Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Blogs on British music of the 20th century may be viewed as PDFs at

Bax Sonata No 4

The Mystery of Dermot O'Byrne / Seven symphonies or one?

Bax Symphony No 3, movement 1.

An overview of Havergal Brian’s 1st symphony

“Dusk” from the “Hourglass Suite” by Frank Bridge + link to Piano sonata analysis

Egdon Heath

The simplicity of Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb”.

Peter Maxwell Davies: “Stone Litany” – a cycle of movements.

Monday, 12 December 2016

The elusive climax.

Can you remember your teenage years? Perhaps you are fortunate enough to still be young and the memory is fresh, or perhaps you are still in the second decade of your life. Whatever your circumstances we know that those years are times of upheaval and excitement, great highs and depressing lows.

In my teenage years, living far away from the large towns and cities, the “serious music” I encountered was through vinyl or radio, and this was restricted mostly to Classical or Romantic music. The joy of listening was enhanced when the orchestra played tutti, fff and the musical motif shone out in complete clarity. When I was introduced to musical analysis I understood this to be the musical climax of the work, the term was added to my vocabulary and there is stayed as some sort of fixed object for many years.

As I had time to read as well as listen I came to enjoy reading plays and came to understand that drama shared with music these moments of intense activity, there was a specific design relating to the number of acts and the point at which a climax was to occur. Gustav Freytag created a chart which became known as Freytag’s pyramid. Most musicians will feel comfortable with the design and I would encourage readers to explore the parallels with music. The basic design is as follows:

The “exposition” where characters and their environment is revealed. This is followed by “inciting incident”, where a single event triggers the start of the engagements and conflicts which is defined as “rising action” on the pyramid. The climax follows, revealing the moment of greatest tension in the play or novel. After this apex comes “falling action”, often revealing the consequences of the engagement. The final parts are the “resolution” where a solution is found and the “denouement” where the author may leave the audience to contemplate the theme and potential outcomes for the character.

Now let us consider the elements of a musical climax as it might occur in the Classical and Romantic music I listened to in my teenage years.

The climax is part of a continuous process of intensification and the realisation or working out of the potential in the musical figures presented in the exposition. It is designed to result in an emotional highpoint (both in terms of the structure and for the listener). Musicians consider the process as a three part strategy of preparation, climax and the release of tension. Many composers are of the opinion that the longer the preparation stage the greater the intensity of the climax. If so the great works of the late Romantic period should have greater points of intensity than a Classical symphony, a point which seems instinctively correct.

On the matter of tension building this has been covered in previous blogs under the title “Composers Toolbox”. At the climax point itself one would expect the greatest intensity of rhythmic movement, loudest dynamic, richest texture and usually an unambiguous statement of the theme. The music may then rapidly diminish in intensity or make a more gradual reduction. Again some musicians take the view that the longer the release the greater the sense of peace and rest at the close. While this scheme works for many works composers from the 20th century onwards were willing to challenge the format, an example is the last movement of the sixth symphony by R. V. Williams, which undoubtedly has a point of intensity but is far removed from the design suggested above.

When considering the musical climax in its usual definition it was suggested that it reveals the emotional highpoint for both the planning of the music and the response from the individual. There is a problem with the second part of this suggestion. In the first place if there was a simple trigger for our emotional response to music it would occur each time the music plays. For me, and I would suggest for most listeners, this isn’t true. In my voyages through symphonic writing I came to understand that the symphonies of Mahler had the potential to evoke powerful emotional responses. All the planning is there for this type of engagement, yet there were times when my anticipated response failed to arrive. Was this a result of a weaker performance, lack of involvement with the music, poor attention, distractions?

Listening to reviews of record releases where the finest performance is suggested should help to find the ideal choice for the best emotional response, particularly when played on your new sound-reproducing equipment, but this is not guaranteed. Perhaps the situation is better when attending a concert, a good listening position is taken, the hall is excellent, and thankfully the audience in good health. One could add to that the anticipation and the sharing of the experience which we know through the blog on laughter has a profound effect on our response. Experienced listeners know that this should make a difference but the emotional response can still be elusive.

Even more problematic for the definition of the climax is the ‘failure’ of the individual to respond to the composed climax point, and the discovery that the moment of frisson may occur at points of lesser stimulation, perhaps the introduction of a particular texture, an unexpected event, change of harmony, an unexpected variant on a melodic shape, the possibilities are numerous. Cassius’s famous quotation comes to mind:

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves

The frisson we sometimes experience is sometimes found in music that doesn’t follow the accepted scheme applied to Classical and Romantic music. There are shortcuts to exciting the listener which may be applied in a three minute popular song; unexpected harmonies, sudden changes of dynamic, discordant notes against the melody, innovative textures from unconventional instruments or sampled sounds. The power of association with text or image is perhaps the most powerful tool, though the question of how well the effect is retained with repeated listening has to be asked.  

There are many subtle ways of reaching a point of intensity in music without assailing the listener. Much of the serious music today appeals to the intellect but composers retain an element of showmanship, and enjoy keeping their audience on the edge of their seats. In featuring music of different nationalities on G+ pages it is easy to hear that the Japanese have retained the inclusion of emotional cues in their music over and above many other Western composers. Some works, e.g. those presenting changes of texture as the main composing intention, can be fascinating to hear, but engage us on a primarily intellectual level. This may be part of a gradual evolution, such as we have heard in e.g. the music of Philip Glass, compare Music with Changing Parts to the 9th Symphony.

