Archive for April 21st, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about music – what I like, and what I like about it. (BTW, thanks to all of those who left suggestions on my post earlier this month! Still open to more if anyone cares to drop them in there.) I started writing up some thoughts on that, which were then preempted by the post immediately below this. But since my music posts often seem to come in twos, here’s a little more.
phrenology head image from WikiMedia, headphone mine

Since the dawn of humankind, we have had music. From the earliest drumming of stone upon stone to the latest Next Big Thing, music has fulfilled a niche in our existence into which nothing else could comfortably fit.

Whether your poison is Slipknot or Shostakovich, Coldplay or Common, we are sensitive to rhythms and to harmonic vibrations.

I had for a long time heard and accepted the notion that music is really just a form of applied mathematics, but I no longer believe that to be the whole truth. Ultimately, the structure of any given piece of music can be described mathematically – as a sum of the frequency, duration and shape of each waveform – but I think this misses an important element.

Knowing why┬ámusic sounds the way it does is all well and good, but that doesn’t tell us why it is good.

So instead I submit that music is 75% mathematics and 25% psychology. Add in lyrics (if appropriate to the piece in question) and the ratio might instead be closer to 65-35.

In Western music, we find that major chords sound happy, minor chords sound sad and diminished chords send us looking around for the small animal we must have just stepped on.

startled rabbit

We also find that certain chord progressions evoke specific ideas. For example, a movie showing a boat on the open sea will often be scored with a chord sequence of major I to minor v. (Side note – saw a planetarium movie while I was in Portland which used the same I-v pattern for space travel montages. The parallel is interesting.)

The emotional interplay between our existing mental states and the subtle but profound messages we get from music is incredibly complex – indeed, it must logically be a product of both the inherent complexity of our minds and the number of possible musical permutations, an almost unfathomably wide array of information.

This, I believe, is why we don’t all like the same music (even though Clear Channel, Viacom, SonyBMG and others seem to be trying to convince us otherwise). Perhaps everything lies in our individual reactions to the mathematical structures we perceive, and there’s really no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music.

Except Muzak, of course. That shit is just terrible.

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When I heard that a supergroup named Tinted Windows had been put together from members of Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains Of Wayne, Cheap Trick and Hanson – and WASN’T part of some dorky VH-1 show – I figured it could be great, or could suck, but would at least be interesting.

Way to be wrong on all three counts.

(Spot the one from Cheap Trick.)

To be fair, I am not a huge fan of any of the four bands these gentlemen come from, though I do like a lot of their collective body of work (leaving out, of course, the lamentable “Mmmbop”). There should, however, be enough songcrafting talent here to deliver at least one flawless piece of fun, summer-driving-with-the-top-down power-pop. Can’t seem to find it, though.

If you’re still interested enough that you don’t want to simply take my word for it, their eponymous album hits stores today and they’ll be on Letterman tonight.

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