Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Preparation for improvisation

live completely alone for four days
without food
in complete silence,
without much movement
sleep as little as necessary
think as little as possible

 after four days, late at night,
without conversation beforehand
play single sounds

 WITHOUT THINKING which you are playing

 close your eyes
just listen

Thankfully the approach suggested in Goldstraub from Stockhausen’s Aus Den Sieben Tagen is not the only method of preparation, it was too extreme for the Cologne and Paris musicians who recorded other sections of the text works, and I imagine the same would apply for the majority of modern day improvisers. Many questions, over and above that of preparation, arise from these text scores; does Stockhausen’s intuitive music have a tendency towards particular sonic characteristics?  Will the product change with social and technological advances? How does the personnel of a group affect the outcome of intuitive music? Should these questions interest you I suggest you start with the following article:

I find Rolf Gehlhaar’s account of the skills and approaches of the performers in selected recordings particularly revealing.

In order to provide a framework for preparations that should be made for improvisation I am going to use an educational construct, the six C’s: critical thinking, collaboration, content, creative innovation, communication and confidence.

Critical thinking is a process of observing, reflecting and synthesizing ideas gathered through observation, reflection, reasoning and involvement with material that guides our actions. For some this may be seen as the polar opposite of intuitive improvisation, but in reality the skills of a player like Aloys Kontarsky are very much influenced by consideration like muscle memory, technical expertise, discussions on interpretation of music. Such skills cannot be discarded in any musical performance however intuitive. It might be argued that contemporary improvisation based on texts or graphic scores are open to non-musicians, a point which takes us back to Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra and the second of the six C’s, collaboration. Playing a kettle or large metal spring makes inclusion possible and it doesn’t exclude critical thinking. The use of empathy within a group makes the use of each sound valuable when it finds its natural place. However a group of unexperienced musicians given the opportunity to make sounds with everyday objects are unlikely to make music (however broad your definition) and more likely to show at best a willingness to communicate.

 Critical thinking means that there is no option but to immerse oneself in the styles of music that interest us and determine what is valuable and usable, that of course doesn’t prevent you from taking up the kettle as an instrument should you wish to do so. Collaboration takes us much further than inclusion.

Having the opportunity to work with like-minded improvisers assists the process of critical thinking. Having your musical expression challenged may not be a pleasant experience but honest and open exchanges are always valuable. Of greater importance is the opportunity to be involved in creative innovations through the use of texture. Observing the work of musicians like Rhodri Davies or Keith Rowe who have extended their expertise with instruments through electronics adds to the ever expanding syntax of improvisation.

Critical thinking about collaborative improvisations may also inform us about the balance of activity, who leads, how to avoid dominating a texture, escape procedures (knowing the cues of when to rest or stop a performance). These are very much the concern of content; historically the fabric of improvisation has concerned itself with rhythmic play, question and answer, call and response, decorations to melodies, melodic extension and fragmentation over a constructed harmonic progression, modal variation and much more. Content suggests material that is to some degree planned or precomposed; once again we have to recognise that we carry with us varying degrees of musical information that will emerge during improvisation. It may be permitted to arise like some form of automatic writing, if so it is necessary to consider the context in which it is placed if it is to improve on the base definition of unrelated sounds showing an attempt to communicate. Should automatic writing be unfamiliar to you look up Andre Breton’s poetry, here is a sample:

j’ai distribué des prospectus aux plantes, mais toutes n’ont pas voulu les accepter. Avec la musique j’ai lié partie pour une seconde seulement et maintenant je ne sais plus que penser du suicide, car si je veux me séparer de moi-même, la sortie est de ce côté et, j’ajoute malicieusement: l’entrée, la rentrée de cet autre côté.

I've distributed some pamphlets to the plants, but not all were willing to accept them. I've
kept company with music for a second only and now I no longer know what to think of suicide, for
if I ever want to part from myself, the exit is on this side and, I add mischievously, the entrance, the

re-entrance is on the other.

You can determine for yourself how much of this writing is unplanned and how much resides in a style of writing honed from years of reading and critical thinking.