This blog has been a general introduction to the matter of emotional response and requires examples of the alterations to methods of creating a climax in the modern age. This matter will be considered in the new year, until then please accept my wishes for a pleasant and hopefully not too exciting Christmas and New Year.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Chunking and musical attention

Chunking to assist short term memory depends on organising a structure to patterns to ease the "digestion" of information. A ten number sequence could be difficult to recall, but if the set is a recognisable pattern it could be very simple indeed, e.g. 1 through to 10 or the same sequence reversed.

Two chunks like 1 to 5 and 10 to 6 are just as easy to recall. The more random the sequence the harder it is to retain, it also becomes more difficult to pay attention to other simultaneously presented information.

Fortunately great composers are very good at arranging material in ways to make the absorbing of information easier, if not easy. It seems unlikely and anachronistic to think of pre 20th century composers setting out to reveal a piece of music as chunks of information though sometimes an analysis will present information this way in order to illustrate cohesion. It is likely that composers worked their structures to aid our attention and recall from the process of their improvising and composing at the keyboard.

Chunking is less concerned with key structures and long term planning, we need only recall that STM (short term memory) is a matter of seconds to understand why. There is debate about how much evaluation and judgement can take place at the level where the primary concern is recognition, so comparing like with like is probably reserved for LTM.

In order to assess how a listener might chunk a piece of music I am going to take a Schubert sonata, written in 1817, the sonata in B, D.575. In previous blogs I have demonstrated the importance of rhythm in the opening movements of sonata form works by Classical composers, and this work makes a powerful argument for the cohesive use of rhythmic figures.

The opening three bars of this sonata are restricted to presenting the tonic chord and we wait until to fourth bar to hear a change to a seventh chord on G sharp. The musical interest lies in the dotted rhythms, see fig. A 1 to 4. The two rhythmic cells are simplified for the descending answer, using A2 only. The remainder of the opening 15 bars emphasise this figure, though A1 is used to pull the music back to lead us into the triplet bass section. The opening bars are full of alteration of texture, harmony and dynamics, but there is no doubt that the 20 repetitions of the dotted rhythm form the glue that holds our attention, particularly on our first hearing of the music.

Bars 15 to 29 place the thematic interest over a triplet bass, but our attention is quickly drawn away from the background pulse by the short (harmonically simple) melodic phrases, which extend the dotted rhythm (A2) to B1 which has 14 repetitions.

The character of the music changes at bar 30, partly through the three quaver pulse in the left hand accompaniment, but the main change of character is the addition of a grace note to rhythm A2. Bar 31 modifies the rhythm by adding a double dotted note, which gives greater cohesion to the repeated four bar phrase. These two rhythmic alterations contribute a great deal, certain as much as the harmony, to the change of character.

The following return to B major gives greater impetus to the music, the crotchet is accented, so A2 is reversed, repeated and extended with four staccato quavers and completed with the original A2 figure, see fig. C. This longer phrase is repeated and then truncated to the second half only. Cross beat accents and fz add interest, as does the dialogue between left and right hand, overlapping, phrases, all of which drives us to the repeat of the exposition and later the arrival at the development where the dotted rhythms are quickly intensified by using double dotted quaver/ demisemiquaver figures.

Having worked an excellent transition to the development and intensified the original rhythm, the remainder of the sonata reworks the rhythmic characteristics of the exposition. There are of course many subtleties to entertain the listener and these will be enjoyed with repeated exposure to the music.

It is possible to pay attention to more than one type of information, and it would make no sense to suggest that we hear only one parameter of music. Each person prioritises differently, that is why we can argue about how we hear a given piece and why some might find one work agreeable while his/her neighbour disagrees. For all that it is clear that the rhythmic design of this work offers considerable continuity which supports the variety of key changes, harmonic surprises and changes of musical character.

Gradual change characterizes a great deal of serious music up to the present day. It is an important part of the thinking behind large scale structures and is much used by Mahler, an examination of the first movement of the 8th symphony is a particularly fine example of its use. In our own time demands are being placed on our ability to absorb detail, perhaps in part offset by our ability to replay, isolate and examine sections of music in detail. Will we evolve with the music to be able to “collect” more information or chunk sections to aid our understanding of challenging music? Time will tell.

The process of gradual change can be applied to each of the musical parameters. I once worked a piece using a particular delay programme and realised after completing the composition that there was another cohesive factor at work which I hadn't planned. Looking at the sound file of the recording I saw that the music was being automatically panned gradually from left to right in regular periods of time by the software. Did this attentiveness happen as a result of becoming aware that a sound, once on the left, was now centrally placed or on the right, or was I "rehearsing" the fact that the sound was in motion, rather like our early ancestors being aware of something moving in the long grass?

There is a great deal of time spent in educational circles about thinking about thinking as a means of improving skills. As I made my focus attending to attention while music played there is little doubt in my mind that the experience of listening was changed to my "usual" approach. On one recent occasion while listening to Schubert's final piano sonata, I started with the "attentive" approach and without noticing slipped into complete involvement with the character of the music. I discussed this with Nurtan, who I am certain has experienced the same or similar event.

While we are fortunate in having a great deal of information to draw on regarding memory and attention, and I am sure there are readers who can refine the information given in light of recent research. There is far less information on the interaction between music and attention, there are complex issues at play here, particularly in contemporary classical music which has different concerns to popular and certain types of dance music.

