Thursday, February 14, 2013

Analyzing Musical Language

Basil Vendryes

Analyzing Musical Language

                The podcast I chose to listen to, RadioLab’s “Musical Language”, discussed the biology, psychology and inherent nature of music and how humans process it. I found it particularly interesting how they shed light on the observation that our language is inherently musical, though this is not readily noticeable (which is part of the charm of the revelation). It’s exciting to realize the underlying musical foundation that’s ingrained into the human mind; now I can pick up on the musical quality in any one person talking, even myself. Saying a word or phrase many times in succession makes it seem less like a word or phrase and more like strange noise, but now it’s also able to be pushed further into a string of notes to create a melody. It may not always flow beautifully like a masterful symphony, but it’s groundbreaking for its concept alone.
                It’s funny too, because listening and hearing make all the difference in realizing things like this. Whereas hearing is simply picking up the audio stimulus and processing it, listening is intensely focusing on and analyzing said stimuli. If I were to have simply “heard the lecture”, it would’ve been a collection of sound that would have not had provoked any analytical thought, nor would it have given me any newly drawn conclusions. But listening allowed me to take in what was said, process it, test some of the theories myself and increase my knowledge base and observational skills. Similarly, when they were on the section explaining differences in musical emphasis used with language, listening played a large part. Mandarin is a language which has a surprising amount of reliance on tonality to convey meaning. Those who grow up speaking it inherently know the system of how these tonalities affect the language; this is something that we in the west highly overlook. It was a grand discovery to realize the “universal melodies” that we convey when speaking towards infants, but this is a common, every day practice in certain parts of the world, such as those that speak mandarin. It is part of their language; something they practice from infancy to old age while it quickly becomes buried during the childhood years in an English speaking country. Where we only hear, they are clearly listening.
                Equally amazing is our brains methodology for interpreting and sorting sounds into types that we like and dislike. RadioLab used the example of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as an instance of how humans process music and how it affects our reactions towards it. Rite of Spring was mold-shattering for its dissonant, chaotic chords, irregular and aggressive tones. The 2 different performances of it yielded polar opposite results with the first performance driving people into a maddened craze from the music; whereas the second performance invoked praise and adoration for Stravinsky’s work. RadioLab discusses this phenomenon as the brains ability to eventually make sense of a disturbing, unfamiliar noise. When people were able to properly synthesize this piece into their mind more smoothly, they found it staggeringly beautiful and fresh.
My first introduction to Rite of Spring was via Disney’s Fantasia, and I instantly loved the piece. While this was partially due to my childhood obsession with dinosaurs, there was something that struck me about it as I experienced that segment in the movie. It amazed me how the music and the animation seemed to fit hand in hand. The fact that Disney animators created this rich, imaginative narrative with nothing to go off of but a piece of music was both perplexing and engaging for me. I was bridging the connections between the sounds of the piece and the various aspects of the animation that were clearly inspired by these sounds. The sharp, blasting noises at the beginning were clearly suited for volcanoes. The chaotic, menacing bleats of the middle segment embodied the terror of fleeing from a hungry T-Rex. The absolute cacophony of the end complimented the disorientation of a sudden, apocalyptic combination of natural disasters tearing the earth asunder. But my mind would’ve never come up with the images that now are almost trademark for Rite of Spring. Yet they make sense to me. They synthesized nicely because of that. I wonder if initially hearing it through Fantasia is the reason it clicked with me so nicely. Is it comparable to the second performance of Rite of Spring where those who went in had prior knowledge of what happened the first time around? It’s hard to say. Knowing that the piece is dissonant before listening to it doesn’t make it any less dissonant. I’ll probably never know the answer to that one, but I find it intriguing nonetheless.
In order to bring additional attention towards the subjects they discuss in the podcast, RadioLab employs a lot of direct, contextual editing to their programs. For example, the dangerously catchy phrase-turned-to-song “Sometimes Behave So Strangely” was made as such through a lot of repetition throughout the piece. Through repetition, we experienced (and also internally converted) the repetition’s transfer from language to sound to music. Simply describing it would have not been nearly so effective, as the specific tones and melodies that we would individually create would differ from the singular one that we witness being transformed. It’s also quite likely those who aren’t well versed in musical theory wouldn’t be able to decipher the melodic sequence hidden away in their own voices. The method is very interactive and intuitive and makes for an engaging and clear method of demonstrating their audio concepts.
While it’s hard to think of methods that could be used to improve the already excellent production quality of RadioLab’s podcasts, one possible addition I would make is the inclusion of a few additional sources to illustrate the theories they discuss in their podcast. Rite of Spring is a classical example of a mold-breaking piece that forced those who listened to it to accommodate the strange new audio stimulus; in order for it to have a more pleasant synthesis within their mind, it took extra time and a more open mind to make nice with it. I would have been interested to hear some additional examples of dissonance in music. Perhaps implementing one that I wasn’t already familiar with in order to try and induce me to undergo the rocky synthesis myself. Of course, as a producer of the podcast that would be impossible, but had I been in their scenario, I would find it beneficial to present a piece of music that isn’t quite as well known but also quite dissonant itself. This would continue to push the interactivity and have them learn through a kinesthetic means.

1 comment:

Trace said...

I really appreciate your comments on Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and how you make the personal connection to your own original exposure to the piece via Disney's Fantasia. This reminds me of one thing that I find a bit lacking in this RadioLab podcast, though, which is a tendency not to address cultural conditioning in any significant way. There are not just biological or neurological factors of reception, but rather -- or at least also -- cultural receptors. Just the fact that we first experienced "Rite of Spring" via a well-synchronized animation would make it different from a crowd watching some of the first modern ballet. I wonder what features of production might allow some of these cultural conditions to shape the listening experience here.