Wednesday, December 30, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part thirty-seven: Music

Music is probably one of the "realest" things there is, if "being real" can be considered a continuum and not just a binary thing. If you're having trouble imagining a spectrum of realism, think about how real chairs are: well, OK, on the one hand there are actually chairs in the world, but on the other hand there are just atoms arranged chair-wise. But those atoms are composed of protons, electrons, and neutrons, and those things are a little bit "more real" than the chair-like arrangements into which we place them. If you can dig that. Or it could be that, since words are imaginary, I'm just playing a pretty word game. Your choice, I guess.

The best definition for music that I ever heard was, "organized sound in time." Now, the sound of music (phenomenologically speaking) is just vibrations in the air wobbling your eardrum and then turning those wobbles from air vibrations into liquid vibrations, followed by tiny hairs in your inner ear picking up those vibrations and telling your brain that you're hearing sound. But what's behind that is a bunch of rhythms, and what makes music interesting is the arrangements of (and relationships between) those rhythms. I don't just mean time signature and beat, I mean the rhythm with which the air must vibrate to carry, say, a C#.

Now here's where the "realness" of music comes in: the relationships between those vibrations are a matter of mathematical proportion. While it's fairly arbitrary what names we give to our notes and what scales we use, these rhythms have a direct relationship to the bits of reality from which they are constructed. What precisely that means is up to the reader, but the fact remains that sound (or more generally, rhythm) is a direct expression of the properties of reality that produce it. There is a key difference, however, between rhythm as we perceive it and rhythm as it actually is, and here I want to illustrate the point by reference to some of the differences between Indian and Western music.

Both Indian and Western music are based on the physics of sound, but whereas Western music only recognizes twelve notes in an octave, Indian music recognizes twenty-two notes in an octave. Interestingly, both styles typically choose only seven notes in that octave range to play in a piece, and this determines the key of the piece. While the variations of Western music typically involve play with harmonic progression, Indian music tends to focus its complexity on melody and rhythm: in an Indian performance, the audience can keep a steady rhythm while the performers play around, and then they meet back up and the audience is impressed with how they each went and played with the rhythm and then managed to meet back in the middle. In a Western performance, the audience just kind of sits and listens while everyone stays in the same rhythm and plays different parts in harmony. And whereas Western music tends to have a "mood," Indian music has a time of day: Westerners have happy music, sad music, suspenseful music; Indians have morning music, afternoon music, night music. And that's just skimming the surface! (A more thorough read can be found here.)

The point is, a Westerner might call Indian music dissonant and arrhythmic, while an Indian might call Western music repetitive and dull. Each would describe their own music as rich and soulful and all kinds of other positive adjectives, while the other thing is "just weird." Which you like seems to be based only on where you grew up, the local style to which you have grown accustomed, like language or an accent: Indians have three distinct sounds which Westerners seem to translate all as the "D" sound, and Westerners seem to do this thing with migrating Rs (which is why a Bostonian will "wash the cah," while a Texan will "warsh the car").

But underneath that style is the same physics, the same vibrations, the same travelling disturbances through reality. Much like language is all about communicating ideas, music is all about communicating rhythms; but while ideas are only in our heads, rhythms are actually "out there in the world." I think that makes music and rhythmic expression a little bit more real, more interesting, more visceral, than the things that we do with language alone.


Ms. Hermit said...

This is why you don't need to understand the words in Italian Opera to follow it. It seems that minor keys are minor keys and convey the emotions they convey across cultures. And open fifths are almost always bombastic and ceremonial, etc, etc.

I heart music theory. especially when you take it out of the western concert hall (whether that's looking at Indian music or the frequencies of sound, it's still supercool)

D said...

Thanks for the comment! Yeah, music is awesome, and taking a world music course was one of the best things I ever did. It's crazy how many different interesting things we can do with sound.