Brain Pickings

Vi Hart Explains Stravinsky’s Atonal Compositions and Why We Hear Music the Way We Do

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What experimental composers have to do with copyright wrongs and the neuroscience of language.

The magnificent Vi Hart — mathemusician extraordinaire, who has previously stop-motion-doodled our way to understanding such mysteries as space-time, Möbius strips, Fibonacci numbers, and the science of sound, frequency, and pitch — is back with another gem, this time illuminating Stravinsky’s atonal composition for Edward Lear’s classic nonsense poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Stravinsky actually borrowed the basis for his composition from the 12-tone technique Arnold Schoenberg invented, which Hart explains as well. Enjoy, and keep an eye open for Hart’s delightful sideways sleight against the brokenness of copyright law, one that would’ve actually left Stravinsky particularly miffed.

What’s interesting about 20th-century 12-tone composers is that they were actually trying to get away from the implied context and invisible meaning people were so used to. … The whole structure of the 12-tone row is designed to help break free of old musical habits. How are you supposed to hear the pure truth of the notes A-flat, F, D-flat, when the existing music has taught your brain to hear it as a Neapolitan chord in the cue of C? … But Stravinsky didn’t want children growing up to think music was supposed to sound a certain way — he knew that whatever language people speak to children is a language they grow up to speak and to think in.

And on the off chance you haven’t yet seen it, don’t miss Hart’s fantastic video on how to tame trolls and deal with negative comments — an essential piece of digital literacy that every single human should be shown before being given an internet-enabled device.

Open Culture

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