Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Decent Interval

A "decent interval" was that awkward period of time between when someone said something outrageously inappropriate and the conversation could resume. The concept has nearly completely disappeared from contemporary society. But it makes a nice pun, because two recent articles about a study of consonance by researchers at MIT and Brandeis, manage to discuss the concept of dissonant and consonant intervals while completely avoiding the use of the word. This gives anyone with musical training reading the articles the sense that these folks don't know much about music.

Thanks to a frequent commentator for tipping me off to these articles, both discussing the same study:

The second link is to a public release by MIT, so let's look at that one first.
CAMBRIDGE, MA -- In Western styles of music, from classical to pop, some combinations of notes are generally considered more pleasant than others. To most of our ears, a chord of C and G, for example, sounds much more agreeable than the grating combination of C and F# (which has historically been known as the "devil in music").
For decades, neuroscientists have pondered whether this preference is somehow hardwired into our brains. A new study from MIT and Brandeis University suggests that the answer is no.
I think this description of the context of the study reveals how distorted the basic assumptions are. We don't even notice them because they are so endemic to intellectual pursuits in our culture. First of all, it  is odd to talk about Western "styles" of music, not because they don't exist, of course they do, but the word "style" is fundamentally deceptive because what is being considered in the study is not a musical style like the backbeat in pop music or the dancelike character of rondo finales, but the bedrock of Western music theory, which goes back to the ancient Greeks who were the first to notice the simple relationships of the octave and fifth (the relation between the frequencies of the pitches are, respectively, 2:1 and 3:2, which is an acoustical fact, not a cultural preference). So right off the bat, the fundamental assumptions of the study are loony.

Next, I have to question the use of the word "chord". In music, a chord is typically a group of three or more notes sounding simultaneously. A group of two notes, which they are talking about here, is always referred to as an "interval" not a chord. Two notes can form an interval horizontally or vertically. Intervals are the basic building blocks of music, not a "style".
In a study of more than 100 people belonging to a remote Amazonian tribe with little or no exposure to Western music, the researchers found that dissonant chords such as the combination of C and F# were rated just as likeable as "consonant" chords, which feature simple integer ratios between the acoustical frequencies of the two notes.
OK, so they played different intervals to the people in the tribe, who had never been exposed to Western music and found that they had no particular preference for consonant intervals over dissonant ones. Let's fill this in a bit. Presumably they have also had no exposure to Indian music or Japanese music or Balinese music or African music or, and this is the important bit: any developed music whatsoever! The first question I want to ask is, "what sort of music are they used to?" Log drums? Blowing across grass leaves? Are they used to hearing any pure intervals whatsoever? If not, then it is extremely doubtful that they can even have a preference.

The so-called "preference" for certain intervals is not so much an "oh, that sounds nice" as it is a characteristic of highly developed musical "languages" to use certain intervals as structural and other ones as decorative or expressive.
The Tsimane's own music features both singing and instrumental performance, but usually by only one person at a time.
It would be very helpful to have some information about the kind of music the Tsimane sing and play, because it would be fundamental in shaping their preferences. For example, it is not so easy to construct musical instruments that can produce pure intervals, especially if you live in a jungle with no precision tools. If they are used to the typically complex interval clusters produced by primitive instruments, then all pure intervals, whether consonant or dissonant, are going to sound odd to them.

It is not so easy to dig up a clip of traditional music from the Amazon, but there seems to be a bit of a cottage industry in "shamanic" music from that area used as an aid in meditation. Most hilariously ironic is that the very first interval sang on this recording is ... wait for it ... a perfect fourth (the inversion of a perfect fifth--C up to G is a perfect fifth, G up to C is a perfect fourth):

