Monday, 31 October 2016

Memory and attention problems

Music, as we all know, is an art form that occupies time, it is linear. Short of an error or physical problem, such as a broken string, a performance moves with grace and little interruption. However when it comes to our own attention and recall of music there are issues which need to be raised. Before we get to these issues a few notes on memory and attention are required, resist the temptation to skip these paragraphs as knowledge of the two areas are vitally important to our perception and performance of music.

In 1968 Atkinson and Shiffrin proposed a three stage model of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Sensory Memory
We take our sensory information from the environment and store it for a very brief period of time. For musicians the difference between visual and auditory memory recall is significant, for visual information recall is no longer than a half-second, but auditory information is retained for up to 4 seconds.

Short-term memory, also known as active memory, is the information we are currently aware of or thinking about. Our focus on sensory memories generates (or if you prefer moves) the information and places it into our short-term memory. The storage time for STM is usually between 20 and 30 seconds. Attending to this STM allows it to flow to the next stage - long-term memory. It seems that the number of memory inputs is about 7 items (+/- 2 items).

Long-term memory is our storage of information. We are not continually aware of LTM but it can be usually be accessed for use when required. Ease of access is variable. Psychologists suggest that we have no time limit for accessing LTM and that the capacity is also unlimited. Our recollections are primarily based on language but can be of a visual or auditory nature. 

Information from the STM is transferred to the long-term memory only if that information is rehearsed. If rehearsal does not occur, then information is forgotten, lost from short term memory through the processes of displacement or decay.

With such information it becomes easier to understand why short motifs and repetition have such an important role in composing. Our notion of organic growth where we can relate each new event to the previous statements makes equal sense to design and the design of our system of recall.

Recent research suggests that rehearsal may not be essential, but it certainly is an aid to transfer. As there is primarily a semantic quality to LTM I decided to attempt a simple experiment to aid my memory of music. I set out to play the first movement of the Italian concerto from memory. I don’t frequently make a point of learning by heart, my muscle memory is quite good, but I do get patches where if I play a wrong version of a chord (even an inversion instead of a root) it can untangle the flow. I set out to play through the movement each time noting a break and then discussing it with myself along the lines of….that is a 7th chord, I need to remember the B flat is sustained…and so on. I was pleased with the results in that far greater (in fact total) continuity was achieved. Some time ago I attended a lecture regarding retaining vocabulary when learning a new language. The gist of the argument was that by making visual associations with each syllable of the word and linking these in a bizarre way made recall much easier. A challenge was set to learn the welsh word for geography, ddaeryddiaeth. We were told to envisage an old Cornish lady who being toothless made a breathy sound at the close of each phrase, her phrase is

“dear o thee aye” (th). We were all invited to speak as the old lady and share the word. We discussed in a previous blog (laughter) how group humour is very different to individual humour, and the result was unexpected extended hilarity. More importantly the whole group had excellent recall of a more difficult word. Humour and laughter brings together disparate ideas, and this fusion promotes recall.

Reading about memory can take us into some very strange areas, and one may speculate about genetic aptitudes regarding music from this report on the transference of memory via DNA in mice. The research was done at the Emory University School of Medicine and led to the statement that

“The experiences of a parent, even before conceiving, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations”

My wife noted that since her earliest years she has made the action of lifting her skirt before climbing a style, even though she rarely wore skirts and dresses and never in the country. She believes that it is an inherited action which she only noticed because of its oddity. One may consider large numbers of families of musicians who have followed the same profession for many generations. In my case, being adopted into a family of total non-musicians it is intriguing to consider why my interests were drawn to the subject with such passion despite efforts to turn my attention to more lucrative pursuits.

Psychologists have divided memory systems into two broad categories, declarative and nondeclarative .The first includes memories of facts and events. Nondeclarative memory includes skills and habits…..  Declarative memory is "knowing what" and nondeclarative memory is "knowing how".

Bringing muscle memory and the discussion about the formation of the music in the Italian concerto brought both types of recall together, one reason why I was able to link the sections into a whole movement. It is interesting to consider that in making my memory of the work clearer I was making physical changes to the structure of my brain.

Long-term memory involves changes in the structure of neurons including growth of new processes and synapses.  So, to the extent that you remember anything about this material on memory tomorrow, or next week, or next year, it will be because structural changes in synapses are beginning in your brains!

