Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Quality of sound and volume

have become crucial factors for me. Going to a movie theater has become a rare(r) experience for me and I think the main reason for that is my lack of volume control. Sometimes it’s not too loud but it’s always too loud.

I know this makes me sound old but I suppose I run on the “Music is too damn loud” platform. I went to my first “rock” concert last summer and I had to leave because it was literally too loud for my brain to comprehend the input and the presence of air was continually in my ear. The music did sound great though, from the parking lot.

I’m not forbidding loudness but I will offer this PSA. Too much loudness may cause deafness so you shouldn’t smoke a pack a day. By the way, you should not be using those in-ear headphones. Normal headphones vibrate air, which vibrate your ear drums, which the brain processes as sound. But in-ear headphones physically vibrate your ear drums and causes far more damage. So just be aware and mindful of what goes into your ears (you shouldn’t eat too much candy either).

In fact, I try to find my lowest comfortable volume when I’m listening to anything. It might just be me but I perceive the sound quality and enjoy the sound design better when I do this. If I don’t enjoy a film’s score/music selections it’s no big deal but if a film has bad sound design it is unwatchable (and the best films always have superior sound design).

Monday, February 28, 2011

Literal vs. Abstract

Both are important perceptions but I realize I prefer the latter. My good memory and constant reflection on literal activities is a likely suspect for this preference.

I get annoyed and/or bored if I find a conversation too literal. Obviously, this is a relative concept (what isn’t?) but facebook/twitter/etc. are full of such behavior. All humans have a longing desire to express themselves but it seems a large number of people are content detailing every mundane activity. Some people use this as motivation to do more “exciting” things, while others become depressed for not doing these “exciting” things. I, however, prefer thinking about abstract concepts.

Unfortunately, I often feel society accuse this mentality as being “elitist”. Everyone has the right to think what/how they want and I’m only expressing my personal preference. Obviously I think my view is better, that is why I have it. I would hope and imagine that you believe your mentality is better for the same reason. It is unfair to exclude me while accusing me of excluding you.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

After almost 6 months, I've finally finished the book I was reading; The Tanakh (the canon of the Hebrew Bible)

My family members identify themselves as Reform Jews which basically means we go to services on the high holy days, we have a Sedar dinner for Passover, and no one ever discusses what they believe or don't believe. When I was preparing for my Bar Mitzvah I wanted to quit because it was a lot of hard work. The reward of a big party didn't interest me enough so my brother and sister ended up guilting me into doing it. I thank them for that though, the experience itself was quite rewarding. Lessons with an amazing man (with an equally amazing voice) like Cantor David Wisnia plus the Bar Mitzvah day itself was definitely worth the time and effort right there.

More importantly, preparing for the Bar Mitzvah taught me the value of asking questions and learning. After all, this is what my Rabbi told me Reform Judaism is all about. The Torah (The 5 books of Moses) portion I learned about and sang for my Bar Mitzvah was "Ha'azinu" (Hebrew for "listen"), the penultimate Torah portion. Although all Torah portions are sung, this one is in fact a song that Moses sings to the Israelites before he ascends Mount Nebo; where he is allowed to see the land that the Israelites are about to obtain before God kills him (side note: it's not because he smashed the Commandments but because he and his brother Aaron smashed a rock in the wilderness to produce water). I couldn't understand why God would kill a great person like Moses, who did so much, without letting him enter "The Promised Land." Luckily, the Bar Mitzvah process includes sessions with the Rabbi to discuss such issues. The Rabbi helped lead me to the conclusion that God made Moses suffer so that Joshua could more easily succeed Moses as leader of the Israelites. This answer satisfied me for a few years but eventually I began to question this reasoning.

Meanwhile, my Hebrew school teacher at the time mentioned he didn't believe Moses literally split the Sea of Reeds (I just read the book, trust me it says "Sea of Reeds" not "the Red Sea") and that it was a story that got exaggerated over time. Hearing a teacher explicitly say "You can still consider yourself Jewish even if you don't believe these events are literally true" intrigued me greatly. I enjoyed learning and interacting with other Jews, so I continued going to Hebrew school, went through Confirmation, and even entered a Jewish peer mediation program.

I will always consider myself culturally Jewish but at some point I realized I identified myself more as an Atheist. Not that it matters, but my reasoning for this is the same as Epicurus':

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?"