Communication above the base level means that you are engaging with your audience, in the past this has had a bias towards entertainment but the mid 20th century onwards has challenged and informed listeners introducing them to a whole new world of sounds. Such a journey is exciting in itself, but there is always a danger that innovation takes over from communication. In previous blogs the notion of working a single composing intention has been used as a valuable guide to clarity in music. Improvising contemporary music benefits equally from having clear and achievable goals, and in a context of group improvisation simple contexts work better at creating a crucible for multiple personalities, musically expert or not.

Showing confidence in your musical statements is vital to the way you communicate with an audience. This is particularly the case with solo improvisations where a critical audience will expect levels of competence, direction, identification with musical cues as well as entertainment and engagement with the soloist.

I have abstained from discussing personal experiences of improvisations with jazz and contemporary musicians, its use in classrooms, good and bad concerts, but what I will share is the fact that the engagement with musicians on the immediate level of improvising can be enthralling, and should the opportunity arise involve yourself, but be prepared.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Improvisation - Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…

If you are a musician who is curious about the development of improvisation in modern music one of the inevitable questions that will arise is “is there an essential difference in the outcomes of creating organised music and freely composed music?” Much has been written about the fact that complex schemes for organising sounds produce results that may (or may not) sound like improvised music, and vice versa.
In the 20th century organisation became an obsession with many composers. The development of serialism to total serialism saw a system of accountability for each mark put on paper, and as far as the score was concerned, the composer, if asked, could make an argument for each parameter and each value within each parameter. A person improvising is unlikely to make any such claims, we are not built to create music and logically account for every detail, moment by moment in time, so outcomes must be dissimilar. Comparisons of the sound worlds of organised and improvised have been made in error (in part) because we misunderstood the difference between indeterminate music and improvised music – I shall come back to this shortly.

Should we accept organised music as a combination of sounds and sound characteristics that follow a logical plan or structure we must accept that my car engine produces music, at least when it is running smoothly, otherwise it produces noise, as do I when my language loses its structures in place of utterances of frustration! Musical logic suggests a formal argument, so sonata form is a logical musical system. If the music consists of clouds of clusters from stroked strings on the inside of the piano with the pedal depressed, it can still operate with the idea of introduction, two contrasting musical events, a development and recapitulation. No pitches or rhythms need to be defined yet the music has its own logic. Is it organised, free, or semi-organised / semi-free? If only wholly determined music is organised how do we describe the rest of music?

The same difficulties arise when we attempt to describe what is free; one of the most influential musical figures of the 20th century, John Cage, may be thought of as a composer who tried to liberate the constraints of music, but he is always concerned with the detail of the sounds produced from his scores. His freedom concerns removing the elements of control from the individual, taking the composer’s choice away to permit sound to exist in a context controlled by the performer.

When I discussed the idea of drawing a progressive table from freedom to control to assess where on the scale various types of improvisation could be placed, my fellow blog writer Nurtan came forward with this:
I think, the lowest level (detection) is analogous to the requirement of a minimal level of organisation so that a population of listeners would be able to recognise it as some means of aural communication. The next level is analogous to the degree of organisation necessary to perceive or discriminate it as a recognisable entity – i.e. Piece A is different to Piece B.
The phrase “some means of aural communication” triggered some thoughts as it offered a starting point on a range of music making from least to greatest coherence, starting (in my opinion) with the performer controlling one musical parameter only.

The performer will: 
  1.   Control one parameter
  2.   Control a pair of parameters
  3.   Repeat small scale / localised events
  4.   Select or reject previous material
  5.   Embellish and extend chunks of chosen musical material
  6.   Create clearly defined relationships between events (e.g. musical sequences)
  7.   Confine events to specific predetermined designs, scales, modes, rhythmic patterns and rhythm cycles.
  8.   Control the entire composition to show long term relationships between the full ranges of musical parameters.