My intention was to discuss both memory and attention in this blog, but our self-imposed limit is already being exceeded. There are a large number of questions that arise even from this brief blog regarding memory problems and music. Let us close with a seemingly trivial thought, if I listen to a concert with a person coughing how do I remember the music, with or without disruption? If I recall it without the noise I must have a method of filtering unwanted information. If so does this method extend to memories from the whole of my life? If I recall both the music and the disruption does this mean I carry with me imperfect recollections of music? As we can create false memories (outside the scope of this blog) and recall the gist of events better than detail, especially as we age, is my recall of the music a composite of a number of performances of the same piece?

Wednesday, 26 October 2016


The other day I came across some music by Laraaji (Edward Larry Gordon) on the radio, which was preceded by a short discourse on his mystical views. As well as being a recorded musician associated with Brian Eno he runs laughter meditation workshops. He has a strong belief in the power of laughter and gave some demonstrations on how to use it for therapeutic purposes. Being a rare combination of musician and stand-up comedian it would be easy to dismiss him out of hand as a serious contributor to psychology or medicine, but there is much to be said about laughter and its relation to music.

We know that humour is uniquely human and laughter (or the spasm of certain muscles) is not. Music is filled with human emotive sounds, operatic screams, tears, cries of pain and even some examples of laughter, but it is far less well represented. Why is this? 

As usual psychologists have taken this pleasurable activity back to early man and related laughter to fight or flight responses. Like an earlier discussion about whooping and group vocalisation for attracting females, (and remember we are talking about our great, great....grandmothers here), the collective sound of laughter is a signal. Unlike the whooping (though similar) laughter is supposedly a response to the passing of danger. I have witnessed laughter and danger responses frequently amongst groups of teenagers, particularly older teenagers who are experts at mocking laughter which usually suggests superiority, and on occasion seen the same group rapidly disperse when their victim turns on the group, after which the quality of the laughter takes on a different character. One may note that the Bible has very little to offer on the matter of laughter, but mockery and laughter gets a mention; the following passage relates to a group of children laughing at the prophet Elisha:

He went up from there to Bethel and, as he was on his way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Get along with you, bald head, get along.” He turned round and looked at them and he cursed then in the name of the Lord; and two she-bears came out of a wood and mauled forty-two of them (2 Kings 2:23).”

Despite its less pleasant aspects, laughter is the oil of society. Studies have revealed that people are far more likely to laugh in a group (a figure of x30 is given), that made me smile but then I was reading that on my own. I have only ever attended a stand-up comic's routine twice in my life, once to see Max Wall and once Bernard Wrigley (also a musician - a folk singer of remarkably odd and often amusing songs).

This link is to some sea shanties accompanied by Bernard's very deep squeeze-box, don't expect high art, this raw, but very effective communication.

Both of these performers for me support the idea of social laughter, after the Max Wall show I wondered what on earth was funny in the strange walks and contorted shapes he created on stage, as one might with the John Cleese movements in Monty Python and the Fawlty Towers episode "the Germans". It was as if some near magical trick had been played with my perception. I believe most musicians and composers recognise this magnifying effect of shared experience, and some  of the greatest composers have included the devices that create humour and laughter, namely playing with incongruity.

Laughter can occur at serious moments and important rituals in our lives. I recall an occasion when a funeral was taking place in my home town, it was late in the year, dark, cold, and most of all, wet. These conditions led to one of the officials slipping into the grave. There should have been shock, horror or at least concern, but several of the mourners broke out into laughter of the uncontrollable type. We laugh at what is unpredictable and confusing. Sometimes we also arrive at the same state from sheer exhaustion with banal repetition, a form of hysteria. 

There are very few characteristics that are shared by all humans, these blogs discussed the intervals of the major and minor third as sounds recognised for their emotive nature by all nations and cultures, laughter has the same quality. Any characteristic that has such currency has to have considerable significance for composers, and yet laughter plays a minor role in music, this may be in part due to the very negative outlook philosophy has had on the subject from the time of Plato onwards.

