25 October 2007

Chapter One

So much jargon!!! Ritsumei, you were so very right. For a guy who seems to be encouraging people to get into music, assuring them that the jargon is not that important, he seems to use an awful lot of it. (I sort of have resorted to skimming through most of it) I'm hoping he is laying the foundation for more interesting, in depth observations once he moves past the definition mode.

However, there were some interesting thoughts thrown in amongst all the other stuff too. (I even went so far as to underline some of it!)

I thought it was interesting that Mr. Levitin noted on page 25, that "many melodies do not have a 'correct' starting pitch, they just float freely in space, starting anywhere" and that melody is just "an auditory object that maintains its identity in spite of transformations...". This was a discussion I had many times in college with my other music student buddies. As a vocalist, I'm totally down with that concept. (Especially because I'm not cursed with "Perfect Pitch") I completely agree that songs (melodies) are just a collection of pitches recognizable by their relation to each other, and not necessarily the starting pitch.

Despite the overall heaviness in jargon, I really find it fascinating when Mr. Levitin points out things that have been gleaned from apparent science experimentation regarding brain activity while listening to music. For example, on page 27, he talks briefly about the way different parts process sounds. And while, to the conscious thought process, melodies can be a floating entity of pitches, best recognized by their relationship with each other, it the "absolute pitch values that the brain is paying attention to throughout its different stages of processing."

Later on in the chapter he starts talking about how the octave is found in all cultures (pg 29). I sort of liked his discussion on frequency ratios. He continues with all the details and examples of different intervals, ratios and frequencies, and then on page 33, he says: "This is entirely arbitrary." That amused me greatly.

I am impressed by the human brain's ability to process information. Anyone familiar with Western music is almost intuitively an expert in recognition and anticipation of (typical) music. He defined it very susinctly on page 36:

Declaritive knowlege - the ability to talk about it; but in spite of our lack of
forlmal musical education, we know what the composer intended to establish as
the tonal center, or key, of the piece, and we recovnize when he brings us back
home to the honic, or when he fails to do so.

However, I'm still working through chapter one. More to come later....

12 October 2007

Back in the Saddle

Ok! So, I FINALLY started reading this book we've been talking about reading for months. I got through most of the introduction today during lunch. I like his tone so far.. It sounds as though he'll be taking a different approach than most musicians might. I like it!

I thought it was interesting when he said,

"Nowadays there is a great emphasis on technique and skill, and whether a musician is "good enough" to play for others. Music making has become a somewhat reserved activity in our culture, and the rest of us listen." (pg.7)

Recently, I've been trying my hand at composition (again) and I find it rather a daunting task. I feel like since I have a degree and all, people expect that my stuff be amazing, Beethoven level stuff that'll wow the socks off everyone. But having Mr. Levitin point out this juxtaposition aloud sort of started me thinking about how it doesn't have to be that way. I have something to share, and there doesn't have to be such a stark separation between those who do music, and those who listen.

And, in view of my lack of composition confidence, I like how he discussed the similarities of artists and scientists. (pg. 5) Perhaps a little over the top, but my favorite part was when he said:
"The work of artists and scientists is ultimately the pursuit of truth, but members of both camps understand that truth in its very nature is contextual and changeable, dependent on point of view..."

I think that perhaps truth isn't the exact word that I would've used, but the concept of "what is music" is very much captured in that statement. Music is something that is enjoyed based upon perception and point of view, which is as ever changing as the sands of society around us.

15 August 2007

Music Brain (Ch1, Part 2)

So, I came back to this thinking that there wasn't very much left to the chapter, but actually there's quite a bit. Let's see what sort of trouble I can get into before my piano lessons start for the day, shall we? I believe we left off with the musicians at the back door.

Let's see. Semitones, Sharp & Flat as in A# and also playing sharp. Still defining what is music. A440. Relative vs. fixed pitch.

You know what I think my beef with this "defining" stuff is? He's says he's trying to explain music & it's jargon in layman's terms. But he can't seem to resist throwing every single name for every single thing in there, even when knowing that there are multiple names for stuff only creates confusion. For instance, on page 35 he's talking about the major scale. Gives the C-scale as an example. C D E F G A B C. Also mentions in passing that it's called "Ionian Mode." This adds nothing to the discussion, and in fact if I hadn't tagged along to one of my sister's college level theory classes once upon a time I'd have no idea what he was talking about. And he just mentions it. Nothing more. No "More on this in a later chapter." No explanation. Just randomly throws a term out there. High-level music jargon. For a guy that says that he's trying to demystify music's jargon, this seems like a sort of odd way to do it.

