some thoughts about music

    I wrote this as a response to a comment by PP. It got long and I became interested to see if it provoked any response. So I put it in a blog to get more exposure.

    I don't understand anger over music. I used to go to NYC once a month. My girlfriend had a flute lesson, after we'd go to a museum. Later we'd go to a music event, usually an avant-garde jazz bar with a live band. Some times I enjoyed it, some times not. I didn't get pissed if I didn't get into it. When I can't get into a musical performance I conclude I don't know enough to grasp it or it's not very good. I keep listening and studying to see if I can understand it better. 

    The Dylan episode had nothing to do with music. The people simply wanted to hear a live performance of songs they knew and liked or at least if new songs,  songs that were almost exactly the same as the songs they knew. It's a problem musicians have when they want to grow and people with small musical minds won't let them. Ricky Nelson wrote a song about it. If you gotta play at garden parties I wish you a lot of luck but If memories was all I sang I'd rather drive a truck.



    There is implicit and explicit ways of knowing. On a basic level it doesn't take long for most people to hear the difference between an oboe, trumpet, guitar, violin all playing the same note. Implicit knowledge, they just hear it. I could tell you why it sounds different. Explicitly with graphs and wave forms and the overtone series. People implicitly understand music. They implicitly understand everything that The Itsy Bitsy Spider has to offer musically and lyrically. It bores them. Most people stop growing soon after that. To grow musically on has to educate one's ear implicitly by a lot of listening. The radio plays almost the same song, songs at the same level. So after growing beyond  The Itsy Bitsy Spider they stop with basic rock and roll. Those who are interested and by luck get exposed to something more seek it out. But most people limit their exposure. If it doesn't sound like what they're used to listening to they change the station. They don't know explicitly why. They can't say there's a chord I haven't heard before or a tempo that's different or a melody along a scale that's not major or minor. They just hear it's different and turn it off. The pop radio stations know this and help by rarely playing anything different or unusual or even a little bit more complex.

    Even those who advance beyond the basic can get stuck. That's what happened with Rite of Spring. It was a song beyond the implicit understanding of the listeners. Their ears weren't educated enough to hear it. I could explain explicitly why it was good. I could explain what Stravinski was doing, why it was hard to understand. I could say listen to it a few times and your ear will be educated and you'll begin to hear it. I could explicitly explain how it fits within the evolution of classical music in terms of the harmonic structure. How Gregorian Chants fully explored the harmony of octaves and fifths until it got boring and led to the choral music of Bach. How each advance included the next harmonic in ever increasing complex harmonies. But it's enough if you just listen, your ear will learn to hear it implicitly.

    Some times I play a radio in the background tuned to the local rock station. Not often because most rock bores me. Almost every song sounds the same. Almost always the same harmony, same tempo, same instruments, simply melodies. They might as well be playing The Itsy Bitsy Spider over and over again. The music goes in one ear and out the other. Occasionally I'll hear something different, that will pull me away from what I'm doing. In my mind I'll say something is happening there. I'll stop and listen and try to figure out what it is that's happening.




    I bought her DVD because of this song. Not because of What If God Was One of Us, the hit from the album. I liked the song and I bought the album because if someone can write and perform this song I wanted to hear what else she could do. I don't know people here. How far you've grown musically. Can you hear that something very different is happening here? Do you like it? Is it hard to listen to and get into? Does it affect you emotionally? Could you dance to it? Do you know why it's different than every other rock song out today?

    Anyone, or at least the vast majority, can learn to hear higher quality music. If they just listen eventually they'll be drawn to it. Just as we all learned to hear music that is better than The Itsy Bitsy Spider. And eventually became bored by it. When I get a new album that I like I often don't want to listen to anything else. I'll play it over and over and over again until I've heard everything it has to offer. Every bass line, every cymbal crash. I'll play it until I know it. I got this Joan Osborne CD when I was traveling from California to Florida. I picked up a hitch hiker, a good old boy who probably never listened to anything but country music his whole life. I played this CD constantly, just this CD and I could tell he didn't like it, but my car my music. After a dozen or so times My Right Hand Man was the song he was "seat dancing" to. He was really getting into this song out of all the songs on the album. He was really digging it. Swaying, or jerking since it's hard rock, beating his hands to the music. Anyway there's my little anecdote that says to me you can learn to hear more and better and if you do you'll be drawn to higher quality stuff.


