Friday, April 22, 2005

Perfect Pop

Michael Bérubé defines the perfect pop song, by which all others should be considered. It is the inauguration of his new weekly series: "arbitrary but fun value judgments." Note that Michael actually discusses the musical content, not just the lyrics. He doesn't discuss rhythm specifically, just melody and harmony, but it is still better than most discussions of pop.

There's stuff besides music?

Helen was inspired by Julliard President Joseph Polisi's push for broadly educated musicians. She came up with a quiz to see how liberal arty you are. I'll get to my results on the quiz in a second, but first I want to point out how large this trend is. Double degree programs have blossomed in the U.S., including a brand-new push at Kyle Gann's Bard College. About ten years ago the Eastman School of Music created the Bachelor of Musical Arts degree, reducing the number of music courses from the typical B.M. so the student can take more Arts Management and humanities courses. We've had a similar degree here at DePauw for even longer (take that, Eastman!), which has become the most popular degree for music students. I think this is a sign that the traditional path of the musician, conservatory-trained and hired immediately by an established ensemble or become a touring soloist is becoming extinct. Instead, musicians are expected or required to carve their own niche in performing culture. This means that the musicians need to have a detailed awareness of society to carve wisely. This awareness comes from knowledge of the other arts and humanities, from science and technology, and from the social sciences. In other words, a fine liberal arts education.

Now to the quiz: I've indicated whether I knew the answer before specifically searching, and then what field each question is testing on.


  1. On the day of the Prague Invasion (August 21, 1968), what happened in the Royal Albert Hall? No idea. A little searching suggests this is pop culture.
  2. What is Empfindsamkeit? This one I know (music history).
  3. Which major 20th century arts movement occurs in literature, music, painting, film and architecture? I also know this, I think. I'm not positive about the architecture part. (Arts)
  4. What was unusual about the Original Dixieland Jazz Band? I also know this (music history again.)
  5. Complete the phrase "God save the Queen, / She ain't no human being, _ _ _ _ / _ _ _ " I didn't know this (pop culture).
  6. What is "an artist's response to just criticism"? What was the criticism? (score 1 for each part) Yes, (music history)
  7. Who were the Medicis? This I know (humanities).
  8. Which of the following have you read: Great Expectations, Les Liasons Dangereuses, Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Don Quixote, The Waste Land, Death of a Salesman, Waiting for Godot, The Tempest. More than two, score one point: full house, score two points. Great Expectations, Don Quixote, The Waste Land, The Tempest. (Literature)
  9. Who was shot on the Upper West Side in 1980? I know this (pop culture).
  10. Name a pop artist working also with classical musicians. Gosh, many have. (music/pop culture).
  11. What is Le Moulin Rouge? The movie or the dance hall? (I know it.)
  12. What is utilitarianism? I know this (philosophy/aesthetics).
  13. In literature, what does the female hysteric have to say? I don't know. (literature)
  14. In which art form does one find 'Dogme 95'? I don't know. (film)
  15. How did Orpheus persuade Pluto to return Euridyce? I know this, but more from music operas than from reading Greek mythology.
  16. What is the divine right of kings? I know this (history/politics)
  17. The three ways musicians physically and principally remember music are - ? Hmm, this seems to be a specific music pedagogy. I could think of three, but I'm not aware of the specific pedagogy referenced.
  18. What was Rock The Vote set up to do? I know this. (Does this count under pop culture, politics, current events, or history?)
  19. Who most famously espoused the Noble Savage myth? Yes (philosophy)
  20. What am I talking about, if I mention the "tragic flaw"? Yes, (literature/humanities).
So, I score 15 points. Apparently I'm Jonathan Miller. However, I think the test is still too music-biased. It should have some social science and physical science questions.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Now that's funny!

Anyone who has taken a music history or music appreciation course has been told that Franz Joseph Haydn's music has a lot of humor. Yet many people don't catch the humor, other than the big boom in the Surprise Symphony. So, I will walk you through the second movement of Haydn's last symphony, the "London" Symphony no. 104. This Andante in G major is set as a theme and variations, a very basic form. You start with a memorable tune, and embellish it with ornaments, re-orchestration, and changes in mode or meter, one signficant change with each new Variation. But Haydn can't be as simple as that.