With that sort of crabbing out there, I think I'll just hush about how much that sort of jargon-y "demystification" irritates me. It's a good thing that the intro was good.

24 July 2007

In-spii-rate-tion: Doing Chapter 1

OK. So now you posted and I commented and we're getting some momentum here! Gonna keep things rolling with a bit of a look at chapter 1.

I got a little bogged down in this chapter, actually. That's why I haven't posted in a while. Feeling like I should continue the way I started & wanting to do a post for the 1st chapter kept me from just moving on into the 2nd chapter which was a much more interesting read. Guess maybe it would have been better to just keep going rather than let it stop me altogether.

Anyway. The chapter's called "What is Music: from pitch to timbre." And he sets out to define, in layman's terms, what all the different elements of music are. I guess that you do sorta need to have a common language before you can talk about something, but this is Really Dry. And I was awfully glad to be already familiar with the words from working with music. Some were pretty straight forward:

"Tempo refers to the overall speed or pace of the piece." (Page 15)

Some were a little more difficult to pin down.

"A discrete musical sound is usually called a tone. The word note is also used, but scientists reserve that word to refer to something that is notated on a page or score of music. The two terms, tone and note, refer to the same entity in the abstract, where the word tone refers to what you hear, and the word note refers to what you see written on a musical score." (Pages 14-15)

Oh my. It's sooo much easier in real life! I don't think that ever usually have to even define this note-tone stuff with even the youngest of my piano kids: they just pick it up as we go along! But I suppose that a scientist would have to think about these things. But Levitin gets very into this defining stuff. Sometimes I think he gets a little carried away - for instance, the discussion of solfeg (is that how you spell it? the checker doesn't seem to know that word), adds just about nothing to his section on what is a scale, and considerably clutters that paragraph. (Did I mention that this chapter was hard for me?)

But! As he's finishing up his discussion of the scale, he hits on another interesting gem: every known culture uses the octave. Fascinating! There's a tidbit that I wish they'd mentioned in the World Music (Music Appreciation? I can't remember) class that I took in college. We looked at a Javanese Gamelon - now there is a cool instrument/orchestra/gizmo. They had one at UIUC, and our section got to go and try it out. Most cool. But I had no idea that hidden somewhere in the strange sounds that room full of gamelon made was an octave. I enjoy listening to world music and I'm going to have to start listening closely to see if I can find these octaves. To add further interest he talks about how some animals seem to respond to the octave as well. Weird, but cool.

His discussion of why the notes are named the way they are is also entertaining:

"After centuries of being forced to eat in the servants' quarters and to use the back entrance of the castle, this may just be an invention by musicians to make nonmusicians feel inadequate." (Page 31)

Ahhh. The sweet sound of my boy waking up from his nap. More later.

18 July 2007

Getting Started (better late than never, right?) :)

Ok. So, now that I'm all settled in, I've started reading The Well Educated Mind. Lots to think about so far. I'm liking where she's going with the focused thinking. And by the way I totally support learning from her experience. The story she told about being a grad student with a family.. not so fun.

So I've read the first two chapters. I got the impression that she has no love for television or the Internet and she seems to fear the demise of print. (which I think is a little over dramatic) On page 16 she says, "Much has been written about our present move away from texts, toward an image-based visual culture: Schools no longer teach reading and writing properly. Television, movies and now the Web have decreased the importance of the written word. We are moving into a postliterate age. Print culture is doomed. Alas." Yes, the typical tv show is a lot of brain numbing nonsense, and Internet information is not generally printed and bound, but I really don't think that books are going anywhere.

However, I do like her idea that "reading is a discipline" very much. On page 17 she says reading is "like running regularly, or meditating... Any able adult can run across the backyard, but this ability to put one foot in front of another shouldn't make him think that he can tackle a marathon without serious, time-consuming training."

This idea that "serious reading" is to be worked up to gives me hope. When I graduated from college I set out on a quest to read more classic books. I read a few, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, but then went back to the nice and easy fantasy that I've always liked so much, sort of resigned that classical books weren't for me. And non-fiction.. spare me the pain.

However, I like that Susan Wise Bauer has set out this plan, an outline, to aid in the process of immersing one's self in literature.

Now, to acquire a journal to organize my thoughts better, gotta get on that..........

