What Music Is Part 3: Rhythm

Rhythm is arguably the most important part of music. Its what drives the music, keeps it going, and keeps musicians playing together like musicians. Without rhythm, there is no music. You may say that notes are required to make music music, but this is not true. All you need is a rhythm and something to make sound with.
The most basic forms of music have no tune at all, just a rhythm. Take Native American drumming as a good example. Frequently all they have is those drums, and yet the make music just the same. Its just a basic rhythm, and it is enough to get your foot tapping.

The rhythm of a piece of music (sheet music that is) is made up of two things. The meter signature (more commonly known as the time signature) and the tempo. Both can be seen in the above image. The 3/4 indicates two things, how many beats in a measure, and which type of note gets one beat. The top number indicates the beats per measure (3) and the bottom number indicates which note gets a beat (4, which is a quarter note, 8 would be 8th note 2 would be half note etc).

Also in this image you can see Allegro followed by an image of a quarter note and = 126. Allegro is an Italian word (as are many words you will find in music) meaning fast, quickly and bright. And typically means to play at a speed of 120-139 BPM (beats per minute). The exact amount is show next to it: 126 quarter notes per minute. So, if there are 3 beats to the measure, and a quarter note gets one beat, and there are 126 quarter notes in a minute, we can expect one measure of the piece to take about 1.4 seconds. The whole piece (which is 50 measure long) should take about 1 minute and 10 seconds.

The most common rhythm instrument you would see would be a drum or drum set. You see them all the time, and you can recognize one instantly. And, if you are given say, a hand drum, you can probably keep a beat on it. But rhythm can be kept in many other ways. Take a solo pianist or violinist as an example. They have no drums to help them out, yet they have to keep the beat going properly. This takes time to acquire, but is very important.

So, case and point, the rhythm is quite possibly the most important element of music.

Im not sure what part 4 will be about. Well see.

Blog to you later!

This is part three of my series: What Music is. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

What Music Is Part 2: Harmony

Harmony is an integral part of music as we know it. In the dictionary, harmony is defined in this way:
The simultaneous combination of tones, especially when blended into chords pleasing to the ear; chordal structure, as distinguished from melody and rhythm.
In other words, whenever two tones are played or sung together, harmony results. Now note, this does not mean it sounds nice. Playing a C and a C# together is still harmony, even though the result is a minor second, one of the least nice-sounding intervals.

 

But before I get into detail about harmony, I want to talk a little bit about what makes a note a note.

You may think a not is simple, but it is not. As you probably know, higher sounds are caused by vaster vibrations, ans lower sounds are caused by slower vibrations. This is true, but there is more then that. Take an example, when you play a note on an oboe, it sounds distinctly different from the same not played on a cello. There is a reason for this.

A note is made up of not one frequency, but many. Lets say that you have an instrument playing an A above middle C, which vibrates at 440 Hz. The instrument will actually produce not only a 440 Hz sound, but also a little bit of a sound at 880 Hz, 1320 Hz, and so on. We perceive pitch as being whatever the lowest frequency is (440 Hz in this case). But the volume of the other harmonics (for that is what they are called) is what causes the note to sound like a certain instrument. We call this timbre.

 

Now that we know who notes are constructed, we can look at how notes work together to form chord and harmonies.

On the right is a chart showing the music intervals. If we consider our first note to be a C, a D flat would form an interval of a minor second. A D would form a major second and so on. A basic major chord (that is, a happy chord) is formed of a root note(in this case, C), a major third (E) and a fifth (G). The chord can be changed to a minor chord (that is, a sad chord) by changing the middle note from a major third (E) to a minor third (E flat). These notes can be combined in endless combination, but those two are the most commonly used ones.

Now, we cant just expect any two notes to sound nice together. Pythagoras figured it out. The intervals that are the most pleasing to the ear are the ones with frequencies that are ratios of small, whole numbers. The only intervals that the Greeks considered harmonious where the octave (ratio 1/2), perfect fifth (ratio 2/3) and a perfect fourth (ratio 3/4). So, in other words, an A has a frequency of 440. The frequency of a 5th above that is 660. This simplifies down to 2/3.