First, the theme: it is a rounded binary form, as expected. The first eight measures (a) are a very normal parallel period, with only two surprising sforzandi on the last beats of measures 2 and 6 to startle at all. The next eight measures (b) are also normal, a delightful little digression that leads to a half cadence in the original key. This leads to the return of the 'a' motive, leading us to the logical conclusion that this is a very normal rounded binary form. But the return is not so normal. Instead of another parallel period, this time Haydn composes a contrasting period that cadences most unusually on the subdominant (IV) chord. (Think about the song "Take me out to the ball game." The cadence on 'they don't win, it's a shame.' is likewise on IV.) A developmental section follows, leading to a deceptive cadence before finally providing a true authentic cadence and a short codetta. Rounded binary forms do not normally radically alter the return of the 'a' theme, as Haydn has done. The return of 'a' feels like a type of variation on the original. Hmm, variation.... There is a nice closing section to stabilize the ending of the theme.

Variation I features a switch to the minor mode (G minor). The first four measures are otherwise identical to the theme, except played by winds instead of strings. The second phrase contains a "Surprise"-like gotcha, with full orchestra leaping entering in subito fortissimo. This second phrase is also heavily embellished, almost to the point of making the period contrasting instead of parallel. Hmm, another mini-variation... The variation of the 'b' section takes us to the relative major key of Bb, which is perfectly acceptable as long as it gets us back home to a V chord in G minor, by 9 pm on a school night. Instead, Haydn plays the bad boy, keeping us out in the key of Bb far too long. Sure, he pretends to take us home, by setting up a big half cadence and a grand pause, followed by the return of the 'a' motive. But we are not home, we are still in Bb! This could be a full-fledged development, complete with false return, as if Haydn was composing a sonata form. And yet it does feel like we are in the return of 'a' in our rounded binary form for Variation I.

To confuse the issue further, the 'a' motive in Bb leads to another half cadence, this time in the tonic key. But, it is too big. Haydn dangles the orchestra on a D dominant seventh chord for six full measures, making this feel like a very significant structural division. And the next section returns to the major mode, with an exact replication of the 'a' motive in its original repeated parallel period form (the repeat is a variation though) , beginning Variation II. So, that Bb motive really was the return of 'a', in the wrong key and leading to a tonally open conclusion to Variation I (the half cadence in G). No closing section, no tonic chord.

Variation II has some additional jokes. Instead of leading to a IV chord in the return of 'a', Haydn brings us to the key of bV (Db major), almost as far removed as one can get from the tonic key. A new flute cadenza leads us to the slightly closer key of F# major (#VII) and then the strings lead us to another half cadence and the start of the real return of 'a'. Thus everything before was a false return. This new 'a' (starting in measure 122) follows the same path as the original theme, with the digression to C major and then back again. There are a few ornamental differences, keeping up the idea of mini variations within the larger Theme and Variations form. The closing section is slightly extended, to provide a balanced ending to the whole piece.

Theme and Variation forms usually have many variations, allowing the composer to show off their skilz. Haydn instead takes an approach that combines hybrid form and nested variation. There is a sense of continuous variation, like a passacaglia, with the different versions of the 'a' motive that keep popping up. This is nested within the larger sectional Theme and Variations. The theme and two variations have aspects of a ternary form: G major for the outer sections divided by a G minor section; the middle section is tonally open; and orchestration contrasts the middle section from the outer sections.

The main jokes: we have a real return that feels like a false return because it is in the wrong key, and a false return that feels like a real return because it is in the right key. The false and true returns create a feeling of development within a sonata form, when the form is really a hybrid of theme-n-variations and ternary. The deceptively simple way the movement starts, compared to the complex structure that underlies it.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Mmmm, blog rolls!

Today I received a request to link to another music blog, reminding me that I've been remiss in updating my blogroll. Now that I use Bloglines to keep up on my reading, I've been subscribing to many new blogs without adding them to the blogroll.

Brian Sacawa is a professional saxophonist, writing Sounds Like Now. (I'm tempted to reorganize my blogroll by instrumentation, though there are too many that I'd have to place in Listener or Unknown.)

Pliable publishes On an Overgrown Path, on music, architecture, film, etc. His goal is to include a dozen or more links in each post, sending his readers on paths of fruitful discovery.

Sean Carroll, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, writes about the Preposterous Universe.

Michael Berube is a professor of cultural studies at Penn State. His son's knowledge of the Beatles is awesome.

