Brain Pickings

How Music Works

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What Stanley Kubrick has to do with Medieval harmonies and universal lullabies.

Music. It’s hard to imagine life without it. How flat would a world be where films have no scores, birthdays no ‘Happy Birthday,’ Christmas no carols, gym workouts no playlists? Music is so ubiquitous and affects us so deeply, so powerfully. But how much do we really know about it? How well do we understand its emotional hold on our brains? How Music Works, a fascinating program from BBC4 (the same folks who brought us The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion), explores just that.

Composer Howard Goodall takes us on a journey into music’s underbelly, examining the four basic elements that make it work: Melody, rhythm, harmony and bass.

Melody is music’s most powerful tool when it comes to touching our emotions. Our mothers sing lullabies to us when we’re infants and tests have shown that we can even, as babies, recognize tunes that we heard in he womb.”

Every music system in the world shares these five notes in common. Indeed, they’re so fundamental to every note composed or performed anywhere on the planet that it seems, like our instinct for language, that they were pre-installed in us when we were born. These five notes a human genetic inheritance, like the fingers on our hands.”

Catch the four remaining parts of Melody here: 2, 3, 4, 5.

Rhythm is the part of music that interacts most immediately and spontaneously with our bodies. Without it, music would be pleasant enough, but it would be brain food. With rhythm, though, music becomes hypnotic and sensuous.”

The rest of Rhythm here: 2, 3, 4, 5.

Unlike rhythm and melody, harmony wasn’t part of music from the beginning. It’s an upstart. It came into life gradually during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But what an upstart!”

Harmony continues here: 2, 4, 5. (Alas, Part 3 has been gobbled up by copyright claims — even though the series is not available on DVD or in any purchasable format. Such is the disposition of copyright Nazis — far from merely ensuring that creators are compensated for their work, they’d rather let a cultural artifact rot in obscurity than reach is wide-eyed audience. UPDATE: Here’s part 3 — thanks, AJ.)

One of [the] most distinguishing features [of the opening theme from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey] — and one that’s been imitated by thousands of science fiction, thriller and horror movie scores — is the long-held bass note that begins it. It’s awesome: Bottom C. It’s big, it’s deep and it’s powerful. And it came to stand in our minds for a sense of menace, or wonder, or infinity. Just this one note. But there are loads of examples of bass lines that give a piece of music its style and its shape.”

The rest of Bass can be found here: 2, 3, 4, 5.

For an even more fascinating look at the DNA of music, we highly recommend Goodall’s Big Bangs, which explores the history of five epic discoveries — notation, equal temperament, opera, the piano and recorded sound — that forever changed the course of Western music.

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