countries as the same.  Or it could be deliberate surrealism, suggesting that Cecil's version of Europe isn't like Europe at all. 

The song combines funk, Asian pop, disco, rap, and smooth jazz in a very lush sound.  To my ears it is somewhat cheesy, hitting typical tropes for each of these genres.  Chromatic planing from IV - #IV - V, the lonesome sax solo for the ending, the exotic scales as interjections, none of these are used in particularly unique ways.  The rap is also rather uninspiring, and the lyrics (at least in the translation provided by the band) are also on the shallow side.  She loves a boy, and wants him to dance with her.  They are both beautiful, but he is shy.  The music makes her out to be a siren, trying to seduce him with her oohs.  Perhaps the rap is a desperate attempt, since the singing isn't working to get him to dance with her.   Maybe she should switch to a more contemporary sound.