Category Archives: Music

What is the meaning of invention on music

Decided you want to learn the classical piano? Seriously? Then sooner or later you’re going to have to get yourself a copy of Bach’s Inventions. If you’ve already heard someone good play them, you may be rubbing your hands in eager anticipation. Stick with them, and they should give you at least as much pleasure to play as to hear. But before that, the hand-rubbing may take on a rather different emotional complexion.

Bach’s two-part keyboard Inventions are probably the most beautiful and effective technical exercises ever compiled. But as with most exercise programmes, the early stages are likely to be gruelling and morale-draining. Take Invention No. 1, in the beginner-friendly key of C major. For quite a lot of the piece the two hands are playing the same thing (more or less), only not at the same time. It’s as if the left hand’s starting pistol went off a bar (about two seconds) behind the right’s. 

The beauty is that the two staggered parts not only fit together beautifully (like ‘Frère Jacques’ sung in imitation), they complement each other. As one descends, the other rises; as one lingers slightly, the other runs forward – a better demonstration of the principles of counterpoint is hard to imagine. The trouble is, when you first try playing both hands together, you begin to feel that what you really need is two brains. It’s a bit like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach with alternate hands in contrary directions – only worse. Persist, though, and the impossible happens: you progress from what psychologists call unconscious incompetence through conscious incompetence (so easy to despair at this point) to conscious competence, and finally (hallelujah!) to unconscious competence. 

Brief pause for self-congratulation, then there’s the minor matter of the music, especially how to make this sound less like a machine and more like two voices in dialogue. Of course if you go back further into the past, you can find pieces called ‘Invention’ that have no obvious didactic purpose – for example, Clément Janequin’s first book of madrigals (1555). And in the 20th century, calling a piece ‘Invention’ can be more about demonstrating the composer’s prowess than inviting performers to develop theirs. But say ‘Inventions’ to trained pianists and Bach will spring to mind, perhaps with an accompaniment of knowing smiles. After all, these are the ones who have endured the Dark Night and emerged to see the stars.

Trill on music that you should know about it

Now this one’s simple, isn’t it? A trill is one of those extended wobbles on a long note you tend to hear at the end of a show-off solo in a concerto or coloratura aria. In the Baroque or Classical eras it’s virtually a fixture. Yes, the wobble must be on two notes – neighbouring notes to be precise (either a major or a minor second) – but surely that’s it.

Alas, no. Go back to the very early Baroque period (at this point regular readers of this column may be experiencing a slight anticipatory contraction of the stomach muscles), to the vocal works of Monteverdi and his contemporaries, and there you will find the word ‘trillo’ identified with something significantly different. There it’s not so much a wobble as a shake, and on just one repeated note. The kind of trill described above is usually smooth, legato, but this one is jerkier, more like a vocal spasm.

The gorgeous ‘Duo Seraphim’ from Monteverdi’s Vespers contains plenty of these, as when the word ‘Sanctus’ becomes ‘Sa-ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-han-ctus’. When historically minded performers first revived this kind of trill, critics and listeners found it rather funny; now we’re used to it, it can be strangely touching or, even more strangely, erotic. Nowadays we’d be inclined to call this a ‘tremolo’. Monteverdi would also have used the word ‘tremolo’, but what he meant by it would be what we would call a trill. At some stage during the 17th century, the two terms seem to have swapped over. 

The sign for a trill is an italic tr followed by a wavy horizontal line, which for once looks very like what it represents, and perhaps for that reason it has remained standard since the early-18th century. What it doesn’t tell you, however, is how to begin or end the trill. All sorts of exit strategies are possible. You can anticipate the final note by a fraction of a beat, or just drop onto it. You can preface the fall to the final note with an elegant downward twist or a breath-catching minute pause. As for the beginning, unless indicated otherwise, the modern trill starts on the lower note; the high Baroque trill, however, began on the upper note. The change seems to have happened around 1830. Not for the first time, I wonder if this was just a change in fashion, or whether there’s some deeper sociological significance. A possible subject for a thesis?

Music inspired in autumn

images-26What seasonal playlist could fail to include Vivaldi? From the Allegro’s post-harvest celebrations in ‘Autumn’, Vivaldi’s programmatic music transports us to the somewhat less vibrant morning after, where slow moving suspensions come as close to a musical hangover as anything you’ve ever heard. In the stately final Allegro, ‘The Hunt’, a virtuosic violin solo represents the hunter’s fleeing quarry, which they eventually catch and kill. Not so fun for the quarry, but a jolly old time for all the hunters.

