Wednesday, September 17, 2008

First off, let me thank Jamie (that's my sister-in-law for those of you not familiar with my clan) for some excellent lasagna last night! I didn't really tell her this ahead of time (cause I'm a no pressure guy when it comes to people giving me food), but lasagna is truly one of my favorite foods, particularly when it's done well, and her lasagna last night was really good. Anyway, muchos gracias to Teams Steans for having me over and to Jamie for cooking!

What else? I recently reactivated my Netflix membership so that I could rent the last season of The Wire. I've blogged about this show before (to the point where long time readers of the blog are probably tired of hearing me talk about it), but it truly is an excellent show, not only in terms of writing and acting, but in terms of the themes that it conveys about American life in our day and age. Anyway, I love the dialogue, I love the characters, and I just really love the show. It's an American classic, and if you haven't watched it, you're missing out on an opportunity to see television live up to its potential in a way that it very rarely does.

Last night I also read a really interesting interview with Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist who also happens to be a music producer and who spends a lot of time studying how the brain interacts with and interprets music. He spends time discussing several aspects of music, but one of the things he mentioned (and something I have kind of thought and wondered about a little bit on my own) is that music exists as a pattern of sounds that occur over time (as opposed to, say, paintings, which are comprised of a pattern of color over space). As an art form which relies upon a sequence of sounds unfolding, music relies upon recognizable patterns, and then deviations from those patterns. Your brain is trained to sort of sense what the next notes in the pattern are going to be (whether you realize that you're doing it or not). Being accustomed to certain types or styles of music helps your brain to more accurately be able to guess what the next notes of a pattern might be (for instance, Levitin points out that people who are used to hearing Western, tonal music are more likely to look for certain patterns to appear, as opposed to people who are used to hearing a more atonal, Eastern style of music- our brains get used to hearing certain rhythms, key signatures, etc., etc.).
What really interested me was that Levitin went on to say that what makes music good for any given person (meaning music they enjoy) is finding the right ratio of recognizeable patterns in a piece of music versus unusual or "unlikely" notes that fall outside of what is expected (i.e., if the brain basically tries to subconsciously predict what notes are coming up next, some notes will fall into the category of being predictable, versus other notes which unexpected- interesting music has the right combination of the two). Boring music will probably have too many notes which are easily predicted and fall into a sort of generic patternt that your brain is expecting. On the other end of the spectrum, music which seems completely random and which has absolutely no predictable pattern is likely to be unappealing because it's too chaotic and unfamiliar, and the brain will have a hard time making sense of it. Music that a person sees as "good" typically has a mix of predictability and unpredictability that the listener feels comfortable with.

I think that I kind of already intuitively understood music in this way, but it was interesting to hear Levitin explain it so clearly and succintly. Not only does it makes sense that we understand music in this way, but it helps to explain why musical tastes are so divergent between different people. The brain can train itself to be used to many different types of music and to hold many different recognizeable patterns in its memory. A jazz afficionado, for example, would probably be much more used to hearing a much greater diversity of chords and rhythms than someone who listens only to country or blues music (which have their own virtues, but tend to rely on a relatively narrower set of chords and rhythms). The diverse key signatures (meaning the regular use of a wide variety of pitches) and and time signatures (a wide variety of rhythms, as well) of jazz sort of prepares its listeners to expect notes that are outside of the normal or expected patterns that would be found in many other kinds of music, thereby making regular listeners of jazz able to accomodate patterns of sound that would be deemed too chaotic or unfamiliar for enjoyment by fans of other forms of music. Conversely, fans of jazz or other complicated forms of music might become easily bored if only exposed to music that fell into much more traditional, expected patterns (I remember a snobby music appreciation professor in college who used to repeatedly tell us how boring it was to have to constantly hear the typical 4/4 time signature of most country and rock music).
Levitin goes on to discuss the development of music as an evolutionary human mechanism, including ideas about how music helps humans to work together (what better way to keep up the rhythm of marching in formation than through song?), how music has served as a memory aid (people put things into song in order to remember them long before they could write), and how music helps to convey emotion (it might be hard to put feelings into words, but we seem to be able to activate emotions in one another through song even when words fail us).
Anyway, it's a short interview, but it has a lot of really interesting ideas. Well worth a read for those who are interested in such stuff.

In other news, the federal government has announced that we're giving AIG an $85 billion dollar bailout. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, people are saying that it would be devestating to the U.S. and international economy to have another big compnay go belly up right now, so I don't really want to see that happen. On the other hand, once again American taxpayer money is bailing out a company which has been poorly run and mismanaged. People are all against increased regulation and argue that the free market and Wall Street will take care if itself (heck, to hear many people tell it, the free market is going to cure all of society's problems), but then these companies come running to the government for help when they crash and burn so badly that they put the entire economy at risk. Shareholders and employees benefit, but the rest of us are footing the bill for their mistakes. In the particular case of this AIG bailout, the federal government is at least receiving an 80% stake in the company, but somehow giving the federal goverment a huge stake in the company doesn't really sound very much like capitalism. Funny how the same people who were fighting against any kind of government oversight (or as it was often put- government interference with the operation of a freemarket economy) are now willing to embrace something that looks very much like socialism in order to avoid a collapse (and no, I'm not advocating socialism- I'm just saying that we should have been regulating these industries mre closely up to this point).

And 16 people have died as the result of a terror attack on a U.S. embassy in Yemen. Experts are already saying it has some of the characteristics of a typical Al Qaeda attack. Anyway, between the surge of thousands of U.S. troops and our recent practice of paying off former insurgents to police stop killing Americans and to start policing each other, violence is down in Iraq. It's not clear if that stability is going to be sustainable once we start pulling out U.S. troops and cut off the cash flow to the Iraqis, though, and this latest attack is a reminder that the group who committed the 9/11 atrocities is still out there. Things in the Middle East and North Africa are still a mess.

I guess that's it for now. Sorry to end on such a down note. Go out and find yourself some music that feels kind of comfortable, but that still has enough mystery to keep you interested. Doing this will undoubtedly make your day much better. ;-)


The League said...

I really wish I'd seen this interview... sounds very interesting. I'd be curious to see what connections he draws between his conclusions and the mathematical nature of music.

Also, the lasagna was pretty darn good. It was just tough to sit at home all afternoon while Jamie cooked the various ingredients.

J.S. said...

Actually, he sort of downplayed the connection between mathematical ability and music, saying that he thought too much had been made of the supposed correlation. He pointed out that a lot of smart people who are good at math are also good at music, but a lot of people who are smart but whose strengths lie in other areas (more "right-brained" artistic or literary pursuits) were equally good at music. This, of course, made me happy because I love music, but suck at math.

The League said...

Hurm. One more mystery of the human mind. And very interesting that he downplayed the idea, which has gotten some traction in pop culture over the past few years.

I can see, logically, how one could come to the music = math conclusion, just as one might use anecdotal evidence to point the other direction.

All I know is, the world would be better is we could all just admit how much we love Kenny Rogers.

Anonymous said...

caffeine-free diet coke spurted from my nose after reading the kenny rogers comment. funny, but ouch.