Kick, Punch, It's All in the Mind
June 4, 2009 11:01 AM   Subscribe

How Music Works - UK Channel 4 documentary (~180 mins.)
Why do some rhythms get our toes tapping, while others make us feel mellow? How does a love song bring tears to our eyes? What links African drumming to J S Bach?
Part 1 - Melody (alt)
Part 2 - Rhythm (alt)
Part 3 - Harmony (alt)
Part 4 - Bass (alt)
Then: Music producer and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession and The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, shares some of his thoughts at Google Talk.
posted by Christ, what an asshole (31 comments total) 163 users marked this as a favorite
The burning question is: Will these clowns satisfactorily answer my askme question?!?!?!!

I am excited to watch this when I get home from work
posted by orville sash at 11:11 AM on June 4, 2009

I saw this on videosift yesterday and was looking for a decent source from which to post it. It's amazing. Thank you CWAA.
posted by The Bellman at 11:13 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love this series. Thank you.
posted by Faux Real at 11:16 AM on June 4, 2009

Also worth catching: "Rhythm Of Life" (sorry for horrible audio quality)
posted by Faux Real at 11:20 AM on June 4, 2009

The burning question is: Will these clowns satisfactorily answer my askme question?!?!?!!

I'm so glad you linked that; I'm in the exact same boat. None of my friends understand.

Unfortunately, these videos and the first book (that I've read) don't elucidate on your question, which is a giant mystery of understanding for myself, especially with the depth that I obsess over music. So big was the gap in my understanding that I went ahead and developed my own theory.

We're in the minority!
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 11:22 AM on June 4, 2009

Why do some rhythms get our toes tapping, while others make us feel mellow? How does a love song bring tears to our eyes? What links African drumming to J S Bach?

"... and where, exactly, does Ween factor into all of this?"

I'm sorry, there is something about the empirical evaluation of music that always leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 11:32 AM on June 4, 2009

Interesting. I'll have to investigate your theory further at a later date.

Nice Parappa reference, BTW.
posted by orville sash at 11:37 AM on June 4, 2009

I saw this a while back, maybe when it originally aired? Honestly, it didn't help me understand music much at all. He would say "this is x and this is y... can't you hear the difference?" and I couldn't.

Which is why I am not a musician, I suppose.
posted by smackfu at 11:43 AM on June 4, 2009

I love this series. A lot of people always seem negative about treating music in an analytic fashion like this, which is something I don't really understand: I feel like I'm getting even more from the music by looking at it in a different way. It reminds me of Richard Feynman talking about flowers.
posted by chorltonmeateater at 12:36 PM on June 4, 2009

Strangely drawn in by the Parappa reference.
posted by mjbraun at 12:43 PM on June 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you have a problem with dissecting the the arts I'd suggest you read 'Unweaving the Rainbow'. It's about how many find beauty in understanding something, on not just in the thing itself.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 12:48 PM on June 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

This is awesome! I always had an infatuation with music, but when I sit down and try to create music, or attempt to play an instrument everything I make seems contrived, boring, and just uninteresting. It sounds like this series can shed some light on why that is.

Thanks for the Unweaving the Rainbow link Midnight Rambler, that looks super interesting.

Oh yeah, don't forget to Look Around You.
posted by sir_rubixalot at 1:07 PM on June 4, 2009

orville sash, after skimming your AskMe thread, I'm not sure the answer to your question lies in the realm of language or language processing, but rather in the various fields of brain science and their intersections with music philosophy (in which field some outstanding writing has happened in the past several decades), and in the scholars pursuing concilience among those fields.

As a musician myself, I'm much like you: I listen to the sounds of the music even when lyrics are present, even in hip hop. I don't think it's a weird anomalous thing, I think that I am fascinated with sound itself, not with any textual or narrative meaning it may be attempting to convey. In my view (and work as a musician) music is a medium for conveying musical ideas, and for expressing that which is best expressed in sound (which often I experience as some of the more ineffable aspects of being). Any textual dimension or communication via words is secondary, for me the sounds themselves are the primary source.

