Monday, July 21, 2014

The Devil's Violin

"Tartini's Dream" by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845). Illustration of the legend behind Giuseppe Tartini's "Devil's Trill Sonata".

The story behind "Devil's Trill" starts with a dream. Tartini allegedly told the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande that he dreamed that The Devil appeared to him and asked to be his servant. At the end of their lessons Tartini handed the devil his violin to test his skill—the devil immediately began to play with such virtuosity that Tartini felt his breath taken away. The complete story is told by Tartini himself in Lalande's Voyage d'un François en Italie (1765 - 66):

"One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and - I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the "Devil's Trill", but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me."


Monday, July 14, 2014

Tritone: The Devil in Music


In classical music, the tritone is a harmonic and melodic dissonance and is important in the study of musical harmony. The name diabolus in musica ("the Devil in music") has been applied to the interval from at least the early 18th century. People were actually executed "back in the day" for writing songs that used this interval. 

Because of that original symbolic association with the devil and its avoidance, this interval came to be heard in Western cultural convention as suggesting an "evil" connotative meaning in music. Today the interval continues to suggest an "oppressive", "scary", or "evil" sound and is known colloquially as "The Devil's Interval".


The theme features prominently in the 1949 film Portrait of Jennie, and is used as a musical motif for the ethereal heroine played by Jennifer Jones.





The theme opening Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune outlines a tritone (between C and G) About this sound Play 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Music Changes the Way You Think



Hum the first two notes of “The Simpsons” theme song. (If you’re not a Simpsons fan, “Maria” from West Side Story will also do.) The musical interval you’re hearing—the pitch gap between the notes—is known as a “tritone,” and it’s commonly recognized in music theory as one of the most dissonant intervals, so much so that composers and theorists in the 18th century dubbed it diabolus in musica (“devil in music”).

Now hum the first few notes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or, if you prefer something with a little more street cred, the “I’m sorry” part in Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.” This is the “perfect fifth.” It’s one of the most consonant intervals, used in myriad compositions as a vehicle of resolution and harmony.

Is it possible that hearing such isolated musical components can change the way you think? An ambitious new paper recently published by Jochim Hansen and Johann Melzner in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology argues precisely that. The researchers brought pedestrians into a laboratory and played them a short, stripped-down piece of music consisting of a series of alternating chords. Some people heard chords including the tritone; others the perfect fifth. A couple other tweaks were also made: in the tritone condition, the chords were played slowly—only once every four-beat measure—while in the perfect fifth condition, the chords went by rapidly, sounding every beat. Further, a “reverberation” effect was added such that the tritone chords sounded like they were being played in a cavernous cave and the perfect fifth chords in a carpeted closet.

What the scientists found is that the simple act listening to either of these two chord sets changed how people processed information in a very basic way. For example, the researchers asked people to take a list of shopping items and organize them into groups. Think detergent and paper towels: same kind of thing, or different? Results showed that “tritone” people formed fewer categories than “perfect fifth” people, indicating that they were thinking in broader, more inclusive categories than their counterparts.

In a separate measure, the scientists asked people to imagine buying one of two imaginary toasters. These toasters varied in what is known as “aggregated” versus “individualized” information. Do you know how on Amazon.com you can learn the average star rating of a given item? This is aggregated information; it’s pooled from a wide range of sources. Individualized information, by contrast, would be the customer reviews that appear at the bottom of the page. Which do you pay more attention to when these give conflicting messages—when, say, the aggregated information is largely negative but there is a single glowing customer review? Turns out that people who are exposed to “tritone”-type music samples are more likely to be swayed by aggregated information, and “fifth” people by the reverse.

Underlying these seemingly disparate questions is a relatively new theory in social psychology that has shown itself capable of explaining an impressive variety of human behaviors. It’s known as construal level theory, and its core premise is that there’s a link between how far things are from people and how abstractly they construe them. Distant things—a Hawaii vacation next year, say—appear to us general and decontextualized, their basic features (the beach, the sun) forefront in our minds. As they draw near, however, elements we never before considered (the packing, the possibility of rain) suddenly demand our attention. The forest, in other words, becomes the trees. Overall, the theory helps explain many seemingly disparate phenomena, like why we’re bad at predicting how long it’ll take us to fix the kitchen sink, why absence makes the heart grow fonder, and why we rarely follow through on New Years resolutions. In all these cases, what seemed a certain way from afar turns out, up close, to be a different beast entirely.

How does all this relate to repeating chord patterns? What the researchers have done, cleverly, is consider music’s ability to conjure up highly specific mental states. Tiny, almost immeasurable features in a piece of music have the power to elicit deeply personal and specific patterns of thought and emotion in human listeners. (One need only listen to Astrud Gilberto’s Grammy-winning performance of the Girl from Ipanema to re-appreciate music’s ability to capture strange and mysterious moods.) Hansen and Melzner have exploited this fact to provoke in listeners thought patterns corresponding to precisely those mapped by construal level theory.