Creating an emotional reaction is useful to the composer, though at the present time emotion and music have a more difficult relationship than in the 19th century. Ligeti had the ability to make audiences laugh by having his performers act out in public the types of behaviour usually kept out of sight, tantrums and burping are two examples that come readily to mind. Le Grand Macabre (1977, revised 1996) has as its subject death and laughter. Music and death is a huge subject, and can be seen in hymns to the dead, death in opera, and more recently the idea of preservation of voices on recorded media (and the sounds of animals that have become
extinct). The 20th century added greatly to works dealing with death with very different responses, e.g. the music of the holocaust “Different Trains” by Reich, the loss of a generation of artists after WW1 as in the Piano Sonata by Frank Bridge, and the response to the use of the atomic bomb, Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.

Le Grand Macabre takes a different approach to most artistic outlooks on death in that it turns to laughter, it is like the temper tantrum presentation, bringing its audience face to face with tasteless laughter. We are invited to laugh in the face of death.

“anyone who has been through horrifying experiences is not likely to create terrifying works of art in all seriousness” (Ligeti).

An extensive commentary on Ligeti’s opera in relation to death and laughter may be read here:

and in the work of a remarkably influential lecturer Richard Steinitz who took me as a student to a number of recitals of Ligeti’s music: György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination.

The theories of laughter have evolved over several centuries and make fascinating reading, one of the most recent is Incongruity Theory, and this is:
The perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations. This approach was taken by James Beattie, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and many later philosophers and psychologists.

The bringing together of unexpected combinations to create laughter should be one of the wealthiest areas of exploration with sampled sound. Not only can the composer create an environment for audience laughter but may use laughter itself as a sound source. This approach was taken in my Homage to Marcel Marceau, where the laughter creates a sense of ambiguity, distancing the audience from the original intention of the mime.

Returning to Ligeti this commentary on Apparitions gives a real insight into a huge variety of unexpected combinations:

 “sounding planes and masses… may succeed, penetrate or mingle with one another—floating networks that get torn up or entangled—wet, sticky, gelatinous, fibrous, dry, brittle, granular and compact materials, shreds, curlicues, splinters, and traces of every sort—imaginary buildings, labyrinths, inscriptions, texts, dialogues, insects—states, events, processes, blendings, transformations, catastrophes, disintegrations, disappearances.”

This blog arose from an e-mail from Nurtan who had shared a humorous composition of a gentle nature, the fact that he could compose a humorous work at a time of considerable difficulty shows how therapeutic and valuable laughter can be, and how much more it can become as the level of difficulty increases.

The next blog is on attention and memory, yet another source for laughter in our later years.  

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

Recently the contemporary music site on G+ closed down. There are some thoughts about resurrection and of course discussion about what the site should provide to the public.

The term contemporary should be easy enough to define, but these matters are often more complex than we think. The Thesaurus on Word suggests these associations, modern, current, fashionable, present-day, existing, up-to date and as an antonym, old. I am certain that reading that list will provoke very different responses and a number of questions as to what is “old”.

Many of us would agree that the modern age comes into being after Wagner, with the decade 1900-1910 being the pivot point. Let us take one composer active at that time and see what distinguishes Romantic and Modern in the hope of exploring the ‘new’ features of that time in relation to recent developments today, and so understand better the term “contemporary”.

Satie is loved for his alternative viewpoints on musical structure, use of harmony and his embracing of Dada, not all at once in one piece of course, we could take Parade as a good example of “new” thinking. It was a response to popular entertainment, the music halls, fairground and cinema. It “borrowed” unconventional sounds like typewriters and fog-horns (possibly Cocteau’s influence, but that does not detract from its modernism), and had associations with modern art with Picasso’s cardboard cubist costumes. Its use of ragtime shows contemporary links with popular dance, and more importantly introduces an element of modernism into Parisian ballet (though ragtime by that time was approaching the end of its ‘popular’ life). Satie is a complex character and is loved as much for his eccentricities (which can sometimes be read as modernism) as his art. One should not forget that he wrote a large number of popular songs, and drew on exotic material (popular in Paris at the turn of the century). I would hazard a guess that for him there was little distinction between art and popular music. To assess this you might like to try “Je te veux”, part of the second verse is quoted:

Que mon coeur soit le tien

Et ta lèvre la mienne,

Que ton corps soit le mien,

Et que toute ma chair soit tienne.

