The Gestalt of Music

21/09/2011

Reading response Daniel Levitin’s “This is your Brain in Music”, Chapter 3: “Foot tapping”.

I still remember the exact moment when I was able to discern two or more voices in a pop song on the radio. I was perhaps ten years old and, until then, I had perceived the song as a whole, single sound (or maybe two sounds: voice and background). It was a thrilling moment. And it has always struck me as strange: by then I had already sang and played plenty of three-part pieces of music, so I was used to perceiving different melodies in one song. Why couldn’t I hear the second voice in that song?

Some of scientific findings described in ‘Foot tapping’ brought a subtly different perspective to some familiar concepts. I did have an explanation for my late discovery: the bad sound quality of the radio. But now I see the problem with more precision: the radio didn’t give me enough location, amplitude, and timbre information to allow me to discern the voices and instruments in the background. Playing with my sisters did.

Reading about the grouping principles that apply to our perception of sounds made me see the process of editing and mixing audio under a different light. I had never thought of them as being similar to the work of a graphic designer who, applying the Gestalt principles, makes sure that his poster is readable and has the right hierarchy. Under this light, the problem in ‘93 might not have been my radio: maybe the pop song was intended to be perceived as voice + solid background.

In spite of these small insights, the scientific content of these chapters (and, as I recall from my previous reading) of the whole book, was somewhat disappointing. For instance, we are told that our brains ’synchronize’ to music, and the name of the part of the brain where that happens. ‘Aha’, we think: this explains why we like to put energetic music to do repetitive work, or to exercise. But then we remember: we’ve known this all along. If, like me, you don’t know anything about the brain, there isn’t enough detail to make this information meaningful.

We do learn, however, about the kind of research that is being done in this area. And it’s put in perspective. It’s not presented in the vacuum, full with jargon. I feel this is one of the virtues of this book. It informs, and puts research in perspective.

The book switches back and forth between low and high level principles, and this is a bit disruptive. To use a bad analogy, it feels like the experiments described in in the book are in assembler, music theory in Java, musical examples in Processing, while most people listen in natural English. “This is your Brain on Music” cries for a multimedia version: I craved for graphs and concise formulas when reading about logarithmic scales, for audio when reading examples that used songs I didn’t know, for a pentagram when reading about measures and half notes. But maybe then, more than a pocket book, it would grow to many volumes. It is a good, gentle introduction. And I did enjoy Levitin’s efforts to go around this problem: to explain music without using sound, to explain math without using math notation and graphs. I had never thought of pitch as having anything to do with oregano. But the analogy works.

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