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Why do we make music?

February 14, 2018 at 10:34 am

Why do we (humans) make music? I’ll try to sum up the current theories I’ve read into one short blog post.

Evolutionary Psychology is a relatively new science which attempts to explain everything humans do through an evolutionary purpose. The danger in this science is that many of the speculations are quite difficult to turn into testable hypotheses; therefore clear and precise answers are nearly impossible. In other words, this is, at best, educated conjecture.

Darwin thought that our ability to create and enjoy music was rooted in sexual selection. From his book The Descent of Man:

“… primeval man, or rather some early progenitor of man, probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences, that is in singing, as do some of the gibbon-apes at the present day; … this power would have been especially exerted during the courtship of the sexes,—would have expressed various emotions, such as love, jealousy, triumph,—and would have served as a challenge to rivals.”

Nature is full of examples of animals doing crazy things in order to attract a mate. From a pure survival standpoint, it’s easy for us to see why the biggest male lion gets to breed with the most females. On the other hand, it’s a little weirder when you think about, for example, the sexual selection of these exotic birds:

A big, strong lion is desirable because it will supposedly produce big, strong offspring. But why would some birds choose the best dancer (or singer), when dance offers very little in terms of survival technique (how often does a fabulous dance protect from predators, or provide the next meal)?

In short, Darwin’s theory suggests that music started as mating calls, and became increasingly complex as humans themselves became complex. Choosing the best mate became much more than a body inspection or a show of strength. The best mate would be the one who was healthy enough to have free time for creating art, not to mention the brains to make his/her song stand out. And it’s very possible that this sexual desire for “brainy” art helped drive us to become as (supposedly) intelligent as we are today.

This theory’s shortcoming is that music isn’t only about sex; we find it in so many aspects of our lives, serving many different purposes. We have incredibly complex social circles and hierarchies, and music is often used as part of our identity of “self”: think about a song that is special to you and your lover, your alma mater ditty, your favorite piece, your favorite genre, the songs that “belong” to your circle of friends. Music is closely linked to our social and personal life and identity – I’d argue that it is nearly identical to the concept of Wittgenstein‘s Language-Game.

So, building on Darwin’s original idea, the current thinkers believe that human musical competence began as a tool for sexual selection (mating calls), driving the brain to develop dramatically. As this music-based sexual selection pushed humans to become more and more intelligent, our brains became increasingly capable of more complex music – it is possible that spoken language actually was a byproduct of our musical skills’ growth. As humans became more and more intelligent, our musical abilities grew to relate not only to sexual selection, but also social status, identity, and other things. There is some debate whether the advanced musical abilities served an evolutionary purpose (for example, tribal identity: using a certain song or musical style) or if our obsession with music was just a “lucky” byproduct of these other evolved abilities.

So our reason to listen to or create music could be anything from love, identity, etc., or for no reason at all – simply to enjoy it.

Check back for PART II of this, coming soon – Why do we like music? But in the meantime, listen to this guy play a copy of a 60,000 year old instrument, and ask yourself, could he be a potential mate?

If you want to go deeper, the bulk of this post was based on these books:

Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: Robert Jourdain
This is your Brain on Music: Daniel Levitin

 

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What does Wind sound like?

October 23, 2017 at 12:47 pm

Wind is one of those words that can mean different things according to the context in which it is used. Physically, it is the movement of gasses; metaphorically, it can refer to luck (winds of fate), change in society or culture (winds of change), change of (metaphorical or actual) season, the state of being alive (having breath). Wind takes a role in many, if not all, religions. And of course, let us not forget the wind of the butt.

So, how do composers set the idea of wind to music?

We may as well start with some of the stereotypical musical settings of wind – the fast, chromatic passages that rise and fall in Richard WagnerOverture to Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), the trills and tympani in Gioachino Rossini Storm Scene from Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), and the spooky violin glissandi in this colorful, fun work by Ferde Grofé – Cloudburst from Grand Canyon Suite.

Franz Schubert – Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane) from Winterreise (Winter’s Journey). It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how Schubert paints the wind in this song – piano arpeggios and trills practically make you shiver, just like a cold, biting wind. This song is part of the wonderfully depressing song cycle that Schubert wrote as a he approached the end of his short life.

The wind is turning the weathervane on the roof of my sweetheart’s house. Round and round it mocks and teases my sighs and my tears…. For Nature plays with our hearts as the wind plays with the vane.

The wind also plays a part in Schubert’s Erlkönig.

Gustav Mahler – Im diesem Wetter (In this Weather) from Kindentotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). Another happy little composition, here the wind is a nasty thing that kills babies. Mahler’s amazing orchestration makes you feel the stinging raindrops and blowing gales.

In this weather, in this windy storm, I would never have sent the children out. They have been carried off, I wasn’t able to warn them!

César Franck – Les Éolides (The Breezes). This is a sort of tone-poem about Aeolus, the keeper of the winds in the Odyssey, who gifts the winds to help Odysseus find his way home. The piece doesn’t narrate the story like some other tone-poems, but instead paints a picture of the breeze blowing the sea and gently swaying a ship on its journey. The music is so ridiculously French Romantic in its melodic gesture and harmony; it’s easy to see where Debussy and Ravel got their sound. Finally, we need to note that the composer’s full name is César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck, because it takes a good bit of wind to get that name out.

