Friday, September 29, 2006

"Music & Brainpower" -> Phonemes and Tonality (Part I)

On the subject of music, I have been thinking on some of the basic building blocks of music. If you are a music major looking at music theory, neurolinguistics and Piaget, the first half of this post is all old hat to you, but there is an intersection of nootropics, music, motorskills, tonality, and phonemic ability that all rolls together.

Before you are 8 or 9 years old, your brain can hear around 200 phonemes. A phoneme is the shortest block of sound we can hear. See here. However, a magical thing starts to happen once you get past 8 or 9 years old. You can no longer hear all the world's phonemes, and if you are an American, you probably are going to settle down and only the ability to hear 60 odd phonemes. The reason that people speak with an accent once they get old is because they can't hear that they speak with an accent. For instance, the L phoneme and the R phoneme cannot be clearly heard to the Japanese speaker, thus giving us the reason why they may say "lead" pencil, instead of "red" pencil. Our Japanese friends simply can't hear the individual phonemes that make up "r" and "l," since they sound the same to them.

Music is down the same scale, pun intended. Once of my favorite stories (if I remember correctly) is found in "World of Music" where a very gifted African musician, after studying classical music for a number of years, couldn't hear the difference between Mahler and Mendelssohn. He couldn't pick up on the gentle differences in scale and meter between the great western composers. Give him two tribes of African music, and he could rip apart one and praise the other. Let me be clear, however, if the table were reverse and we listened to african tribal music, to the Westerner, we would miss the fine points.

So the truth is, that your life has already been set on a course early in life. While you may think that you have the freedom to pursue many ways, in reality, once you are past 10 years old your are stuck. You are stuck with your music and you are stuck with your accent.

In the same way, your brain gets wired with tonality or "the scales" of music. Western music has a subset of frequencies that "sound good." But to the outsider, it would sound weird.

If you go to other cultures, you will find they don't have the same tonality. In reality, you--if you grew up in western culture--will never truly hear the music as it was designed to be heard. Perhaps, we can learn the language, but we will always speak with an accent. Our hearing of the music, like the Africian musican who could distinguish the various European styles, will be limited.

Why did God make us like this? Well basically if he didn't "settle us down" our brain wouldn't have a base to build on. Our knowledge would float. A key of any successful business is that at some point you "must commit." You must decide on a course of action and then proceed on that course of action. What God does with us is cause our brains to "commit" to a language or a music style. Young brains are wet cement. However, at some point in time you need to pour the cement so it can harden, and then you can start to build the house on top of it.

However, some of us have the ability maybe not to change the foundation, but continue to change the house on the foundation. What do I mean?

I was raised on classical music. Both parents were highly gifted in music. I discovered rock and roll at a later age--then I enjoyed this immensely. You might expect that my music would be stuck on classics and the rock and roll of my age.

However, for some reason, I am not stuck. I effortlessly glide between Peter Gabriel, Pete Townshend, the second movement of Beethoven 7th , Green Day, and Linkin' Park. Recently, I heard a little tune by Aly and AJ (horrible teenage fair), but it well crafted, and it stuck with me. I have the chord chart of "Rush" sitting by my copy of Bach's Well Tempered Klaviar.

I have a friend that is older and listens to Korn. I am convinced that they do it because they "want to feel young." And sometimes a little bit of self-deception helps one get up in the morning. But I am not doing it to feel young. I don't even venture to tell (many) people what I listen to. After all, why shouldn't they think I am doing it to "feel young?"

However, realize that I have a much more of a fundamental issue. I am a man without a country, and without a pass. While everybody else can cling to a music style, I don't know how to relate. I'm too old to listen to the young stuff, yet I get too bored listening to the old stuff. I don't even know how to have a conversation with somebody. I recently was talking to an incredible musician about ELP (he ran around 50 years old and ELP was of his generation), then he stated that the "music today didn't have the same soul."

I didn't even know what to say, as I went back to my car and listened to my copy of Mae.

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