From that short assessment of the composer we might draw together some themes of contemporary music in 1917 and see if these trends still exist.

Contemporary music may:

Turn its face against conventions of the past or parody them.

Include aspects of popular culture in its content.

Make associations with developments in other art forms.

Make us of non-musical material.

Draw on different cultures.

Possibly the use of the term contemporary is not so different today as it was in Satie’s time, though of course the development in say the use of non-musical material far extends the resources and thinking of 1917.

The BBC runs a programme “Late Junction” which is promoted as:

"an eclectic mix of world music, ranging from the ancient to the contemporary", the programme has a wide musical scope. It is not uncommon to hear medieval ballads juxtaposed with 21st-century electronica, or jazz followed by international folk music followed by an ambient track.

Having listened to the programme regularly for a number of years there is little doubt that the content is always fresh, and shows how modern folk and jazz are just as capable of surprising and challenging its audience. Often in the context of the programme pieces of medieval or renaissance music take on a different identity or at least reveals the inter-reliance of old and new music. One might also note that certain features of the music played uses contemporary ideas within a context that is recognisably not 20th or 21st century biased, so a synthetic version of pentatonic music that could be of ethic origins using regular pulses can morph into complex harmonies and rhythms. One may hear similar features in the

“duet with LA modular synth fanatic Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and free-form drummer Greg Fox, of avant-garde duo Guardian Alien…” (BBC podcast description).

The difficulty of putting a label on such music often ends up with hyphenated terms and the word hybrid frequently used.  The programme hosts are well informed in diversity and their attempts at definition inventive, but even they struggle on occasion.

Is it the case that ‘contemporary’ should then consist of all music written after a given date? Should works that contain unusual approaches to harmony be thought of as contemporary, in which case is Gesualdo modern? If a work in conventional style introduces a novel progression, whether in rhythm, timbre, the use of space does it suddenly become something else other than Classical, or Romantic or whatever?

In the first sentence I explained that the G+ site offers opportunities to reach out to the public, it is a valuable service, and one I hope will continue to provide entertainment, discussion and education to a broad number of people. There are a number of different G+ communities dealing with music, so it is important to have a clear intention of what is expected to distinguish its content from similar or associated sites. Some would be happier with a community that featured only the most innovative “art” music, probably with a smaller audience. The BBC run a late night programme, “Hear and Now”, the fact that it is on Saturday night between 10.00 and 12.00 gives an indication of its appeal, yet the music featured is often accessible and always stimulating. I will admit to being thankful for the iPlayer feature which permits a month of opportunity to listen in, as the time frame is not suitable to me to get the best of the music, and of course repeat listening is often a must.

The other, larger audience, might be happier with a contemporary site that includes all music after a given date, the problem here is that the greater number of submissions is likely to dilute the potentially specialist nature of the site. Composer’s ears are always seeking out innovative approaches, we respond to novelty. Many of us appreciate qualities of design and use of language that are not immediately accessible, one could say challenging content. If only one post in twenty features such music and the others are overwhelmingly reproducing content more in keeping with tonal music and 19th century approaches that serves little to stimulate a new generation of exciting composing and composers.

I hope that this blog will bring responses from a number of readers as G+ should be a vehicle for debate, of which, in my opinion there is too little. I also hope that there is a future for a replacement site to the original contemporary music pages, whatever its title.

Complex rhythms - Introduction

After a self- inflicted couple of months of chaos through moving from a moderately large house with garden etc. to a  spacious but much smaller flat, the rhythm of life for both me and my wife is very slowly returning to normal albeit without a sound system yet; but, soon that also will come to pass as well.

In his stimulating discussions of rhythm Ken covered quite a bit of ground. There are many questions in each blog and I am almost certain that these questions will lead to further interesting discussions. One of the fascinating aspects of rhythm is the consideration of the organisation of music using rhythmic sentences as the basis of a composition. This idea is not new and perhaps it was one of the most important aspects of ancient music which lasted well into the High Baroque era. Even as late as the17th century, the instrumental tuning  in use was very uncertain and it was locale specific. Although later  in the Romantic era an agreed upon tempered scale ( A4 = 440 Hz) increased the emphasis in favour pitch related properties of a composition, rhythmic structure of music was and still is a very important property of any musical work.   