There is some popular interest in the use of music with regard to mindfulness, this is a different issue and has general and often unsubstantiated claims as to the relationship between the music and the listener. There are academic courses for the study of mindfulness, hopefully there is some serious academic research being done or to be done on this issue in the near future.

Saturday, 19 November 2016


Ken's fascinating discussions on memory, music and attention raised a number of questions in my mind. I thought it would be interesting to try to formulate these questions broadly and solicit interpretations, answers or further questions from the readers of this blog. First, I must confess that my knowledge of psychology in general, and cognition in specific are woefully inadequate. Thus, if some of the questions I raise are naïve or have well known and documented answers it will at least serve a few like me well to get those answers. Also, of necessity some material, ideas and definitions are redundant with Ken's blogs.

I shall start with the immense power of perception, recognition and selective ''initial fundamental attention to desired detail '' (IFADD) utilised by the human and apparently other high order species at all times. This can be described by an example. If one looks at an object, the brain immediately isolates and extracts the necessary information and discards the remaining stimuli. This information is a small fraction of all information received and transmitted by the optic nerve. In other words, when you look at a person, the brain isolates the essential features and some few additional details such as colour of the wall behind etc., but ignores most of the information received. It is not like examining a photograph in detail, but extracting the necessary information instantly. This is important for survival as well as being able to learn a task by paying ''attention'' to the essential detail. Somewhere along the line we have ''learned'' the essential details. I suppose, in the process of learning what to see, a neonate also learns how to see.

I think, we can translate this to sound as well; with the hierarchy Overall stimuli +  shape + colour Û auditory stimuli + Rhythm + Pitch with analogies: Type and degree of blind » type and degree of deafness (e.g. tone deaf » colour blind).  This observation raises the first question. The IFADD is evolutionary necessity for survival so is the aural communication in higher order species. What is music analogous to? What logical or operational or simply  heuristic construct can explain our ability to focus on music?

In this first question we can use Ken's midday meal example and or our ability to listen to, for example, radio by filtering out other sound as noise. In time, we don't even hear them. Somewhere along the developmental route, some of us learn to listen to music. Usually this is at a very early age. What are the particular determinants? What makes a young child to apply IFADD to a complicated structure as music? A close examination would suggest that so far as IFADD is concerned a piece by Ligeti or Bach is no more complicated than a jingle or children's song. Given this universality, a child must learn the IFADD of music and apply that knowledge to listen to any kind of music. This does not imply qualitative judgements as like, understand, prefer etc. It is simply ability to listen to music. Unfortunately, this construct implies that the child had learned IFADD of music through paying attention to the IFADD of music. That is circular and unacceptable logic. Embedded in this, there is a question of conformity; because without a certain degree of conformity ensemble music would be impossible, we would not be able to understand each other's music.

If we accept the argument that music is extension of speech (e.g. Leonard Bernstein – Harvard Lectures – The Unanswered Question) we either have to deny the fact that only a subset of each society is musically inclined or there is a drive, desire, talent or genetic make-up that induces a child to pay attention and continue to learn the skills required to pay attention to music. What could be a plausible explanations for this? How would one explain the talented progeny of a musically not talented couple or the other way around? What is musical talent? Is it inherent or somehow imparted?                                                              

It was said many times that music is an ephemeral art and takes place in time. To be as such, the IFADD of music is changing completely, albeit at times only in detail. In order to be comprehensible, the mind has to select a finite interval over which the IFADD is defined. We do not hear music continuously but over intervals that are sufficiently small to define the ''motion'' but sufficiently large to define the timbre, pitch etc. I assume that these intervals are nearly the same for each individual. I think, otherwise, it would be difficult if not impossible to communicate musically. This difficulty does not exist in visual perception even at a reasonably close distance. This is because visual structures are not time dependent for reasonably long intervals.

 The questions these observations raise are many. Even if we accept very loose definitions such as talent, training, interest as fundamentally necessary definitions, we still need to depend upon even more woolly definitions such as mood, distraction, etc, in defining attention and / or attention span in listening. I am deliberately excluding performance, those who were fortunate to take part in public performances would be able to tell a story or two about pure adrenalin based performance on occasion.

I hope some, hopefully, many readers will have answers, further questions, conjectures or thoughts on this subject   and willing to contribute to this blog. One or both of us will continue the emerging discussions as appropriate. If nothing else, all of us can learn from each other.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Attention is a process by which we actively engage with specific information from our environment. For listeners this could be a symphony playing on the radio with random additional material such as a pressure cooker steaming away as you prepare your midday meal, the postman delivering letters and two crows squawking outside your window. I imagine many of you will ask the relevant question: how do we manage to experience all of these sensations and still focus on just one element? In order to get to terms with this, and determine whether we can focus on a preferred element, we must understand the process of withdrawal, bottlenecks and shared tasks.

There must be a number of musicians who have experienced the wonderful sense of rapture arising from listening when we are so engaged on the “primary target” that all secondary inputs have zero impact, we have tuned in to one element and seemingly tuned out all others.

Readers of these blogs who have taken on the psychological arguments in relation to music will be well aware of the basic requirements of attention for survival. Here our interest is directed towards limitations on our ability to stay on task, and what we can do to maximise contact with music, especially as we know instinctively that our attention is limited in terms of both capacity and duration. How selective can we be and what do we miss when we are selective? Are certain senses more powerful than others, is there a peak point at which visual or aural material creates an overload on attention?