Speaking of Aeolus, there’s an instrument called the Aeolian Harp which is played by – you guess it – the wind. You can listen to one here.There are two piano works related to this ethereal instrument – though neither can be said to really imitate the Aeolian Harp’s sound, they do capture the mystical, magical quality of its music. First, Frédéric Chopin’s Ab-major Etude was subtitled “Aeolian Harp” by his fellow composer, Robert Schumann, because of its quick, wind-like arpeggios.

Henry Cowell – Aeolian Harp. Cowell was known for pushing the boundaries of composition. Ironically, this work is one of his tamest, but it’s still a little different from what you might expect in a classical piano piece. And, unlike Chopin, he himself titled this piece with Aeolus’ name.

Carson Kievman – Hurricane Symphony. You might call this a modern equivalent of the Franck work mentioned earlier. It’s a longer listen, and tells the story of a real storm rather than mythology. Kievman is a living American composer whose current project is an opera about Nikola Tesla. How cool is that?

Johann Sebastian Bach – Kyrie, Gott Heiliger Geist (Have mercy, God Holy Ghost). This is part of Bach’s third Clavier-Übung, also called the German Organ Mass – much has been written about it, so I won’t discuss it here for the sake of brevity. This piece is a fancy setting of a hymn which pleads for mercy from the Holy Spirit, which, in the bible, first appears to the disciples in a wind. The melody of the hymn (cantus firmus) is found in the bass –  long, slow, deep notes – and as it is an organ piece, these low notes require a lot of wind flowing through organ pipes. As the piece progresses, there are rhythmic motifs that sound like the rushing of wind as well (running 8th notes starting at 2:49). There is also a sequence which repeats itself seven times (normally, it should be no more than four), climaxing at the highest note on the baroque organ (starts at 3:06, climaxes at 3:22). Bach is definitely thinking deep here.

Olivier Messiaen – Le vent de l’Esprit (The Wind of the Spirit) from Messe de la Pentecôte (Pentecost Mass) Not to be outdone by a German, Messiaen writes his own windy setting of the Holy Spirit for that big bag of hot-air, the organ. At the end, a nice fat chord puts the bellows to the test, as wind rushes through the pipes and into the church.

-= So, I promised some fart music as well. =-

Carl Orff – Ego Sum Abbas from Carmina Burana. The fart in this short little aria (if you can call it that) from this monumentally famous choral work is, sadly, nearly always ignored by conductors and performers. A baritone soloist sings a satirical monologue about being a nasty drunken abbot. But then, at 1:26, there’s a single-note tuba solo, which has no musical relation to the rest of the piece. Why? I’ll tell you why. It’s a fart. The drunken jerk of an abbot farted. And I believe it should be required that the soloist pretend to break wind at this pinnacle moment of this oratorio.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Bei der Hitz im Sommer eß ich. Mozart was a dirty little boy. He wrote a number of canons on butt licking, probably for singing with his mates at the local drinking hole. No, I’m not lying. After his death, his dirty little canons were all published, but with alternative words that were much more acceptable for public performance. The video below, unfortunately, is sung with the alternate “clean” lyrics, but here is is a translation of the original:

In the heat of summer I like to eat roots and spices, also butter and radish; they expel a lovely wind and cool me.

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Tics and Tones …

October 18, 2017 at 10:36 am

My wife told me a fantastic true story about a performance she recently attended.

The concert was of a large choir. Before the singing began, the director spoke to the audience (I’ve paraphrased here):

“Good evening. One of our choir members has Tourette syndrome, and he wanted you to be aware that his particular tic is a high-pitched squeal …”
tweeeeeeeeee …
“… kind of like that.”
(nervous laughter)
“He’s an important part of our choir and we’re really glad that he’s here with us.”
(thunderous applause)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how music has become a pastime of expertise. I’m thankful that there are musical superstars and ensembles that play with near perfection. I’m thankful that recorded music allows me to listen to any kind of music, anytime, anywhere. But with these wonderful gains have come a loss of personal music making. Many people are afraid to make music in public, lest it become known that they are not great. Many people abandon making music when they graduate from high school, and many never join a band or choir again.

Think back to the story above. This young man is aware that at any moment, he might make a sound that could mar the choir’s performance. The choir is equally aware that this might happen. But both the young man and the other choir members have accepted this reality and have chosen to sing anyway – and all of them are far richer for doing so.

So, if you are one of those people who “used to” or “haven’t since high school”, let me be the first to encourage you to start again. Join a choir, pick up your instrument, improvise, practice, mess up, have fun, work hard. Give thanks for the inspiration of the experts – but let the best music be your own. Don’t be afraid to make an unpleasant sound – because the good sounds will surely outnumber the bad.

The video below was from the whole concert. The piece that the choir sang is “Dwijavanthi”, an unaccompanied choral work that imitates an Indian Raga, written by American composer Ethan Sperry.

And, incidentally, I wasn’t able to hear his tic at all.

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