Bax – November Woods (1917)

Though ostensibly inspired by nature, Bax’s November Woods also acts as a musical portrait of his turbulent love affair with pianist Harriet Cohen. An often unsettling work, the tone poem fluctuates between stormy drama and quiet ecstasy, yet fades to a quiet and unresolved finish.

Fanny Mendelssohn – Das Jahr (1841)

Fanny Mendelssohn wrote the piano cycle Das Jahr as a musical diary of the year she spent with her family in Rome. The 12 months are represented by 12 individual movements. In ‘September’ a flowing accompaniment overlays a dark melody in the left hand. ‘October’ is a brighter, march-like song, but ‘November’ returns to introspection and a minor key. She instructs the performer to play sadly.

R Strauss – Four Last Songs, ‘September’

Sometimes considered Strauss’s own musical epitaph, all of the Four Last Songs are themed around death. ‘September’ is a shimmering and uplifting work, which calmly compares the passing of the seasons with the passing of life. Strauss also includes a poignant and wistful solo for his father’s instrument: the French horn.

Ominous background music

Scripps scientist Andrew Nosal and a colleague at Harvard University recruited over 2,000 online participants to share their attitudes toward sharks after watching a 60-second video clip of sharks swimming. They compared the results of the participants who watched the clip set to ominous background music to those watching the same video clip set to uplifting background music, or silence.

Participants who viewed the video with ominous background music rated sharks more negatively than those who viewed the clip with uplifting music or no music.

“Given that nature documentaries are often regarded as objective and authoritative sources of information, it is critical that documentary filmmakers and viewers are aware of how the soundtrack can affect the interpretation of the educational content,” said Nosal, the lead author of the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

A researcher from the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego was a coauthor of the study.

Healing powers of music

The researchers allocated 120 study participants as follows: half of the subjects were exposed to music for 25 minutes. Subdivided into three groups they were played recorded music by either W. A. Mozart, J. Strauss Jr., or the pop band ABBA. The remaining 60 subjects were allocated to a control group that spent their time in silence. Before and after exposure to music and quiet time, respectively, all participants had their blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol concentration measured.

Classical music by Mozart and Strauss notably lowered blood pressure and heart rate, whereas no substantial effect was seen for the songs of ABBA. In the control group, resting in a supine position also resulted in blood pressure lowering, but the effect was far less pronounced than for exposure to the music of Mozart or Strauss. All musical genres resulted in notably lower cortisol concentrations. As far as cortisol concentrations were concerned, the sex of the participants must have played a part, because the drop in cortisol levels was more pronounced in men than in women, especially after exposure to the music of Mozart and Strauss. Comparison with the control group showed that the effect of music was far greater than that of silence.

High resolution audio

The study compared data from over 12,000 different trials from 18 studies where participants were asked to discriminate between samples of music in different formats.

Dr Joshua Reiss from QMUL’s Centre for Digital Music in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science said: “Audio purists and industry should welcome these findings — our study finds high resolution audio has a small but important advantage in its quality of reproduction over standard audio content.”

Many in the music industry have been split as to whether people can really hear a difference between CD quality music and high resolution audio — even celebrity musicians have entered the fray with new music streaming services: Tidal launched by Jay-Z and Pono players and music service spearheaded by Neil Young and crowd funded through a Kickstarter campaign.

Both streaming services launched in the last two years have been met with scepticism. However, this new study found that listeners can tell the difference between low and high resolution audio formats, and the effect is dramatically increased with training: trained test subjects could distinguish between the formats around sixty per cent of the time.

Writing in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, the research suggested that careful selection of stimuli, such as using long samples of more than 30 seconds, may play an important role in the ability to discriminate between the formats.

Dr Reiss explained: “One motivation for this research was that people in the audio community endlessly discuss whether the use of high resolution formats and equipment really make a difference. Conventional wisdom states that CD quality should be sufficient to capture everything we hear, yet anecdotes abound where individuals claim that hi-res content sounds crisper, or more intense. And people often cherry-pick their favourite study to support whichever side they’re on.