On the first point it has to be said that working exclusively with one parameter is not possible, play a succession of pitches for a period of time and some element of every other parameter also comes into play. However one can make a composing intention of (let us say) spatial setting so that it becomes the main focus for the listener.
As we are dealing mainly with the developments in improvisation from the mid-20th century we must remember that the improviser’s musical material may range from instrumental tones to using field recordings, so point 5 could be, as suggested, a musical input or an exploration of the word “talk” in a variety of languages. Similarly with point 6 the designs may be musical structures or take the form of a concept:

everyone plays the same tone
lead the tone wherever your thoughts
lead you
do not leave it, stay with it
always return
to the same place
Later in his e-mail Nurtan extended his thinking by giving me an example of cohesion by drawing on statistical outcomes using dice to explore degrees of probability / certainty. The outcome showed that:

As we make the rules more explicit, we start to pack more information – thus making the sequences potentially more coherent.
Responding to this observation means that in addition to a progressive table of coherence we need three further statements regarding the types of information used to generate an improvisation:

  1.   A performance without reference to predetermined material
  2.   A skeleton framework containing indicators and or some predetermined material
  3.   Predetermined material which has a free parameter.
Improvisation without reference to predetermined material is somewhat problematic as human beings always draw on their personal stock of musical references, style of playing, expertise and limitations with an instrument. Going a little further some improvisations are rehearsed beforehand in order to enhance the outcome, and some skeleton frameworks are reworked time and again, and as a consequence “best options” are regularly used. Point 3 is often a method of ‘blurring’ the music by deregulating rhythm.

Followers of jazz improvisation are well aware of the increasing complexity of harmony over the 20th century and the methods used to balance freedom and coherence, a quick guide is available here:

Similarly the post 1950’s development of harmony and acceptance of sound/noise as music meant that improvisation in contemporary classical music could draw on vast new reserves of material. As a result performers could present almost anything to their public, the challenge would be in creating musical textures and conventions that could be shared. The game of freedom and restriction would have to be played out again.
Readers who want to follow up “skeletons” in contemporary music would do well to read through Stephen Bailey’s comments on Stockhausen’s Solo:

I close with some of Stockhausen’s thoughts regarding “Intuitive” music, where the composer makes his case for performers presenting almost anything to their public:

Question: Were there ever any performances which ­ in your view ­ were failures?
Stockhausen: Do you mean, in which we couldn't play at all?
Question: No, in which something was played which to your musicians' creative sense seemed to be rubbish? Or is there such a thing as rubbish?
Stockhausen: Absolutely. The first sign of rubbish is the emergence of clichés: when pre-formed material comes out; when it sounds like something which we already know.
Question: Have you any way of eliminating acoustical rubbish from the creative process?
….­ rubbish in the sense that they produce dynamic levels which erode the rest for quite some time, without realising it themselves. In certain situations some become very totalitarian, for example, and that leads to really awful situations of ensemble playing. The sounds then become extremely aggressive and destructive…..they all play at once. This is one of the most important criteria: "Do not play all the time", and "Do not get carried away to act all the time".
After several hundred years of having been forced to play only what was prescribed by the composers, once musicians now have the opportunity ­ in Intuitive Music ­ to play all the time, they do. The playing immediately becomes very loud, and the musicians do not know how to get soft again, because everybody wants to be heard. I mean, it is easy to get loud, but how can you get soft again? Finally you think: "Nobody hears me anyway, so I might as well stop".

Monday, 26 February 2018

Let me share with you the 3 improvisations for piano left hand by Frank Bridge.

Some useful musical dates relating to the discussion:

“La Mer” 1905 (first movement "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" / "From dawn to noon on the sea").

Frank Bridge “The Sea” 1911

Three Improvisations for piano left hand 1918

Ravel concerto for the left hand 1929/30

Two definitions:

The first is from Wiki:
Musical improvisation (also known as musical extemporization) is the creative activity of immediate ("in the moment") musical composition….Sometimes …ideas in improvisation are spontaneous, but may be based on chord changes…. One definition is a "performance given extempore without planning or preparation.

The second from the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians:
Impromptu, Impromptu, “in the 19th century and since, is a composition, usually for piano, in an offhand or extemporized style or perhaps intended to suggest the result of sudden inspiration.”