Posner and Boies (1971) suggested that attention has multiple sensory functions, for musicians the two of significance are detecting signals for focused processing, and maintaining a vigilant or alert state.  Other psychologists have used terms such as arousal, effort, capacity, perceptual set, control, and consciousness as synonymous with the process of attention, I am sure that performers and composers alike feel comfortable with these terms.

Attention involves selecting some information for further processing while inhibiting other information. Understanding attention is as much about filtering information as selection. This creates two states change blindness (Simons & Rensink, 2005) and change deafness (Vitevitch, 2003). In examining how partial our attention can be, psychologists are exploring the notion of top-down processing, a flexible and dynamic approach to attention as what is important at one moment may no longer be so at the next, and our goals shift accordingly.

Knowledge, beliefs, goals and expectations can alter the speed and accuracy of the processes that select meaningful or desired information; what we might think of as scanning and selecting material. However, because of the variety and quantity of information available in (say) a concert hall, top-down attentional selection does not always lead immediately to your goal, in our case focused listening. The recognised term for our attempts to direct attention is “mental effort” which accepts that given two sources of information we are not able to give equal weighting to both.

Just as there are limitations on the quantity of information that can be processed simultaneously in space, there are limitations on the speed with which information can be processed in temporal sequence. There are suggestions that we are limited by sensory overload, a bottleneck of information, certain critical mental operations have to be carried out sequentially (Pashler & Johnston, 1998).

When our attention requires a physical response this will create a bottleneck, good sight-readers have developed the knack of shifting attention back and forth at a rapid pace. As with multiple sensory inputs, coordinating two output responses is more difficult than simply making a single response. It is not impossible to do two things at once, and as musicians are well aware, we can get better at this with practice, but there is usually some associated cost or failure even when one is skilled.

As suggested the effective strategy for multitasking is to switch quickly back and forth between the two tasks rather than try to deal fully with both simultaneously. Before becoming expert sight-readers we may break down the process into smaller units with longer periods of rest to determine levels of accuracy and regions of faults (rhythm, wrong notes, lack of articulation etc.). We still do not know whether it is possible to perform two tasks at exactly the same time or, if it is, what happens to the quality of the attention paid.

Now that we have an outline of memory from the previous blog and a general understanding of attention it is time to turn to how some people absorb music and problems faced with attention when listening.

Several years ago I worked with a youngster who had a number of difficulties with learning, without going into details his literacy and numerical skills were very weak as was his retention of factual material. It came as a great surprise to me one day when I heard him reciting streams of rap along with stylistic gestures and intonation. I asked him to perform in front of his peers and he did without hesitation or any signs of anxiety, (unlike many of the more gifted performers I had worked with). It would seem that he had been involved in a high level of rehearsal having given considerable attention to performance detail picked up from audio and video sources. His passion for this style of music cut through the obstacles which were inhibiting his other learning. I can attest to the fact that he wanted to be equally able with other studies, particularly his numeracy, but for both of us this was an uphill struggle.

The Welsh have a tradition of storytelling and reciting and I have observed the capacity for some people to absorb large quantities of verse with little apparent effort. (In medieval times the expectation for any storyteller was to know 10,000 lines of verse). To be able to recite or sing in this way there has to have been detailed contact with the subject matter, but not necessarily all at once. The content may have been absorbed in chunks, starting with the gist and then adding to this until a complete performance is absorbed.

Chunking material is part and parcel of music, we are well aware of the role of repetition which contributes to our attention and recall of larger works, but chunking works on small scale events as well as larger formal units. Musicians are adept at matching and comparing related phrases through transposition, inversion and a whole host of methods of variation.

As can be seen from the wiki definition below the psychological definition is adaptable to the musicians approach:

Chunking in psychology is a process by which individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole. A chunk is defined as a familiar collection of more elementary units that have been inter-associated and stored in memory repeatedly and act as a coherent, integrated group when retrieved.

In a design like sonata form we have motives and rhythmic elements repeated many times within a section then aspects of these elements extended before a recapitulation. This provides the listener several opportunities to refresh his/her contact with the music, and this is important because our attention is in a constant state of disruption.

Over the past few months I have kept a diary of my listening, or to be more explicit, a diary of how often my attention has wandered while listening. It could make for depressing reading in that every session has a number of breaks which paints a poor picture of the contact I have with music. On the up side I know that I have a good recall of many musical works and can replay significant sections in my head, or match a score with an “aural impression” of the sound without a recording. In the early years of listening to Classical music I know that I would pick out significant details and build onto these, gluing a number of parts together to form a more continuous experience of the musical logic. At this stage of my life I have a little more difficulty in absorbing music, but my listening experience helps me to form a stronger set of references on which I can draw to build up familiarity, so one loses a little and gains a little. 

The diary was particularly useful in showing what sorts of interference came between me and the music, it was nearly always involved with problem solving. In the middle of a piece I would become absorbed by any tasks that were incomplete, sometimes musical, sometimes far more trivial. Having become aware of this I tried to resolve any issues before listening only to find that my mind would conjure up issues from further back in time or of less significance. In other words I had formed a habit.

