Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

The Wall Street Journal has a piece up about the dangers of listening to loud music on earbuds and headphones.
Experts say listening to music at high volumes using earbuds or headphones for more than an hour—and in some cases, as little as a few minutes—could put you at risk for noise-related hearing loss.
The World Health Organization in a new campaign advises limiting the use of personal audio devices to less than an hour a day, or for longer periods if kept at a volume of less than 85 decibels, roughly equivalent to the beep of a microwave.
Not just pop musicians, but also orchestral players are exposed to sound levels that can cause hearing loss over time. Some musicians wear earplugs to minimize the danger. If you have been sitting next to the piccolo player or in front of the trombone section for several years, you might have a problem. I mentioned this to an orchestral musician once, but he just said "what?"

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The Washington Post has an interesting story up about a copyright infringement case in music. I have had a bit of experience in this area as a recording of mine was released on a compilation CD by a Toronto record company after their rights to it had expired. As is usual in these cases, there was a private settlement. But the creators of a very high-profile single in 2013, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" have been successfully sued by the estate of Marvin Gaye.
The strange, fraught saga of “Blurred Lines” — 2013’s most notoriously popular single — has finally come to a rich conclusion. A Los Angeles  jury decided Tuesday that, yes, songwriters Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams ripped off Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” and awarded Gaye’s family $7.4 million in compensation.
Oddly, the jury was not allowed to hear the Marvin Gaye song during the trial. I like to do side by side comparisons here, but in this case, someone has already done a clip setting the two songs side by side:

I'm curious as to the judge's instructions to the jury. Did he say things like "melodies can be copyrighted, but not chord progressions"? Because there are a zillion songs with the same chord progression. How about "grooves"? The similar rhythmic texture here, the "groove", is the most obvious similarity. But aren't there a lot of songs with a similar groove? Due to the appalling repetitiveness of pop music are we going to see a whole lot of lawsuits against every artist that puts up a hit single? Who owns the copyright on the backbeat? I'm just waiting for the estate of Willie Dixon to start launching multiple suits against Led Zeppelin for stealing a whole lotta stuff. Hey, they already did. Robert Johnson's heirs will be next.

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I wonder if music schools are going to start creating programs to start training "forensic musicologists"? Oh wait, Sandy Wilbur, who testified in the Blurred Lines trial, is already there. She seems to actually own the domain "". But I don't see anywhere that she actually has a degree in musicology. Shouldn't the American Musicological Society have something to say about that?

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I was asked about this case in the comments to another post and I replied as follows: I think that there are two fundamental principles that are running up against one another. On the one hand, pop music is a commercial or industrial process akin to sausage-making given an aura of artistry by promotion and marketing. But at the same time the illusion is cultivated that every pop musician is a true artist, marching to the beat of their own drummer, a special unique snowflake telling the story of their deep inner emotional life. With a backbeat. All this stuff about inspiration and doing a homage to another artist is to be understood as the actions of those who are still deeply original people. A case like this tends to shatter the illusions. Different pop songs tend to have the same underlying structure the way different Chevrolets are built on the same chassis.

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A study was recently done on the "evolution" of the f-hole in violin design. The Economist has the report.
BIOLOGICAL evolution happens by random mutation and selection. Technological evolution involves selection, too. Products preferred by customers are the ones that reproduce. But since technology is the product of conscious design, the mutation part of the process might reasonably be assumed to be deliberate rather than random.
A study just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society suggests, however, that this is not always the case. Nicholas Makris and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in collaboration with Roman Barnas, a violin maker at the North Bennet Street School, in Boston, have been looking at the evolution of that instrument. One aspect of the process intrigued them in particular—the changing shape, over the years, of the holes in a violin’s body that allow the sound to emerge.
But do you see the philosophical problem here? You have to read the whole thing as they don't state the issue succinctly. Here is the clearest statement:
As is also the case with living organisms, mutation and selection seem to have arrived at an optimal result.
 They are actually trying to claim that the work of many generations of craftsmen was somehow unintentional or random! They simply don't seem to realize that when they refer to the perfection of the design of the violin as "evolution", "mutation" and "selection", words borrowed from biological science, that these words are mere metaphor! This is so philosophically dense that I am amazed by it. The design of the violin f-holes is the result of the conscious, intentional experimentation of generations of craftsmen aided by the musicians who played the instruments. This is simple and obvious. But these days, if you want to publish something, you have to come up with some nutty contradiction of common sense.