There has been a long tradition of composers being improvisers so it is with some interest that I approached these three works to hear how a meticulous craftsman like Bridge would work his improvisations. The three pieces follow a pattern often heard in the composer’s music, very similar to classical models, an intellectual movement, a slow, lyrical movement and a lively conclusion.

I use the term intellectual with care, all of Bridge’s works are highly crafted and meticulously developed, but the first movements often contain themes that are designed to direct harmony and structure rather than present cantabile melodies which some listeners might expect from his regular use of descriptive titles. This is not to say that the movements are dry or academic, any more than are the first movements of Beethoven sonatas where thematic development is his primary concern.

Improvisers like to use simple harmonic formations like pentatonic scales or modes, and it is with this in mind that I am going to take the last movement “A Revel” first. This movement is of a tocatta style and is easily the most accessible movement of the three. It opens (and closes) with three bars of unambiguous pentatonic music, but quickly moves onto more complex harmonies. There is a lot of repetition of melodic material in chunks, e.g. the opening 7 bars are repeated from bar 15, while the melody in bars 11 and 12 is taken from the pentatonic collection of the opening, but the accompaniment is minor diatonic. The rhythm after the three eighth note opening is dominated by triplet 16th noes until bar 57 where the music reaches its climax (pentatonic), marked brilliante and takes us to the coda. While certain sections are repeated in transposition at a semitone, minor third and fifth this is well within the capability of improvisers, and the introduction of chromatic runs of differing length only adds to the feeling of a good pianist playing with a few fragments of musical material.

Turning our attention to the first movement we have a different story, though at first sight we might make a wrong judgement as “At Dawn” opens with four bars of whole tone scale material. This texture is amorphous, the rhythms make no attempt at forming figures for development, 64th triplet notes require some rubato in performance so that with the arrival of steady semiquavers in bar 6 we might think the music has settled onto its main argument, but this too is preparation for the main melody at bar 11. One can make the argument for main melody based on exposure to his music as Bridge has the tendency to repeat his main melodies in octaves with little or no alteration apart from raised dynamics, as is the case here.

Being able to integrate relatively large chunks of musical material into the music is again well within the range of good improvisers, though the transitions here are very well crafted.

From bar 9 onwards the music is glued together with arpeggio figures flowing from an open fifth, over the long term the harmony is rooted around two fifths E/B and B/F#, which leaves us with the sensation that we are, if not in the key of E, circulating around it. If you examine bars 6 to 8 you will hear that the music is highly chromatic, and even with the pedal notes the music is harmonically restless which gives it the character of more modern music. While the music alternates between different types of harmony the voicing is so well controlled that the listener will hear a continuum and feel cohesion.

Before we leave this movement some mention must be made about the form which is basically very simple but with some interesting characteristics. The introduction falls into two four bar sections, the first dominated by the pentatonic scale, the second 4 bar section confirms through its melodic that we are moving towards E as a tonal point, though the harmony covers 11 of the 12 chromatic notes. Bar 9 takes us to the A section proper, bar 29 repeats the first part of the introduction, A is repeated from bar 33 and 46 takes us to the coda. What is interesting in this journey is that the internal repetitions show the following four chords (represented here as collections) which form the larger part of the music are reversed in their order from bar 36.

0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10

0, 2, 4, 6, 9

0, 2, 4, 7, 9

0, 2, 4, 5, 7

The from bar 36 these formations are reversed but a 0, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 set occurs just before the whole tone collection, and it should be clear that the penultimate harmony is rich in whole tone steps. If such harmonic control results from coincidence it is surprising, if it is the result of improvisation it could be a fortuitous result or it could be meticulous planning.

The middle movement “a vigil” displays several of the characteristics of the outer movements so I shall refrain from dissecting it and give way to my wife’s comment that a song without words should be taken for what it is. While “At Dawn” seems an appropriate title with its side references to “La Mer” first movement, this title, should we ascribe any value to titles, seems misplaced.  I would have liked to have a metronome mark provided by the composer as taken too slowly the lyrical aspect can be lost, and for me the better performances are those with more rather than less movement, to state the obvious fine gradations can make the difference between an acceptable and a great performance.