This has been a central debate in western music history, and the shift to the primacy of instrumental music one of the most important events in that history (so far), and what gave us some of our most beloved masterworks (like Beethoven's symphonies). In contemporary American culture, the primary musical form is strophic (songs), and that is what typically defines most people's musical imaginations--as a culture, we are wired toward sounds+text=music, in short lengths. Some of us go all weird and develop a love affair with purely instrumental expressions of the musical art, which in my view much more effectively allows play of ideas and depth of expression through aspects like symphonic scale, development (in this specific sense), etc. One can find such work in things like symphonies (here are two of my favorite contemporary symphonies) or long-form electronica, etc.

(I should mention that I truly love all kinds of music, long and short form, songs and symphonies, pop and esoterica, and so forth. I just think that music as an artistic medium of ideas has so little presence culturally compared to music as enjoyment (or feeling-experience in general), that I advocate for it whenever possible; that advocacy should not be mistaken for dislike or dismissal of any other kinds of music and its value.)

This all does tie back to this post, actually: perception of the basic organizational building blocks of musical art, and understanding of the concepts they manifest, is key to actually being able to hear ideas in play through the medium of music. This is where so many of my fellow musicians get very frustrated and eventually retreat from trying to have meaningful conversations about music outside of our circles--because of the essentially simple nature of most of the music most people fill their lives with, complex ideas in music are simply not heard, not perceived, much less understood. And of course the biases of taste cloud everything. If one really loves music, I urge you to spend some time learning about not just the basic ideas in this post, but more broadly music as a mode of expression unto itself, which means some understanding of things like development and form, so that you can not only hear it happen in the music, and delight in how it does, but so that you can also tap into the tremendous play of ideas and creative dialogue through music that has unfolded over centuries. (I recommend the Bernstein Young People's Concerts as a fine starting point, and also this CD set which contains fantastic commentaries on five symphonies.) Such musical literacy leads to a greater, deeper, more broad experience with all kinds of music, most especially the music of our time and place.

In short, I take a predisposition toward the sounds of music itself as an indication of purely musical thinking, not a deficiency, and I think the ability to hear and understand the basic building blocks of music, such as those in the post, are fundamental to anyone's cultural literacy.

And Christ, what an asshole, while I am impressed at your efforts developing a body of aesthetic philosophy, much literature that you would enjoy already exists. I recommend as starting points the writers Nicholas Cook, Theodore Gracyk, Jerrold Levinson (particularly on negative emotions, very insightful), and Christopher Small.
posted by LooseFilter at 1:11 PM on June 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Funnily enough, there's another book about wonder which is also about how we have gradually come to understand the rainbow (and addresses this whole awe at mystery v wonder driven curiousity thing).

Also, I can't resist a self link if people are interested in the philosophy of music.
posted by leibniz at 1:11 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Love the book blurb on the site.

"This is the worst idea for a book I've ever heard - it makes me want to vomit. The idea encapsulates the very worst part of Western thought. It makes a purely Socratic distinction about something that isn't intellectualizable." [One week later:] "I take it back - I'm sorry! This is great!"
— Joni Mitchell
posted by Rashomon at 1:31 PM on June 4, 2009

Equal temperament sucks? It warps music education? Anybody?
posted by Monstrous Moonshine at 1:54 PM on June 4, 2009

I stopped watching after he said that every culture in the world uses the major/minor pentatonic scale in their music.

The slendro scale of gamelan music is one counterexample. Also, the idea of a genetically inherited universal musical grammar is at best unsubstantiated, but I wouldn't be surprised if the reason for the ubiquity of the pentatonic scale has an anatomical explanation rather than a neurological one.

