Radiolab on Music

November 29, 2009 at 10:10 pm (Music, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

I’m not a huge podcast person, but I love Radiolab. They have two really good full episodes on music.  The first one is focused on perfect pitch, with some side notes on the infamous Rite of Spring riot and a computer program that imitates the composition style of great composers.  As for the Rite of Spring thing- I always thought if I could go back in history I would want to see like Jesus or something, but I mean, to be a fly on the wall that day in Paris.  Man.  And I dunno about everyone else, but I totally don’t find Rite of Spring offensively dissonant.  I like the loud chord.  But of course this is 100 years later and we’ve lived through 100 years of largely awful (but some sublime and some of my favorite) dissonant music.

Listen to it here

So, they’re talking about perfect pitch in tone languages, like Chinese.  Starting with talking about how people who speak tone languages, who don’t supposedly have perfect pitch, will pronounce their words on exactly the same pitch.  And how it was this huge fascinating discovery.  OK, for me this is not surprising at all.  I would almost have been more surprised if the opposite were true.

For me, I “don’t” “have” “perfect” “pitch.”  If you ask me to sing a certain note, there is probably a 70% chance I’ll sing the right one if I have a chance to think about it.  I don’t think I could necessarily identify a pitch I heard.  But I’m one of those people who will always start singing a piece I know already on the right pitch, with no outside hint.  In context, it’s just in my ear.  And I don’t think it’s necessarily muscle memory, I have tested myself to see if I could mentally hear the correct pitch before singing it and it’s never been a problem (I have to really concentrate though).  Oh, and sight-reading a piece I don’t know?  If we transpose, like in a choral, a capella situation?  I don’t have across-the-board problems, but sometimes when there’s a large interval, and I don’t have time to calculate it, I will end up singing the note on the page instead of the transposed note.  Is that perfect pitch?  Well, it’s a kind of half-assed, sorta-kinda, subconscious version of perfect pitch.  I can’t count myself among the illuminati that have pitch, but it seems clear that if I had really nurtured my musical abilities from a young age I would have pitch (maybe not that ridiculous insane absolute pitch where you can tell what pitch a dripping faucet is making, but at least to know the notes without reference).

I guess my point, besides bragging about my musical skills and trying to make me feel better about not having perfect pitch, is that it’s a lot more common for someone, like me, to have this sort of pitch memory, without truly having perfect pitch.

The second show is more about how music gets stuck in your head.  I’ve always been interested in this, and even though I’ve read about it and stuff I still don’t really get it.  If somebody can explain it to me I’d love to hear it.  Either a brain chemistry explanation or a justification for why we need imaginary music would suffice.

Listen to it here.

They focus on this really really interesting phenomenon of people who literally HEAR the music in their heads- like they can’t tell the difference between it and music in real life.  Fascinating.  I really want to read this guy’s book.

And again, since it’s all about me, here’s my personal version of the story: I always have a song stuck in my head.  In fact, it wasn’t til high school that I found out that not everyone does.  I just assumed everyone, all the time, had mental music playing, like me.  It hasn’t really come up since my shocking discovery that it wasn’t a universal trait.   At that time, I took a poll of all my friends and not a single other person said they consistently had their brain radio on, EXCEPT my high school choir director.  Although this story is on a different aspect of the song-stuck-in-head routine than mine, it made me start wondering about it again.  How many people have music in their brains without cease?  Is it more prevailant among musicians?  Crazy people?

The reason I found out in the first place that it was uncommon was that I went through a phase when I used “what song is stuck in your head” as a conversation starter, just something to bullshit about with my friends, like other people might say “What are you thinking about?”  Besides noticing that sometimes people said “Nothing,” I also knew one girl who always had the same song in her head.  For about a month, every time I asked, it was always “If you want to destroy my sweater.”  This is also fascinating.  Only one song for months?  Wouldn’t you want to kill yourself?  Of course, maybe some people would say the same thing about my situation.

Here’s what I get stuck in my head, from most to least:

1. The last music I heard.

2. Music I am working on, ESPECIALLY hard stuff.  I can tell this is my brain subconsciously working the kinks out, decoding the tricky parts and rehearsing them.  I love this.  I love that the brain works this way AND I can see it working.  I mean you’re always told your subconscious is at work learning things, but in this case, when I catch myself at it, I can actually feel the process.  The hardest lines, the trickiest series of intervals, those will loop over and over.  And it really works.

3. Sometimes a word or thought will trigger a song- kind of like the gentleman in the podcast realizing that the music he was hearing was always aymbolic of what was going on in his life at that time.  Except much more literal.  A word or phrase that appears in a song will trigger it and it will run until something else takes its place.  You know, like when you’re walking down Broadway and you realize you have the song “On Broadway” in your head.  “Champs-Elysees” is even worse!!  And whatever you do, don’t walk by the Molly Malone statue in Dublin unless you really, REALLY like the song “Cockles ‘n’ Mussels!”  This is where it can be fun playing detective- “What made me think of this song??”

4. The only times I don’t hear music in my head are when there is music playing in reality (and there are exceptions, like right now), and brief moments if I am like meditating or having a Zen moment where my mind is empty.  That’s not really my thing so doesn’t happen all that much.

So right now I’ve had the Nymphs trio from the beginning of Act 2 (aka The Opera) of Ariadne in my head.  Why?  Because even though I’ve kinda known how it goes for years (I sang Zerbinetta in that scene in college, even though it was only one line for me), yesterday for the first time I tried to sing it.  See, turns out we only have one Naiade in our double-cast, no-understudy production, and I started thinking if she gets sick or something happens, somebody is gonna have to step in and sing her part, and that somebody would of course be me, as it’s also a high, coloratura role, and I learn and memorize music really really fast, and, well, basically it’s always me.  So I decided to give it a look, it was a lot harder than I expected, I spent like a full hour on it even though I’d planned to just read through it (oops, I actually had to work on it, silly me underestimating Strauss), and ever since then it’s been in my head.  Pretty much nonstop.  I don’t mind, it’s a wonderful piece of music!!!

Well this was a lot more than I expected to write about somebody else’s podcast.  Oh yeah, and the Afghanistan story at the end got me choked up a little.  Really worth a listen!

Anyways, I’m interested in hearing other people’s experiences, both in degrees of perfect pitch and songs in your head.

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