These days the term improvisation suggests far greater freedoms than Bridge would have ever considered. Our technologies permit us to play and record, replay and modify, alter timings and durations in such a way that a spontaneous product can be refined into an artistic statement, it may be that like Schubert’s impromptus (set 2)  this is Bridge’s working method but applied in to a more complex harmonic language.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Psychological functions of music (and why music can make us angry).

These psychological functions generally fall into three types, intellectual, emotional and physical. There are of course many functions to music, generating income, drawing attention to an event etc. but this blog is concerned with interactions between music and its audience, individually or in groups. The word function has a number of definitions for the moment I will take one which has a bias to our sensibility (sensitivity to sensory stimuli.)

Function: an activity that is natural to or the purpose of a person or thing

On an intuitive basis one would assume that listeners are rarely participants of one type only – trying to force individuals into one group is rarely helpful, as e.g. educationalists discovered when trying to educate people as visual, aural and kinetic learners. A table is offered below of characteristics belonging to each listening type and each reader can pick characteristics which relate to themselves. It was while drawing up the table that two more interesting questions came to mind, what purpose do these psychological functions serve, and where in the listening process do they take place?

On the latter question I determined that one required a three part model that consisted of

Frequency     Process          Response

Frequency was used in place of music as these days a composition can consist of any combinations of sound sources from highly organised to chaotic. Once we have an input the listener must consider the material, sort it, chunk it, store it, compare it…all in real time, like a surfer adjusting all the time to the whims of the sea. There are some who would prefer the terms thinking, sensing, evaluating and perhaps include the use of intuition too, but it all comes down to process in the end. Response is our evaluation of the experience and will take the form of acceptance or rejection (or various degrees between the two). Response also brings into play bias, an issue which requires a few comments, but will be considered a little later in the blog.

Turning to the first question what purpose do these psychological functions serve there seemed to be only one answer, they are for self-regulation. Self-regulation is the fine art of keeping our personality in good condition, making adjustments to improve our perspectives and life-balance. As one ponders this the role of bias becomes increasingly clear and opens the possibility of understanding why certain individuals are so abusive and combative when discussing music.

We are at least in some measure consciously aware of these psychological functions when we reach out for a disc, a score or even a pen to compose some music. The performer similarly will, through experience, understand the expectations of the audience, and may even enhance these through dress codes and mannerisms.

When we examine the responses of people to music we will see that the three functions can occur simultaneously if not equally.  We may well eagerly await a cocktail of different responses, and respond accordingly if these expectations are not met. The research into the psychological functions of music is ongoing and there are a wealth of different responses and expectations, but the consensus is that these can be reduced to the following categories;

·         Emotional regulation

·         Awareness and intellect

·         Physical responses

·         Creating social relationships (intellectual or emotional)


This table is not exhaustive, but if offers sufficient scope to illustrate types of expectations. Let us take a few examples, social contact through music can be seen in sports (singing of national anthems), work songs (weaving, planting), military (marching, war songs, protest songs). Music can be used to stimulate action or reduce it, religious music can be of either sort. Music also assists people on the individual level, it may help reduce the anxiety regarding death or understanding our mortality. On a lighter note we all understand that music brings pleasure, both on emotional and physical levels.

As we develop our inner library of musical works and styles functions become expectations, and as stated these expectations can have both positive and negative outcomes, most music lovers have been asked (or asked) in their past, “how can you listen to that?”

Since music recordings became available at a reasonable price the vast majority of teenagers have been subjected to this question, usually followed by a demand to turn the volume down. All music enthusiasts know that this statement can be highly charged and lead to rifts and arguments. We sometimes forget that while music may enable social wellbeing it can also be intrusive and become a socially negative experience.

A better version of this usually rhetorical question is “why do you listen to that….?”  It brings into play the above discussed psychological factors.