    Alright, I'll repost my comments here as well for continuity. Adding this:

    Their ears weren't educated enough to hear it. I could explain explicitly why it was good. I could explain what Stravinski was doing, why it was hard to understand. I could say listen to it a few times and your ear will be educated and you'll begin to hear it. I could explicitly explain how it fits within the evolution of classical music in terms of the harmonic structure. How Gregorian Chants fully explored the harmony of octaves and fifths until it got boring and led to the choral music of Bach. How each advance included the next harmonic in ever increasing complex harmonies. But it's enough if you just listen, your ear will learn to hear it implicitly.

    I'd doubt this - I don't think we can skip through so many generations of cultural acclimation and then be able "to just listen a few times and you'll begin to hear it". And I think it misreads the diversity of music - you can train people to do most anything, but that doesn't mean their trained response is equivalent to the response of the untrained ear, the naturally inclined who might like it or part of it or who reject it. And I believe part of rock 'n roll was to offend & push away, not just to attract and take further. Us vs them. When we approach Stravinsky as "everyone can learn to enjoy", at some level he might be offended - he'd gone all that way to be elite - did he really want "Rites of Spring for Dummies" as a potential solution?

    And I'd say somewhat snobbishly that the universal acceptance of current music comes with a price that it's less demanding, less elitist, more music-by-committee or mass agreement, less room to diverge, less space for creative ideas and contemplation, more attuned to poor English speakers, all ages, different cultures, et al. Of course that doesn't acknowledge the tons of stuff I don't hear... but I just don't think we consume music in the same way - even the ability to listen to crap sound quality  - we used to accept it thanks to poor recordings - now we're just apathetic, good enough, we get the idea, wow bravo.


    Hmmm, I'm partly classically trained, played jazz, played rock, played punk, played a stick and pickle drums and a blade of grass tween my thumbs and a long-tall instrument with 3 regular strings off in the Turkestan desert and a conch by the seashore near the Atacama and did Tuvan throat singing near Tuva, jammed with Moroccan drums & chant singers on the Atlantic coast, didgeridoo in Melbourne, Gamelan in Bali, bluegrass in Kentucky, accordion in oompafied Central Europe, danced and congo'd with a Senegalese fire-breathing troupe in Paris, backed up some 70-year-old blues singer who only had 3 strings on his guitar... I can put Itsy Bitsy Spider in minor, diminished, atonal, Gregorian, African call back chant, negro spiritual, Caribbean salsa, and probably Mozarted to the nth degree (or Salieri'd, depending on devilish approach). I do a great version of Alouette sounding like the drunken Tiger Lilies (Banging in the Nails), scares all the pre-school kids, while my "I'm a Little Tea Pot" extends the "whoo...." sound of the kettle in a shared participatory chant - a big hit on the kindergarten circuit.

    My mother thinks I'm limited musically because I don't much care for Kenny Rogers and Engelbert Humperdinck. (I was going to say John Denver, but aside from Hunter Thompson joking, Denver's what he is and does it well for those into it. Same thing with that Key West singer in Margaritaville. I was never much charmed by Barbara Streisand, but the theme for Eyes of Laura Mars still manages to give me chills.

    She also tells me my brothers play better than me, which is probably true, but I have a lot more fun, of that I'm sure.