This is the reason that harmonies work the way they do. Harmonies can be combined in any which way. Some sound nice, some less so. But they are all harmonies.

Now, in modern music. The melody is whatever you hear predominately, and is usually sung by sopranos. For example you would know the melody of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. If it where arranged for a chorus, everything else would be considered harmony.

The next post will be about rhythm. That thing that gets your foot tapping and your hands clapping.

Blog to you later.

This is part two about my series about how music works. You can read the other parts here: Part 1, Part 3

What Music Is Part 1: Introduction

You know, first I thought I would write a blog about music and math. Then I changed my mind. I couldnt get started on the topic, I didnt know what to write. And when you dont know what to write about something, then you shouldnt force yourself. So I decided I would try to answer the question about what music really is.

 

This is the part that I decide that this needs to be in multiple parts. So think of this as an introduction to a 5 part or so (maybe more, probably not less though) series. Hopefully you can find this somewhat informative.

Music is a bit hard to pin down. There was a book I read (nonfiction) that mentioned another book (fiction). In this book, aliens came to Earth and decided to go to an orchestra concert. They listened politely, complimented the composer/conductor on his ingenuity, and left with no idea about what was so fascinating to humans about music.

You see music, as we know it, is simply a collection of sounds, arranged in a certain way. Our brains are what interpret it as music. A dog hears exactly what you hear when you listen to music over your speakers. But the dog just interprets it as a bunch of noise. Why is this? Well, that remains a mystery. But it is something that I hope to try to figure out over the course of the next week or two.

In the next blog, I will focus on harmony, and the way it works.

Blog to you later!

This is part 1 of my series, What Music Is. You can read the other parts here: Part 2, Part 3

Alzheimers Disease and Music

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

 

The pathway to freedom?

Most people are familiar with the symptoms of dementia, particularly those of Alzheimers. Confusion, inability to know who you or the people around are, and a general decline in many of the mental faculties, as well as apathy. This is particularly hard on family. As the dementia progresses, the victim may forget who even his or her closest friends and family members are. I read a story once of a man who was woken up when his wife started screaming because she found a strange man in her bead (him). It is a tragic thing. The family longs for the lucid moment when the victims mental faculties are unshackled and, for however short a time, they are themselves. However they are somewhat few and far between.

But what if there was a way to negate this symptoms. Even if there was a way to have two lucid moments in a day instead of one, wouldnt that make all the difference? What if there was something that was immune to the effects of Alzheimers? It seems that there is.

Music

It interacts with our brain in the most incredible ways. Almost every part of our brain is activated by music. It effects our emotions and our ability to learn. I will cover this much more in the rest of this series, but for now, I will stick with Alzheimers.

In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes of a man he once met who had been diagnosed with Alzheimers some 13 years previously. He remembered almost nothing. Not where he live, what he did for a living, or even how to dress and groom himself. He did, however, remember the baritone part of almost every song he had ever sung. Quite an accomplishment considering he had sung with an a capella male voice chorus for many many years. He even was able to open a concert, despite getting lost on the way to the stage.

But music can also improve the symptoms of dementia. Sacks also writes of a women with sever dementia. She literally lived on her couch morning, noon, and night, watching television for most of the time. One time, one of the caregivers had the bright idea of turning on the classical channel. Within the next 24 hours, marked changes began to take place. After living on the couch for so long, she asked to be brought to the table to eat with the family, and began communicating and taking more interest in her surroundings.

But why?

Ever had an experience where you a doing some simple task, and all of a sudden a memory jumps out of what seems to be nowhere. Frequently the memory shares some sort of similarity with what you are doing now. It is almost as if a certain task or experience comes with embedded memories. Music can work in much the same way, as two of the brain structures that respond strongly to music are the structures that deal with memory and emotion.. Songs from someones past, particularly songs one sang, can bring back all but inaccessible memories from ones past. As Oliver Sacks says in a video about the topic, the patient might remember when they first heard the song. Perhaps it was an outing, on Coney Island, the kids were there. etc. It all comes flooding back. Emotions show up to, and music can cause happiness that can last for hours after the music has stopped in even the most apathetic of patients

A patient doesnt even have to be musical to experience this. Music effects almost everyone (I said almost, will blog about that later) in a profound way. It continues to do so throughout dementia.