“Our study is the first attempt to have a thorough and impartial look at whether high res audio can be heard. We gathered 80 publications, and analysed all available data, even asking authors of earlier studies for their original reports from old filing cabinets. We subjected the data to many forms of analysis. The effect was clear, and there were some indicators as to what conditions demonstrate it most effectively. Hopefully, we can now move forward towards identifying how and why we perceive these differences.”

The samples analysed were mainly classical and jazz music, though it’s not clear for which type of music high resolution recording and playback made the biggest difference.

How the inner ear works

“This helps us understand the mechanisms that enable us to perceive speech and music. We hope that more knowledge about the capabilities of the ear will lead to better treatments for the hearing impaired,” says Anders Fridberger, professor of neuroscience at Linköping University.

To perceive speech and music, you must be able to hear low-frequency sound. And to do this, the brain needs information from the receptors, which are located close to the top of the cochlea, the spiral cavity in the inner ear. This part of the inner ear is difficult to study, as it is embedded in thick bone that is hard to make holes in, without causing damage. Now the international research team has been able to measure, in an intact inner ear, how the hearing organ reacts to sound. The results have been published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To measure in the hearing organ, the researchers used optical coherence tomography, a visualization technology for biological matter that is often used to examine the eye.

“We have been able to measure the inner ear response to sound without having to open the surrounding bone structures and we found that the hearing organ responds in a completely different way to sounds in the voice-frequency range. It goes against what was previously thought of how the inner ear works.

Beat of music automatically

imWhat most people call the sense of rhythm — the mechanism that enables us to clap along or dance to music — is an intangible ability that is exclusive to human beings. For example, imagine a barrel before it is placed inside a barrel organ. On the barrel, you can see exactly which tones will be played and for how long they will be audible. However, the regularity of the rhythm cannot be read on the barrel. This rhythm exists only in our heads, where our brain recognises patterns in the sounds. This helps us to predict the music, enabling us to synchronise our actions with it, i.e. dancing, clapping, singing or playing the violin.

Swaying back and forth

Human beings are the only species that recognise these patterns and scientists suspect that an evolutionary development is at the root of it. Music can work as a social lubricant within a community and a sense of rhythm enables us to make music with others or sway back and forth on the bleachers of a football stadium.

For five years, Fleur Bouwer plumbed the depths of the human sense of rhythm in order to map out the fundamental brain processes that lie at its roots. She discovered that both training — i.e. music lessons — and concentration — i.e. paying attention to the music — are unnecessary in recognising rhythm. Even the brains of untrained listeners can recognise the rhythm of a piece of music, even when performing a completely different task.

However, the PhD candidate would like to dispel one misunderstanding: the fact that nearly everyone is capable of recognising musical rhythm does not mean that everybody can dance to that rhythm. ‘This requires more complex motor skills on top of the ability to recognise the rhythm, and unfortunately these skills are not as universal to humans as the sense of rhythm.’

Parkinson’s disease

Although training and attention are not necessary for picking up rhythm, they do help. Professional musicians have been shown to be better than normal people at predicting notes in a rhythm based on the rhythm they recognised in an excerpt of music. This ability was its strongest when the musicians were concentrating hard. Bouwer: ‘My results show that, to a certain extent, the sense of rhythm is a fundamental brain process that develops unconsciously. However, training may well help you to make predictions based on the rhythm. This is useful when playing music or dancing.’

Bouwer hopes that knowledge of musical perception can ultimately be used to help people. ‘The brain scanner displays activity in the motor networks when people listen to music with a clearly discernible rhythm. I find that particularly interesting. Maybe we can eventually use this relationship between musical experience and the motor system to help people with motor-system disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. However, before we explore this possibility, we must gain a better understanding of the fundamental processes. My research contributes to this.’

On 7 June, a symposium will be held to mark the conferral of Bouwer’s doctorate, at which international scientists will share new insights into sense of rhythm and the brain.

You know that Music demonstrated to alleviate cancer

A systematic review published by the Cochrane Library found that there is significant evidence that music interventions help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, pain and fatigue in cancer patients, while also boosting their quality of life.

Led by Joke Bradt, PhD, associate professor in Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, a team looked into studies that examined the impact of music therapy (a personalized music experience offered by trained music therapists) and music medicine (listening to pre-recorded music provided by a doctor or nurse) on psychological and physical outcomes in people with cancer.

