Friday, September 30, 2011

Breaking up is hard to do

One of the difficulties in exploring musical timbre is combating the scriptist-inspired view of music.  This view assumes that the script, in this case the musical score, contains all of the information about the music.  A result of this perspective is the assumption that the smallest musical unit is the note, music's version of the atom.  But just as physicists discovered that the atom was indeed divisible into smaller and smaller sections, musical notes can also be divided into smaller sections. 

The best-known division of musical notes comes from the world of synthesizers, giving us the ADSR.  This system breaks up the note into the Attack, the Decay, the Sustain, and the Release.  The Attack is defined as the beginning of the note, up to the point that the amplitude has reached its maximum.  The Decay marks the drop-off in amplitude after the Attack, followed by the Sustain's consistent volume level.  Finally, the Release marks how quickly the volume drops to nothing after the Sustain portion.  Simple synthesizers could control the timbre of a sound by specifying how long each of these sound portions lasted, with a linear increase or decrease of amplitude for the transient sections.  These sections are determined solely by amplitude, with no consideration of frequency whatsoever.  Fancier synthesizers do allow curves to the amplitude changes, for more subtle changes in timbre.  Any of these synthesizers apply the ADSR amplitude envelope to a specified spectral pattern, either from an analog filter or a digital filter. 

This system was never intended to analyze sounds, so its usefulness is limited.  Acoustic instruments can increase in volume after the attack, or shift in spectral color without changing volume.  In the next post I'll look at a different segmentation system that is better suited to analysis.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Speed of Timbre

Last week I was listening to an interview with guitarist Taylor Levine on My Ears Are Open. In the interview Taylor talks about how quickly rock musicians adopted technological innovations that created new timbres. From the electric guitar of Les Paul, to innovations in speakers and pedals, to synthesizers of all different generations, as soon as a new device was invented, it was embraced by some popular musician and loved by audiences. Why is it that these musical explorations are so quickly accepted in the popular music world, and yet innovations in timbre in the art music world don't find a foothold, either with the musicians or the audience?

I think there may be a complexity issue that hampers exploration in the art music scene. Berlyne's inverted U theory of complexity and arousal states that the complexity or novelty of a piece directly affects the arousal, with the optimal amount of arousal created at a midlevel of complexity, the arousal dropping off in either direction as the complexity increases or decreases. I posit that popular music tends to be on the low side of the complexity curve, when considering rhythm, melody, and harmony. Thus any experimentation with timbre will only aid in reaching the apex of arousal. On the other hand, a string quartet by Webern already has very complex form, harmony, and melodic structure. I always felt that throwing in extra timbral effects like col legno was like too much spice, pushing me well over the hump of the inverted U curve, reducing my arousal. Musical works that introduce new timbres successfully will be conservative in other aspects of structure. Thus popular music, minimalist music, and non-pitched percussion music tends to be the most successful. A Stockhausen piece that serializes timbre along with rhythm, pitch, and dynamics will have to rely on things other than arousal, at least until audiences are more familiar with the structures, reducing the perceived complexity.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The journey

I was listening to the Adagio from Schubert's String Quintet in C Major* today, telling Eldest Child that this was one of my favorite works. She shares a love of classical music, unlike the rest of the Bieber-loving bunch. It made me think about my experiences with this movement. One time I found myself singing the second cello part with four friends in the upper hall of Eastman as we worked on a Schenkerian analysis for class. The first time I really listened to it I was driving from Wisconsin to Ohio. When the minor dominant appeared in the b section of the first part, I nearly drove off of the road, thinking it was a mistake. Now I know to expect it, and to recognize that it is part of a transition to a new key. And today I realized that when the same minor dominant occurs in the third part, it feels very different. Rather than sounding disruptive, the chord is welcomed even as it transitions in a different way than the first part. Because of the repetitions - the journey I had been on - the modulation was a perfect balance of familiar and novel that led me comfortingly to the new key. If I had listened to the third part without hearing the first and second parts, the minor dominant chord wouldn't have had nearly the same effect. And if I hadn't had the experiences studying and hearing the quintet, I wouldn't have realized this effect at all. The journey may not always be the point, but it is always necessary.

*Emerson String Quartet with Mstislov Rostropovich

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Talkin' To God

I found out today that Mark Gould is a very weird man. He has put up a series of videos on some famous trumpet excerpts (and one commentary on historically informed performances), with "interesting" takes on them. See for yourself.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Today I was prompting my students to think of reasons why the subdominant chord (IV) is more common than the supertonic chord (II) as a predominant within the standard phrase model. As part of this, we talked about what motivates people in the creation of systems and languages. I was aiming at ease of use, pointing out that IV chords are the same quality as tonic chords, and therefore will be easy to play with the same hand shape for most chord-based instruments. But students also brought up the desire for stability brought about by redundancy of information. So the repeated chord quality will emphasize and stabilize the major or minor mode of the tonic more than the II chord. This redundancy is also seen in the tonic note shared between the tonic and subdominant chords.

But all of these stabilizing features also give the IV chord a less effective predominant function. The IV chord shares so much in common with the tonic chord (I) that it can easily move back to the tonic with no real disappointment of unrealized expectation. Thus it doesn't have as strong of a push to move to the dominant chord (V) as the II chord. Thus the choice of predominant is really a choice of motivation. Easiness and stability vs. tension and movement.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Go Badgers

Today we went to a Wisconsin Huddle in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament. Our presence was recorded on YouTube, in the second video on the Huddle on this page: I am in the upper right corner, bouncing with the youngest sitting on my shoulders. Alas, the Badgers lost, but the pep band sounded great.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

To shut up the crickets

I was finding I had many more interesting things to do rather than write this blog last summer, so I stopped. Every once in a while I would feel a twinge to start blogging again. One major guilt trip came during the annual conference of the Society for Music Theory. The meeting of the Music Cognition Interest Group was spent celebrating 25 years of existence, with remembrances of the state of music cognition research back then and comparing it with today. In doing so, Helen Brown of Purdue University was listing all the places music cognition research can be found nowadays, and passed around copies of the last few posts of this blog! This was awkward/funny for four reasons: 1) She didn't know it was my blog. 2) I was sitting right next to her. 3) I wasn't really paying attention to her speech at that point until halfway through her description of my blog, when I looked up in horrifying realization.* 4) My last post before this one is called Sexy Theory, which Helen relished in announcing to all of our colleagues. The awkwardness factor collapsed with Leigh Van Handel's (Michigan State) reminder to everyone that it was indeed my blog. Thanks, Leigh!

The second time came with the Grammy's, and an offer by my fiancée to help live-blog the event again. Yes, I have a fiancée now, along with three more children in a lovely Brady Bunch home. We even have our own Alice, except her name isn't Alice. Our schedules made watching the Grammy's impossible, much less live-blogging about them.

But finally, I got an itch to start writing the blog again. I've been stimulated by enthusiastic students, the prospects of my sabbatical, my upcoming wedding, and a friend who just e-published her first book. Speaking of which, my** first book came out last October. So, I plan to post about times a week. Lock up your interwebs and hide your backlinks, Musical Perceptions is back!

*Leigh, who was sitting right across from me, says the transition in my face was priceless.
**Mine, and nine other authors.