For many people music is regarded as a form of relaxation, in this state turning inwards to problem solving is acceptable as long as the listener is aware that the attention to the music is diminished. We can attend to two tasks, but never equally.

Don’t be harsh on yourself if you discover that your attention has lost its focus, go back (if you can) to the point at which you lost contact. It may be that there is an issue at that point which requires detailed observation and dealing with it may be of use in the future. Sometimes several returns are necessary, but remember rehearsal is vital to our long term memory.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Memory and attention problems

Music, as we all know, is an art form that occupies time, it is linear. Short of an error or physical problem, such as a broken string, a performance moves with grace and little interruption. However when it comes to our own attention and recall of music there are issues which need to be raised. Before we get to these issues a few notes on memory and attention are required, resist the temptation to skip these paragraphs as knowledge of the two areas are vitally important to our perception and performance of music.

In 1968 Atkinson and Shiffrin proposed a three stage model of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Sensory Memory
We take our sensory information from the environment and store it for a very brief period of time. For musicians the difference between visual and auditory memory recall is significant, for visual information recall is no longer than a half-second, but auditory information is retained for up to 4 seconds.

Short-term memory, also known as active memory, is the information we are currently aware of or thinking about. Our focus on sensory memories generates (or if you prefer moves) the information and places it into our short-term memory. The storage time for STM is usually between 20 and 30 seconds. Attending to this STM allows it to flow to the next stage - long-term memory. It seems that the number of memory inputs is about 7 items (+/- 2 items).

Long-term memory is our storage of information. We are not continually aware of LTM but it can be usually be accessed for use when required. Ease of access is variable. Psychologists suggest that we have no time limit for accessing LTM and that the capacity is also unlimited. Our recollections are primarily based on language but can be of a visual or auditory nature. 

Information from the STM is transferred to the long-term memory only if that information is rehearsed. If rehearsal does not occur, then information is forgotten, lost from short term memory through the processes of displacement or decay.

With such information it becomes easier to understand why short motifs and repetition have such an important role in composing. Our notion of organic growth where we can relate each new event to the previous statements makes equal sense to design and the design of our system of recall.

Recent research suggests that rehearsal may not be essential, but it certainly is an aid to transfer. As there is primarily a semantic quality to LTM I decided to attempt a simple experiment to aid my memory of music. I set out to play the first movement of the Italian concerto from memory. I don’t frequently make a point of learning by heart, my muscle memory is quite good, but I do get patches where if I play a wrong version of a chord (even an inversion instead of a root) it can untangle the flow. I set out to play through the movement each time noting a break and then discussing it with myself along the lines of….that is a 7th chord, I need to remember the B flat is sustained…and so on. I was pleased with the results in that far greater (in fact total) continuity was achieved. Some time ago I attended a lecture regarding retaining vocabulary when learning a new language. The gist of the argument was that by making visual associations with each syllable of the word and linking these in a bizarre way made recall much easier. A challenge was set to learn the welsh word for geography, ddaeryddiaeth. We were told to envisage an old Cornish lady who being toothless made a breathy sound at the close of each phrase, her phrase is

“dear o thee aye” (th). We were all invited to speak as the old lady and share the word. We discussed in a previous blog (laughter) how group humour is very different to individual humour, and the result was unexpected extended hilarity. More importantly the whole group had excellent recall of a more difficult word. Humour and laughter brings together disparate ideas, and this fusion promotes recall.

Reading about memory can take us into some very strange areas, and one may speculate about genetic aptitudes regarding music from this report on the transference of memory via DNA in mice. The research was done at the Emory University School of Medicine and led to the statement that

“The experiences of a parent, even before conceiving, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations”

My wife noted that since her earliest years she has made the action of lifting her skirt before climbing a style, even though she rarely wore skirts and dresses and never in the country. She believes that it is an inherited action which she only noticed because of its oddity. One may consider large numbers of families of musicians who have followed the same profession for many generations. In my case, being adopted into a family of total non-musicians it is intriguing to consider why my interests were drawn to the subject with such passion despite efforts to turn my attention to more lucrative pursuits.

Psychologists have divided memory systems into two broad categories, declarative and nondeclarative .The first includes memories of facts and events. Nondeclarative memory includes skills and habits…..  Declarative memory is "knowing what" and nondeclarative memory is "knowing how".

Bringing muscle memory and the discussion about the formation of the music in the Italian concerto brought both types of recall together, one reason why I was able to link the sections into a whole movement. It is interesting to consider that in making my memory of the work clearer I was making physical changes to the structure of my brain.

Long-term memory involves changes in the structure of neurons including growth of new processes and synapses.  So, to the extent that you remember anything about this material on memory tomorrow, or next week, or next year, it will be because structural changes in synapses are beginning in your brains!

My intention was to discuss both memory and attention in this blog, but our self-imposed limit is already being exceeded. There are a large number of questions that arise even from this brief blog regarding memory problems and music. Let us close with a seemingly trivial thought, if I listen to a concert with a person coughing how do I remember the music, with or without disruption? If I recall it without the noise I must have a method of filtering unwanted information. If so does this method extend to memories from the whole of my life? If I recall both the music and the disruption does this mean I carry with me imperfect recollections of music? As we can create false memories (outside the scope of this blog) and recall the gist of events better than detail, especially as we age, is my recall of the music a composite of a number of performances of the same piece?