Although we may never know exactly why or how this happens, we do know this. Music is something so ingrained in us, that even the most sever of mentally degenerative illnesses cant eradicate it.

What about you? Have you ever seen someone with Alzheimers (or any form of dementia) respond in an incredible way to music? I would love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Music and Distraction

I am having trouble writing today. Right before I started on this post, I turned of a recording of Spem in Alium that I was listening to in preparation for an upcoming blog post. I was doing my best to write and listen at the same time, and I have to say, It wasnt working out well.

I mentioned in a recent post how music requires your attention. Not only does it requires your attention, it demands it. Music is truly a jealous thing. If you do not pay attention, it will do its very very best to through you off track in whatever else it is trying to do.

For some of us.

 

Helping or hurting?

Some people can can listen to music all day every day and function on a completely normal level. Others (including myself) have issues with this. I cannot really focus on two things at once. Either I focus on what I am doing, or I focus on the music. If I focus on the music, I dont get stuff done. If I focus on what I am doing, the music constantly nags at me, trying to distract me.

I wouldnt say I am a bad multitasker, however, what I do is not really multitasking. Instead I do each thing for a little bit, then switch to another. What this means though, is that I cannot, for example, listen to a lecture and check Facebook and expect to absorb anything from the lecture during that time I am on Facebook. I am just a humble male after all.

But why must music do this to me? Cant I just listen passively and forget about it.

No. By writing this blog, I am making a declaration of my unwillingness to listen to music passively. I am trying to show you all that I know music and want to teach you about it. And, as such, here I am.

As you may know from my series on music and the brain, the brain tends to be rather activated by music. And when I say activated, I mean activated. The brain cant ignore music, no matter how hard it tries (except for, yet again, those with amusia). Music infects our brain. Listen to Darude (which is, in fact what Pandora was playing) and you can not help but tap your foot in time with Sandstorm (at the very least). It just does not happen. It makes logical sense therefore, that you may not be able to listen to music because of distraction.

It also, on the other hand, can be a catalyst. It can help you think better. If you are like this, I am very happy for you, because I am not. Music does help me think better, I just have to listen to the music then think.

Perfect Pitch: Everything is Music

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Nature can be somewhat musical. Not in a figurative way, but a literal way. A squeaky gate, a car horn, even someone blowing their nose.

Anything!

My house has a squeaky gate that can drive me insane sometimes. Under the right circumstances, the three squeaks that come from it while closing, make up the first three notes of a tune that I know well. This is not perfect pitch. This is just hyperactive regular musical recognition and relative pitch. But it is not the same for all.

Relative Pitch vs. Absolute (perfect) Pitch

People with perfect pitch have what could be called the Pro version of the musicality that most people are born with. The average person can tell you if two notes you are playing are different, and if one is higher or lower then the other. Perhaps they cant tell you, for example, how much farther above or below the second note was, but this can be taught through training. They cannot however, tell you the names of the notes without seeing a keyboard or whatever else you happen to be playing on.

People without absolute pitch however can do this. They can listen to a note and, assuming they have been taught the names, immediately tell you which note you are playing without looking at your fingers or the instrument. Not only that, they can also reproduce a note exactly on pitch by just being given the name. No other notes required. You may think, What could be bad about this? Let me tell you. Plenty can

This ability does not stop at musical notes. It can apply to everything that may even be remotely musical. The screech of a car, the blowing of a nose, the screaming of a little girl. All of that becomes a musical note that they can name.

I am not at that point (thank goodness). But I do notice some things that I never did before. Take my vacuum for example. I noticed at one point that it too made a musical note whenever it operated. I was able to hum it, walk to my piano, and figure it out. It happened to be a G#. This is not absolute pitch, but it does illustrated how musical training can make you notice things you never did before.

