“Foot-tapping”: Reading Quotes + Video

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

From: This is Your Brain on Music

Among the most famous rhythms in our culture
is the rhythm often called “shave-and-a-haircut, two bits,” sometimes used
as the “secret” knock on a door. An 1899 recording by Charles Hale, “At a
Darktown Cakewalk,” is the first documented use of this rhythm.

(really difficult time finding Charles Hale’s 1899 tune online, but that is what a Cake Walk looks like. pretty sweet)

Tempo refers to the pace of a musical piece—how quickly or slowly it
goes by. If you tap your foot or snap your fingers in time to a piece of music,
the tempo of the piece will be directly related to how fast or slow you
are tapping. If a song is a living, breathing entity, you might think of the
tempo as its gait—the rate at which it walks by—or its pulse—the rate at
which the heart of the song is beating. The word  beat indicates the basic
unit of measurement in a musical piece; this is also called the  tactus.

Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black” have a
tempo of 96, meaning that there are 96 beats per minute. If you dance to
“Straight Up” or “Back in Black,” it is likely that you will be putting a foot  down 96 times per minute or perhaps 48, but not 58 or 69.

In other words, for a song with a tempo of
100 bpm, if the tempo varies between 96–100, most people, even some
professional musicians, won’t detect this small change

On “Straight Up” there is so much going on, it is
difficult to describe it in words. The drums play a complex, irregular pattern
with beats as fast as sixteenth notes, but not continuously—the
“air” between drum hits imparts a sound typical of funk and hip-hop music.
The bass plays a similarly complex and syncopated melodic line that
sometimes coincides with and sometimes fills in the holes of the drum
part. In the right speaker (or the right ear of headphones) we hear the
only instrument that actually plays on the beat every beat—a Latin instrument
called an afuche  or cabasa  that sounds like sandpaper or beans
shaking inside a gourd. Putting the most important rhythm on a light,
high-pitched instrument is an innovative rhythmic technique that turns
upside down the normal rhythmic conventions. While all this is going
on, synthesizers, guitar, and special percussion effects fly in and out of
the song dramatically, emphasizing certain beats now and again to
add excitement. Because it is hard to predict or memorize where many
of these are, the song holds a certain appeal over many, many listenings.

Think of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little
Star,” written by Mozart when he was six years old. The notes don’t occur
on every beat:
TWIN-kle twin-kle
LIT-tle star (rest)
HOW-I won-der
WHAT you are (rest).

THAT ’ll be  the day (rest)  when
YOU say  good-bye -yes ;
THAT ’ll be  the day (rest)  when
YOU make  me cry -hi ; you
SAY  you gon na leave  (rest ) you
KNOW  it’s a lie ’cause
THAT ’ll be  the day -ay –
AY  when I die .

If you pay close attention to the song’s lyrics and their relationship to
the beat, you’ll notice that a foot tap occurs in the middle of some of the
beats. The first  say on the second line actually begins before you put
your foot down—your foot is probably up in the air when the word  say
starts, and you put your foot down in the middle of the word. The same
thing happens with the word  yes later in that line. Whenever a note anticipates
a beat—that is, when a musician plays a note a bit earlier than
the strict beat would call for—this is called syncopation. This is a very
important concept that relates to expectation, and ultimately to the emotional
impact of a song. The syncopation catches us by surprise, and
adds excitement.

When people clap their hands or snap their fingers with music, they
sometimes quite naturally, and without training, keep time differently
than they would do with their feet: They clap or snap not on the downbeat,
but on the second beat and the fourth beat. This is the so-called
backbeat that Chuck Berry sings about in his song “Rock and Roll Music.”
John Lennon said that the essence of rock and roll songwriting for
him was to “Just say what it is, simple English, make it rhyme, and put a
backbeat on it.” In “Rock and Roll Music” (which John sang with the
Beatles), as on most rock songs, the backbeat is what the snare drum is
playing: The snare drum plays only on the second and fourth beat of
each measure, in opposition to the strong beat which is on one, and a
secondary strong beat, on three. This backbeat is the typical rhythmic element
of rock music, and Lennon used it a lot as in “Instant Karma”
(*whack* below indicates where the snare drum is played in the song, on
the backbeat):

Instant karma’s gonna get you
(rest) *whack* (rest) *whack*
“Gonna knock you right on the head”
(rest) *whack* (rest) *whack*
. . .

But we all *whack* shine *whack*
on *whack* (rest) *whack*
Like the moon *whack* and the stars *whack*
and the sun *whack* (rest) *whack*

Imagine now the John Philip Sousa march, “The Stars and Stripes
Forever.” If you can hear it in your mind, you can tap your foot along
with the mental rhythm. While the music goes “DAH-dah-ta DUM-dum
dah DUM-dum dum-dum DUM,” your foot will be tapping DOWN-up
DOWN-up DOWN-up DOWN-up. In this song, it is natural to tap your foot
for every two quarter notes. We say that this song is “in two,” meaning
that the natural grouping of rhythms is two quarter notes per beat.

Now imagine “My Favorite Things” (words and music by Richard
Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein). This song is in waltz time, or what is
called 3/4 time. The beats seem to arrange themselves in groups of three,
with a strong beat followed by two weak ones. “RAIN-drops-on ROSE-es
and WHISK-ers-on KIT-tens (rest).” ONE-two-three ONE-two-three ONEtwo-
three ONE-two-three.