With regards to Levitin, I just plugged Ways of Listening* by Eric Clarke in an AskMe question. The model many researchers in musical cognition use depends on the brain processing input via heirarchical, representational models that progressively abstract aspects of our sensory input. Clarke argues that all the information we need to understand our sensory input is already present in the input itself and doesn't need to be recreated in an abstract form by the mind. Learning is then a process of getting better at differentiating the important aspects of that input -- according to Clarke, cultural invariants are part of the learning process, too, and become as ingrained as any other fact about the environment. I wish that I had a background in cognition so I could look at it more critically, but in light of the way neural nets and similar structures work, it seems like a very reasonable approach.
posted by invitapriore at 3:25 PM on June 4, 2009

Damn Metafilter is teh awesome today! Thanks for this.
posted by natteringnabob at 4:53 PM on June 4, 2009

I stopped watching after he said that every culture in the world uses the major/minor pentatonic scale in their music.

Thanks for the warning. I don't have the time to watch a program that asserts this.

Thanks for the charlatantic/aesthetics link! Will look into it soon!
posted by kozad at 5:02 PM on June 4, 2009

...I wouldn't be surprised if the reason for the ubiquity of the pentatonic scale has an anatomical explanation rather than a neurological one.

Well, there was this post...
posted by lekvar at 5:09 PM on June 4, 2009

Wonderful series.

Rhythm Part 4, for people who don't understand how rap is music.
posted by Danila at 5:54 PM on June 4, 2009

I created a youtube playlist of "How Music Works".
posted by Danila at 5:58 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

He does assert this, but if you just ignore that part the rest is good. It's mostly really the development of Western music that starts out by trying to make an overly broad claim. It's a pretty good series otherwise, really.
posted by lizarrd at 6:02 PM on June 4, 2009

The slendro scale of gamelan music is one counterexample.

It's weird then because in Harmony part 1 he talks about gamelan music.
posted by Danila at 6:24 PM on June 4, 2009

I too came for the Parappa. Is he around?

I'd settle for Um, Jammer Lammy, too.
posted by grobstein at 6:43 PM on June 4, 2009

Yeah, ethnomusicologist here to say this is pretty culturally myopic.

As is the long sweep of western philosophical aesthetics of music, which would be fine were it not so obsessed with proving western musical values are universal (or, of late, all reducible to neurobiology and cognitive mechanics).
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:09 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I watched this in marathon and it just ended about 30min ago.
I have to say, it is quite interesting to come from a "no musical theory" background and view these pieces because Mr. Goodall does a very good compare and contrast exercise with a lot of his examples.
It is also quite inspiring to watch, as the styles and genres all seem "legitimized" by having them performed by real people on set.
It's visual fun too, as the BBC takes extraordinary care with their photography and the settings are wild. They film everywhere from old chapels to mansion houses to ultra-modern art galleries. Really nice variation and Mr. Goodall has a great speaking voice.
posted by Khazk at 8:13 PM on June 4, 2009

Everything you wanted to know about music can be found in Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom ... it's the Donald Duck in Mathmagicland of music.
posted by foonly at 1:09 AM on June 5, 2009

The great thing about making sweeping generalizations about art, is that you can treat any exception as an error on the artist's part.

One of the best ways of learning to appreciate Merzbow is to imagine he sat down with one of these pseudo-scientific explanations of why European music theory is the pinnacle of musical expression and understanding, or some sort of universal common language of all things musical, and broke every single fucking rule on the list.
posted by idiopath at 4:36 AM on June 5, 2009

Thanks for posting this. Beyond the ethnocentric issues, I found this to be enjoyable and informative.

I learned some new words for ideas I had previously understood. I will now use the more specific term cross-rhythm when apt, instead of the -- apparently more ambiguous -- term syncopated rhythm.
posted by defenestration at 4:47 AM on June 6, 2009

Okay, I FINALLY got the chance to watch all of this... and all I can say is, WOW! What an excellent series of videos for anyone who wants to dig into music a step or two beyond the 'know what I like' level. I've already been passing the links along to people, all of whom are thrilled for what they've watched.

...and while I love the link to Toot, Whistle &c, I think it makes more a good parallel exposure, than replacing anything that is found within the 5 hours (!) of content linked to in the OP. (TWPandB was included as an extra on the Fantasia 2000 DVD, if anyone is looking for it. I ripped it and carry it in my iTunes. It's entertaining, but it's pretty much a 100-level course compared to the rest of the content on this page.)
posted by hippybear at 12:05 PM on June 12, 2009

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