Sounds and Brains

15 September 2004
Yesterday I happened to fall into talking about music with Tyler Lorig, and he invited me to a lunchtime meeting of his neuro research group, to talk informally about (ethno)music(ology), in the context of some work he and students are doing with brain activity and ...well, he said "time signatures", citing 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 --but it sounds more like the manipulation is variations in tempo. ASD (The Amazing Slow Downer) seemed to me like a natural device to consider, and I started thinking about complexities in the compass of the term 'music', and what would happen once one got away from non-musical lab 'music' (he says the experimenters don't know much about music, let alone ethnomusic).

And so I did some experimenting with Sound Forge and ASD, creating some MP3s of items that seemed like they might have interesting properties if speeded up or slowed down. The set reposes on my laptop, and includes these:

These provide quite an assortment of questions and possibilities, or maybe it's provocations --reasons to question assumptions about stimulus materials, and/or suggest alternative approaches to the question of what listeners are attending to. In a few cases (Buganda Akadinda, the drum language examples, Somba Somba, Django) it's only when the piece is slowed down that it becomes comprehensible --otherwise, it's a virtuosoistic blur. In others, the point is that tempo varies (sometimes called parlando, or maybe felt as 'syncopation') in many musics (Glenn Gould, Jun Hi Kim, the Puerto Rican examples, Belleville Bach). There are some other facets of music-perceived, including non-equal-tempered tunings and scales (Alizadeh, Kanyok examples, Sunda Africa, Morotiri Nei, Dunya Yunis), and what we might call colotomic layers (i.e., rhythms or tempos within rhythms or tempos) if we were being pedantic (Gong Kebjar), and polyrhythms (clearest in most of the African examples, but sometimes hard to 'hear' unless slowed down). There's also a familiar case of a non-standard time signature (Desmond/Brubeck's Take Five --which was wildly popular because of the novelty of its hook).

An interesting observation: most examples seem to make sense as music only in a fairly narrow range of + and - from 100% of original speed. For most, I'd say <20%.