As we increase our scope of listening we also develop expectations about what we are about to experience. When these experiences are fulfilled we feel positive emotions, when they are not the reactions are negative and may become aggressive. Our expectations can encompass different types of sound, e.g. acoustic v electronic, the length of engagement, tempo and a myriad of other factors on their own or in combination. Little wonder then that cliques build up around specific genres, which in turn consolidate expectations. Members of such groups often generate the most aggressive criticisms of other styles, particularly closely related styles.

We know that exposure helps us to adjust to new ideas, and the internet has brought innovations in music directly into our homes. This is not without problems, addiction to newness for its own sake may be found to have short-life satisfaction. The music industry also plays with our expectations from the quality of sound we experience to alternative performances and arrangements of well-known works. Research has opened up alternative methods of performance and timbres in early, Baroque and Classical music, all of which have altered expectations and sometimes redirected our preferences, making once favoured recordings into music that fails to meet the authenticity test.

It is possible that even within a specific social gathering that participants expectations may be wide and varied.  Let us consider music used in funerals, the music can be stylistically extensive. One person would find a hymn acceptable, another a piece of dance music, a third a popular song and a fourth a serious work. In each case the focus is on engagement with the deceased with the understanding that the celebration of that life reduces the anxiety felt by the participant. We intuitively understand that music activates associations, memories, experiences, moods, and emotions and as such it has a natural function at the end of our lives. There is no single piece of music that can be the perfect model for an individual’s passing, satisfying our expectations in such a case is very personal; for some the choices made may seem inappropriate.

Let us return for a moment to bias, and consider some recent research, the wiki entry for bias blind spot is helpful:

In simple terms we believe that we can evaluate the degree of bias we apply to art, music, film etc. and that we are wholly aware of all the factors that sway us to one preference over another. The truth of the matter is far from intuitive and should leads us to some soul-searching.

On a practical level awareness of the main types of psychological functions can assist the composer, let us take the example of writing a piece of music for education, say a work for small ensemble with moderately challenging demands on technique. There is always the possibility of making it socially inclusive through audience participation and include physically stimulating characteristics by clapping or singing to an arranged melody. A recent Proms performance with the Dunedin Consort had the audience engaged with Bach’s Passion through an invitation to sing three sections of the chorales, while this was a part of Bach’s expectations its inclusion in a concert hall setting is unusual, it alters perceptions and challenges some expectations.

Understanding audience expectations can be to the composer’s advantage as it permits the element of surprise. One may argue that the surprise arises out of convention, only when we understand the rules do we respond fully to their being broken. However there are times when the composer feels inclined to break with expectation on a far more radical level. Those who have followed the tonal to atonal argument understand the gradual progression that took place, but to ease the change some composers made the intellectual blend more palatable by including dance elements (social interaction/ physical functions) within the new tonality. Stockhausen’s most popular work is (in my opinion) Stimmung, which meets all three functions, it is something to consider when reaching out for pen and manuscript.

In recent weeks Nurtan and I have been paying more attention to the first part of the listening process, the input. At the moment we are considering the term random in relation to music. It has already taken us many e-mails to clarify this starting point. At one point Nurtan said

….totally random sequences (white noise) is not recognisable as means of communication.

While I wholly agree with his point we are both aware that people choose to listen to random signals. Try typing in white noise on You Tube for a variety of results including keeping a baby quiet during a night’s sleep! All of this suggests only one thing to me, a recognition of sound as a means of self-regulation.

An earlier blog asked the question Why do we listen to music, the blog is now deleted but I include it below as it relates to the above:

Why do we derive pleasure from listening to music?

Music has existed in human societies since prehistory, perhaps because it allows expression and regulation of emotion and evokes pleasure.

The observations made in this blog owes much to the observations made in the article: 

From perception to pleasure: Music and its neural substrates: Robert J. Zatorre and Valorie N. Salimpoor.  It may be read in full at:


In order to answer the question of why we derive pleasure from listening to music we must consider several aspects including physiological ones. We now understand that humans naturally produce dopamine when listening to music, this is a substance that creates in us a sense of wellbeing and pleasure.