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Here is a well-written article about Debussy's final burst of creativity when he spent three months at Pourville-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast and wrote three of his most important late works: the suite for two pianos En Blanc et Noir, the cello sonata, and his etudes for piano. I think I have a sense of what was going on. I think that composers often need to go away from their usual haunts, especially into the country, to seek inspiration. Generations of Austrian and German composers sought solitude and inspiration in the countryside and there is the well-known example of Elliot Carter sequestering himself in the Sonoran desert for a year while he composed his String Quartet No. 1. I used to go for a walk by the ocean every afternoon to appreciate the constantly-changing colors and textures of the sky and water. Sudip Bose writes in the essay that Debussy
loved the villa’s tangled, rain-soaked garden, which provided a view of the English Channel, the soothing zinc-hued water making him almost forget the distant horrors of war.

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That last item gives us today's envoi, the suite for two pianos En Blanc et Noir. Here are Anastasia Gromoglasova (primo) and Liubov Gromoglasova (secondo) performing at their duo recital at the Small hall of the Moscow Conservatoire:



Rickard said...

Some facts about hearing and hearing loss I thought would be nice to share: Prolonged listening of sounds above 85dB lead to hearing loss. At 85dB you need 8h of listening for hearing loss to occur. Each increase of 3dB cuts the time to half. I.e. for 88dB it will be 4h before hearing loss occurs. Then at 91dB 2h and so on. At even higher decibel levels (such as 120dB) hearing loss occurs almost instantly. Obviously it will be a problem for orchestral musicians as concerts can reach levels of 85dB and beyond, especially if you sit close enough (i.e. in the orchestra as opposed to in the audience). I'm pretty sure that some orchestral parts reach 100dB or maybe even 110dB. I don't know exactly how severe the danger of hearing loss is to the average concert goer but it certainly is there. Some seats obviously have better (louder) sound. One thing to note is that the ear becomes less sensitive after a period of listening. For instance if you will no longer consider something you've previously considered loud if you listen to it long enough. This effect is temporary as your sensitivity will increase again if you stop listening to something as loud for a while. Finally, a person with hearing loss will not only have trouble hearing softer sounds but will paradoxically become more sensitive to loud sounds and get increased hearing loss more easily. Some hearing aids are bad in the sense that they amplify every sound when they actually should dampen loud sounds.

Anonymous said...

I share your skepticism about the evolutionary nature of violin design, but you're not doing justice to the argument. It's probably wrong but not idiotically so, as you seem to imply. They're trying to tease out variation by design from variation by copying error. Since we know that not every violin maker tried to innovate -- some did, others did not -- the distinction they make is sound and even interesting.

I just don't believe they have enough data to support their claim, however.

The Economist also makes the common mistake of calling natural selection an optimizer. It is no such thing.

Bryan Townsend said...

Once again the extremely well informed commentariat at the Music Salon weighs in. Thanks to you both. I recall one orchestral player mentioning to me that they thought that higher-pitched sounds were more dangerous than low-pitched ones. So you are in more danger if you sit by the piccolo than if you sit by the bass drum.

Anonymous, I think I am philosophically hypersensitive to scientific research! Or at least journalistic reports on scientific research. What got my dander up in the present instance was this sentence: "Products preferred by customers are the ones that reproduce." They suppressed the agency for a passive construction to strengthen their "it's evolution" argument. Violin designs that are preferred by customers are the ones that get reproduced by craftsmen is a better phrase. I take your point though. It is rather interesting if they can distinguish between intentional improvements in design and just random variations in design. But the long-term driver is still most likely to be the improvement in sound, n'est-ce pas?