Sunday, February 05, 2012

Mental Music Machinery

(for Marvin Minsky)
[better audio]

I've been thinking a lot about music lately, trying to come up with a theory of catchiness. That is to say, despite my notable lack of actual musical talent or knowledge, I have a tendency to latch on to particular songs and replay them in my mind throughout the day, grooving to the best of my limited abilities. This doesn't make me any different from everyone else, but something about the way I grasp or don't grasp music makes it seem theoretically interesting. At least to me. What is going on in my head that these artifacts of pop culture should entrain and engross me?

The very difficulty of grasping music is part of its attractiveness. Music is or ought to be the paradigmatic case of embodied cognition. Musical knowledge (certainly the kind I have) is not so much representational as enactive. I don't "know" the tune, I couldn't write it down, but I can replay it. That is, I've built inside my head a little music machine, capable of recreating some of the structural elements of a song, all without knowing much about it in any symbolic sense. Over the years I've learned a few tricks, like ways to count beats, that I can use to produce a traditional symbolic representation of some aspects of music. but it's laborious and it has nothing to do with the way a catchy song catches. I don't "know" these songs in the sense that I know a fact, but in some other way.  What that way is is a bit of a mystery, but I envision as a little clanking machine I've cobbled together that is capable of crudely reproducing the core of a tune.

These machines generally are not purely mental; they tend to involve bodily movement (sometimes called "dancing" or "spazzing back and forth") and/or vocalization. In other words, I can't just replay them in my head; muscles need to be involved.

So once I get the core of a little music machine in my head, I enjoy letting it go, and sometimes it goes off on its own without me willing it (that is practically the definition of "catchy"). I envision it as a complex collection of roughly-built mechanisms, something like the mechanical sculptures you see in every public space these days, but more energetic and involved with itself, so maybe a cross between one of those and a Friden calculator, with a touch of Arthur Ganson. A rattling contraption at best, but fun to watch, to participate in.

There is a bootstrapping quality to learning one of these things, because repetition makes the machine work better. The cognitive slipperiness of the music contributes the the pleasurability of these repetitions, because (a) the act of repeating always seems like a bit of a feat, and (b) the results are always a bit of a surprise. This may be essential to catchiness, which (and here I'm getting into more music theory than I really know) tends to involve swing or other elements that play off a standard mechanical metric.

The things that seem catchy to me seem to be characterized by a strong rhythm and a certain way the lyrics snake through the beats in unexpected ways. There, now, as soon as I start to try to describe anything musically specific I get hopelessly tangled in the inadequacy of language. Actual musicians do have ways to talk about this stuff of course.

This train of thought was partly inspired by Marvin Minsky's essay Music, Mind and Meaning, which has a section entitled "Sonata as Teaching Machine". But where Minsky's theory is mostly structural, I'm trying to get at some other qualities of music besides its formal relationships.
Music's metric frames are transient templates used for momentary matching. Its rhythms are "synchronization pulses" used to match new phrases against old, the better to contrast them with differences and change. As differences and change are sensed, the rhythmic frames fade from our awareness. Their work is done and the messages of higher-level agents never speak of them; that is why metric music is not boring!
So I'm fully in sync with the first part of this idea, that one of the functions of rhythm is to provide a frame for comparing different things (phrases) in a common context. But he loses me on the second half, partly because we are talking about different types of music and different types of listening. In my type of music, the rhythm does not fade from consciousness but is ever-present, and the higher-level structures are maddeningly elusive.

Again, this might be a function of my idiosyncratic tastes (I am a rhythm guy; while I can appreciate other aspects of music like beautiful harmonies, they don't have this entrancing quality for me) and/or the primitive state of my musical abilities. I like to think that my ignorance may be a strength in thinking about this stuff. As to why I or anyone else should be interested, well, there is a sense in which musical entrainment may be at the core of human society. Maybe music is not some weird side effect of the human mind but something fundamental to what we are. And if so, my crude models of it may be getting at something more fundamental than those that employ sophisticated theory.


Marvin Minsky said...

Yes, I think you are quite right about that: some "parts of the mind" surely remain concerned with keeping track of (and also predicting, etc.) what the music is doing. Indeed, there are quite a few people who are almost completely unable to recognize or reproduce melodies, yet are very good at recognizing and reproducing rhythms. (In fact, I'm planning to update that essay soon.)

Marvin Minsky

scw said...

I always thought that what made a tune catchy was the tune - the melody.

Rhythm has two elements - the time signature, which tells you the number of beats per measure, and the accentuation of those beats. The rhythmic element that makes a melody bounce along or swing is accentuation - regardless of the time signature.

You are right that "Actual musicians do have ways to talk about this stuff of course." So, just as importantly, do poets.

Even though every new genre of popular music since the 'sixties has been packaged as some sort of rejection of previous style and taste, it's remarkable how ordinary the great majority of it is. Popular music of all genres consists mostly of simple strophic lyrics in rhyming lines of regular length, set to diatonic melodies in 4/4 time. In these aspects it's as conventional as a church hymnal. Free verse does not lend itself well to singing, and atonality doesn't make for a catchy tune.

You might get some insight, the next time you find a particular song catchy, by looking at its versification - i.e., is it iambic, trochaic, dactylic, etc., and how many feet are there to a line? I think in most cases the words of a song come first, and the music is written around them, rather than vice versa - so the structure of the lyric shapes the tune.

One of the metrical characteristics of a lot of 1960s and later pop music is an anapaestic beat: dit-dit-DAH, dit-dit-DAH. The ancient Greeks regarded this as a warlike metre, suitable for a march - the short syllables associated with the raising of the foot, the long with setting it down. What an irony it should be so prevalent in the music of the Woodstock generation!