20 March, 2011

How We Learn to Love Music

Music is the first way we develop to communicate. In fact it happens so early we call this ability of understanding an inborn ability. All over the world parents that speak to their children use the same melodies. Like a rise and fall for approval. Or rising, high pitch to call attention. The words don't matter, it's all in the melodies.
But throughout life we learn and our tastes change. It would appear from the following story that in fact our love and appreciation of music is a learned trait. Give the bit below a listen, but just in case you are in a hurry I am going to sum up for you. In the beginning of the 20th century Stravinsky presented himself in Paris with a new creation: the Rite of Spring. And while the beginning had a very calm and pastoral air to it, it soon changed to develop completely new (at the time) harmonies and a tension-creating repeating background (kind of reminds me of Burzum, if you don't know, you don't even want to know...). What was the result? Did the people herald him as a genius? Nope, they started a riot. Like a regular riot with violence, the likes of which any respectable mob would start on the street, and mind you this was a cultured audience expecting a show of classical music. But, the surprise (to me) is that, just one year afterwards, Stravinsky came back to present the show and this time, with an audience warned they are in for something absolutely special, he was welcome as a hero. And in a way he was, because he challenged human nature, specifically our brain, which loves the familiar and abhors innovation. When presented with something new, like the music of Stravinsky it tries to make sense of the new noise, but eventually releases a large amount of dopamine, which could possibly explain the violent behavior of the audience (in small doses dopamine makes you happy, in large doses it makes you go crazy). This happens when the brain fails to make sense of new sounds and find the patterns. But the brain is also an amazing piece of ingenuity as with time it learns to assimilate the new and integrate it with the all the known information and turn it into something familiar.

Nowadays the music is not that surprising but I still feel it's weird. If you are very curious about the music itself there is a whole book you can read: http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft967nb647&brand=ucpress

In case you were looking for more evidence in the same vein, and from the same source incidentally, here is another Radiolab piece.  There is a reiteration from min 23 of the idea from the bit above and then a more relatable example, with something as mundane as radio. And how going from something classic to something modern can create an unpleasant surprise. But then of course we quickly overcome it. In this case the transition from Gregorian chants to the 'modern' Bach makes a point in case (starting from 28:34).

If you don't understand what it is supposed to mean here is how a cello can be used in the modern world. I sincerely hope these will be unexpected for you.

And here you were thinking you would never like death metal :) (not that the above is to be considered that, just read on...) It just takes some repeated listens to get into, and even then it's hard (the thing I noticed about extreme metal is that it remove thoughts, so it's good if you want to focus and your mind keeps straying, in situations like learning or programming, but if you are not intellectually engaged, well I think then it just kills what remains, leaving you dumb).

I don't know about how weird-ass classical music is created but here's how you can do death metal. Opeth explain all the riffs and the construction of The Drapery Falls from their Blackwater Park album. Especially part2 is interesting about tension and creating disharmonies (See minute 10: "A lot of people say that [chord] sounds like shit. And it does")

Here is a full performance so you can pay attention to all the things he mentioned about playing live. And you probably want to hear the original too. So go buy the album. The Drapery Falls:

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