Tuesday, February 19, 2013


  • A Stanford geneticist has research that seems to show human intelligence declining.
“I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues. Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India or the Americas, of perhaps 2000–6000 years ago. The basis for my wager comes from new developments in genetics, anthropology, and neurobiology that make a clear prediction that our intellectual and emotional abilities are genetically surprisingly fragile.”
You know, that might explain some of the trends in recent music history... Naaah, just kiddin'.

  • Here is an essay on the delights of good design--with the misleading headline Why We Love Beautiful Things. I say misleading, because as a comment on beauty, it is only perhaps a quarter true. The essay attributes 'beauty' to proportion (the Golden Section), certain colors and landscapes and fractal geometry. And, of course, all this is sparked by various samples of psychological research. Isn't it about time that talk about beauty--which is really aesthetics--was informed, just a bit, by actual understanding of aesthetics? I find these clumsy scientistic fumblings ever more tiresome... Here, let me mess things up by posing a nice philosophical question: do we love beautiful things because they are beautiful? Or are they beautiful because we love them?
  • Here's a slightly more detailed account of that research on beauty in music from the University of Melborne. Here's the lead paragraph:
Our love of music and appreciation of musical harmony is learnt and not based on any innate natural ability according to a new study by researchers at the University of Melbourne.
Well, that certainly raises more questions. For one thing, it poses a false dichotomy. Our appreciation of harmony can both be learned AND based on some innate natural ability. Mozart learned harmony, but his abilities were enormously greater than the average person's because of some innate natural ability. Does anyone seriously question this? It continues:
Associate Professor Neil McLachlan from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences said that previous theories about how we appreciate music were based on the physical properties of sound, the ear itself and an innate ability to hear harmony.
Previous theories, being, probably, ones pointing out the relationship between the overtone series and basic harmonic progressions. The first overtone is the octave, the second overtone is the fifth. The fifth is an extremely important interval in harmony as witnessed by the basic teaching device, the "circle of fifths". Things like this indicate that the structure of harmony was, at some points in history, related to basic acoustic facts. Here is another claim:
The researchers used 66 volunteers with a wide range of musical training and tested their ability to hear combinations of notes to determine if they found the combinations familiar or pleasing. “What we found was that people needed to be familiar with sounds created by combinations of notes before they could hear the individual notes. If they couldn’t find the notes they found the sound dissonant or unpleasant,” he said. “This finding overturns centuries of theories that physical properties of the ear determine what we find appealing.”
Again, some very confused half-truths. It is certainly true that repeated exposure to certain combinations of notes enables most listeners to better hear what is going on and therefore to appreciate the music more. This simple discovery, known, by the way, to every music teacher for the last 1,000 years, overturns nothing! What is most puzzling here is the claim about how this is a discovery that "overturns centuries of theories". But they don't bother to mention what those theories were or who held them.

Here's some home truths for the folks at the University of Melborne: people's ability to appreciate and understand complex music is partially learned and partially based on natural ability. A lot of harmony is closely related to acoustic phenomena like the overtone series. It is hard to know what exactly they mean by the "physical properties of the ear", but it would certainly be impossible to appreciate music if your hearing were severely compromised.

I am at something of a loss here to see just what, if anything, the researchers managed to discover here.

  • The recorder player Walter Bergmann offers us some charming rules of chamber-music playing. Hat tip to Norman Lebrecht.

Twenty Six Golden Rules of Ensemble Playing

by Walter Bergman (1903-1988)

1.  Never worry whether you play the same piece as the others;  they will soon find out.
2.  Stop at every repeat sign and enter into a palaver about whether you should, should not, would, would not, could, could not, want, or want not, to repeat.
3.  Which is the most important part in an ensemble?  The other one.
4.  Always aim for the highest number of n.p.s. (notes per second).
5.  If you play a wrong note, give your partner a dirty look.
6.  Always keep your fingering chart handy.  If, in the middle of the piece, you don’t know the fingering of a note, look it up, try the note, and then catch up with the others.
7.  If a passage is difficult, slow down; if it’s easy, speed up.  In the long run it all evens out.
8.  A right note, at the wrong time, is a wrong note (and vice versa).
9.  Do take your time turning a page – it gives everyone a nice rest.
10. Rests are difficult, especially on the recorder.  If you are not sure of their lengths, ignore them.
11. If you alone are right and everyone else is wrong, follow the wrong.
12. If you have irretrievably lost your place in the music, stop everyone and say, ‘I think you need to retune.’
13. Blessed are the poor in intonation, for theirs is the kingdom of music.
14. Memorize the following line, which you can have ready for a variety of situations: ‘I alway play in tune, because I play a Moeck (Coolsma, Aulos, Dolmetsch, Koch, Kung, von Huene, etc.) recorder.’
15. Tune carefully before playing, and then you can safely play out of tune for the entire evening.
16. Your conductor has been paid.  There is no need to look at him.
17. But be sure to _follow_ the conductor (don’t be together with him).
18. Spare the breath and spoil the tune!
19. Remember, vibrato _always_ starts on the upper frequency.
20. An ornament should be an embellishment and not an embarrassment.
21. Remember Shakespeare’s immortal lines:
“A rest is silence” (Hamlet)
“My kingdom for a semiquaver.” (Richard III)
“My foot my tutor?”  (The Tempest)
22. Pick out of old books (Quantz, etc.) what you like, and bypass what does not suit your preconceived ideas.
23. Authentic interpretation is not achieved until not a note of the original is left.
24. Do be careful to select the right edition. The best editor is he who writes _forte_ at the beginning of a fast movement, and _piano_ at the beginning of a slow one.  He puts breath marks over rests and omits them where they could be helpful. He also write prefaces that make the performance of a piece completely unnecessary and sometimes even undesirable.
25. Remember, _forte_ and _piano_ marks, dots, and crescendos and decrescendos are not there to be observed.  They are decorations for the eye, invented by frustrated engravers, and they have no special musical meaning. As communications from the composer they are equally unimportant, because composers are mostly dead and don’t understand their own compositions, anyhow.
There are, however, three exceptions to this rule:
a)  A dot over a note prolongs its duration by one half-step.
b)  Crescendo and decrescendo hairpins are essential over rests.
c)  In examples like the following, adhere carefully to directions: [six measures of tied whole notes, marked 'Nicht schleppen (do not drag)']
26. Thou shalt not play the little bit left over at the end… [Here there should be the little musical example. The little bit left over is the 2nd entrance of a repeat.]

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