Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

09 DECEMBER, 2010

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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30 NOVEMBER, 2010

One Hello World: Tuning the Human Condition

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Zen in the ocean of humanity, or why connectedness is the panacea of pain.

Ever wondered how the soundtrack to your thoughts would sound like? Call (316) 247-0421, leave a voice-mail, and you might find out. One Hello World is a touching project by a mysterious pianist from Wichita, Kansas, who one day decided to compose music over the anonymous voicemails of strangers. Inspired by his love of film scores and relentless curiosity about the human condition, the project is turning into an audio catalogue of personal experiences, thoughts and feelings, sometimes shared playfully, others with heartbreaking honesty. It’s part PostSecret, part The Apology Line, part We Feel Fine, part something else altogether.

He’s my friend and that’s okay. I guess this is just kind of my way of telling him I think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

The short tracks have the quality of Zen koans one could meditate on. Despite their different tone and theme, they all seem to encapsulate the core of the human condition — the need to experience, feel, understand, communicate, and share the world we live in. Most of the entries become micro-metaphors for the project itself, bespeaking the same hunger for connectedness.

I’ve always thought of life as a kind of canvas, and people as different colored paints; each decorates your canvas in a different way.

You are still my favorite color.

I learned one thing… no matter how bad it is, you always have to tell someone how you feel.

When we get older we stop communicating with those around us and we isolate ourselves. We could do so much if we all looked around one day and smiled, or said ‘Hello.’

One Hello World is the shore upon which all those “voice-messages in a bottle” wash up, tossed into the ocean of information in hopes of reaching their destination — be that a person, an answer, or a certain quality of self.

In 2010, we spent more than 4,500 hours bringing you Brain Pickings — the blog, the newsletter and the Twitter feed — over which we could’ve seen 53 feature-length films, listened to 135 music albums or taken 1,872 trips to the bathroom. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right.





Teddy Zareva is a young filmmaker and photographer currently located in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is prone to excessive dancing and impulsive traveling. Her favorite activities are eating chocolate, hunting for music, and shooting humans.

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19 NOVEMBER, 2010

Sounds of HIV: Music Made of AIDS Virus Nucleotides

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A few months ago, we spotlighted 7 fascinating experimental music projects, but this is positively the strangest album you’ll ever hear. And possibly one of the most conceptually ingenious. To draw attention to the AIDS epidemic, which claims more than 2 million lives every year, composer Alexandra Pajak decided to capture the “sonic beauty” deep in the genome of the virus. Sounds of HIV “plays” the patterns of the AIDS virus nucleotides and amino acids transcribed by HIV in 17 eerie, mesmerizing tracks.

To create the recording, Pajak used the National Institutes of Health’s record of the retrovirus’ genome to identify the thousands of coded letters transcribed onto DNA once a cell is infected. She then assigned specific pitches to the 20 amino acids manufactured in an infected human cell, ordering them according to their affinity for water. To reflect the profound sadness of the disease, Pajak composed the work in the A minor scale and meticulously double-checked that each of the 9,181 nucleotide-notes was in the right place.

Just knowing that the disease is so devastating and personal, I just wanted to make sure all the notes were right.” ~ Alexandra Pajak

Proceeds from Sounds of HIV benefit breakthroughs in HIV vaccine research at Emory Vaccine Center.

via SciAm

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16 NOVEMBER, 2010

Jay-Z’s Decoded: A Real-Life Rags-to-Riches Story

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Sure, it’s overpublicized. And, sure, it’s overpopculturized. Between the Bing push and the Andy Warhol cover art, Jay-Z’s autobiography (the genre seems to be a recurring theme today) runs a high risk of being overhyped. But overexposure aside, Decoded, out today, is a candid memoir that offers a rare first-hand account of a modern rags-to-riches story.

As part of the Bing promotion, 300 pages of the book were placed in the streets where the events they describe actually took place, for fans to locate and decode. So far, 298 of the 300 pages have been released, found and deciphered.

When you’re famous and say you’re writing a book, people assume that it’s an autobiography — I was born here, raised there, suffered this, loved that, lost it all, got it back, the end. But that’s not what this is. I’ve never been a linear thinker, which is something you can see in my rhymes. They follow the jumpy logic of poetry and emotion, not the straight line of careful prose. My book is like that, too.” ~ Jay-Z

When I first started working on this book, I told my editor that I wanted it to do three important things. The first was to make the case that hip-hop lyrics-not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC-are poetry if you look at them closely enough. The second was I wanted the book to tell a little bit of the story of my generation, to show the context for the choices we made at a violent and chaotic crossroads in recent history. And the third piece was that I wanted the book to show how hip-hop created a way to take a very specific and powerful experience and turn it into a story that everyone in the world could feel and relate to.” ~ Jay-Z

The tome is also an aesthetic masterpiece, designed by Steve Attardo:

While expectations of profound existential insight might fall flat, you may find yourself immersed in the fascinating non-linear narrative of Decoded and emerge with a more intimate, faceted understanding of a world whose media representation is wrapped in and warped by superficiality and bling-glam.

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