For greater amusement value, let's have a look at how the Huffington Post commentator spins this study:
Your obscure record collection is great and all but, I’m sorry to inform you, your preciously unique musical tastes are all an illusion. More precisely, they’re inextricably shaped by broader cultural norms and codes which are virtually impossible to avoid.  
In other words, your taste in music is dictated more by history, and not your unique melodic preferences.
This news comes courtesy of researchers at MIT and Brandeis University, who at long last determined that even the most basic of musical preferences are heavily informed by a long-standing tradition of Western music that has permeated your brain, debunking the myth that our minds are hardwired to enjoy so-called consonant chords.
When did it become the norm for every article referencing aesthetic tastes to be an extended sneer? Let's sneer right back, shall we? As we have just observed, the MIT/Brandeis study really tells us almost nothing whatsoever, so all this fervent ranting is just the prejudices of the writer spewing forth. You only like what you like because you are culturally conditioned to. This is a basic plank of the cultural Marxism platform, of course and once they have you fundamentally believing it, they have you right where they want you. This goes back to the work of Pierre Bourdieu who, according to Wikipedia:
was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society, and especially the diverse and subtle ways in which power is transferred and social order maintained within and across generations. In conscious opposition to the idealist tradition of much of Western philosophy, his work often emphasized the corporeal nature of social life and stressed the role of practice and embodiment in social dynamics.
He wrote a lot about the sociology of aesthetics:
Pierre Bourdieu developed theories of social stratification based on aesthetic taste in his 1979 work Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (in French, La Distinction) published by Harvard University Press. Bourdieu claims that how one chooses to present one's social space to the world — one's aesthetic dispositions — depicts one's status and distances oneself from lower groups. Specifically, Bourdieu hypothesizes that children internalize these dispositions at an early age and that such dispositions guide the young towards their appropriate social positions, towards the behaviors that are suitable for them, and foster an aversion towards other behaviours.
Is this how your musical taste has been shaped? Certainly not mine! According to how music is integrated with power in our society I simply have to be a big Beyoncé fan, right? She performs at the White House and everything!

Let's have one last quote from Huffington Post:
The study uproots the belief that there is something intrinsic or natural about the Western value systems that govern music. In fact, it’s just a very, very widespread opinion, not to mention another example of Westerners thinking they know best. 
“There’s often a tendency to assume that structures that are important in Western music are just important, period,” McDermott explained to The Boston Globe. “Our results provide a pretty strong cautionary note of one example where that is pretty clearly not the case.”
Oh, those horrific Western value systems! Thank god we can uproot them at last! And, presumably, revert to the primitivistic ways of organizing sound typical of musical traditions that have not noticed the basic acoustic facts that Western musicians have, and passed on to Arabic, Indian and many other traditions. Here is some music from a tradition almost untouched by those ancient Greek discoveries about acoustics. This is some traditional music from Thailand but you might notice that the lead player is still often playing the melody in octaves:


Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks Bryan! How did I know that those articles would get you going? And to write so much with an injured hand! I hope it's getting better. Thanks for the analysis. I don't understand everything but I'm trying!

Bryan Townsend said...

My pleasure! They were just the thing to inspire me to a post. My finger is much better every day. Still a couple of weeks from being able to play guitar, though.

Yes, the problem is that a good and accurate critique demands that I use some technical terms. But please share with me what parts were hard to understand!

Jeph said...

Perfectly worded riposte, Bryan. Acoustic fact.

I almost stopped reading when they admit that the tribal musicians usually play one at a time. There the entire thing immediately collapses. Nice try, next!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jeph!

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan, do I dare to reveal how truly musically challenged I am by telling you what I don't understand? I do have some pride.

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh!

Anonymous said...

Bryan - Actually I do think there is some merit to the idea that musical taste is driven by power. The classical world tends to be populated by the well to-do and I think they feel superior by listening to opera, symphonic music, etc.. And this is passed on through generations. And society in general accepts the coupling of classical with power. If an ad or business wants to telegraph exclusivity, or tries to impress lower economic strata, a soundtrack by, for example, Mozart would be used.
I'll never forget attending an opera performance where valets parked cars. I was driving a somewhat distressed car. At the conclusion, a backup occurred when it took a while for all cars to be retrieved. The Mercedes, Saabs, etc. rolled up and, while waiting for my car, I shuddered as I contemplated the embarrassment of me claiming my older Toyota wagon. However, I got over it, and no permanent psychic harm occurred.
In any event, enjoy the blog. Sorry about your injury, hope recovery is speedy.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Patrick and welcome to the Music Salon. The reason that theories like that of Pierre Bourdieu and others are so plausible is because there is always a grain of truth in them. I know exactly what you mean and yes, there are contexts in the classical music world that can promote social divisions. But I think that cultural Marxism is always getting the causality mixed up. These kinds of theories are always extremely useful politically to those who know how to use them. But the idea that musical taste is driven by or imbricated with power is one that falls apart on any close examination. Ask yourself: did you go to that opera because you wanted people to think you were powerful or to hear the music?

