But you don't need the repeated pronouncements of a UCSD professor to hear the power of the hearing system to extract melodic information and impose it on the perception of the incoming sounds. You can instead go back a millennium to the formative years of Western music. Perhaps the best known trait of Gregorian chant is that it contains a single melodic line. But if it is recorded in an adequately reverberant church and you play it backwards, dissonant harmonies suddenly jump out at you and what was sung by a single singer can sound like it comes from a choir singing multiple melodic lines. The latter, polyphonic effect presumably comes from the hearing system "connecting" the each note change it hears to the nearest convenient continuous tone, with multiple notes in rapid succession being assigned to different (and illusory) melodic lines, the whole process being aided by the holdover from the reverberation. You can even faintly hear such effects in the reversed-chant moments mixed into Enigma's MCMXC a.d.
|Warning: This is not your typical chill-out Gregorian chant recording. It is instead a time-capsule/travelogue of different chant styles, some of which include real, non-illusory harmony, and is sung with wide-awake, full-throated fervor (sample track 10 at the iTunes store or at Amazon). Some of the works receive their "first known performances since the Middle Ages." How about that for a "sleeper."|
The second segment of Radio Lab's "Musical Language" program, covering the cross-cultural similarities in the melodic contours of baby talk as well as the characteristics of the output of the basilar membrane (the organ in the ear that changes sound into nerve impulses), was less interesting to me. I'd already heard about the cross-cultural similarities in baby-talk melodic shapes back in the 1970's from no less an eminence than Leonard Bernstein in his Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard. (My fans will already know that I appear, fleetingly, in the DVDs of those lectures, as well as in a still photo in the exciting, still-in-print book version from Harvard University Press.) And the portion of the second segment about the "chaotic" nature of the ear's neural output when confronted by harmonic dissonances I'd already read about in hearing/acoustics textbooks. But if you haven't encountered these ideas, I urge you to listen to this segment, too. It does make the really obvious error, however, of assigning Disney's use of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to the dancing-mushroom sequence of the original Fantasia instead of the primeval-earth/dinosaur sequence. (Hey, this is the Dartboard!) And it favors those chaotic nerve impulses over the numerous more significant social and artistic factors surrounding the riot that developed at the Rite's 1913 premier in Paris, best elaborated in Thomas Forrest Kelly's book First Nights: Five Musical Premiers.
The Radio Lab program's last segment likewise would have been more interesting to me if the subject - composer David Cope's development of computer software that could generate music in imitation of various composer's styles - hadn't been anticipated in Kemal Ebcioglu's work at IBM on similarly automated harmonizations of hymn melodies "in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach" that I covered when the research was brand new (the late 1980s). I would have been more interested if Cope had come up with an automated "composer" with a recognizable style of its own and that produced melodies and harmonies with real emotional power of their own, not merely as a consequence of our hearing "into" the compositions our reactions to the human composers being imitated. P.D.Q. Bach has investigated that area already, with far more entertaining results.
A note on the Gregorian Chant excerpt: It comes from the second track of an outstanding Sony/BMG album called Chant Wars performed by Sequentia and Dialogos. It's available complete as an iTunes download, but I ripped the example from my disc. I highly recommend the latter as it is a hybrid SACD in surround sound, which always enhances Gregorian chant.
A note on the Radio Lab streaming replay: After hearing the live over-the-air broadcast of the Radio Lab show, I was astonished to find that the online MP3 streaming version is only in mono. All the show's crafty stereophonic tricks are eliminated in the mixdown! This does save on Internet transmission bandwidth, always a concern at a public radio station, but to me it is bit-wise and sound-foolish.
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