Bloglines is down right now, and I know I'm forgetting some other blogs. I'll update this tomorrow. And while I'm throwing links out, perhaps I can earn some Tea.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Doping scandals in music?

Yesterday we started the Social Psychology of Music unit in my Psych of Music class. It was supposed to start on Monday, but I was waylaid by illness. However, at the beginning of class a spontaneous debate started on the use of beta blockers to combat stage fright. One student, who is also an athlete, immediately compared it to steroid use. As he sees it, athletes train their bodies to perform at peak levels in arduous situations, whereas musicians train their minds to perform and emote under similar duress. And just as steroids give an unfair advantage to athletes in the development of muscle, beta blockers give an unfair advantage to musicians in the development of "ice in the veins."

Most of the other students were against this view. They argued that steroids are banned not because of unfair advantage but because they are unsafe. Beta blockers are safe (assuming you take them under the supervision of a doctor), thus they don't need to be banned. Another argument is that steroids develop muscle to a degree that natural methods could never match, whereas there are plenty of alternatives to beta blockers in overcoming stage fright. Meditation, aversion therapy, and hypnosis have all been used successfully, and there are many musicians who do not suffer from stage fright in the first place. Thus beta blockers do not give an unfair advantage, creating an escalation in anxiety-dampening drug use among musicians.

I wrote a paper on performance anxiety in grad school about 10 years ago. Some of my research involved conducting surveys on beta blocker use in various online music communities. I found a small but very vocal percentage of these communities shared similar views to my athlete student. They felt that if a musician couldn't overcome performance anxiety by "natural" means, that person shouldn't be a performer. In some cases the person felt that audiences were being deceived. In others, the person felt that the musician was not being true to their feelings, blocking them with drugs. (Beta blockers do not alter a person's mood. They prevent the body from reacting to surges of adrenaline, but do not change brain chemistry.)

I have used beta blockers in the past, solely for auditions. Regular performances do not cause debilitating anxiety symptoms for me, but auditions do. And auditions are the gateway to the regular performances, in many situations. Thus I had no qualms about using the drug. What do you think, as performers or as concert-goers?

Update: Brian Sacawa has written a post in respond to this question.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Snopes for Music Theory

Jeffrey Kresky offers a service to music theorists, debunking various urban legends in the aptly titled "'Urban Legends' for Music Theorists," Music Theory Spectrum Vol 25, no. 1 (Spring 2003), 121-125. I have changed the format to something more familiar.

Claim: The opening E minor chords of Symphony of Psalms were spaced to imitate the natural shape of two hands stretched out at the keyboard.

Status: True

Origins: The unusual spacing of the chord has isolated G's played by the thumbs in the middle register, with a wide gap between the thumbs and the rest of the fingers, just as a normal hand position. This has been confirmed by Stravinsky expert Claudio Spies, that while Stravinsky did not speak of the hand position directly with Claudio, "it definitely played into his thinking."

Claim: The opening chords of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony are voiced so each instrument plays the note with which it will start its next entry.

Status: False

Origins: Milton Babbitt has made this claim, among other famous theorists. Examination of a score reveals that the theory works for certain instruments: first violin, cello, contrabass, 3rd horn, 2nd trumpet, oboes, and timpani. It does not reflect the behavior of the second violin, viola, 1st and 2nd horn, 1st trumpet, flutes, clarinets, or bassoons.

Claim: In the first movement of Mozart's 40th symphony, the key changes in the development section trace a descending G minor scale.


Origins: Milton Babbitt again, that trickster. The development does start (unusually) in G minor before quickly shifting to F# minor (m. 103). Next is E minor (m. 115). D minor is very stable, but it is part of a circle of fifths, so the next key after E minor is really A minor, followed by D minor, G minor, C major, F major, and Bb major. If we decide to pick every other key from this circle of fifths, we do get Emin, Dmin, Cmaj, Bb maj, so almost all of the scale. All we need is A, which is where things break down. A is melodically present in the D dominant that signals the recapitulation, but it is never given its own key.

Claim: The hornpipe in Gilbert&Sullivan's Ruddigore is the inversion of a standard hornpipe.

