The deal with music

      7 Comments on The deal with music

First of all, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a native english speaker. Sometimes, there are words crucial to a post here that I don’t know how to translate to english. In some very rare cases, Google Traduction doesn’t seem to help.

Today, there is one of those words. Google Translate seems to push me towards the verb “Skew”,  but it just doesn’t feel right. The actual definition doesn’t include my context. So for the duration of this post, I will use “skew” (and other forms) to refer to the action of singing (or playing with an instrument) a musical note that is off-tone. Singing or playing the wrong note, so that it sounds bad to anyone who knows their stuff.

I am probably what you would describe as at least slightly tone-deaf. I can usually recognize songs without the lyrics, provided that I know the song and hear the rhythm and melody, but I can’t sing those songs. At least, people usually tell me that I suck at singing pretty much any song. To me, my singing sounds pretty close to the original artist, but I guess not everyone hears that. If somebody plays two notes on a piano that are not too far apart, I probably won’t be able to tell which one is higher and which is lower. I’ll take a guess, and get it about 75% of the time, but I’ll never be sure if they are in a < 6 notes range from each other.

If I play an instrument, it’s even worse. I hear in my head the song i’m trying to play, but I usually will think I’m playing it right no matter how skewed it is. I played many songs on a terribly detuned piano for years, never noticing any problem, until my current girlfriend heard it once and couldn’t stand it. I learn the songs I want by memorising which buttons to press, so my songs usually sound decent on a good piano, but I personally won’t hear the difference.

Considering the fact that most of my experiences are with playing or singing songs that somebody else wrote, whenever anyone told me that I skewed somehow (which is very often), I instantly understood that I didn’t emit the same note as the original artist. I can understand the problem, even though it doesn’t sound bad to me if somebody else does that mistake. It just sounds slightly off. Somebody wrote a song and you failed to copy it correctly, therefore it’s bad. The logic seems very simple.

But recently, I encountered a different situation. I was listening to a song performed by the original artist (who was the one to write it), and another person near me said something along those lines “Oh god, I thought you were the one skewing when you were humming it earlier, but he’s actually the one skewing it.”.

What?

Naturally, I answered “No no, that’s the original song, so it can’t be skewed”. Obviously, how could you fail at copying something if you are actually making the original? You’re the one setting the standard.

The other person didn’t quite get my point. “It doesn’t matter who’s singing if it’s skewed”. I proceeded to discuss it a bit more, and also recently talked about music with someone who (according to other people than me) has real talent. The same guy that did the whole “Intelligence is Marketing” thing a few months ago. He explained to me that some notes actually sound better together, and some other notes shouldn’t be together. Writing a song isn’t about just trying to find a note/rhythm configuration that isn’t copyrighted and then adding lyrics on top of it. It seems like if you choose the wrong notes, it will sound terrible. I already knew that, for example, alternating notes from both ends of the spectrum would sound terrible, but I always kind of thought that when close together, any combination could make a nice song with the right rhythm. I, personally, didn’t see at all what was wrong with the numerous “bad combinations” he played as “obvious examples”. That seemed to confuse him as much as I was confused about the whole thing.

But if some notes “sound good” together and some sound bad, isn’t that completely subjective? Isn’t thinking that note combinations are good or bad exactly the definition of taste in music? Shouldn’t we all have a different opinion about that?

So what I learned from that is that music isn’t actually a form of art for people to express themselves, but an elitist cool-kids club that decided to enforce completely arbitrary standards because they happened to be have the same tastes as the majority, and then won’t acknowledge that different tastes are as valid as theirs.

I mean, that’s obviously the message they were both trying to make me understand. It seems like I’m not welcome in the world of music because I don’t have this inherent bias toward some note combinations and against some others.

Oh well, the joke’s on them, because I have a wider range of artists I can choose from, the one who sparked this entire debate happens to be one the funniest artists I’ve ever listened to. And if they can’t enjoy his stuff because it’s low on an arbitrary scale of “sounding like what I think sounds good”, that’s their loss.

Or maybe that’s the cognitive dissonance-induced explanation that my brain created to make me accept the fact that I will never be a star.

  • Kingfisher12

    I recently watched a TV program that said that our brain’s pattern-recognition system is linked to our reward system. When we recognize a pattern, even unconsciously, a bit of dopamine is released, making us feel good.

    Music is full of patterns of varying complexity and familiarity, Some of those patterns are euphonic; they are easier for our brains to recognise, and evoke feelings of relaxation, while other patterns are dysphonic – they require more work to recongnise, and raise stress levels.