However, since Judeo-Christian beliefs impacted history, art, and music so greatly I thought it would be a good idea to familiarize with the stories. So I started with the Tanakh. Next I'm going to read something from Ancient Greece (because those stories greatly impacted history, art, and music as well), and eventually I think I'll read the New Testament and Qu'ran too.

Unfortunately, the process of reading the Tanakh has angered me greatly for the following reasons:

It perpetuates a belief that there is a single right answer, including a single group of "Chosen People" who will prevail because their God is the one true God.
It states that everyone must follow every single law and those who do not will be executed. (At one point, a stranger enters the encampment of Moses and the Israelites. Even though he was never informed that such laws existed, he broke a law by picking up sticks on the Sabbath, the day of rest. Moses asks God what he should do and God tells Moses to stone the man to death)
To make things even worse, it goes on to explain that bad things occur because someone (anyone) isn't obeying every law. This means if things aren't going that well (and imagine how devastating times were thousands of years ago) the only way to make things better is to enforce these laws more efficiently.
The word holocaust is used in the Tanakh to describe what God told the Israelites to do to the former inhabitants of Canaan so the "Chosen People" could claim their "Promised Land". This meant killing every single man, woman, and male child; keeping only the virgin girls alive to become slaves (after all, if you aren't a descendant of Isaac, God doesn't love you.)

It seems so clear to me that such reasoning for so long has had a major negative effect on society (e.g The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, The Holocaust). Obviously Hitler took this same idea and just changed the definition of "Chosen People." This reasoning is why it was socially acceptable to own slaves, be racist, demean women, prevent homosexuals from getting married, etc. This is because it perpetuates the notion that the world is black and white; that one belief is more accurate than another. Ironically, using my own reasoning, this means I can't argue that what I believe in is the right thing to believe.

So I'm not going to say that I'm right; all I can say is this is what I believe. Take it or leave it. That being said, I'm going to now expand my complaint even further:

My problem is not with beliefs or Theism but with Fanaticism. Although I am an Atheist, and have my reasons and arguments for being so, it is not my prerogative to persuade people away from their own beliefs. Unfortunately, there are times where I do feel like I am being persecuted for my lack of belief and can get defensive and argumentative in response. This is a trait I try hard to suppress in fear that I will become what I hate. And, to be completely honest, it is hard for me to trust any of the Monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) because they all contain the Tanakh which is full of fanatic ideology. Even though the majority of people aren't fanatics, I still dislike exposing others to a doctrine that can justify behavior I view as backwards and immoral. (Again, this is just what I believe; I don't have to think what you think and you don't have to think what I think.)
Using the same reasoning as before, it is my belief that Capitalism is also bad. Capitalism perpetuates the belief that it is important and better to have more money, neglecting the fact that if some have more, others will have less. As a result, rich people have become the new "Chosen People" who do not care about those who are not.

To make matters worse, Capitalism has effected our products, services, and media through the creation of marketing and advertisement. It's become more important to convince people to buy things they don't need instead of focusing energy and resources towards creating the best products and services. What frustrates me most about this is that art and entertainment suffer too.

Extreme Nationalism is undesirable for similar reasons. It's one thing to be proud of your country, but once you reach the conclusion that your country is the best and that every other country should be just like yours; war becomes the solution (again look at Hitler). And war should never be the solution.

Following this reasoning to the next degree, I also believe sports fanaticism is bad. I've never been interested in sports at all, mostly because I can't understand why it is so important to so many people. In fact, it terrifies me. I grew up and currently live in the Philly area (for God's sake one of our mascots is the Philly Phanatic) and went to school at Penn State. Sport teams have become the new Nationalism, each sporting event its own battle. And don't try arguing "Well, at least nobody gets hurt." because obviously they do. Sports encourage violence and violence should never be the solution.

tl;dr: Christmas is stressful

Monday, May 3, 2010

Music: An Imperfect System

Everybody knows about Pythagoras and his theorem. But did you know his studies on music are the origins for Western Music?

Pythagoras was the first to note that mathematics applied to noises created pleasing sounds. He noticed that an anvil being struck in unison with another anvil half its size (2:1), or an anvil 2/3 its size (3:2), produced sounds he enjoyed. The ratio of 2:1 is what we now call an octave (P8) and the 3:2 ratio is what we call a perfect 5th (P5). The simpler the ratio is between two pitches, the more their sound waves overlap, making them more consonant. The P8, P5, and P4 (4:3) are the most consonant intervals (hence the word “perfect” associated with them) and were the main focus for writing music during the Medieval period. Using simple ratios to represent intervals is known as “Just Intonation.” Singers and string players find these simple ratios by using their ears to produce the most consonant sounds. Since other instruments have less control and keyboard instruments can’t be retuned in the middle of a piece of music, tuning systems developed to balance the relationship between just intonation intervals and convenience.