Wednesday, 26 October 2016


The other day I came across some music by Laraaji (Edward Larry Gordon) on the radio, which was preceded by a short discourse on his mystical views. As well as being a recorded musician associated with Brian Eno he runs laughter meditation workshops. He has a strong belief in the power of laughter and gave some demonstrations on how to use it for therapeutic purposes. Being a rare combination of musician and stand-up comedian it would be easy to dismiss him out of hand as a serious contributor to psychology or medicine, but there is much to be said about laughter and its relation to music.

We know that humour is uniquely human and laughter (or the spasm of certain muscles) is not. Music is filled with human emotive sounds, operatic screams, tears, cries of pain and even some examples of laughter, but it is far less well represented. Why is this? 

As usual psychologists have taken this pleasurable activity back to early man and related laughter to fight or flight responses. Like an earlier discussion about whooping and group vocalisation for attracting females, (and remember we are talking about our great, great....grandmothers here), the collective sound of laughter is a signal. Unlike the whooping (though similar) laughter is supposedly a response to the passing of danger. I have witnessed laughter and danger responses frequently amongst groups of teenagers, particularly older teenagers who are experts at mocking laughter which usually suggests superiority, and on occasion seen the same group rapidly disperse when their victim turns on the group, after which the quality of the laughter takes on a different character. One may note that the Bible has very little to offer on the matter of laughter, but mockery and laughter gets a mention; the following passage relates to a group of children laughing at the prophet Elisha:

He went up from there to Bethel and, as he was on his way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Get along with you, bald head, get along.” He turned round and looked at them and he cursed then in the name of the Lord; and two she-bears came out of a wood and mauled forty-two of them (2 Kings 2:23).”

Despite its less pleasant aspects, laughter is the oil of society. Studies have revealed that people are far more likely to laugh in a group (a figure of x30 is given), that made me smile but then I was reading that on my own. I have only ever attended a stand-up comic's routine twice in my life, once to see Max Wall and once Bernard Wrigley (also a musician - a folk singer of remarkably odd and often amusing songs).

This link is to some sea shanties accompanied by Bernard's very deep squeeze-box, don't expect high art, this raw, but very effective communication.

Both of these performers for me support the idea of social laughter, after the Max Wall show I wondered what on earth was funny in the strange walks and contorted shapes he created on stage, as one might with the John Cleese movements in Monty Python and the Fawlty Towers episode "the Germans". It was as if some near magical trick had been played with my perception. I believe most musicians and composers recognise this magnifying effect of shared experience, and some  of the greatest composers have included the devices that create humour and laughter, namely playing with incongruity.

Laughter can occur at serious moments and important rituals in our lives. I recall an occasion when a funeral was taking place in my home town, it was late in the year, dark, cold, and most of all, wet. These conditions led to one of the officials slipping into the grave. There should have been shock, horror or at least concern, but several of the mourners broke out into laughter of the uncontrollable type. We laugh at what is unpredictable and confusing. Sometimes we also arrive at the same state from sheer exhaustion with banal repetition, a form of hysteria. 

There are very few characteristics that are shared by all humans, these blogs discussed the intervals of the major and minor third as sounds recognised for their emotive nature by all nations and cultures, laughter has the same quality. Any characteristic that has such currency has to have considerable significance for composers, and yet laughter plays a minor role in music, this may be in part due to the very negative outlook philosophy has had on the subject from the time of Plato onwards.

Creating an emotional reaction is useful to the composer, though at the present time emotion and music have a more difficult relationship than in the 19th century. Ligeti had the ability to make audiences laugh by having his performers act out in public the types of behaviour usually kept out of sight, tantrums and burping are two examples that come readily to mind. Le Grand Macabre (1977, revised 1996) has as its subject death and laughter. Music and death is a huge subject, and can be seen in hymns to the dead, death in opera, and more recently the idea of preservation of voices on recorded media (and the sounds of animals that have become
extinct). The 20th century added greatly to works dealing with death with very different responses, e.g. the music of the holocaust “Different Trains” by Reich, the loss of a generation of artists after WW1 as in the Piano Sonata by Frank Bridge, and the response to the use of the atomic bomb, Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.

Le Grand Macabre takes a different approach to most artistic outlooks on death in that it turns to laughter, it is like the temper tantrum presentation, bringing its audience face to face with tasteless laughter. We are invited to laugh in the face of death.

“anyone who has been through horrifying experiences is not likely to create terrifying works of art in all seriousness” (Ligeti).

An extensive commentary on Ligeti’s opera in relation to death and laughter may be read here:

and in the work of a remarkably influential lecturer Richard Steinitz who took me as a student to a number of recitals of Ligeti’s music: György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination.

The theories of laughter have evolved over several centuries and make fascinating reading, one of the most recent is Incongruity Theory, and this is:
The perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations. This approach was taken by James Beattie, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and many later philosophers and psychologists.

The bringing together of unexpected combinations to create laughter should be one of the wealthiest areas of exploration with sampled sound. Not only can the composer create an environment for audience laughter but may use laughter itself as a sound source. This approach was taken in my Homage to Marcel Marceau, where the laughter creates a sense of ambiguity, distancing the audience from the original intention of the mime.