How Can They Tell?

Imagine you are looking at two different pieces of construction paper. Lets say that one is pink and one is orange. Now, there is no difference in shape amongst the two. But you can obviously tell them apart because of their different colors. Most people with absolute pitch say that each tone has its own color. Not an actual, visual color, but a quality that is unique to the tone itself. Letting them know what it is. Obviously something is different with their brains. What is it? Once again we are not exactly sure. It must be hell to play an out-of-tune piano!

Can I learn it?

Ah yes, the ultimate question. The short answer is maybe. It was long believed that absolute pitch could not be learned, and that you had to be born with it. However research has shown that it may be possible to learn it as a skill. Look around on the internet and you will find plenty of products that claim to teach it to you. Although I cannot vouch for the validity of any of these products. The positive reviews do seem to indicate that they work to some extent. But why dont you give one a try and let me know how it goes!

So, in conclusion. Perfect pitch is helpful to a musician, can be quite annoying, and just might be able to be learned. I say we learned something here.

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Earworms: When Music Gets Stuck in Your Head

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

We all (except, perhaps, any amusics out there) have experienced have experienced earworms: when a short bit of a song gets stuck in your head for an extended period of time. It can be for minutes, hours, or even days. It can wear on your nerves to the point that everything is irritable. And it just wont go away. This is particularly annoying when the song that is stuck is one you dislike, or even hate.

Anatomy of a Catchy Tune

The first question is this: What is it in a tune that makes our brain latch onto it the way it does? Sometimes repetition in a song can cause it. In Musicophila, Oliver Sacks writes about his Jewish upbringings and some of the songs that were sung. One song in particularly was quite repetitive.

Had Gadya (Aramic for one little goat). This was an accumulating and repetitive song [a] little phrase of six notes in a minor key would be sung (I counted!) forty-six times in the course of the song, and this repetition hammered it into my head.

 

However, beyond repetition. What makes a song catchy? Are there certain elements? Lyrics perhaps?

The answer is this: We dont really know. Earworms come in all genres, classical to metal, and many have no of these genres have no lyrics. There is nothing in a song that we point to and say, Aha! Thats why its stuck in my head. However, we can still look at the brain and see what its doing.

Why?

How we listen to music has changed in the last 150 years. It wasnt until the latter half of the 19th century that recorded music (or, for that matter) any sort of sound) became possible. Phonographs and record players became popular in the 20th century, but they were somewhat limited. Then came music on the radio. Just turn it on and let it play. Cars got radios, then tape decks. T.V. commercials and shows got music.

Then came portable music players such as the Walkman and iPod.  Now, people could listen to their music everywhere, at anytime. Our brains were being pounded my music from all sides. This goes back to the repetition angle of the whole thing. Since your brain is constantly getting hit with this stuff, wouldnt it make since that it would start repeating it to itself? Have you ever been in a boat (a big boat, not just a little speedboat)? If so you probably remember constant rocking. And, chances are, you felt like you were rocking after you got off.

Why Our Brains Do This

We have to remember this, our brain is still one of the biggest mysteries of the human body. To go back to something I said in a previous post, by trying to understand the brain, we are trying to make the brain comprehend itself. Thats a bit wacky isnt it?

We are creatures of repetition. Our heartbeat is a classic example. Always going, very rhythmic, systematic. When we miss beat, the whole body notices. People talk about the rhythm of life and, honestly, its not to far off. So it makes sense that something that becomes routine, may very well get caught by our brain

What about you? Do you have any particularly bad earworm stories? I would love to hear about them. Why dont you leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Amusia: When Its All Just Pots and Pans

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

We tend to take for granted how our brain works. Particularly when it pertains to the senses. When you look at a field full of flowers, bees, and butterflies, you arent focusing on just one object (say, one bee, one flower, or one butterfly), but your brain has knit them all together into once complete scene. Similarly, when you are looking at one thing, the brain is identifying all of its parts and putting it together into a conclusive whole. Some people have defects or damage to the brain that prevents them from being able to do this. They can see something and describe it in great detail, but there brain makes no sense of it and cannot put it together into a conclusive whole. This is called Visual Agnosia. A similar condition can affect people in a musical sense. It is called Amusia.