Once again, we have Pythagoras to thank for the first tuning system which we fittingly call “Pythagorean tuning.” This tuning system and the 12-tone scale we all know and love is the result of continually finding the P5 above a given pitch:

C-G-D-A-E-B-F#-C#-G#-D#-A#-F- and then one P5 more and we’re back to C right? Well, not quite (if that were the case this entry would be titled “Music: A Perfect System” instead). The problem is that if you use the 3:2 ratio to get from C back to C, you don’t get exactly the same note. The C you end up with is 23.46 cents sharper than the original, a discrepancy known as the “Pythagorean comma.” In order to fit all 12 pitches into an octave using this Pythagorean tuning system, one of the perfect fifths is lowered by the Pythagorean comma and is known as a “wolf” fifth because of its noticeably out of tune sound which resembles a howl. This wolf fifth can be placed anywhere the player wishes and is placed on a P5 they are unlikely to use.

Starting in the Renaissance period, the major third (M3) became a more desired interval, but using the Pythagorean tuning system its ratio is 81:64. As a result, the tuning system known as “meantone temperament” was developed using justly tuned M3rds (5:4). Since an octave is divided evenly by M3rds (C-E-G#-C) and a M3 is divided evenly into two major 2nds (M2), each M2 serves as the exact halfway point (the mean) between a note and the M3 above it. The P5ths are no longer justly tuned, but 11 of the 12 are only 5.38 cents flat compared to their justly tuned counterparts. This discrepancy is suitable but the remaining P5 is a wolf fifth that is 35.68 cents sharp. In addition to this wolf fifth, meantone temperament also results in 4 wolf M3rds which are 41.06 cents sharp and 3 wolf minor thirds (m3) which are 46.44 cents flat. Meantone temperament allowed M3rds to be an extra consonant (though still considered a lesser consonant than P8, P5, and P4) and allowed keyboard instruments to modulate to other keys for the first time; but only keys with 3 accidentals or less were feasible to use.

During the Baroque period, writing music transitioned from using the various “Church Modes” (Lydian, Dorian, etc), which determine the pattern of ascending intervals for the octave, to the major and minor keys we still frequently use today. This made the keys more important than the intervals themselves. For the first time, being able to use all 12 major keys and all 12 minor keys became important. Any temperament that is irregular and allows this is known as a type of “Well Temperament.” These involve altering the Pythagorean tuning, but instead of having the wolf fifth, the Pythagorean comma is displaced by lowering some of the justly tuned P5 by the same fraction. Organist, composer, and theorist Andreas Werckmeister wrote examples of well temperament. In the one he recommends as being the most efficient, he suggests lowering the P5ths C-G, G-D, D-A and B-F# by 1/4 the Pythagorean comma. Like meantone temperament, the keys with more accidentals are less in tune, but unlike the other tuning systems, these keys still sound in tune. As a result, with well temperament each key has its own distinct sound (key color) which composers liked to explore.

Once all 24 keys became usable, music in the Classical and Romantic periods focused on using, and modulating to, any key. This, combined with the popularity of the piano as an ensemble instrument led to the creation of the tuning system we still use today, “Equal Temperament.” In equal temperament, the octave is divided into exactly 12 equal pitches. This means every interval (M2, M3, P5, etc.) is always the exact same distance regardless of the key. Before equal temperament, a note and its enharmonic equivalent (G#-Ab, D#-Eb, etc.) were considered two different pitches with different frequencies. In fact, enharmonic used to mean “two notes less than a semitone apart” instead of its current meaning of “two equivalent notes (or keys) that are spelled differently.” Equal temperament allows composers to modulate to other keys through enharmonic modulations seamlessly. However, using equal temperament means every interval except the P8 is out of tune in comparison to its just intonation counterpart, with the P4 and P5 only 1.96 cents flat and sharp respectively and the M3 and minor 6th (m6) 13.69 cents flat and sharp respectively. Also, the key colors created from well temperament no longer exist in equal temperament.