Returning to Ligeti this commentary on Apparitions gives a real insight into a huge variety of unexpected combinations:

 “sounding planes and masses… may succeed, penetrate or mingle with one another—floating networks that get torn up or entangled—wet, sticky, gelatinous, fibrous, dry, brittle, granular and compact materials, shreds, curlicues, splinters, and traces of every sort—imaginary buildings, labyrinths, inscriptions, texts, dialogues, insects—states, events, processes, blendings, transformations, catastrophes, disintegrations, disappearances.”

This blog arose from an e-mail from Nurtan who had shared a humorous composition of a gentle nature, the fact that he could compose a humorous work at a time of considerable difficulty shows how therapeutic and valuable laughter can be, and how much more it can become as the level of difficulty increases.

The next blog is on attention and memory, yet another source for laughter in our later years.  

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

Recently the contemporary music site on G+ closed down. There are some thoughts about resurrection and of course discussion about what the site should provide to the public.

The term contemporary should be easy enough to define, but these matters are often more complex than we think. The Thesaurus on Word suggests these associations, modern, current, fashionable, present-day, existing, up-to date and as an antonym, old. I am certain that reading that list will provoke very different responses and a number of questions as to what is “old”.

Many of us would agree that the modern age comes into being after Wagner, with the decade 1900-1910 being the pivot point. Let us take one composer active at that time and see what distinguishes Romantic and Modern in the hope of exploring the ‘new’ features of that time in relation to recent developments today, and so understand better the term “contemporary”.

Satie is loved for his alternative viewpoints on musical structure, use of harmony and his embracing of Dada, not all at once in one piece of course, we could take Parade as a good example of “new” thinking. It was a response to popular entertainment, the music halls, fairground and cinema. It “borrowed” unconventional sounds like typewriters and fog-horns (possibly Cocteau’s influence, but that does not detract from its modernism), and had associations with modern art with Picasso’s cardboard cubist costumes. Its use of ragtime shows contemporary links with popular dance, and more importantly introduces an element of modernism into Parisian ballet (though ragtime by that time was approaching the end of its ‘popular’ life). Satie is a complex character and is loved as much for his eccentricities (which can sometimes be read as modernism) as his art. One should not forget that he wrote a large number of popular songs, and drew on exotic material (popular in Paris at the turn of the century). I would hazard a guess that for him there was little distinction between art and popular music. To assess this you might like to try “Je te veux”, part of the second verse is quoted:

Que mon coeur soit le tien

Et ta lèvre la mienne,

Que ton corps soit le mien,

Et que toute ma chair soit tienne.

From that short assessment of the composer we might draw together some themes of contemporary music in 1917 and see if these trends still exist.

Contemporary music may:

Turn its face against conventions of the past or parody them.

Include aspects of popular culture in its content.

Make associations with developments in other art forms.

Make us of non-musical material.

Draw on different cultures.

Possibly the use of the term contemporary is not so different today as it was in Satie’s time, though of course the development in say the use of non-musical material far extends the resources and thinking of 1917.

The BBC runs a programme “Late Junction” which is promoted as:

"an eclectic mix of world music, ranging from the ancient to the contemporary", the programme has a wide musical scope. It is not uncommon to hear medieval ballads juxtaposed with 21st-century electronica, or jazz followed by international folk music followed by an ambient track.

Having listened to the programme regularly for a number of years there is little doubt that the content is always fresh, and shows how modern folk and jazz are just as capable of surprising and challenging its audience. Often in the context of the programme pieces of medieval or renaissance music take on a different identity or at least reveals the inter-reliance of old and new music. One might also note that certain features of the music played uses contemporary ideas within a context that is recognisably not 20th or 21st century biased, so a synthetic version of pentatonic music that could be of ethic origins using regular pulses can morph into complex harmonies and rhythms. One may hear similar features in the

“duet with LA modular synth fanatic Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and free-form drummer Greg Fox, of avant-garde duo Guardian Alien…” (BBC podcast description).

The difficulty of putting a label on such music often ends up with hyphenated terms and the word hybrid frequently used.  The programme hosts are well informed in diversity and their attempts at definition inventive, but even they struggle on occasion.

Is it the case that ‘contemporary’ should then consist of all music written after a given date? Should works that contain unusual approaches to harmony be thought of as contemporary, in which case is Gesualdo modern? If a work in conventional style introduces a novel progression, whether in rhythm, timbre, the use of space does it suddenly become something else other than Classical, or Romantic or whatever?

In the first sentence I explained that the G+ site offers opportunities to reach out to the public, it is a valuable service, and one I hope will continue to provide entertainment, discussion and education to a broad number of people. There are a number of different G+ communities dealing with music, so it is important to have a clear intention of what is expected to distinguish its content from similar or associated sites. Some would be happier with a community that featured only the most innovative “art” music, probably with a smaller audience. The BBC run a late night programme, “Hear and Now”, the fact that it is on Saturday night between 10.00 and 12.00 gives an indication of its appeal, yet the music featured is often accessible and always stimulating. I will admit to being thankful for the iPlayer feature which permits a month of opportunity to listen in, as the time frame is not suitable to me to get the best of the music, and of course repeat listening is often a must.

The other, larger audience, might be happier with a contemporary site that includes all music after a given date, the problem here is that the greater number of submissions is likely to dilute the potentially specialist nature of the site. Composer’s ears are always seeking out innovative approaches, we respond to novelty. Many of us appreciate qualities of design and use of language that are not immediately accessible, one could say challenging content. If only one post in twenty features such music and the others are overwhelmingly reproducing content more in keeping with tonal music and 19th century approaches that serves little to stimulate a new generation of exciting composing and composers.