Ponderous, resonant, unfamiliar tonalities—the proverbial “auditory forest”—cause people to construe things abstractly. By contrast, the rapid, consonant, familiar chords of the perfect fifth—the “auditory trees”—bring out the concrete mindset. The groups of shopping items, the reviews of toasters—these correspond to measures of abstractness that have been developed in experimental psychology. When you group a shopping list into only a few categories, it suggests that you are considering the list abstractly, clustering items according to a common core. And heeding aggregated (versus individualized) information implies the same: you’re seeing the forest rather than being swayed by a single tree.

That music can move us is no surprise; it’s the point of the art form, after all. What’s new here is the manner in which the researchers have quantified in fine-grained detail the cognitive ramifications of unpacked melodic compounds. This investigation of music’s building blocks may be more relevant than you suppose. Nowadays, experts in the production room can hone a track—the timbre, tone, rhythm, phrasing—with digital precision. These songwriters and producers are the true geniuses behind the success of popular music today, and they seem to have an intuitive grasp of the phenomena underlying the findings of this psychology article. An extra breath-sound here, a pitch adjustment there—these additives pepper the songs we hear on the radio. So the next time you hear a piece of music from the Billboard Top 40, it may be interesting to wonder, how many components were manipulated just so, in order to change the way I think?




Reposted form Scientific American

Daniel Yudkin is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at New York University and a jazz pianist. He graduated from Williams College, was a Fellow at Harvard University, and once attempted an eleven-country European busking tour funded entirely by street-coins. More here.

Yaacov Trope is a Professor of Psychology at New York University. He received his
Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and is a member of the American Association
for Arts and Sciences. He has edited several books, including Dual-Process Theories
in Social Psychology (1998), Self Control in Society, Mind, and Brain (2010), and Dual-Process Theories of the Social Mind (2014). His general areas of interest are social cognition, motivation, and self-control.

Monday, June 30, 2014

TEN Reasons to Read Dr. Fuddle and The Gold Baton!




10. Piano practice is more fun if you pretend that you have to turn evil monsters into harmless pets by resolving the scales.

9. You’ve memorized The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and you want another story about children being called into a magical land to save it.

8. The book explains what a glass harmonica is, something I’ve been curious about since listening to a particular version of the Carnival of the Animals which acknowledged a section that was meant to be played on a glass harmonica being played on a gluckenspiele instead.

7. You need some new creative names for foods, like Bellini Bread or Rossini Rolls.

6. Reading Dr. Fuddle and the Gold Baton can be a balance reminding us of the importance of music, when we otherwise read way too many novels about math and science.

5. The abundant references to musical concepts, to composers and songs can help normalize the importance of musical knowledge. It encourages a child to say “I’ve heard of that!” It raises the bar for what is seen as normal everyday knowledge.

4 . The book contains a glossary of music terms a child can refer back to.

3. The book provides positive role models. The children within it are struggling with different challenges – wanting to figure out who they are, and what they want in life. They deal with both guilt and forgiveness.

2.  The book reinforces the idea of practice, that it takes time and energy to improve one’s skills at an instrument, but at the same time that music is not just about developing technical skill and bored routine.

1.Most importantly: the book is fun. It is well written, reasonably fast paced and has a bit of a surprise at the ending.

 The book mentions many different songs, most of which one could find samples of on YouTube. If you read the book outloud with your kids, you can have a musical soundrtrack to go with it.



 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Interesting Stories Behind Classical Compositions: Dvorak’s 9th Symphony





This beloved symphony is better known as “From the New World” or “New World” because the famed Czech composer from Bohemia composed this masterpiece in 1893, while he was staying in America. However, the nickname is somewhat misleading, because while he composed it in America (a.k.a. the New World), it’s not an exclusively American symphony. While American Indian and black American themes inspired the symphony, it has as much, if not more, influences from his native Bohemia. Leonard Bernstein said it best when he described the 9th as “multinational.”


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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (Obertura) - Richard Strauss, 1896.




Eumir Deodato Almeida's singular rendition of "Also sprach Zarathustra" won the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. It is arguably the world's most renowned Latin jazz opus ever.

The introductory movement of the original work, a tone poem by Richard Strauss (1896), served as the musical motif in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, "2001: A Space Odyssey." Deodato's arrangement wondrously elaborates on the movie's modernistic theme.

Strauss, in turn, was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's iconoclastic philosophical treatise of the same title (1883-85). Zarathustra, of course, refers to Zoroaster, the Persian prophet and religious poet of antiquity (traditionally, 6th century BC), on whom Nietzsche based the principal character of his book.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Story Behind Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."



At age 25, took only three weeks to compose one of the most enduring pieces of American music. Used for the film score to Woody Allen's Manhattan, the episodic and jazzy one-movement piano concerto evokes the hustle and bustle of New York's grand metropolitan aura.

NPR's Jeff Lunden tells the story of Gershwin's most identifiable masterpiece.