Melancholia was a fashionable mental disorder in 16 and 17th century England that shares many similarities with today’s Major Depression. While taking a class in culture and mental health last fall, I attended a concert featuring Dowland’s collection of songs, Lachrimae, first published in 1604. Hearing these pieces and discovering that they can be linked to this then-popular medical diagnosis, inspired me to look further into how mental health was regarded during the Age of Reason.
A Long Dream, Tyler Ramsey
Milk it, Jack.
Praised Be Man, Kitty Steetle/Jack Kerouac
Deutsch, D. (1991). The tritone paradox: An influence of language on music perception. Music Perception, 8, 335-347.
Deutsch’s (1991) article presents an experiment supporting her “tritone paradox” - the belief that linguistic subculture derived from enculturation, can change how one perceives music. Through informal observation she noticed that English people hear some intervals, particularly the tritone interval (the one that splits the octave evenly and was once called the “Devil’s interval”, think: ambulance siren) as descending, while Americans heard the same interval as ascending and vice versa. In her experiment, she had two groups: three college students that grew up in California and three college students that grew up in Southern England. She recorded fifteen minutes of spontaneous everyday speech for each participant, and then analyzed the recordings for pitch content. The students from England’s most frequent pitch class was G and the students from America’s most frequent pitch class was C#. Deutsch believed that the rate of occurrence of speech pitch was related to an overall pitch hierarchy within each person, and that this phenomenon was culturally bound. In her audio examples, she used computer generated pitch intervals that because of the frequency overtones, the specific octaves were ambiguous in order to allow for unbiased differences in perception to present themselves. Deutsch surmised that it was this culturally bound, overall pitch hierarchy that lead Americans and English to hearing intervals inverted from each other.
Here are examples of her audio clips:
Enculturation + Speech Patterns+ Pitch Hierarchy + Sound Perception = Mind Blowing
Dial it down with some Paul Simon.
American Tune, Paul Simon
Music and language has always had an intimate relationship in the human experience. In the music field, rhetoric is often used to explain phrasing and nuance in baroque performance (Bartel, 1997) and music theory is flooded with stolen language terminology (i.e. sentence, period, phrase). While in the field of anthropology, music is thought to have evolved simultaneously with language if not before (Wallin, Merker, & Brown, 2001). Perhaps the most compelling new theory in the link between music and language is the role of syntax in the brain’s processing of language and music (Fedorenko, Patel, Casasanto, Winawer, & Gibson, 2009). Interestingly, the very idea of music being similar to “a language” (much less be a language in itself) can be a sensitive subject among some in the Musicology and Music Theory communities. In this blog entry I will discuss the findings of the brain’s overlap of music and language syntax processing from a musician’s perspective and give my thoughts on why some musicians may be resistant to acknowledge these similarities.
It is all about perspective.
This is how it’s done.
When Your Lover Has Gone, Ben Webster & Oscar Peterson
Harmony was a Capitalist plot to sell pianos. – (Untitled) – The Movie, 2009
Ain’t that the truth.
Wait. No really. There is truth to that statement. Especially if you changed that quote to, “Standardized harmony was a Capitalist plot to sell pianos.”
Pianos standardized their equal temperament tuning around 1917 (note that Schoenberg’s first song without reference to key was Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide from Das Buch der Hangenden Garten, Op 15 dating from 1908). The military tours and immigration during WWI caused large cross-culturalization eventually finding its way into music. Before this time, tuning systems were particular to the area the instrument was physically located and limited to local artisans creating instruments to their own specifications. If no one leaves an area to interact with another musicians, there would be less impetuous to change a design and/or temperament. Necessity is the mother of innovation, is it not? (This is similar to how time zones weren’t standardized until railroads diminished the country making arrival and departure timetables necessary.) With the tuning system now established in pianos, builders of other instruments (brass and woodwinds in particular) started adjusting their instruments to play better “in tune” with these equal temperament keyboards. And of course the standardization of temperaments meant that instrument production companies could sell to a wider customer base increasing profits.
One hundred years later our ears have adapted to this equal temperament tuning system even though it works against the natural overtone series. Perhaps one could go so far as to say this process has brainwashed us into thinking there is only one true tuning. When we move back to older tuning systems that work more with the naturally uneven overtone series, the intervals have a stronger vibrancy and greater depth from the increased complexity of present partials. “Cleaning up” the temperament and leaving it a dull shell of what it once was could be compared to daily hygiene leading to allergies – the system has been weakened. These seemingly minute changes in frequency relationships can make a huge difference with works from the Medieval, Baroque, and Classical eras when the pieces were composed specifically to feature these unequal harmonic relationships.
* For more information on tuning systems/temperaments check out:
I Dream of Chicago, Parlours