Status: Inconclusive

Origins: Leslie Bailey's The Gilbert and Sullivan Book, as well as other older sources. The hornpipe is quite charming, and the composer was asked how he was able to compose one that sounded so authentic. The reported reply is that he took the well-known standard hornpipe and turned it upside down. Here is the Sailor's Hornpipe. Here is an arrangement of Sullivan's hornpipe (pdf). I can see a flipping around of the opening direction (down becomes up) and the four eighth-notes are somewhat reversed (down-down-up becomes up-down-down). The leaps within the original hornpipe have the descending octave first and the ascending fourth second; Sullivan has the ascending (fifth) first and the descending octave second. However, Kresky is correct that no section of Sullivan's hornpipe is a true inversion of any section of the standard hornpipe. In fact, inverting Sullivan's music creates a decidedly un-hornpipy sound, even when altering the quality of intervals to stay tonal. Perhaps Sullivan was being flippant, really meaning that he took features of the original hornpipe and added his own flavor to it. But don't believe any claims that it is a true inversion of the standard hornpipe.

Claim: The "Sirens" episode from Ulysses by James Joyce is set in the form of a fugue.


Origins: William Tindall, A Reader's Guide to James Joyce: "The method is fugal, says Joyce, and the structure that of a fugue." Hugh Kenner, Joyce's Voices: "a stylistic caper is in progress... nothing less, if we are to trust the schema, than an effort to construct a prose fuga per canonem." Stuart Gilbert, in his James Joyce's "Ulysses," attempts to analyze the scene as a fugue. The problem comes in identifying what the subject is. Any musical fugue consists of a musical theme, the subject, which is realized in each of the 2-6 voices of the fugue. There can be free episodic material between each statement of the subject, and the subject can be stated any number of times as long as each voice gets it once at the beginning (the exposition). An example of a verbal fugue can be seen in Ernst Toch's Geographical Fugue (cheating, as this is really still a musical piece) or in Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid. But said imitation does not occur in Joyce's work.

Monday, April 04, 2005

What's your sign?

Mine is The Fifth Dimension, which accurately captures my "well-developed sense of irony and the ability to please the mainstream even while tweaking it." But I have to say, I have no idea who Bill is, and I'm happily married, thanks. Speaking of which, my wife's sign is Herb Albert, though one of his ballads rather than a more appropriate mariachi number.

Thanks (or blame) to Alex and Casper.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Skipping the middle man

Last summer, a group of wacky composers, neuroscientists, sound engineers, and visualization researchers got together and put on a concert of music generated by one person's brain. The person did not compose the music. Rather, the person listened to some music ("Dry Mud" by Australian composer David Page), while his brain activity was measured via electroencephalogram (EEG).
The listener wore headphones to hear the music, and a cap with EEG sensors on it to record neural activity. The 26 sensor electrodes were arranged according to the 10-20 standard for EEG placement. The sensors are labelled by proximity over a regions of the brain (F=Front, T=Temporal, C=Central, P-Parietal, O=Occipital) followed by either a 'z' for the midline, or a number that increases as it moves further from the midline. Odd numbers (1,3,5) are on the left hemisphere and even numbers (2,4,6) on the right e.g. T4 is on the right temporal lobe, above the right ear. An additional 10 sensors were used to record heart-rate, skin conductance, eye movements, breathing and other data. The sensors were recorded as interleaved channels of signed 32 bit integers at a rate of 500 samples per second. The channels were separated into individually named files and converted to ascii format for simplicity of loading on different systems.

10 "sonifications" of the recorded data were chosen for the concert. In each case, the time element of the data was preserved, thus each piece is five minutes long. Beyond that, each sonification was based upon some scheme for converting the frequencies of the EEG to pitches or timbres, each scheme described in full detail in provided links. The actual sonifications --
"Neural Dialogues," "What Are You Really Thinking?" "Listening to the Mind Listening," "Untidy Mind," "The Other Ear," "Listen (Awakening)," "Mind Your Body," "Perceptions in C," "Polyrhythm in the Human Brain," and "EEG Sonification" (winner of the least imaginative title) -- are also provided in links.

I did not like Perception in C at all. The combination of randomness with shlocky string synths created a very bad imitation of minimalism. Untidy Mind is pretty cool, but my favorite is The Other Ear. It has a very Pendereckian feel, starting with slowly crescendoing clusters that build to a grand pause, leading next to scattered bursts that morph into a new type of clusters. This shows that sonification is just another means of composition, with the results dependent on the decisions made by the composer, not by the starting data set.