I have musical talent of a very mediocre degree, but I love listening.  Popular, rock, choral, new age, instrumental, anything that's interesting.  But what makes it interesting?  What about music evokes feelings?  Why are some collections of noises beautiful while some are appalling, even if they're made up of the same constituents?  A very perplexing question.

The basics of music are easy to explain: it's all simple rhythm counting and note counting.  Arithmetic at it's simplest.  But computer's can't compose music with any sort of competence.  If provided with examples, they can produce new "compositions" that are somehow derived from the examples, but it's not really new.  It shouldn't be that hard to follow the rules and make something original that isn't just noise, but computers can't do it.  I don't claim that I can do it either, but entities of my class (i.e. other people) can.

One thing that's interesting to me about music is how differently Heather and I experience it.  She knows the the lyrics to every song on the radio (except for KUFO, the local rock station), every Christmas song, and a host of others.  On the flip side, I have a relatively static collection of digital music on my workstation at the office, some of it dating back 10 years, and there are a pile of songs I can't sing along with, because I don't know the words.

Heather sings in a community choir as well as a church choir, and with above average competence.  She's not going to be touring the world and making millions of dollars, but for a stay at home mom with a pair of kids under four, it's hard to find fault.  She can't read music, she can only copy what she hears others sing.  She can't pick stuff out on a piano.  She can't count a rhythm.  All of those, you'd think, would be prerequisites for performing music as an adult.

I've got exactly the complementary skillset, though with generally less proficiency.  I can read music.  I can't play the piano but I can get a song across with one.  I can count a rhythm.  I understand the basics of music theory.

The conclusion I've reached is that it's all due to my ears (and/or my brain's aural processing centers).  I have great difficulty listening to spoken words.  I get by in daily life by augmenting speech with primitive lip reading.  This is why I rarely look you in the eye when I'm listening – too busy looking at your mouth.  I hate using the phone, because there aren't any lips to see.  As you might imagine, this probably contributes to me not knowing the lyrics of a wide array of songs I'm intimately familiar with.

But the non-verbal aspects of music (including the 'shape" of sung parts) ……. Heaven lives there.  The expressiveness the four weapons of volume, tempo, rhythm, and harmony can assault your ears with is breathtaking.  If you've got Incubus' Warning available to you, give it a listen, paying close attention to the baseline.  There's a little riff in there (just before the first chorus, I believe) that I could listen to over and over again.

To hear a piece of music slowly build it's richness, growing more and more full, voices weaving together in ever more intricate acrobatics, until it they finally all align themselves and the full force of the melody is heard…..  What I would give to be able to create something that evocative.

One response to “Music…”

  1. Matt

    Funny you should mention the arithmetic behind music. I read once that Beethoven would create patterns of numbers from 1-7, using whatever criteria appealed to him at the moment. He would then choose a key and mode and then apply that number pattern to see what kind of music came out.