I hope that this blog will bring responses from a number of readers as G+ should be a vehicle for debate, of which, in my opinion there is too little. I also hope that there is a future for a replacement site to the original contemporary music pages, whatever its title.

Complex rhythms - Introduction

After a self- inflicted couple of months of chaos through moving from a moderately large house with garden etc. to a  spacious but much smaller flat, the rhythm of life for both me and my wife is very slowly returning to normal albeit without a sound system yet; but, soon that also will come to pass as well.

In his stimulating discussions of rhythm Ken covered quite a bit of ground. There are many questions in each blog and I am almost certain that these questions will lead to further interesting discussions. One of the fascinating aspects of rhythm is the consideration of the organisation of music using rhythmic sentences as the basis of a composition. This idea is not new and perhaps it was one of the most important aspects of ancient music which lasted well into the High Baroque era. Even as late as the17th century, the instrumental tuning  in use was very uncertain and it was locale specific. Although later  in the Romantic era an agreed upon tempered scale ( A4 = 440 Hz) increased the emphasis in favour pitch related properties of a composition, rhythmic structure of music was and still is a very important property of any musical work.   

If we consider many forms of dances, folksongs, and immediately approachable popular music, the rhythmic sentences that repeat in more or less regular intervals are short and readily identifiable. In general, in these types of composition, the rhythmic content of musical expressions could be readily expressed within the context of the meter associated with the composition and the repeated patterns rarely exceed a few measures at most. In a structure like this, a change in the rhythmic structure acts like a caesura and one of the structures (sequences) can be used repeatedly (refrain).  If the purposes behind the composition of these types are examined; we would conclude that this is a very logical structure. This is also applicable to any section of a musical work where an immediate recognition of that section is an important concern. There are many interesting theoretical aspects of rhythmic structures that are discussed extensively in G. W. Cooper and L. B. Meyer The Rhythmic Structure of Music (University of Chicago Press Chicago, London 1960).

There is a practical matter for the composer, players and audience alike; as the musical sentences become more complicated, rhythmic structures become more divorced from the easily recognisable forms, both the comprehension and interpretation  of the rhythmic structure demand more careful listening. If one considers from the oldest existing music, through Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic eras to our own time, the importance of the rhythmic structure becomes much more apparent.  In this respect, it may be claimed that there is more commonality between a Bach fugue and quintessentially 20th Century pieces such as Messaien's Turangalila or Takemitsu's Colours than  it is apparent in a casual hearing. One might probably be more correct than not stating that this has always been so, because considering the music of a vast geographic area extending from Iberia to a virtual meridian just east of Myanmar, the similarity of the rhythmic structures – highlighted by linguistic differences – provide an evidence that the rhythmic similarities are so much of the defining property of music the this has always been the case, from the first attempts at singing by our earliest ancestors to our own creative musical efforts.  Naturally, included in this notion, there is the relative influence of the language and/or dialect based prosody on the rhythmic structures of any locally or nationally identifiable music. This important observations lead to a vast area of knowledge and investigation, unfortunately too far afield from our discussions. Thus we'll leave this to linguists and ethno-musicologists, who are much better equipped to discuss these topics and limit our discussion to considerations of musical rhythmic structures of the music normally discussed here.

A generalised rhythmic language:

A rhythm can be fully defined by two relative properties of a sound: length, stress. The length is long, medium and short and the stress is strong and weak. The basis in terms of the note length can be extended to any commonly used notes (Breve, semi-breve, minim etc.), for the purposes of this article we will use a minim based system with:

Symbol            Length             Strength          ''Sound''

h                      Long                Strong             Boom

H                     Long                Weak               Baah          

q                      Med                 Strong             Ta

Q                     Med                 Weak               Ti

e                      Short               Strong             Ka

E                      Short               Weak               Ke

Rule I. A rhythmic pattern is the expressed using the least amount of weak notes

 Example:   Q Q = H  but  q Q h                                                                                                                                                            

Rule II. A rhythmic sentence is the sequence of rhythms that occur at least twice

Example:   < H Q h Q E q E q h H Q h Q E q E q h  >   is a sequence with a sentence repeated once. The sentence has a most unusual meter of 11/ 4 :  < H Q h Q E q E q h >. The partition by the unusual meter is not necessary and within the context of the music it can be any convenient partition. A sentence can be any length, but the composer must keep in mind that very long sentences are hard to interpret, perform, or listen to. One of the musical examples is a long sequence to demonstrate this difficulty. In fact, one can calculate the appropriate length easily. A sentence with a meter 120/4 is about a minute of allegro music, which asks the listener to recall the details of a whole minute in order to understand the rhythmic structure.  I would not be surprised to find such a composition to be beyond the reach of most audiences.

Common short  rhythmic sentences can be used as building blocks for long sentences. For example:

a) 1. <  h e > 5/8   2.  < H Q h >10/8   3. < Q E >3/8  Caesura or cadence 4 / 8

      1 + 2  + 3  + 3  = < h e H Q h Q E q E>  16 / 8

 Sequence:   < h e H Q h Q E q E  C  h e H Q h Q E q E  C >  =>  5 / 8:6 h x 6 H E ¦E h 6 Q E q 6 E h 6 h x 6 H E ¦E h 6 Q E q 6 E Q Q 6