Ricardo said...

The problem I have with studies like these is the act as if they’re telling us something revolutionary but it’s really something so common sense and banal it’s hardly worth saying. That is, our preferences are shaped by our culture and what we already know. That’s an idea that was taken for common knowledge as far back as Aristotle’s time, and there’s really not much to say about it besides “yeah…so what?”

I do feel however that you’re misrepresenting Bourdieu and he’s definitely worth taking seriously. For one thing, he’s not an armchair theorist like Marx, Adorno, Derrida, etc. his work is based on original research and actually talking to people, quite a lot of people in fact. And while he does talk about taste, I’d say his emphasis is more on what people don’t like. Maybe that seems like an overly subtle distinction but his idea is that the more education you have the more you learn to privilege certain things in specific ways. To stay in the world of classical music, it’s not so much that educated person ‘x’ will like Beethoven because of their cultural conditioning, but rather educated person ‘x’ will know to say Beethoven is great and Clementi is average, regardless of how much they actually know about either composer’s music (And I’d be willing to to bet there’s a really big gap between the number of people who would say Beethoven is great and the number of people who can actually follow the logic of his best music). Another example I know from personal experience was the trend in our little classical guitar world (which is definitely still around but thankfully seems to be reversing) of guitarists just disparaging people like Sor or Giuliani out of hand as lousy composers which always seemed to be a similar kind of posturing to me. Of course almost any time I tried to tell them about the merits of a particular piece like the Sor op.30 for example, they wouldn’t know the piece at all and yet they were still confident in their assessment. Now as both of those cases show, there can in fact some merit to the claims, I think most people who really look at Clementi and Beethoven will come away thinking Beethoven is the greater composer (and probably also that Clementi is a lot better then he’s usually given credit for), but I also think it’s undeniable that most people making such claims are more taking in what’s around them more than actually coming to a decision themselves.

You mention an interesting thing in your comment about Beyonce though, and that’s how the notion of high culture has changed so drastically since Bourdieu was writing especially in regards to music. Distinction was written in the late seventies and right around there seems to be something of a cut off, where with students in college around then or before then I would expect them to know about classical music to some degree, and I would expect that knowledge to increase with the amount of education. Whereas people I know who were in college in the 80s or later seem increasingly less likely to know much if anything about classical music even if their tastes in other arts are extremely refined. They just tend to get pulled towards indie rock or something like that instead. But at the same time classical music is still a privileged institution, and I don’t think you’ll find many people at classical concerts not coming from a wealthy background and without some kind of college education. For Bourdieu it was the representative music of high culture, but now it’s still this kind of weird niche in high culture but it’s hardly dominant. No real point about that, your post just got me thinking about where our art is heading.

To end this long comment, just one nitpick. Everything I’ve read suggests the earliest mentions of those simple ratios was back in Mesopotamia, but at very least the Chinese also had knowledge of them around the same time if not a little before Pythagoras.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks very much for your comment Ricardo! A very interesting and detailed discussion. I ask you, how many blogs can elicit a comment by someone who actually has a good knowledge of Pierre Bourdieu, not to mention Fernando Sor. I completely agree with your feeling that these kinds of studies are mere recapitulations of what has long been common knowledge--that is, when they are true! Much of the time they are simply mistaken.

Re Bourdieu, you make some excellent points. Yes, perhaps most people absorb their aesthetic valuations instead of working them out for themselves. But the problem for me is that research like that of Bourdieu's is put so some rather unsavory uses.

I have gone through a few stages regarding Giuliani and Sor: as a younger player I just worked hard on the techniques needed to play them. Then I went through a stage of some devotion to the performance of their music. I performed the Rossiniana op 119 of Giuliani a few times. Funny you should mention the Fantasia op. 30 of Sor. It was one of my favorite pieces and I recorded it for the CBC. But I'm afraid that while I do respect this repertoire, it seems to me to be rather slight compared to the piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Do you feel that the aesthetic value of classical music earns it any kind of privilege? It certainly demands a certain amount of leisure time, education and other resources, but frankly, a lot of it is as available to poor people as rich people.

Quite possible that people before Pythagoras had noticed acoustic ratios. Do you have any references?