Tag: Listening and Awareness

The Ear and the Brain: Sensation and Perception

Originally published on Facebook on 2.13.16

What does the brain do to the sensations produced by sound waves. Pitch versus repetitive loudness. Tone quality versus a combination of pitch and loudness. Shape versus notes. Shape versus structure.

Today’s entry remains philosophical. I promise to get back to the more musical and technical aspects of playing piano, tomorrow.

1. The “ear” (the brain) chooses to suppress the information about repeated louder attacks of sound, happening over and over again, from 15 to thousands of times per second, and creates instead a different modality of perceiving this inconstant sense data as a ‘constant’ “pitch”. Whether this suppression was done to ‘simplify’ the sense data, which else would be too complicated to be conscious of it in all its parts, or for some other reason, we do not know.

2. The “ear” (the brain) chooses to suppress the information about the variety of pitches bundled in the “single” sound, and creates instead a different modality of perceiving this variety of sense data, namely “timbre” (tone quality, instrumental color). Whether this suppression was done to ‘simplify’ the sense data, which else would be too complicated to be conscious of it in all its parts, or for some other reason, we do not know.

3. We now carry this out to a very abstract concept in making music: “shaping a phrase”. To shape a phrase, a performer plays a series of notes with a loudnesses that are nearly the same, but from one note to another. slightly different. If the differences are too big, the listener hears a change in ‘loudness’ (crescendo or decresendo). But if the differences are small enough, the brain ceases making us aware of these changes in loudness, and replaces it instead with a new modality: the “shape” of a series of notes. Albeit a more ‘abstract’ characteristic, but one formed from simpler components as an emergent form.

In no. 1, sense data that is altering many times per second in time, is recast as something that remains the same in time. Difference becomes sameness, so that the latter, the pitches, can be used in even larger constructs (phrases, melodies, movements, pieces), which in turn exhibit variability through (longer periods of) time.

In no. 2, the simplification of hearing timbre (a clarinet, a violin, a voice), which is more at being constant through time, replaces the difficulty of having to perceive simultaneously in time, 10 to 25 different pitches all at once, and having to perceive the same again as soon as we hear the next note, and then the next, etc.. These pitch differences are “summarized” in the brain by transcending the identity of the pitches, and instead the structurally larger notion of the relative loudnesses among the pitches,
then creating a new modality “sound-quality” that varies at a slower rate through time.

From no 1 to no 2 we see data which is over complicated versus time units, changed to something which in contrast is more settled and stable in time. From 2 to 3, we take the results of going from no. 1 to no. 2 (from loudness to pitch), and taking information about simultaneous pitches in a brief amount of time, and changes it to something which,, again, in contrast is more settled and stable in time (tone-qiality).

4. We note so far a tendency to go from briefer units of time to longer units. What then can we do if we wish to take pitch and tone color, already relatively more stable in time, and create a perceptual modality that is even more unchanging with time. The answer is that the vicissitudes brought about by ongoing time are almost ‘conceptually’ transmuted into the figurative pseudo-presence of a “shape”. The term shape is borrowed from space, and to the degree we perceive it in what we hear, it is almost on the verge of being a metaphor, but nonetheless relies on the synthetic ability of the brain to make more complicated by simplifying.

5. Describing long-term changes in time is challenging for language, and usually devolves into borrowing metaphors from space. I would think that the ultimately ‘long’ unit in hearing is “structure”, or the shape of an entire movement or longer piece of music. That the greatest composers could create structures in time alone is undoubted. What is difficult is training a musician to hear and respond to something whose sub-units vary over long periods of time: too slow to “hear” and yet immanent in the sound.

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Sonic “Glue” : a path for the ear to follow through a passage that unifies the passage

Originally posted on Facebook in 2/16.

Sonic Glue.

Creating a flowing line is more than a matter of connecting each note to the next. it is also a matter of looking within the local measure or two for repeating pitches, in the same or different octaves. And then insuring that they all sound the “same”, even though they may each be a part of a different voice.

Sometimes such a group of notes creates a rhythm among themselves that is different than the rhythm of the melody or the accompaniment or any of the different voices. It is an aid to creating the sonic glue to bring out this ‘mysterious’ rhythm that seems to come from nowhere.

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The Delayed Gratification of a Chord

Originally published on Facebook: 2/2/16

A student came today with a Liszt transcription of a Schubert Lieder. She said that dividing up the notes between the hands was short-circuiting her brain. I said, of course it is having that effect on you. There is an absence of consistency as to which hand is doing what and when. The piece is for a voice (in single notes) and a piano (with a left hand and  right hand). One plus two is three.  It would be easier to play if you had three hands. As it is though, the division of labor between the hands is more complicated, as well as more changeable from one moment or one measure to the next.

I suggested we make this issue easier to deal with by first making it harder. Often the route to a goal is through motion to an opposite goal. In this case mastering the most difficult case, makes the actual case no longer seem innately hard, but compared to the most difficult case, easier.

I picked a random location in the piece. There was an octave on the first beat in the bass, it was the lowest pitches. There was a single melody note together with it in the treble. Between these two pitches, and one half a beat later, while those first notes were still sounding, there was a group of intermediate pitches in both hands. This added up to a total of nine notes (5 written for the left hand and four for the right hand).

Start with the lowest pitch, and in ascending order of pitch, play first one and then another note. Keep the pedal down the entire time. The goal of the procedure was the postponed gratification of hearing all nine notes sounding together as a chord. We don’t get to that point until the ninth note adds in its sound to the other eight.

Redo this procedure. Start varying which hand and which finger plays each of the nine notes as they are adding up sequentially in time to a final ‘whole’ that is sounding simultaneously in time. You can use the same finger of the same hand. One can alternate a finger from one hand and then the other. Try this is a variety of permutations. Be creative. See how odd a sequence of hands/fingers you can create.

The goal of this repeating sequence of pitches, created in each instance with different physical steps, is to divorce what one is doing physically from what the resulting sound is. Eventually it becomes irrelevant which hand plays which note and which finger. The mind is fixed on the one constant phenomenon: hearing the effect of all the notes  sounding together. If you reach this point, then it truly doesn’t matter how you divide up the responsibilities for the notes between the two hands.

 

 

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