Music is an imperfect system, but that’s what has made music so interesting and appealing. As tuning systems developed and changed, composers were able to write music in new and different ways; and as composers aspired to write music in new and different ways, the tuning systems developed and changed. Each tuning system has its own advantages as well as disadvantages. The real problem is not that music is an imperfect system but that we perpetuate the belief that equal temperament is the final (and only) solution in determining what frequencies we use. It is incredibly reliable and should be considered the default system. Without equal temperament, many 20th century music techniques (atonality, serialism, etc.) would have never surfaced. But just like there are an infinite amount of numbers between 1 and 2, there are potentially an infinite number of frequencies to use within an octave. If we only use equal temperament, we limit pitches to precise frequencies that are set in stone; and that would be imperfect.

Note: If you want to read more about tuning systems, I recommend the book “How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (And Why You Should Care)” by Russ W. Duffin.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Taste of Music

As my exposure to music increased (in both amount of time spent listening as well as variety of sounds listened to), I came to realize just how similar our sense of hearing is to our sense of taste. Even though foods are made up of the same basic ingredients, the tastes developed vary from place to place, culture to culture. The basic “ingredients” for music are pitches, timbre, rhythm, meter, tempo, and volume. Different cultures developed their own distinct “flavors” of music using these “ingredients” in various ways. Composers are chefs of music, perfecting tastes, combining flavors, and looking for new tastes in order to create the best recipes.

When you taste something, you do three things whether you notice it or not. First, you identify the taste as best you can by using previous exposures as a reference. Then, you compare this type of taste with different ones, identifying similarities and differences. Finally, you take this new data and store it into the giant computer that is your brain for future reference. The more data you gain, the easier it is to identify these similarities and differences which enhances your sense of taste.

Listening to music works the same way. Genre labels were developed within popular music to better distinguish what “flavor” the music is. Even though metal music developed from rock music, with several similarities, the two genres sound different enough to be in different categories. Throughout western music history, composers were encouraged to write in the style and “flavor” of their time while advancing it to the next stage. Society was continuously too busy developing to pay much attention to the “flavors” of the past. With the creation and improvement of recording technology during the 20th century, the interest and ability to preserve music from the past developed. People were no longer limited to listen to just the most popular music of the time in concert halls, now they could listen to anything they wanted to, as much as they wanted to; all in the comfort of their own home.

When I listen to a piece of music, I identify it the best I can by using my database of categorized sounds. I try to guess what period it is from (and when during that period), what country the composer is from (or in some cases what country’s style the composer is imitating), who the composer is (and when during their life), and finally what piece it is. The more music I listen to, the clearer these “flavors” become, and the clearer these “flavors” become the more in touch I feel with the mentality (historical events, literature, visual arts, etc.) of the time it was composed in too. But “classical” music periods are more than just history lessons; they are the genres of classical music and should be used to describe music with similar “flavors” regardless of when it was composed.

So when it comes to listening to music, don’t get stuck in a rut eating the same foods all the time. Make sure you eat your vegetables (you might not like them but they’re good for you!). And every now and then try something new. You might like it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What is Music?

The most common and accepted answer to this question is that music is organized sound, but many composers and philosophers of the 20th century have contested this answer. If music is organized sound, then where and how do we distinguish sound from music?

Music can be analyzed into four major categories; melody (the horizontal movement of pitches), harmony (the vertical orientation of pitches), rhythm (the durations for each pitch), and timbre (the sound color created by each instrument or combination of instruments). Along with dynamics (volume), tempo (speed), and meter, these major categories are the main focus for writing and understanding music. By asking “What is Music?” composers in the 20th century wondered how music would sound if it was written without all of these components and whether or not it would still be perceived as music.

Hungarian composer György Ligeti wrote some music that only used one of the four major categories, timbre. By focusing on just pitch in music like Atmosphères (which you may recognize from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Ligeti created a soundscape of tone colors. Atmosphères, features an orchestra of just strings, with each performer playing a different pitch at all times. Although this description implies the music created is just noise, the effect and sound of it is quite the opposite and the piece is full of power and emotion. It’s still organized sound so it’s still music right?

