Saturday, January 19, 2008

This Is Your Brain On Music

Theoretically the pitch of sound doesn't exist unless it's heard. So that tree that fell over in a distant forest; it didn't make a sound. And the chocolate cheesecake chilling in your refrigerator; that doesn't taste like anything. The dessert sitting in the fridge only holds the potential for taste. At least that's what Daniel J. Levitin says in the first chapter of This is Your Brain on Music. My parents gave me the book this past holiday and although I'm only reading it for the first time, when I'm done with this I'm sure I'll have digested every sentence in the book at least three times.

Thought provoking and unlike any book I've ever read, I'm finding myself obsessed with his scientific breakdown of our human obsession with music. I'm sure I'll continue to discuss some of the topics Levitin covers as I progress, but for now I'd like to list some of my favorite topics so far.

1. Music was initially all inclusive, meaning the creator and observer of music were one in the same. Everyone danced and beat drums in tribal rituals. Now we're different. Our pop rock society dominates and the line between music makers and spectators is more polarized than ever before. Will the gap continue to widen or will it close in the future? I think it will close, at least to a certain extent. Our society won't let go of concerts and that type of thing, but with the leveling advent of the internet anyone can create and digitally release an EP. Also, think Guitar Hero. Maybe people will always download music for free, but they're willing to spend $90 on Guitar Hero III. And for a youth consumed with virtual interaction, I see games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band playing a large role in social interactions. Play the drums with the Red Hot Chili Peppers or rap alongside Lil' Wayne's newest release. Maybe this is the new way of consuming music, and if so what better way for the industry to make profits than to allow Wii users to connect to the internet and download the play-along version of Mary J. Blige's new single? This particular (highly rudimentary and thinking aloud) type of musing may be flawed, but this is the type of jointed music experience I'm predicting might fix the music industry.

2. Pitch can be mapped on the brain. Different areas of the brain respond to different pitches, and the neurons in our auditory cortex fire at the precise frequency of the pitch of a pure tone being played. We don't do this visually, but musically, we do.

3. People (well most people) can naturally extract the beat from a song and tap their feet or snap their fingers to a beat. This type of meter extraction is impossible for most computers, but it's inherent in humans. Does this suggest that we're naturally tied to music? This is the type of wonder This Is Your Brain On Music induces.

Relative to this post, today's musical gem is the UK's BrakesBrakesBrakes. Their beat heavy rock blurs the line between catchy pop songs and dance music. Check out the bouncy "All Night Disco Party" and the surprising "Beatific Visions" video below.

"Beatific Visions" reminds me of some early OK Go and the cutesy side of Fountains of Wayne. Watch, and you'll see that "existence exists."