Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Big Question Part 2: Dr. Tymoczko, "Smalin" and Chopin

Dr. Dmitri Tymoczko is a professor or music theory and composition at Princeton.  He asked the question:  "What makes music sound good to typical western listeners?"  

With much research and thought, he came up with 5 principles.  

1. Melody travels short distances most of the time
2. Chords are structurally similar in a piece
3.  Harmony is intrinsically pleasurable or consonant
4. 10-30 seconds in the music contains 5 to 8 different notes as opposed to all 12 notes in a chromatic scale
5. Some notes are more prominent than others, establishing a tonal center

On a demonstration on his website, (If you click on "What makes music sound good") he uses a computer to generate notes randomly.  Then he applies his principles one by one to the music.  The random notes get more and more musical and less random seeming as his principles are applied!  Check it out!

 Another really interesting thing Dr. Tymoczko did was create computer programs that map out music in geometric shapes.  He uses the shapes to demonstrate music following his principles.  Watch this whole video below if you have time, or at least check out some of these highlights:

4:29 - what makes music sound good?
7:30 - why have avant-garde 20th century composers have a hard time finding audiences
8:50 - Aleatoric Eatery
10:42 someone asks where those 5 principles came from
11:35 which are innate, which are culturally variable of the 5 principles?
12:50  how does geometry get into the picture
19:27  The ear has developed to care a lot about the distance between notes, but not at all about the position of the notes on the circle. (or keyboard)  "It probably has to do with our need to hear similarities in the contour patterns of male/female/adult/child speech."
21:45  Voice leading makes the circle dance
24:00  2 note chords represented on a Mobius strip
26:38 "That's Weird"- singular space.
33:00 Chopin Prelude in Em moves through a hypercube
36:00 Chopin Fm mazurka and his Tritone subbing. 
37:25 Chopin's "Feeling for advanced mathematics"


While searching on youtube, I found another interesting way to demonstrate harmony.  This person has a midi version of Chopin's Nocturne opus 27, #2 mapped out in dots.  The higher the dot is on the screen, the higher the note is in pitch.  The dots scroll across the screen as the music is played.  As each new note is played, it interacts with the other sounding notes in a certain way depending on what interval the new note is relative to the sounding notes.  "Smalin" (the name on the youtube account) shows the relation between Perfect 4ths, Perfect 5ths, Perfect Unisons and Perfect Octaves by drawing a blue line between a note and any note a perfect interval away sounding at the same time.  He then draws relation between minor 3rds, Major 3rds, minor 6ths, Major 6ths by illustrating those intervals with a green line.  Major 2nds and Minor 7ths are purple, Minor 2nds and Major 7ths are yellow, Augmented 4ths and diminished 5ths are in Red.  Here's all that in a short hand chart where "m" means minor and "M" means major, P means Perfect, A means Augmented and d means diminished.

Blue = P1, P4, P5
Green = m3, M3, m6, M6
Purple = M2, m7
Yellow = m2 M7
Red = A4, d5

I find his choice of color interestingly intuitive:  His blue intervals are the most consonant or easy on the ears, his yellow and red are the most dissonant.  Red is associated with aggression and blue is associated with peace.  Notice how much more common the peaceful blue and green intervals are.  Does that have something to do with life, the universe, and everything?  Let's question and comment.

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