Tag Archives: Bobby McFerrin

Notes & Neurons

I mentioned this as an aside yesterday but feel it deserves to be highlighted in its own right. A World Science Festival panel, chaired by John Schaeffer and featuring Jamshed Bharucha,  Daniel Levitin,  Lawrence Parsons and Bobby McFerrin discuss whether music is hard wired or culturally determined. The resulting output is five videos (featuring musical illustration) which can be accessed here.

Daniel Levitin (record producer/engineer turned neuroscientist) is the author of a very readable book entitled This Is Your Brain on Music. Both subjects are so jargon-heavy that the accessible writing is nothing short of miraculous.

Pentatonic Scale

Bobby McFerrin demonstrates the universality of the pentatonic scale and “audience expectations” in this entertaining video from the World Science Festival 2009. This was part of a larger event in the festival entitled Notes & Neurons.

If the notion of the universality of the pentatonic scale interest you, may I recommend the first of Leonard Bernstein‘s Norton Lectures, in which he relates the pentatonic scale (and varieties of it associated with different cultures) to the harmonic series.

Thanks to Pat Kane for flagging this up in Twitter.

Octave Displacement

Most people – even those with no formal musical education – are familiar with the term octave, even although they might struggle to define it. This short series of facts might do:

  • each note makes the air vibrate at a given speed (frequency) e.g. 440 cycles per second or 440 Hertz (HZ)

  • the ear judges pitch by an awareness of the speed of these vibrations

  • if the frequency of a note doubles – the pitch goes up an octave (8ve)

  • if the frequency of a note halves – the pitch goes down by an 8ve

  • this relationship of half/double makes notes fit so well together that upon hearing them simultaneously, many listeners perceive only one note

  • for this reason the notes share the same alphabetical name

  • moving some of the notes of a melody into a neighbouring 8ve is called 8ve displacement and many composers use it to conjure a sense of strangeness while retaining a sense of the familiar

Octave displacement can seem nearly as odd for the performer as the listener. For most people, it would be easier to do this by reading or memorizing rather than improvising and most would agree that it would be easier on an instrument than with the voice. That’s why this seems so amazing – particularly from 0:29 [kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/JlJvOCG22aU" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]