In last week's New Yorker, there is an article on sound exploration ("Music to Your Ears" by Adam Gopnik, January 28, 2013) that I really enjoyed. You can read the beginnings of it here, but then you have to subscribe to the site or buy the magazine to read the rest. WNYC's Soundcheck has a nice summary of the article that includes some extra sound samples.
Gopnik's piece starts out by examining the possibility of 3D recordings and the science of how our brain interprets sound. But then, the article delves much further into the realm of determining what makes us, as humans, understand some sounds as music, and beyond that, what makes music meaningful. Gopnik also broaches the subject of music through generations, how music has evolved, and where our culture might ultimately drive music as a pass-time and art.
The best past though, is that Gopnik avoids the tendency of pretention that so often traps classical music-lovers. He remains open-minded throughout, whether discussing Bach, Ella Fitzgerald, Choueiri's BACCH (Band-Assembled Crosstalk Cancellation Hierarchy), or Taylor Swift. (Edgar Choueiri is the rocket scientist that dominates a large part of the scientific part of the article.) Because of Gopnik's ability to remain level-headed, the article won't inspire any impatient rolls of the eyes or discouraged shrugs.
While certainly much of the article is quotable, here are a few of the passages that made me grin and nod.
On our ever-present iPods and earbuds:
Music represented for me not the endless, shifting weather-cover of sound... a cloud in every sense, a perpetual availability of emotion to suit a mood and moment. Music meant difficulty--and, when the difficulty was overcome, the possibility of life, too. It was something to master.
On how our brains interpret music:
There seem to be two "systems" in the brain that respond to music. One is "veridical," and responds to the pleasant sounds of the songs we already know. The other is "sequential": it anticipates the next note or harmonic move in an unfamiliar phrase of music and is stimulated when the music follows the logic of the notes or surprises us in some way that isn't merely arbitrary. We recall the meaning of single harmonies from the melodic sentences they conclude. We "learn" music as we learn language, and, with both, our mind disguises from us the complexity of our brain's calculations. The poignant C-major seventh saves your life when your emotions are already pitched somewhere around a hard-edged, unresolved G7.
And, on whether a computer can imitate musicality:
The two expressive dimensions whose force in music Levitin had measured and made mechanical were defections from precision. Vibrato is a way of not quite landing directly on the note; rubato is not quite keeping perfectly to the beat. Expressiveness is error. ... Ella singing Gershwin matters because Ella knows when to make the words warble, and Ellis Larkins knows when to make the keyboard sigh. The art is the perfected imperfection.
I like that Gopnik merges the scientific with the artistic. As someone who enjoys both the measurable and unexplainable, I found it comforting and inspiring to read the research of someone who searched to understand both aspects of an artform. With that spare half-hour before bedtime, I definitely recommend the article. And maybe afterward, listen to your favorite piece of music while staring at the ceiling and dozing off.