If we consider many forms of dances, folksongs, and immediately approachable popular music, the rhythmic sentences that repeat in more or less regular intervals are short and readily identifiable. In general, in these types of composition, the rhythmic content of musical expressions could be readily expressed within the context of the meter associated with the composition and the repeated patterns rarely exceed a few measures at most. In a structure like this, a change in the rhythmic structure acts like a caesura and one of the structures (sequences) can be used repeatedly (refrain).  If the purposes behind the composition of these types are examined; we would conclude that this is a very logical structure. This is also applicable to any section of a musical work where an immediate recognition of that section is an important concern. There are many interesting theoretical aspects of rhythmic structures that are discussed extensively in G. W. Cooper and L. B. Meyer The Rhythmic Structure of Music (University of Chicago Press Chicago, London 1960).

There is a practical matter for the composer, players and audience alike; as the musical sentences become more complicated, rhythmic structures become more divorced from the easily recognisable forms, both the comprehension and interpretation  of the rhythmic structure demand more careful listening. If one considers from the oldest existing music, through Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic eras to our own time, the importance of the rhythmic structure becomes much more apparent.  In this respect, it may be claimed that there is more commonality between a Bach fugue and quintessentially 20th Century pieces such as Messaien's Turangalila or Takemitsu's Colours than  it is apparent in a casual hearing. One might probably be more correct than not stating that this has always been so, because considering the music of a vast geographic area extending from Iberia to a virtual meridian just east of Myanmar, the similarity of the rhythmic structures – highlighted by linguistic differences – provide an evidence that the rhythmic similarities are so much of the defining property of music the this has always been the case, from the first attempts at singing by our earliest ancestors to our own creative musical efforts.  Naturally, included in this notion, there is the relative influence of the language and/or dialect based prosody on the rhythmic structures of any locally or nationally identifiable music. This important observations lead to a vast area of knowledge and investigation, unfortunately too far afield from our discussions. Thus we'll leave this to linguists and ethno-musicologists, who are much better equipped to discuss these topics and limit our discussion to considerations of musical rhythmic structures of the music normally discussed here.

A generalised rhythmic language:

A rhythm can be fully defined by two relative properties of a sound: length, stress. The length is long, medium and short and the stress is strong and weak. The basis in terms of the note length can be extended to any commonly used notes (Breve, semi-breve, minim etc.), for the purposes of this article we will use a minim based system with:

Symbol            Length             Strength          ''Sound''

h                      Long                Strong             Boom

H                     Long                Weak               Baah          

q                      Med                 Strong             Ta

Q                     Med                 Weak               Ti

e                      Short               Strong             Ka

E                      Short               Weak               Ke

Rule I. A rhythmic pattern is the expressed using the least amount of weak notes

 Example:   Q Q = H  but  q Q h                                                                                                                                                            

Rule II. A rhythmic sentence is the sequence of rhythms that occur at least twice

Example:   < H Q h Q E q E q h H Q h Q E q E q h  >   is a sequence with a sentence repeated once. The sentence has a most unusual meter of 11/ 4 :  < H Q h Q E q E q h >. The partition by the unusual meter is not necessary and within the context of the music it can be any convenient partition. A sentence can be any length, but the composer must keep in mind that very long sentences are hard to interpret, perform, or listen to. One of the musical examples is a long sequence to demonstrate this difficulty. In fact, one can calculate the appropriate length easily. A sentence with a meter 120/4 is about a minute of allegro music, which asks the listener to recall the details of a whole minute in order to understand the rhythmic structure.  I would not be surprised to find such a composition to be beyond the reach of most audiences.

Common short  rhythmic sentences can be used as building blocks for long sentences. For example:

a) 1. <  h e > 5/8   2.  < H Q h >10/8   3. < Q E >3/8  Caesura or cadence 4 / 8

      1 + 2  + 3  + 3  = < h e H Q h Q E q E>  16 / 8

 Sequence:   < h e H Q h Q E q E  C  h e H Q h Q E q E  C >  =>  5 / 8:6 h x 6 H E ¦E h 6 Q E q 6 E h 6 h x 6 H E ¦E h 6 Q E q 6 E Q Q 6