29 May 2007

A Lot to Talk About: the Introduction

So, I'm munching my way through the introduction to our new Music book, and there's a lot to talk about here! Mr. Levitin starts with his own story - or rather, with the story of the book, how he came to mix science and music. Sounds like he's done some fascinating things in his time. But after he tells a little about his background, he begins drawing you into his vision. He points out the view that drew him in so compellingly that he wrote a book about it. And it is a fascinating view.

Americans spend more money on music than on sex or prescription drugs. Given this voracious consumption, I would say that most Americans qualify as expert music listeners. We have the cognitive capacity to detect wrong notes, to find music we enjoy, and to tap our feet in time with the music - an activity that involves a process of meter extraction so complected that most computers cannot do it. Why do we listen to music, and why are we willing to spend so much money on music listening? Two concert tickets can easily cost as much as a week's food allowance for a family of four, and one CD costs about the same as a work shirt, eight loaves of bread, or basic phone service for a month. (Page 7)

First of all, I find the fact that computers have such a hard time finding the beat to be fascinating! It's such an intuitive, second nature thing for me, I'd never really thought about it as a complected thing. I teach 5 year olds how to create their own beat in our piano lessons. They usually come to me more than able to bop along with the beat in our listening exercises. When I teach them about keeping a beat we talk about simple things - ticking clocks, heartbeats, that sort of thing. I've yet to come across a child who didn't pick it up quickly, although some do struggle more than others to internalize the ability to keep it consistently even and steady.

Andy and I haven't done so much concert attending lately - with regret, we've decided it's not in the budget right now. But some of our best, most memorable dates have been to either concerts, or music and dance performances such as Lord of the Dance. We counted the cost of tickets to see Kodo well spent when they came to town while we were at Purdue when we were poor college students. I'd not thought previously about the relative cost of music. Interesting.

Mr. Levitin goes on:

To ask questions about a basic, and omnipresent human ability is to implicitly ask questions about evolution. (page 7)

I think I'm going to have to disagree with the author here. I think it much more invites inquiry into the nature of God, as we are his offspring. The page and a half discussion of evolution and the emerging field of evolutionary psychology is simply irrelivant in my eyes. Fortunately it appears he doesn't linger long on the topic too much in the book.

This part I liked:

The power of music to evoke emotions is harnessed by advertising executives, filmmakers, military commanders, and mothers. ... Mothers throughout the world, as far back in time as we can imagine, have used soft singing to soothe their babies to sleep, or to distract them from something that has made him cry. (Page 9)

When so many people are running down Motherhood as an unworthy occupation, too trivial for a modern, educated woman, it pleased me to see Mothers listed in such company. I skipped some of the paragraph in which he talks about how various profession use music to tell us how to feel (because I'm typing one-handed while my baby sleeps on my lap), ending with how Moms use it to calm their children. It's probably a little off his topic, but I think Moms & other caregivers use it for much more than soothing an upset child. Music is used for learning (A, B, C, D.... Fifty nifty United States from thirteen original colonies...) and playing games (Ring around the rosie...) and providing motivation for work (say, cleaning a bathroom to William Tell or Bon Jovi) to name a few.

Your brain on music is a way to understand the deepest mysteries of human nature. That is why I wrote this book. (Page 11-12)

Big goal! I'm excited to see how he does!

Because it amuses me :)

Ok, so here's my contribution :

Title: Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates

Sentence: SJs lend stability to a school, are themselves responsible representatives of society, and expect both their students and their colleagues to be the same.

16 May 2007

Nearest Book, Fifth Full Sentence Meme

From a Random Blog:

Grab the nearest book.

1. Open it to page 161.
2. Find the fifth full sentence.
3. Post the text of the sentence along with these instructions.
4. Don’t search around looking for the coolest book you can find. Do what’s actually next to you.

I actually have 4 books on my desk, and they're pretty much all equidistant from me: that is, they touch me as I type. So, I guess I get to do all 4.

From "A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations:"

The Fujiwara were a family of civilian aristocrats who preferred intrigue to war and shared the disdain for the military that was prevalent among the Heian aristocracy.

From "Around the World in 80 Days:"

A quarter of an hour later he stopped before a large cabin, adorned with several clusters of streamers, the exterior walls of which were designed to represent, in violent colors and without perspective, a company of jugglers.

From "How to Photograph Absolutely Everything:"

The best results are achieved when clouds partially obscure the sun or when the sun is at the edge of a cloud.

From "This is Your Brain on Music:"

Have you ever been walking down the stree and suddenly smelled an odor that you hadn't smelled in a long time, and that triggered a memory of some long-ago event?

If you're participating in this blog, make another post! Those of you without blogs, just post your 5th your sentence in our comments! And those of you with blogs – tag, you’re it!

