Cacophony

[This post has a sister: Symphony. You may wish to read that one first, but it’s not strictly necessary.]

One of my favourite books is This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin. Levitin is a neuroscientist at McGill University; before that, he was a session musician and sound engineer. I have always been one to ask stupid questions about music — Why does it exist? How does it have the power to move me? Why do Rush songs always sound like noise to me the first time I hear them? It’s very exciting to see this guy asking the same questions (well, maybe not the one about Rush) and then running experiments to find out the answers.

(In some alternate universe, I became a neuroscientist instead of a fiction writer. Of course, there’s also a universe where I’m a plumber, so my mileage definitely varies.)

Back when I was reading this book for the first time, this passage in particular struck me:

There is nothing intrinsically catlike about the word cat or even any of its syllables. We have learned that this collection of sounds represents the feline house pet. Similarly, we have learned that certain sequences of tones go together, and we expect them to continue to do so. We expect certain pitches, rhythms, timbres, and so-on to co-occur based on a statistical analysis our brain has performed of how often they have gone together in the past (112).

He goes on to discuss how our brains form schemata of musical genres, how the most interesting music violates our schematic expectations a little bit, and how if something violates our schema a lot, it sounds weird (at best) or like indecipherable noise (at worst).

The interesting part, to me, was the idea that these things are learned, that there is nothing inherently happy about a major scale or sad about a minor one. I have two stories from my own life that illustrate exactly this point.

(Those of you who know me well have probably heard the first story, because I love telling it. You can go get yourself a snack now and come back later.)

I was raised on classical music, if you recall. My teenage rebellion – such as it was – consisted of listening to cheesy 80s music (in secret!) and The Beatles (openly). Neither of these musics were that alien to me; 80s pop isn’t that different from Vivaldi, all bright and bubbly, and early Beatles music is straightforward enough. When I went off to college my roommate had The White Album, which excited me greatly. Here was some Beatles I’d never heard before! Sweet! I blazed through disc 1 and found it everything I could have hoped for. Disc 2 was ok, but then, out of nowhere, I hit the Wall of Cacophony.

It was “Helter Skelter”. I could not make head or tail of it. It sounded like noise to me. I sheepishly put disc 2 away, and did not attempt it again.

Fast forward to many years later, my son (Beatles-mad at the age of 4) gets The White Album for Saturnalia. I put the second disc on eagerly because I can’t wait to hear this nightmarish mess of a song again. “Helter Skelter” comes on and… and there’s nothing to it. I find it perfectly tuneful, practically an ear-worm, in fact. Years spent slowly learning the language of rock have rendered the song perfectly comprehensible to me. “Helter Skelter” is easy.

A second anecdote, and then I’ll let you go (those of you with the snacks can come back now)…

When I was in college I took a class on Indian music, taught by surbahar master Ustad Imrat Khan. Surbahar is to sitar as cello is to violin. Anyway, he was teaching us about ragas – which are kind of like modes and kind of like scales – and how certain ragas pertained to specific seasons or times of day. Well, there was this skeptical grad student in the class who raised his hand and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. How can this arbitrary cluster of notes mean ‘evening’?”

And master Khan said nothing, but picked up his surbahar and started playing this smoky blues riff. When he’d finished, he looked up at the class – most of whom had their mouths hanging open by this point – and said, “Where were you, just then? What time of day was it? That’s how.”

Interesting stuff, music and brains. I think about this more than I should, probably.


4 Comments on “Cacophony”

  1. Hm. I dutifully went and got a snack, but the text was still there when I got back…. fortunately I’d not heard that story before.

  2. Amy K says:

    My musical tastes at that age were similar– I pretty much listened to Bach and the classical radio station until I discovered the Beatles in high school. Except I also did international folk dancing, so I got used to Balkan dance tunes with strange meters too. Our folk dance group used to do the Greek dance Syrtos to the Cat Stevens song “Ruby Love” (because it’s a syrtos!). I remember one time listening to the album it’s on, _Teaser and the Firecat_, all the way through and not liking “Bitterblue” because it was too noisy. Two years later, I didn’t like the Pogues because they were too noisy, but I no longer skipped over “Bitterblue” when it came on. Two years after that, the Pogues were my favorite band!

    So maybe I should give Rush another try…


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