Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Too funky in here

This piece for my Music Instinct column in Sapere magazine should be out and about in Italian any time now. I’ve talked about this deal before, but no harm in returning to it with the right soundtrack.


I’ve got plans to discuss some seriously challenging music in the next column, so in this one I’m going to treat you. Look up Bootsy Collins’ song Stretchin’ Out and make sure you have room to dance. Pure hedonism, isn’t it? Well, maybe not, actually – because Bootsy is taking splendid advantage of our cognitive predispositions in order to do several things at once. That gusty and fabulously ornate bass guitar is laying down the syncopated groove that gets the feet twitching, the backing vocalists provide the blissed-out melody, and the sax and guitar solos ice the cake with their soaring improvisations.

Yes, there’s a lot going on. But the roles of each of these “voices” in the mix aren’t arbitrary. It now seems that the high-pitched vocals and solos take care of melodic duties because we hear melody best in the high register, while Bootsy’s bass thumps out the rhythm because our ears and minds are best attuned to rhythmic structures at low pitches.

This division of labour isn’t, after all, just a feature of funk: it seems to happen throughout the music of the world. The pianist’s left hand is usually her rhythmic anchor and her right is the source of melody, whether she’s playing Haydn or boogie-woogie. Low-pitched percussive instruments carry the rhythm in Indian classical music (where high-register sitar takes the melodic role) or Indonesian gamelan.

Psychologist Laurel Trainor and her collaborators in Canada have shed light on why this is. When they studied people listening to polyphonic music – which has several simultaneous melodic lines or “voices” – using magnetic sensors to monitor the subjects’ electrical brain activity, they found that each voice was stored as a separate “memory trace”, and that the most salient voice (the one listeners were most attuned to) was the one with the highest pitch.

In more recent experiments using electrical sensors to detect the characteristic brain responses to “errors” in what a listener hears, Trainor and colleagues found that the opposite is true for rhythm. The lower-pitched the tones are, the better we are at discriminating differences in their timing. This pitch-dependent sensitivity to rhythm, the researchers concluded, arises from the basic physiology of the inner ear, where the cochlea converts acoustic waves to nerve signals. We’re designed, it seems, for Bootsy’s freaky funk-outs.

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