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Music and the Brain

By shiningstar229 Oct 02, 2008 855 Words
October 3rd, 2008
In the second chapter of Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music, he discusses Rhythm, Loudness, and Harmony. When discussing rhythm, Levitin groups in tempo and meter along with it as related concepts. He defines them. Rhythm: “the lengths of the notes.” Tempo: “the pace of a piece of music”, and meter is the intensity of a note (how hard or lightly it is hit). Rhythm is “a crucial part of what turns sounds into music.” A single note can be played over and over again, but as long as the rhythm keeps changing listening to that single note can still be an exciting experience. Just as the ratio of 2:1 is the special ratio for octaves, it is the most common and obvious rhythm ratio as well. Tempo, “the pace of a piece of music”, usually determines the mood set by any piece of music. Upbeat songs that move at a faster pace are generally “happy” songs while the slower songs are generally considered the “sad” songs. People are surprisingly accurate when it comes to replicating the tempo of any given song. Levitin credits this incredible ability to a system of time keepers that exist in the cerebellum. These time keepers have the ability to synchronize the music as we hear it and the replicate it the next time we sing the song. Levitin defines meter as the way beats are grouped together and the intensity of those notes. The most commonly heard meter in Western music is a 4/4 time with a strong beat every fourth beat. It is generally easiest for listeners to pick up the stronger, “down”, beat. In discussing loudness, Levitin explains that, like pitch, it doesn’t actually exist. It’s all just vibrations of different intensities perceived as loudness by our brains. Sounds can be louder when they are processed different ways. We measure loudness in decibels. When the decibels reach a certain level permanent damage can be caused. Levitin concludes the chapter by explaining that the different attributes of music combine in many different ways that work for or against each other. The way our brains categorize and process the musical attributes is still unknown, but much progress has been made to lead toward a greater understanding in the brains ability to process music.

October 1st, 2008
In the opening chapter of Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music, he attempts to define music. Varése is sited for stating that, “music is organized sound.” (p. 14) Levitin went on to separate music into eight basic elements of sound: loudness, pitch, contour, duration (rhythm), tempo, timbre, spatial location, and reverberation. He summarized the main terms, stating that the pitch tells listeners what note is being heard. The tone is what you hear, and the note is what is actually written on the musical score. Rhythm is defined as a “duration of a series of notes.” Tempo is the overall speed/pace of a piece of music, and contour is the shape of the note, whether the note goes up or down. Timbre is the way one instrument sounds to listeners as opposed to another. Timbre can also be applied to the way a single instrument’s produced sound changes as it passes from one end of its range to another. All the basic attributes can be altered without affecting any other element. They are “separable”. The eight basic elements of sound are combined to create three higher level concepts: meter, melody, and harmony. The meter is the way tones are grouped together. Levitin gives us the example of a group of three tones come out to be a waltz, ¾ time, and if you add one more to the group you get a march, 4/4 time. The melody is the “main theme of a musical piece”, and harmonies are the “relationships between the pitches of different tones.” He explains that all the elements combine to create a work of art, and the relationship between them is what creates the music. As Miles Davis is sited as saying, “the most critical aspect is the space in between the notes.” Levitin also explains that sound only exists when there is a listener present to hear the sound. In ancient Greece their string instruments were reversed. The “low” notes were the shorter strings, but they were the ones that were on the bottom, but lower to the ground. The “high” notes were the ones that were on top, closer to the sky. Levitin states that “sound in a mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules.” (p. 24) It was helpful that Levitin utilized multiple analogies to help explain more complex ideas. For example, he presents the fact that air molecules vibrate at several rates simultaneously as opposed to a single rate. Levitin first applies the idea to instruments, but then he also compares it to the earth’s rotations, and a train. The different situations allow readers to pick the worldly example that works best for them and apply that to the idea to assist in their comprehension.

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