    "Quality" is simply arbitrary and personal. There's a Belgian pseudo-fashion scream punk band that's so awful I love them, kind of a European Nancy Sinatra. There's a Czech song with a chorus like a kid's song but sung out of key that grabs me every time. There's multi-layered complex Byzantine Bulgarian choirs that don't even need a backing orchestra to be captivating. There was a drummer playing pickle barrels on a street corner in DC who was one of the best I've seen, except for King Crimson in a small bar with Bill Bruford & Tony Levin on stick & Adrian Belew with all his whackadoodle I'm-having-fun effects, but were they more fun than the Ramones clocking in each song at 2 minutes 30 or rockabilly with Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds, or was it Kiss with Rock City & chutes of fire and tongues wagging out, or the Rolling Stones teasing on 100,000 New Orleans stadium ecstatic fans as they dragged out the solo monotonous intro bar to Honky Tonk Women for 5 minutes, or Iggy Pop screaming out "Lust for Life" as he spit on the small venu crowd, or was it a quiet 4-piece cello band playing Mozart in a garden courtyard where he wrote the piece, or a church with his death mass that dates back to the Reformation or Fishbone slinging horns across stage.... Do you like Tom Waits or Butthole Surfers or Johnny Cash or Grand Funk Railroad Closer to Home, or maybe it's MC5 kick out the jams motherfuckers, or Dick Dale doing surf music must die while appropriating jewish Hava Nagila, or a Filipino karaoke band shredding Elvis doing "In the Ghetto".

    Oh, and for some reason I'm just not that interested in classical music, even though I'm surrounded by it. I like hearing its effect on writers like Milan Kundera and Alejo Carpentier, love its use by Milos Forman and other directors trained in its art, loved the new wave Paris opera thriller Diva performing Le Wally, don't *mind* it, but if it's the choice between the punkish attitude-strewn Franz Ferdinand and classical tunes, I'd rather go for the punk.

    BTW - Cranberries were pretty rhymy-dimey overall, but Zombie hit it just right, and other songs have their charm, so what the hey. I got bored with Queen by their 3rd album, i.e. before they made it big, couldn't fathom "we will rock you", but 35 years later can appreciate their overall body of work (without ever actually wanting to hear it, but fine with it anyway)... but who am I?

    Who was it who said " If it sounds good, it is good." ?

    Buddy Holly? Les Paul?

    I don't have anything to say about this comment but you did put some time into it so I'll address it. This is just a list of the variety of music you listen to without any thoughtful analysis of that music. I'm trying to find some general principles to discuss music. I may have failed in the attempt but that was my intention. You really didn't address my post. I too could list a very diverse set of music I've listened to. I don't really dislike any form or type of music so my list would be as varied as yours. I don't see much purpose in sharing that list nor in reading your list.

    Kat, this was a well done post on an interesting topic. I think you  will be interested in this diavlog which is actually to your point.   

    Thanks for this, OK.  I thought it was beautiful.  I agree that the more you listen the more you can lean about music.  I don’t listen to things that aren’t pleasing to my ear because there are so many things that do please me. Probabably my loss, but it is very unpleasant to listen to music that I just don’t like.  My mother was an opera lover, and the really old cartoons used classical music as a back-drop, so likely my early exposure gave me a bit of a running start with varied forms.  

    I'm not saying that everyone should listen to different music. No one can advance to the highest level of understanding in every field. One must pick and choose. I used to go to museums regularly and wander through the rooms looking at the paintings, sculptures, artifacts etc. I'd buy books with photos of paintings by the famous painters when ever I saw one cheap at a used book store or thrift shop. But I never had the time to study the visual arts. My exposure and understanding is very limited.

    Some thing is happening with music in the last @50 years. This isn't just some old guy who doesn't like the music the kids listen to. Music is something I've studied. I'm not looking at the music of my generation and comparing it to the music of the younger generation but at changes over several centuries of western music development. I'm trying to figure out what's happening and why, and explain or discuss it with those who might be interested too.

    The use of classical music in cartoons is something I've forgotten about. Not just use of classical music but classical forms. Mighty Mouse was almost an opera. At least the mouse always sang. That exposure was likely an influence on older generations deeper understanding of different and more complex forms of music. Betty Boop used some of the most interesting jazz as background. They often used Cab Calloway. The animated figures even emulate unique dance style of Calloway.


    That was awesome.

    Kat, great topic. I'll toss in some thoughts. For me, the topic of what is music is as interesting as the creation of music. I tried to list some elements of what is music.

    Sound. What is it?

    What is the scale---Western, Asian, or for example, the "blues" scale.

    Harmony.  The key: C major, E minor, etc.

    The time period.

    The instrument and the materials and production of the instrument.

    The voice as instrument.

    The venue.

    The people performing.

    The audience. 

