Observations on making music

My Mom and Dad valued music, and while my brother somehow managed to escape from our childhood without learning an instrument, I learned the violin. I wasn’t always eager about it and sometimes outright did not enjoy it, which was probably just a product of hard work and sacrifice to get better at it.

It’s been quite a long time since I have taken lessons, and my music teacher has since passed away, but I’m thankful that I can, at any time, pick up a violin and have a repertoire of songs that I can play. The delay since the last time I played almost doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t often need the sheet music in order to play difficult pieces I haven’t played in years. I find that when I don’t think about the piece and just let my motor memory perform, I get much better results than if I think consciously about the piece.

In fact, often I’ll be playing a piece I knew well once, and the moment I try to think of what note or shift might come next, I have to stop completely. I don’t understand the neural mechanism behind this.

Now my music theory is pretty poor, as I always avoided it as a kid, and I regret that now. And while I don’t have perfect pitch, I have pretty good relative pitch, which means that I can’t name a note randomly, but as soon as I have a known reference point, I can half-step and whole-step my way around just fine. I am sure that there are memory systems associated with the semantic ability to name notes that requires a highly functioning auditory ability to discern notes. It’s something like being able to name colors, irrespective of the subtleties of the shade. These are subtleties of sound.

On a side but possibly related note, I love my music and my jazz music, and I have a really hard time naming tunes with no words, even for songs that I can sing from memory completely. I wonder if this semantic naming system is associated with perfect pitch abilities. Additionally, this kind of evidence suggests to me that the recall for the actual tune (even for tunes I haven’t played but only heard) is very much separate from a lot of the metadata knowledge associated with it, such as the name. The performer might fit into this category, except it’s hard for me to dissociate since I can usually, based on style, make a good guess at the composer, even when I can’t name the exact tune.

I also learned a few other things today. While at a friend’s house this weekend, the subject of Christmas music came up, and I got out the old violin and started to pluck out a few tunes on it. I found myself doing something very strange. I can sing or hum tunes and avoid inciting thrown tomatoes. However, I find that when I’m searching on my violin for that first note, I often end up with a note that falls somewhere in the middle of the song, instead of the one I’m searching for!

That single note in the context of the song I’m thinking about is generally enough for me to play at least a few bars if not the entire rest of the simple song. I can even backtrack and find the first note and start from there, incorporating my new song phrases into a complete song.

I’ve always been fascinated by this apparent ability of mine to identify a song by as few a couple of notes. It really only takes one or two notes, in some kind of rhythmic and timbre (such as the instrument) context, to elicit a memory of the entire song. I can usually name songs I hear from one or two notes, in loud restaurants or on the radio, etc. It can be a pretty random recall of songs I don’t think I know well or haven’t heard in years. It’s annoying when it’s songs that are bad. I’m not sure how that works, either, though it’s not too far fetched to imagine a synfire chain-like string of activity that elicits a memory from a particular stimulus (the sound).

It took me only a few minutes to work out each one of the Christmas songs I was thinking about today. I am classically trained, which for me means that my improvisational skills are pretty poor, though I’m trying to work on them through exercises like transcription and fooling around with variations on a melody.

But I was searching for some sheet music and found a nice resource for Christmas carols, and it had easy transcriptions of a lot of songs, including several I hadn’t thought of. For the ones I had already worked out, the keys were sometimes different. Perhaps because of my reliance on relative rather than absolute pitch, the differences to me are more a matter of taste than of correctness.

For the songs that I was familiar with but didn’t think to work out earlier, playing just a few bars was more than enough to elicit the entire song’s playback in my head, and I was often able to play the rest of the song, without relying on the sheet music, at tempo! Granted, we’re not talking about anything at all complex, but it was pleasing to play the entire melody only to scroll down the sheet and find it was identically transcribed.

youngoldOne final observation about music and memory. One major misconception about rhythm is that it’s completely dissociated from pitch. This is more often than not incorrect in real life, as different percussion instruments generally associated with strong rhythms (like drums) all have unique pitch qualities that probably are often overlooked (this is part of why sometimes cymbals are used instead of snares; they each have a harmonic quality). While rhythm technically does exist in the time domain, I find that I cannot dissociate certain rhythms (William Tell Overture, as an example) from their melodic content. If I tap out, with my fingers on a desk, that famous rhythm, I cannot hear just fingers tapping on a desk, since I was very young. Not even consciously. I always hear the melody riding on that rhythmic structure. This leads to the curious phenomenon of random songs entering my head when I hear clapping or doors shutting, etc.

The latter of these observations reminds me of those visual tests with the old and young woman, in which you naturally see one or the other. Once you are aware of the presence of the other, you cannot help but see it.

All of these curious observations just make me wonder about how our brains are capable of such breadth (numbers of songs) and depth (detailed knowledge about each). How is this memory stored, and where? How many listens does it take to learn a song and under what conditions is it most salient? We have hints at the answers to many of these questions, but many more remain. It’s a fascinating time to be in the field of neuroscience.

While I’m thinking about it, this all reminds me that I just recently started reading Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia. It’s essentially a collection of case studies involving patients with peculiar relationships with music. From what I’ve read so far, I highly recommend it.


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