“We found that music therapy interventions specifically help improve patients’ quality of life,” explained Bradt. “These are important findings as these outcomes play an important role in patients’ overall well-being.”

A total of 52 trials were examined in the review, constituting of 3,731 participants with cancer. Twenty-three of the trials were categorized as music therapy and the remaining 29 were classified as music medicine interventions.

Overall, one of the most impactful findings was that music interventions of all kinds resulted in a moderate-to-strong effect in reducing patients’ anxiety.

When it came to pain reduction, the researchers found a large treatment benefit; for fatigue, a small-to-moderate treatment effect was found.

Small reductions in heart and respiratory rates, as well as lowered blood pressure, were also linked to music interventions.

“The results of single studies suggest that music listening may reduce the need for anesthetics and analgesics, as well as decreased recovery time and duration of hospitalization, but more research is needed for these outcomes,” according to Bradt and her co-authors.

When comparing music therapy to music medicine, the team saw a moderate increase in patients’ quality of life when music therapy was applied. There was not a similar effect in the case of music medicine interventions.

“Both music medicine and music therapy interventions play an important role in cancer care but we didn’t quite know yet which interventions may be best suited for which type of outcome,” Bradt said.

In light of the benefits to cancer patients’ quality of life, and specifically their levels of anxiety, pain and fatigue, the researchers hope music interventions will become more widespread.

“We hope that the findings of this review will encourage health care providers in medical settings to seriously consider the use of music therapy in the psychosocial care of people with cancer,” Bradt said.

Clavichord On Music

‘From his very childhood HANDEL had discovered such a strong propensity to Music, that his father, who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. Perceiving that this inclination still increased, he took every method to oppose it. He strictly forbad him to meddle with any musical instrument; nothing of that kind was suffered to remain in the house, nor was he ever permitted to go to any other, where such kind of furniture was in use. All this caution and art, instead of restraining, did but augment his passion. He had found means to get a little clavichord privately convey’d to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep. He had made some progress before Music had been prohibited, and by his assiduous practice at hours of rest, had made such farther advances, as, tho’ not attended to at that time, were no slight prognostications of his future greatness.’’

John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel, 1760

Anybody whose neighbours complain about their keyboard practice could, like Handel, turn to the clavichord. Its seemingly soft tones have enchanted musicians from about the fifteenth century, and contemporary composers including Herbert Howells, Stephen Dodgson and Peter Maxwell Davies have written pieces specifically for this Cinderella of the keyboard.

The clavichord’s mechanism is disarmingly simple: each key lever has a brass blade (tangent) at its end that pushes up against pairs of strings when the key is pressed down. This direct connection with the strings allows the player not only to make dynamic contrasts but also to sustain and control the sound. Apart from the accordion, the clavichord is unique amongst keyboard instruments in allowing the player some vibrato. Eighteenth-century composers such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, for whom the clavichord was an ideal vehicle for the ‘empfindsamer Stil’ (‘’expressive style’’), even notated vibrato in their keyboard music.

Clavichords may be fretted or unfretted. In fretted instruments, one pair of strings serves more than one note, at least for part of the compass; in unfretted ones each note has its own pair of strings. Until the early eighteenth-century clavichords were usually fretted, while later ones were frequently unfretted. Compasses range from around four octaves in the early fifteenth century to five octaves or more in the eighteenth.

Comparing the rectangular clavichord to the harpsichord is akin to the story of the tortoise and the hare. While the harpsichord has always been the more public, dazzling instrument, it petered out towards the end of the eighteenth century in favour of the fortepiano, while the clavichord, being primarily a quiet personal instrument, continued to be used into the nineteenth century – especially in Scandinavia (Carl Nielsen may even have used one when composing). The clavichord was the first type of keyboard instrument that Arnold Dolmetsch revived in 1894, and its intimate charms have inspired performers ranging from Gustav Leonhardt to Oscar Peterson.

Though do not be fooled. For the clavichord is an unforgiving mistress that requires a firm yet delicate touch. It is these apparently opposing demands that draw me inexorably to this lady. Furthermore, Johann Sebastian Bach himself is reputed to have said that the clavichord was his favourite type of keyboard instrument, and his small-scaled French Suites seem particularly well-suited to it. What better reasons to record these works on the clavichord?