    All of the above, plus a host of other factors, not to mention one's mood, affect receptivity. I heard some comments by Yo Yo Ma who believes that the effects on the brain are real and highly differentiated, but next to impossible to explain other than the feelings which are produced inside oneself. These feelings are reproducible upon hearing a piece of music later on.  It seems to me that Yo Yo Ma is the rare person who has a mix of a disciplined mind together together with emotionality---not to mention dexterity, to understate all of this flagrantly. I have known many good musicians who are simply ass wipes as human beings. I think most classical and jazz performers have superior mathematical abilities.

    A guest singer sitting next to me in a choral rehearsal said that if I must tap my foot when I sang, try to at least stick to what was written. I told him---he was a soloist---that his voice was so nasal and tinny it sounded like chaulk scraped across a blackboard. 

    I think Leo Fender had perfect pitch. I knew some guys at G & L Guitar in Los Angeles, the successor company to Fender Guitar. They said Fender could identify bass notes in the range of 400 cycles. He was a near genius at making guitars and other instruments.. I once found a rare keyboard of his in a Salvation Army and bought it for fifty bucks, it weighed several hundred pounds. There were a dozen of these keyboards made and I gave it to a guy who had the only stash of spare parts for it. In return I got a G & L special limited production "Strat" which I gave to my son. These guitars have a special sound, prized by performers. Partly the sound comes from the wood that is used----which is Alder. 

    I have three Sirius channels. "Watercolors" for taking a shower. "Symphony" while driving. "Bluesville" if 
    I need to kick it up a notch.

    Anyway, good topic. Got me thinking.

    I'm interested in it all too. Music is such a big topic that it's hard to write about without writing a book. I have thoughts I want to share about every sentence in your post. Everything topic you wrote interests me. At the moment I'm trying to focus on the declining complexity of commonly listened to music because I despair over it. I also am interested in the manufacture of musical instruments. I'm  planning on setting up a wood working shop when I retire in a year to make among other things, musical instruments. I have blueprints and information ready to go and some basic skills. Probably not as much skill as you but it will be fun to learn. Did you ever try making wood based musical instruments in your wood shop?

    Music at it's most fundamental level is math. The difference between music and noise is the difference between order and chaos. It's much more of course. How are those mathematical relationships (songs) able to affect us emotionally? Why are some mathematical relations (songs) more pleasing than others? Those are probably unanswerable question but at musics fundamental level the ability to understand more complex music rests on the ability of the ear and mind to find the order in the more complicated mathematical relationships. We could talk about those mathematical relations explicitly with waveforms and graphs but the ear does it implicitly. One reason many people don't like jazz is once the song is played and the improvisation begins people have trouble hearing how that new melody fits with the harmonic changes and how it relates to the basic melody of the song. They don't get it and get into it because they can't decode the math. 

    There has been a serious decline in the complexity of music for the last few decades. Unprecedented in historical time. I don't understand why. Perhaps it's just me. I've always looked for more and more. I become bored quickly with everything and look for the new and greater nuance and depth. I loved math in school. Addition and subtraction got boring but I soon discovered fractions and I loved learning how they worked. I loved geometry and doing proofs. I loved discovering how lines and angles fit together and how one could discover the degree of some angle in a complex figure with only knowing a couple of angles and lines. I loved to read from the first moment I discovered it. I quickly became bored with the simple stories I started with and wanted more and more interesting, nuanced, deep,  complex stories and information. 

    Perhaps that's just me but it seems like that's where every child begins. Every child  seeks out the new and a more complex understanding of what the world has to offer. Every child discards the simple things they started with as they grow beyond them. Yet many, maybe most, just stop somewhere on that path and grow no further. And now in music many are growing less far than their parents and grandparents grew. I don't know why and it makes me sad because music is something that is really important to me.

    A heart-warming video (disclaimer: I don't do many of these)

    Worth watch for the human meets psychological point:

    A Cab Calloway fan, like the video I linked above. A great jazz musician but I wouldn't call him my favorite.