Ligeti took this idea to the next level with his piece Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. Instead of using a string orchestra the piece uses 100 metronomes as instruments and nothing else. Instead of using just timbre like in Atmosphères, Poème Symphonique focuses on just rhythm, specifically tempos. Each metronome is wound up all the way, set on a different tempo, and they all start ticking simultaneously. The metronomes compete with one another, creating a sound texture similar to Atmosphères, until the last remaining metronome stops ticking. But Poème Symphonique raises questions such as, “Is it still music if there is no notation or performers involved?” and “Is this still organized sound?” If it isn’t considered organized sound then another question to ask is, “Is it still music?”

American composer John Cage made his career out of writing music that questions “What is music?” In addition to writing music completely through chance, he became famous for writing a piece titled 4’ 33”. By writing music with chance as the only factor, Cage removed the “organized” part from the definition organized sound. If he could create music this way that sounded musical to the unknown ear, how could the listener argue it wasn’t music? In the three movement piece 4’ 33”, the audience is exposed to 4 minutes and 33 seconds of pure silence. The point of this “composition” is that the noises produced by the audience during the performance is itself the music. Every shuffle, every cough, every seat creak, is a musical sound with pitch, timbre, and dynamics. This piece and John Cage’s philosophy proposes that all sounds are musical and that there is no way to distinguish a difference between sound and music.

This shows that melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre weren’t created in order to write music, but were discovered as ways to better understand and label musical events. The concept that music is everywhere inspired several composers to take everyday sounds and show how musical they are. American composer Scott Johnson used recordings of people talking in his composition John Somebody. By editing these conversations, repeating certain phrases, and adding instruments, Johnson shows how musical simple dialogue can be.

So what is music? Is it organized sound or are all sounds musical? Or maybe it’s somewhere in-between? Like all other forms of art, music is subjective and can be interpreted differently from person to person. I thought I had a good understanding about what was music and what wasn’t when I got to college but luckily I had a teacher like Dr. Barsom who forced me to listen to music that sounded like noise and nothing else to me. Eventually, I not only found myself appreciating this “noise” as music but even grew to love some of it. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then music is in the ear of the beholder.

One man’s noise is another man’s symphony.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Classical Frights!

Halloween is almost here and it is my favorite time of the year. Although I enjoyed the candy as a child, my favorite part of the holiday was (and still is!) the dressing up and spookiness of it all. To celebrate, here are some classical music selections to embrace ghosts, goblins, and All Hallows' Eve:

This tone poem, Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, depicts Death himself waking the dead at the stroke of midnight on Halloween. Death plays his fiddle providing music for the dead as they rise from their graves to dance while their bones rattle and crack. They dance all night and when dawn approaches they must go back in their graves and wait until next Halloween to dance once more.

In the 4th movement of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, the protagonist take a heavy dose of opium and envisions he killed his beloved and is executed for his crime. Thinking he is now dead, the 5th movement of the piece is the protagonist's vision of his doomed afterlife, and is titled "Dreams of a Witch's Sabbath." Those wondering what an opium induced vision of hell would sound like need to look no further.

Der Erlkönig is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about a sick child being chased by a mythical figure as his father drives their horse carriage quickly. Franz Schubert's Lied (song) based on the poem features a piano and a singer who sings what the three characters say and the narration.

Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky is about a witches' sabbath like in Symphonie Fantastique and also features unearthly beings having freedom for one night only like in Danse Macabre. The animation made for Fantasia visually enhances the fear Mussorgsky created musically.

Although Toccata and Fugue in d minor by Johann Sebastian Bach has no story, I associate it as a spooky and appropriate for Halloween piece. This is probably a result of the dissonance used in the piece as well as it being used to represent fear in pop culture.

György Ligeti's piano etude, L'escalier du diable (Devil's Staircase), uses Shepard's scale and incredibly loud dynamics to represent a staircase in hell that is impossible to escape. No matter how far you climb it, you can never escape hell. Those who have played Mario 64 will notice that the music for the "eternal staircase" in the game uses the same technique and was probably inspired by this piece.

I saw Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas in theaters when I was 8 years old and it made me love Halloween even more. Long before I began listening to classical music and knew any of these other pieces, the music from this film made an impact on my taste in music. Is it okay to label this song as classical music? Der Erlkönig is a song and is considered classical. The composer of This is Halloween is Danny Elfman who started as lead singer/songwriter for the band "Oingo Boingo" but became a film scorer for several films which requires a "classical" approach. So in response to my question; does it matter?

I hope these "Classical Frights" help put you in the Halloween spirit and that you have a fun and spooky time on October 31st.