26 April 2007

Got the Book!

OK. I got the book today! Tried at the library, but they have only got 3 copies. All three were gone and there were 4 outstanding holds. No joy. Went to Barnes & Nobel. No problem. They had a nice big section of them, so I bought one. Gonna get started with it here pretty quick.

Also: I'm gonna start a "Books Under Consideration" section to our sidebar, where we cankeep a list of possible books to read. While I was at B&N, I saw one called 1421: the year China discovered the world. I guess the Chinese landed ib the americas quite a while before Columbus, that they circumnavigated the globe quite a while before Magellin. The book's got a website. Anyway, it looked really interesting, so I thought we might want to consider it for a future selection. I don't know if you guys can do things with the template, but if you can, jump right in & add anything that looks interesting to you & we'll decide later.

While I was ar B&N I picked up a thing on sparking discussion in your reading groups, so I think that in addition to the books under consideration, I'll probably add a section of questions to ask the book. Gonna have to get The Well Educated Mind from the library again & add some of the questions she suggested: she had some good ones. If you wanna add some, go right ahead. If the blog won't let you, leave them as comments & I'll get 'em on the list!

24 April 2007

That Other Book

Alright, I haven't actually gotten ahold of the book that we're supposed to be reading just yet, but apparently neither has anyone else. Not that that's a good excuse! :P However, I have been making slow progress through The Scientists, which is still a fascinating book. I've been putting some of the highlights into my Book of Centuries. I'm just starting the chapter called "The Newtonian Revolution" that starts with a guy named Hooke. Apparently Newton (the guy in the painting) didn't like Hooke very well. I wouldn't know: I'd never heard of the guy before when I was reading about him this afternoon. Sounds like these two & another guy were in serious - and not so friendly - competition with each other.

The three people who between them established both the scientific method itself and the pre-eminence of British science at the end of the seventeenth century were Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton. It is some measure of the towering achievements of the other two that Halley clearly ranks third out of the trio in terms of his direct contribution to science; but in spite of the Newton bandwagon that has now been rolling for 300 years (and was given its initial push by Newton himself after Hooke had died), it is impossible for the unbiased historian to say whether Newton or Hooke made the more significant contribution. Newton was a loner who worked in isolation and established the single, profound truth that the Universe works on mathematical principles; Hooke was a gregarious and wide-ranging scientist who came up with a dazzling variety of new ideas, but also did more than anyone else to turn the Royal Society from a gentleman's gossip shop into the archtypical scientific society. His misfortune was to incur the enmity of Newton, and to die before Newton, giving his old enemy a chance to rewrite history - which he did so effectively that Hooke has only really been rehabilitated in the past few decades.
-The Scientists, page 149

Anyway, as we get further into the book, the author is starting to insert his opinions a little more as he tells the story. It'll be interesting to see how this affects my enjoyment as we get into the Darwin stuff: I'm thinking he's going to treat evolution as Fact, rather than unproven Theory. (You can see my opinion on evolution here.)

27 March 2007

New Book

Well, lacking any argument, looks like we'll be reading about the effects of music on the brain! I'm looking forward to it - how about we check in with either a post or at least a comment when we've managed to aquire a copy of the book? I get paid again soon, so that's when I'll see if I can't find a copy for myself.

16 March 2007


Alright guys, I think we should read This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession that MissKate suggested. Anyone who objects should say so within, say, a week from today (by the 24th of March). Otherwise we can start working on that book.

Also, right now it looks like I can only set up the actual blog to send notices to one person at a time (currently that person is MissKate), but there is an rss feed, or if others want we could set up some kind of list to get folks an email when there's action on our blog.

06 March 2007

So I finally stopped with the slacking and ordered the book, The Well-Educated Mind, once I get that I will be a much more active participant. So the plan is to decide on a book and all read and discuss together? I was thinking Abraham Lincoln would be interesting. Or another thought, not really a biography but an eye catching title I saw the other day, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin.

I am so excited about the email alerts for when people post.. that is definitely key :)

Trying It Out

The Sneetches was a fun test run, but not really a very serious one. I decided to try Susan's method out on a one of the "bargain books" I grabbed last time I was at Barnes & Noble: The Scientists, by John Gribbin. Fascinating book, and the note-taking she recommends keeps me Thinking as I go along, rather than just enjoying a good read.

22 February 2007

Practice Running with Sneetches

The Sneetches By Dr. Seuss (Bio).
Re-titled as: How the Plain-Bellies allow themselves to be excluded, setting themselves and Star-Bellies up to get suckered.