    I've had perhaps 4-500 "favorites" in my life. Typically the greatest is what you're listening to right now, or you change the channel/MP3. just hinting that my mood & my evolving periods (up-and-down) relate to how I receive that music, whatever its perceived unbiased/universal merits.
    (note update in comment below re: Byrne & Eno. I remember one Eno comment where part of what influenced him was the sound around boats in the harbor as a kid - music or notmusic? When Eno joined Roxy Music, it was to supply different kinds of noise and sound-shaping, not play a particular instrument - a utility infielder, so-to-speak)

    Ah, Oliver Sacks! He's a homey (lives in da Bronx, City Island) and I'm a longtime fan, have read most of his books. Fell in love after the fictionalized movie about his start working as a clinician, Awakenings.Yes he's long stressed the role of music to reach those with brain disabilities. Simplifying what he always implies on that: you activate the music part of the brain still intact, it's like taking a back local streets route when the highway is closed, it's like the neurons fire up there and might travel elsewhere and wake up a few more parts of the brain. In other examples I've seen him give, it doesn't have to be a super music lover like the guy in the video, nor one with his marvelous Cab Calloway tastes. Itsby Bitsy Spider or Christmas caroling can also work too, if that's the kind of thing prominent in their music memories.

    One really cool thing about this neurological phenomenon is that it synchs with the famous phrase coined by William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697: Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

    Sucks to be Sacks, who became famous via a guy who objectified women, or at least his wife. Ceci n'est pas une pipe, ceci n'est pas un chapeau, c'est votre femme. Female director for Awakenings (Penny Marshall of Laverne & Shirley), bang up job from both Williams and De Niro.

    Check out "Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole" - a bit like Sacks meeting NCIS or some other modern Netflix-like sleuth series.

    I think to answer your questions, you'd have to look more at the role music plays in society, how it's shared, how it's accessed, the "opportunity cost" of what we'd do here vs doing something else (it relates to video/TV watching as well).
    What besides the complexity of music is changing? This is not a vacuum.

    As an example from Helinlein, "we laugh because it hurts" - maybe we listen to music when we're lonely, and maybe we're not so lonely anymore or don't need that level of complexity - or some other thought/explanation...

    We've sped up as a species - something has to give. Several billion people are interacting with our world that didn't interact 2 generations ago - the only really shared languages are English, music & overdubbed/subtitled videos. Stravinsky hardly seems fit for our new world, except for a few like always who'll seek it out - and that hardly makes me sad. I can always pull out my Calculus books as needed, but despite years of classes, it's not quite essential to my daily life, and I doubt many others. But it's a nice day out today - isn't that the basic test?

    To some degree, this is a competition between "Goedl, Escher, Bach" and David Byrne's "How Music Works"

    Brian Eno has a number of articles, perhaps books, addressing minimalist music, and considering his effect on Robert Fripp (one of the most complex musicians of our generation) and U2, it's worth thinking how African beat and minimalization mixed with classical & US/UK popular to get us where we are today.

    Yes, that's true, but I didn't want to write a thesis. Even if I did I don't know how many people here are interested in the topic. That's not a criticism as I said no one can advance to the highest level of understanding in every field. We all care about politics but I don't care much about poetry while some here do. I could get into hearing oxy talk about wood working because I'm interested in it but I'm not very advanced so anything I'd say would bore him. I could talk about botany, specifically about edible and medicinal wild plants, but I'd struggle with how technical to be and still be understood by hobbyists even if people found the topic interesting.

    There is so much more to music than I've discussed. I'm really having trouble expressing the things I want to say on this topic while still being somewhat concise. There's mood and emotion and with lyrics a message, etc. As I wrote each post I had a sort of Table of Contents in my mind of what I planned to say but left out a chapter here and a paragraph there. One thing I intended to discuss was the decline in audio quality. I even looked up a couple of links I planned to include. 

    Ever since the development of technology capable of reproducing music the quality of the audio has increased, until now. FM was developed because it was capable of higher quality. The frequency response was greater. It was capable of reproducing greater dynamic ranges. It was easier to filter out static with FM than AM. It was so much better that virtually all music moved to FM stations and AM became almost exclusively talk radio. The early albums were fat pieces of plastic run at 78 rpm again with low frequency response and dynamic range. The standard 33 rpm album we know wasn't just more music per album. The technology was significantly improved to produce a better sound. Cassettes were a decline in quality but quickly tech improved it with the invention of Dolby. There was demand for higher audio quality that the market supplied.