Tone Deafness

This term is perhaps more familiar to most people. A tone-deaf person is one who does not recognize off-key singing himself or others. You no doubt have heard one. Most people who have been to a few church services have stood next to someone who cant carry a tune in a bucket. The sing way off and dont seem to care. They can even ruin the whole service for you.

Chances are that this person just cant hear themselves. Or, to put it more accurately, they can here themselves, but cant really distinguish one pitch from another, so they dont realize they arent singing what everyone else is. People like this can still enjoy music though, unlike people with Total Amusia. Oliver Sacks writes about how he once attended a chapel that employed a cantor that was incredibly tone-deaf, and would often sing a third of an octave away from where he was supposed to be singing. The cantor thought himself an excellent singer.

Rhythm Deafness

This is considerably less well-known then tone deafness. People that have this problem may have absolutely no sense of rhythm. They cant tap there foot to a song, and dancing is not exactly easy.

Che Guevara was famously rhythm deaf; he might be seen dancing a mambo, while the orchestra was playing a tango (he also had considerable tone deafness).

Oliver Sacks, Musicohilia

Total Amusia

The title of this post is slightly misleading. This is the true pots and pans. Total Amusia is easily the most debilitating of these three disorders. A person with this disorder fails to recognize notes as notes at all, and, as such, does not recognize music as music at all. It has been described by some as the sound of a screeching car. In Musicophilia, Sacks writes about a women he once met with this condition. When asked what she did hear when music was played, she would say, If you were in my kitchen and threw all the pots and pans on the floor, thats what I hear! She also said that high notes were particularly bad and an opera simply sounded like screaming.

But what causes this? How can something so basic to human culture be so radically messed with in this way? As you might expect, the answer lies in the brain. Interestingly enough, scientists have been able to link amusia to specific parts of the brain. Rhythm deafness, for example, generally occurs because of damage to the left hemisphere of the brain (the part of the brain that generally is considered the orderly mathematical one). Tone deafness on the other hand tends to arise from damages to the right hemisphere of the brain (the part that is considered more creative). Of course, not all people with amusia have brain damge, but a large percentage of them do.

Sacks also writes about a patient he once met who was very musical. She had perfect pitch, and was a gifted performer and composer. She, it could be said, had it all musically.

One day she was in a bad car accident, she was in a coma for several days, and in a state of being only half awake for several weeks after that. When she finally came to, she noticed that her perfect pitch was gone. The first song she listened to was a Beethoven string quartet. Something incredible had happened. Although the notes sounded like notes, and she could tell when they went up or down, they did not blend together. Each instrument part sounded like its own individual laser of sound. She was suffering from the musical form of Visual Agnosia.

Why things like this happen we unfortunately dont really know. It shows us how little we understand our brain, and how music interacts with it. However it is quite fascinating, and I am very thankful that I am not stuck with one of these issues.

Do you suffer from amusia? Know someone who does? I would love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

How Trombones Work

Please note, I do not play the trombone, and have never actually used one. All this is based on research I have done. If you find anything in here that is blatantly incorrect, please feel free to let me know in a comment and I will fix it ASAP.

Youve probably seen one of these things before. Perhaps in a band, when dozens of happy high school students in pressed uniforms march down a street playing the school anthem. Or maybe in a concert hall, or in a club. But this instrument, the trombone, is one whose workings are not particularly easy to see from the outside.

A trombone is constructed of four basic parts:

  • The mouthpiece – This is wear air enters the the trumpet
  • The tubing The curving tube the goes through to get to the amplifier
  • The slider Part of the tubing, used to change the overall length of the tubing, which changes the pitch.
  • The amplifier Used to make the sound loud enough to be worth the effort of making it.