The Plain-Belly Sneetches are depressed because they don't get to go to the beach parties hosted by the Star-Bellies. The Star-Bellies are a caricature of your garden variety snob-bully: You're not like me because of X (in this case, starts on thars), so I'm not going to play with you (or invite you to the frankfurter roasts & marshmallow toasts). Dr. Seuss paints a very sad picture of the plight of the poor, picked on Plain-Bellies:

They left them out in the cold, in the dark of the beaches.
They kept them away. Never let them come near.
And that's how they treated them year after year.

So, what keeps the Plain-Bellies from throwing their own parties? Why don't they gather up their own pile of wood and light their own fires? Had they done so, it is likely that eventually the distinction between Plain-Bellies & Star-Bellies would have, at the very least, diminished. After all, a good party is a powerful draw. And even if it didn't, it might or might not be important to the Plain-Bellies anymore. Nothing takes the wind out of a bully's sails so effectively as a victim's disinterest.

However, the Plain-Bellies aren't that smart. So they're ripe for the picking, and sure enough, there's someone willing to separate every fool from his money. This time, the con-man's name is Sylverster Mcmonkey McBean. $3 for a star-on, $10 for a star-off. McBean spends all day taking money from all the Sneetches.

They kept paying money. They pet running through
Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one... or that one was this one
Or which one is what one... or what one was who.

McBean drives off with all the money, congratulating himself on a scam well done, "They never will learn. No. You can't teach a Sneetch."

The book ends with a Utopian scene:

But McBean was quite wrong. I'm quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.

It sounds great. It's nice for a thirty-second lecture against bullying. But I seriously doubt that such an over-simplified solution would work for your average kindergartner, much less for any kind of group of adults. The fact of the matter is that the Star-Bellies and Plain-Bellies are groups, but each group is made of individuals who would each have names and families. It wouldn't take long for the individuals to sort themselves. They would either find a new method of marking the Haves and Have-nots, or there would be a falling out among those who began as Star-Bellies, and any without stars would be ejected from the group.

The Sneetches was - and remains - one of my all-time favorite of Dr. Seuss's titles. But the allegory is just so over-simplified that it breaks down and is really quite unconvincing.

12 February 2007

Thoughts on our Book List

So, I'm just thinking out loud here, but I'm thinking that biographies & autobiographies and maybe some histories sound like the most interesting thing to read right now. As nobody seemed opposed to this idea when I talked to ya'll offline, anyone care to help me brainstorm a list of folks that might be interesting to read about? We can narrow the list later.

Betsy Ross
the Prophets
Abraham Lincoln
Richard I, the Lionheart
Henry III (had to deal with the Magna Carta)
Henry VIII or his wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard & Catherine Parr
Albert Einstein
Thomas Edison
Martin Luther
Wilbur & Orville Wright
Porter Rockwell
Murasaki Shikibu (Ancient Japan, wrote the "Tale of Genji")
Minamoto no Yoritomo (founder & first shogun of Kamakura Shogunate)
Nicholas Romanov the II (Anistasia's father)
Martin Luther King Jr.
the Founding Fathers

I guess that ought to keep us busy in the biography department for a while. Especially if we stick to the 3-4 a year that we originallt talked about.

Of course, there's also regular histories that could be added to this, and maybe even historical fiction? That might be getting too broad. I don't know. Anyone else have any ideas?

09 February 2007


Well, I'm game. I think it'll be fun to read what this Susan has to say and experiment with implementing it and everything. Bring it on.

05 February 2007

The Idea

So. The plan is to use this blog as a sort of family "Commonplace Book", and discuss books we read. Pick them apart together and learn about the books, about ourselves, and about each other. Starting with Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Educated Mind, since she's got directions on how to do this and a couple of lists of suggested books. It's an ambitious and exciting plan.

We haven't really talked about what to read after The Well-Educated Mind, but here's what I'm thinking: Why don't we pick one of Bauer's lists (my vote is for either novels or biographies), and alternate that with church books? We can make up a list of church literature we'd like to tackle. Maybe get recommendations on which biographies are good ones from Dad, or tackle Brigham Young's Journal of Discourses or something like that. Or, if we did the biographies list from the book, we could just look at adding the prophets (and anyone else we felt like looking at) where they would belong, historically. Personally, I would also be interested in adding some other folks from church history as well. Not that anyone comes to mind right this second, except for Porter Rockwell. I think that was his name, anyway. We've got some time to figure it out.

I can't wait to get started! C'mon guys - let's play!