    I remember when I joined the army and was stationed in Japan. Good regular pay checks and good Japanese made electronic equipment without the shipping costs or tariffs if bought in America. With the added bonus of an exchange rate to Yen with a strong dollar. I spent $1,000 in 1980 on a turn table, amp, and speakers. I put on my favorite John McLaughlin album and when the first guitar chord sounded I almost cried. Just the sound of that chord was so beautiful, like I had never heard before. I heard things in the music I had never heard before. And I had listened to that album dozens of times.

    With the advent of the internet audio quality has declined. To save space on devices or to save bits when streaming some of the audio information is deleted and attenuated. Neil Young has talked about this a lot and even tried to start a streaming service with high quality audio. He's not the only famous rock musician that's concerned with the declining audio quality. There's a documentary about it on youtube with interviews from artists, record producers etc.

    Try listening to that Cab Calloway cartoon I linked. Things are happening that you can barely hear. Try to follow the sax lines when the brass is playing. You could hear it in a concert hall live but it's barely discernable in the video, parts of it totally disappear. This isn't a much of a problem with simple music with little happening. Though even then the loss of quality affects the frequency range and that matters in ways I don't have the time to discuss right now. But when the the music is multi layered and more complex even if you have the ability to "hear" it the low audio quality means you just can't hear it. If the audio quality is too low people to hear what's happening they aren't going to grow in their listening ability. 

    We have a Creative Corner that's probably fine for music if you don't think it fits in regular blogs.
    *ANYTHING* is better than another Trump piece or 1 more argument about identity/tribal politics.
    If someone's not interested, than let them simply not click it, no? I certainly don't feel obliged to read every bit of content, and I can easily stop reading if I lose interest. As long as you're not clogging up someone else's blog, I don't see a problem with anything you might write. Just enjoy.

    Here's a piece you may or may not like:

    Kat, I haven't tried making musical instruments. I don't think I have the patience. My neighbor was working on a guitar but I don't know if he finished it or how it turned out. I need to have high confidence a project will be finished and have respectable craftsmanship. I think a "recorder" would feasible to make. I just looked on ebay and found one nearby, a six note one made in India, for $19. It kind of looks hand made. I would get it, play it, and copy it.  Get one successful project under my belt. Then move to something a little harder, and up the latter, gaining experience and confidence.

    Our interest in my shop right now is in collecting local woods and developing wooden hand plane designs. Again, I'm starting with one of the most simple designs, but one that probably goes back a couple of thousand years, a simple spokeshave, a blade with two prongs and a stick of wood. But it's not all that simple to make one that is pleasing to the eye and cuts well. I just bought an 1800's tool box with a complete set of hand made spokes, routers and planes that were hand made and used by a "carriage maker". This tool box represents a way of life and the collection itself belongs in a museum. All the tools can be reproduced in a small shop.

    Let me know if I can be of any specific help in this regard. 

    Adding that I have two grand daughters playing the cello. One is playing hers in a school concert later this month. The other girl is smaller than her cello. 

    That's cause she's a baby grand (daughter)

    Right now I'm on  solar system that's too small to run power tools. I'd have to do everything by hand which is a bit more work than I'm interested in. The plan is to retire in a year and move to town where I can plug into the grid. I'll start with some wood boxes. I've done it before. I can give them away or if the quality is high enough maybe sell a few. I won't need the money so there's no pressure. It's just for fun. Then try for more difficult projects.

    Wood boxes are great unless they are of the large size.

    Yeah, I have some ideas about making small boxes out of manzanita. It's a local wood, very hard with a beautiful red color. It might be in your neck of the woods too. I could use a dozen of them myself to replace all the ugly plastic containers I have around the house. By then I should have made all the possible mistakes and the next 12 should be well done. I made a large wooden box years ago for my girlfriend to use as a hope chest. While it looked beautiful it was too heavy to easily move. I have some animal parts for sweat lodge ceremonies that I want to make a medium cedar box for. They're well preserved but cedar will help keep the bugs from attacking them.

    I've never worked with manzanita but it has some beautiful grain patterns and burl. Should be fun.

    Latest Comments