A trombone, being a brass instrument, gets most of its sound from the buzzing of the trombonists lips.It does not work to simply blow into the mouth piece, the lips actually have to buzz. The first note that a new trombonist will play will, most likely, be what is called the fundamental note on the trumpet. This is the lowest you can go on the trumpet without using the slide.

A trombone has an overtone series. This is a series of notes that are higher then and in harmony with the fundamental note. By tightening his or her lips ever so slightly, the next overtone is produced, which happens to be an octave above the fundamental note. The next note is a major 5th above the previous note. This goes on, and, in a harmonic series, there are generally eight overtones.

This is all very nice, but if that was our only way to change pitch we would be relatively limited in the notes we could make. This is where the slide comes in. The slide is used to lower a pitch by changing the amount of tubing the air has to pass through before it reaches the amplifier (the end of the trombone, where the sound comes out). As we know, little wind and brass instruments, such as the piccolo, tend to maker higher sounds and larger instruments, such as the tuba tend to make a lower sound. In trombones, the slider moves around inside the other tubing to make the overall length longer or shorter. This allows a player to play all notes of the scale, instead of just the ones in the overtone series.

And then, lo and behold, the sound emerges in all of its glorious splendor into the melody (or cacophony) around you. If everything is done right, it will be a nice clear sound that will be pleasant to the ears, and (if you are in one) will contribute to the overall sound produced by the group.

And that, my friends, is the fundamentals of the trombone.

How Pianos Work

Pianos are quite possibly the most well know instrument in music. It seems that virtually everyone knows how to play at least Mary Had a Little Lamb. But very few people actually know how pianos work.

Pianos are an incredibly complicated instrument. If you have ever looked into a piano you have probably seen the hammers that hit the strings making sound. If you think that the hammer is simply attached to the key (as I once thought) you are wrong. There is a very complex mechanism that makes the whole thing work.

Please note that this article talks specifically about upright pianos. Although grand pianos are not exactly the same, they are quite similar. I would still suggest doing research on them if you want to know more.

Here are some of the most important parts of the piano:

  • Keys What is pressed by the pianist
  • Action The mechanism transfers the energy from the key to the hammer
  • Damper The thing that keeps the strings from producing sound when the player doesnt want them to.
  • Strings The thing that makes the sound
  • Hammer The thing that hits the strings to produce the sound
  • Soundboard The thing that amplifies the sound.

The most complicated of these is by far the action, and this is what I will be focusing on the most. The action is the mechanism by which energy is transfered from the key to the hammer and into the strings, which then vibrate. As I have said, it is very complicated. I am not a piano expert or technician, so I will not provide a provide a perfect explanation, but I will do my best to explain it.

The image to the right shows the (slightly simplified) action of an upright piano. As you can see, it is rather complicated.

When you press a key it rocks and lifts on the back, pushing on the sticker. The sticker pushes on the whippen which in turn presses on the jack. The jack preses on the butt of the hammer, which begins to pivot towards the string.

When the hammer is halfway to the string the damper spoon engages with the bottom of the damper, and pivots the entire damper away from the string.

When the hammer has almost reached the string, the end of the jack hits the set-off button (also called the regulating button), and the jack stops pushing on the hammer, but the whippen continues moving up. The jack pivots and slips out from under the hammer, which continues under its own inertia and strikes the string, immediately bouncing off. The balance hammer is caught by the back check, and held there as long as the key is being depressed.

Meanwhile, the vibration of the string is carried through the bridge (not pictured) and into the sound board, which amplifies the sound.

When the key is released, the whole thing resets. The damper again presses on the string, stopping the sound and the jack returns to its original position. The key is ready to be sounded again.

The damper pedal is sometimes used to allow the strings to continue producing sound even after the key is released. It simply removes all of the dampers from the strings.

I hope this has given you an idea of how the piano works. As I said, it is incredibly complicated and very few people fully understand it. It is not incredibly important to a piano player, but it is still quite interesting. You can find much more information by just typing how pianos work into Google.