    It’s not a matter of euphonic sounds making good music, with dysphonic sounds being bad, it’s the way they’re arranged into larger patterns to make us feel whatever way we want. People listen to cacophonous music for the same reason they enjoy scary or sad stories; because they stimulate in ways that we crave for one reason or another.

    But the songs that stick with us the most are the ones that resonate with us on the most familiar levels. They’re the ones that reflect our own brains back at us.

  • Probablynotamantisdoctor

    I found this really interesting.
    Tone set aside, would you happen to be bad at producing or repeating a constant beat? I believe music is mostly about recognizing linear patterns with our ears, and sometimes producing them. Why most people say that a certain combination of notes sound better together than other combinations is because their brain recognizes some sort of regularity with the linear graph of the combination, and said brains likes to recognize those regularity usually.
    « As a very simple example, 200hz and 300hz approximate an interval of a perfect 5th (in real life, those frequencies are close to G3 and D4). The ratio between those two frequencies is 2:3. If you tune that D down to an in-tune* augmented 4th above the G, you’ll be at 281.25hz, which compared with the 200hz note gets you a ratio of 32:45. » http://music.stackexchange.com/questions/38946/why-do-some-intervals-sound-better-than-others
    Suppose you drew sinusoidal functions on the xy plane with x being the time and y being the amplitude. If you drew the added combination of the 200hz and 300hz sinusoïdals, you’d get a function that represents what you really hear when you play those sounds together. That function happens to be really simple, as it repeats itself every centi-second (as opposed to the 200hz-281.25 one). This is a constantly repeated pattern, which is what « most people’s brain » is able to recognize usually, and that’s why I believe you might be bad at producing or repeating a constant beat. I would be really happy if you could test my theory!
    I also believe that this linear pattern recognition is deeply anchered with « most people’s brain » positive emotions, wich is why the guy you talk about might have been confused when you told him you didn’t know wich combination sounded better, as he was probably faced in his entire life with « most people’s brain » confirmations of his feelings whenever he did or listened to music with people. This is why « most people’s brain » like all kinds of music as an experience, and this happens to be the case for me as well.
    There are other things that « most people’s brain » individually recognizes positively as well, for example some people prefer certain instruments, certain rythms, certain un-sinusoidal type of sounds, etc., and for « most people’s brain », this is where the subjective part usually kicks in.
    So basically, I believe there are solid arguments backing up why music isn’t a subjective conspiration-themed elitist thingy, unless you argue a constant time unit is subjective in some modern physics theory, but hey, that might be just a tiny bit off-topic.

    • Kingfisher12

      Sorry to get trivial, but I think this is interesting; It’s not linear pattern recognition that our brains are good at, it’s logarithmic pattern recognition; Our brains actively seek out common ratios (which you explain well). It’s one of weird ways our conscious pattern recognition differs from our unconscious one.

      Consciously we like patterns like 2,4,6,8,10… That’s a linear pattern. Unconsciously though, our brain is attracted to patterns like 2,4,8,16,32… which is an exponential, or logarithmic pattern.

      • Kaito Kid

        As for the patters thing, the first two make a lot of sense. Multiples of ten look great when under 80-100, but 3070 looks pretty bad.

        But as for your last pattern, Honestly I have no idea what the pattern even is, and I certainly don’t “like” looking at it. Mind explaining?

        • Kingfisher12

          It is a modified Fibonacci sequence with a non-standard start in order to jump right to the point (the golden ratio ~1:1.618)

          Looking at the numbers, we don’t recognize the pattern, but converted to visual shapes or audible signals creates a pattern that seems ‘right’ to our senses.

          • Kaito Kid

            I’ve attempted to write a bit of music following a 2^n pattern or a fibonacci sequence, and according to the people around me, it sounds terrible to matter how I try to convert the data. Do you have any exemples of actually using that fibonacci sequence into a melody that sounds good?

            • Kingfisher

              The 2^n pattern is integral to music – that’s what octaves are.

              The golden ratio is more subtle. It’s been suggested that some impressionist composers like Debussy tried to incorporate it directly into the music, but it can be subtly found in the most common harmonies in music as well.

              The most common chord progression in all music is ascending fifths, or descending fourths. This is going up by 3/2 or down by 2/3. But when you add harmonic chords, the interval seems most ‘right’ when the combined interval approaches phi.

              For example, take a C major triad, (C,E,G), and then play the same chord, rotated around the 5th (G,C,E). The progression sounds symmetrical (for lack of a better word), but the mean frequency interval is 8/5 – close to the golden ratio.