If some readers found the previous blog on motivation difficult as it sometimes focused on our basic responses (such as our need for group recognition and a desire for leadership) the notion that pleasure in listening to music arises from the same source as sex, drugs, gambling and even food may not please everybody either. Research on brain activity notes that when you engage with music your brain releases the chemical responsible for motivation and addiction. So powerful is the effect of music that even the anticipation of listening releases dopamine.

Musicians might find happier ground in discussing the pleasure of creating their own narrative about a piece of music, be it on the level of hearing the sounds of nature in Beethoven’s Pastoral or following a process through in Sibelius’s 5th symphony. Researchers note that the process of engagement through anticipation of events – and their resolution – acts as a major source of stimulation.

(The) perception of … a melody does not proceed in a simple sequential manner. It also involves an active component, such (as) expectancies generated based upon a listener’s implicit knowledge about musical rules that have been acquired by previous exposure to music of that culture. This phenomenon is significant because it points to our highly adaptive ability to predict future events based on past regularities.

The argument is expanded into other methods of structure:

In metrically organized music, a listener develops predictions about when to expect sounds to occur (a parallel to how tonality provides the listener with a structure to make predictions about what pitches to expect).

It should be evident to most musicians that listening over many years builds up a lexicon of expectations, these may be built on rules of harmony, outcomes from the use of tonality, or a knowledge of rhythmic devices (e.g. in dance) all of which leads to a refined level of expectation and can create a surprise element when the unexpected occurs.

Performers in particular will be aware of the physical effects of engaging with music, increased heart rate, respiration etc, all of which indicate levels of “self-reported pleasure” but this is equally experienced by listeners. What may be more surprising is that a physiological explanation can also be ascribed to our sensation of goose bumps which happens as a second event stimulating the brain in a separate area of cognizance.

In observing physiological effects on the enjoyment of music (and art forms like poetry readings) the work of the auditory system cannot be overlooked, but we may not always consider the way that both external sounds and their recollection as internal states permit us to recreate emotions, and not just pleasurable emotions.

Nurtan has often elaborated on the fleeting quality of music and our ability to hold such events is truly remarkable as well as pleasurable:

Humans have excellent ability to maintain auditory information as it comes in, which accounts for our ability to relate one sound to another that came many seconds or minutes earlier...

This ability may well have developed from our earliest survival skills; when we combine it with the desire to belong to a group where we may discuss and reinforce our perceptions and understanding of music, then we may see a progression from survival to enriched living.

Aesthetic rewards are often highly abstract in nature and generally involve important cognitive components. In particular, they are highly culture-dependent and therefore imply a critical role for learning and social influences. These features suggest that they may involve the “higher-order” and more complex regions of the brain that are more evolved in humans.

I cannot leave this blog without putting in this extended quotation from the paper. It concerns some of the differences between humans and our near neighbours:

When given a choice between listening to music versus silence, our close evolutionary relatives (tamarins and marmosets) generally prefer silence. Some animals may be capable of processing basic aspects of sound with relevance for music. For example, rhesus monkeys do demonstrate an ability to judge that two melodies are the same when they are transposed by one or two octaves. However, this ability is limited: the monkeys failed to perform this task if melodies were transposed by 0.5 or 1.5 octaves. There is also some evidence that monkeys can distinguish between consonance and dissonance. However, they do not seem to consider consonant sounds more pleasurable, based on the finding that cotton-top tamarins showed a clear preference for species-specific feeding chirps over distress calls, but no preference for consonant versus dissonant intervals.

The 1K word limitation for our main blogs prevents the examination of why we prefer certain types of music over others, e.g. there is much to be said about why we like sad music in relation to the question of pleasure.

Perhaps I should finish on a personal note and explain why I like listening to music. I enjoy the physical aspect of playing (how well is not relevant). I love exploring sounds and feel like a pioneer when using samplers to create never before heard or used sounds. I love the sense of playfulness that is open to me when composing, the fact that I can make several choices before I determine the outcomes that make a written piece of music. I could carry on for some time. I have no objection to my body producing a substance which increases my sense of pleasure, I should be thankful that it is there, along with the willingness to study and work hard with the elements of music.