One counterintuitive point is that loudness is, like pitch,
an entirely psychological phenomenon, that is, loudness doesn’t exist in
the world, it only exists in the mind. And this is true for the same reason
that pitch only exists in the mind. When you’re adjusting the output of
your stereo system, you’re technically increasing the amplitude of the
vibration of molecules, which in turn is interpreted as loudness by our
brains. The point here is that it takes a brain to experience what we call
“loudness.” This may seem largely like a semantic distinction, but it is
important to keep our terms straight. Several odd anomalies exist in the
mental representation of amplitude, such as loudnesses not being additive
the way that amplitudes are (loudness, like pitch, is logarithmic), or
the phenomenon that the pitch of a sinusoidal tone varies as a function
of its amplitude, or the finding that sounds can appear to be louder than
they are when they have been electronically processed in certain ways—
such as dynamic range compression—that are often done in heavy metal

Loudness is measured in decibels (named after Alexander Graham
Bell and abbreviated dB) and it is a dimensionless unit like percent; it
refers to a ratio of two sound levels. In this sense, it is similar to talking
about musical intervals, but not to talking about note names. The scale
is logarithmic, and doubling the intensity of a sound source results in a
3 dB increase in sound. The logarithmic scale is useful for discussing
sound because of the ear’s extraordinary sensitivity: The ratio between
the loudest sound we can hear without causing permanent damage and
the softest sound we can detect is a million to one, when measured as sound-pressure levels in the air; on the dB scale this is 120 dB. The range
of loudnesses we can perceive is called the dynamic range. Sometimes
critics talk about the dynamic range that is achieved on a high-quality
music recording; if a record has a dynamic range of 90 dB, it means that
the difference between the softest parts on the record and the loudest
parts is 90 dB—considered high fidelity by most experts, and beyond the
capability of most home audio systems.

0 dB Mosquito flying in a quiet room, ten feet away from your
20 dB A recording studio or a very quiet executive office
35 dB A typical quiet office with the door closed and computers
50 dB Typical conversation in a room
75 dB Typical, comfortable music listening level in headphones
100–105 dB Classical music or opera concert during loud passages;
some portable music players go to 105 dB
110 dB A jackhammer three feet away
120 dB A jet engine heard on the runway from three hundred feet
away; a typical rock concert
126–130 dB Threshold of pain and damage; a rock concert by the Who
(note that 126 dB is four times as loud as 120 dB)
180 dB Space shuttle launch
250–275 dB Center of a tornado; volcanic eruption

Loudness is one of the seven major elements of music along with
pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, tempo, and meter. Very tiny changes in
loudness have a profound effect on the emotional communication of music.
A pianist may play five notes at once and make one note only slightly
louder than the others, causing it to take on an entirely different role in
our overall perception of the musical passage. Loudness is also an important
cue to rhythms, as we saw above, and to meter, because it is the
loudness of notes that determines how they group rhythmically.

Rhythm is a game of expectation. When we tap our feet we are predicting
what is going to happen in the music next. We also play a game of expectations
in music with pitch. Its rules are key and harmony. A musical
key is the tonal context for a piece of music. Not all musics have a key.
African drumming, for instance, doesn’t, nor does the twelve-tone music
of contemporary composers such as Schönberg. But virtually all of the
music we listen to in Western culture—from commercial jingles on the
radio to the most serious symphony by Bruckner, from the gospel music
of Mahalia Jackson to the punk of the Sex Pistols—has a central set of
pitches that it comes back to, a tonal center, the key.

If a melody is based on the C major scale, for example, we generally
say that the melody is “in the key of C.” The composer may temporarily use
notes from outside the C major scale, but we recognize those as departures—
something like a quick edit in a movie to a parallel scene or a
flashback, in which we know that a return to the main plotline is imminent
and inevitable.

A note doesn’t always sound the same to us every time
we hear it: We hear it within the context of a melody and what has come
before, and we hear it within the context of the harmony and chords that
are accompanying it. We can think of it like flavor: Oregano tastes good
with eggplant or tomato sauce, maybe less good with banana pudding.
Cream takes on a different gustatory meaning when it is on top of strawberries
from when it is in coffee or part of a creamy garlic salad dressing.

tritone = the most disagreeable
interval possible.

the tritone does not come from a simple integer ratio, its ratio
being 43:32.

A ratio of 3:1 is a simple integer ratio, and that defines two
octaves. A ratio of 3:2 is also a simple integer ratio, and that defines the
interval of a perfect fifth. This is the distance between, for example, C
and the G above it. The distance from that G to the C above it forms an
interval of a perfect fourth, and its frequency ratio is 4:3.

Most of us are very
discriminating listeners, and when the composer gets the balance just
slightly wrong, our expectations have been betrayed more than we can
stand, and we switch radio stations, pull off the earphones, or just walk
out of the room.

The Gestaltists wondered how it is that a melody—composed of a set
of specific pitches—could retain its identity, its recognizability, even
when all of its pitches are changed. Here was a case for which they could
not generate a satisfying theoretical explanation, the ultimate triumph of
form over detail, of the whole over the parts. Play a melody using any set
of pitches, and so long as the relation between those pitches is held constant,
it is the same melody. Play it on different instruments and people
still recognize it. Play it at half speed or double speed, or impose all of
these transformations at the same time, and people still have no trouble
recognizing it as the original song. The influential Gestalt school was
formed to address this particular question. Although they never answered
it, they did go on to contribute enormously to our understanding
of how objects in the visual world are organized, through a set of rules
that are taught in every introductory psychology class, the “Gestalt Principles
of Grouping

If you’re at an outdoor concert
with several ensembles playing at once, the sounds of the orchestra in
front of you will cohere into a single auditory entity, separate from the
other orchestras behind you and off to the side. Through an act of volition
(attention) you can then focus on just the violins of the orchestra in
front of you, just as you can follow a conversation with the person next
to you in a crowded room full of conversations.

We are not very sensitive to location in the up-down plane, but
we are very sensitive to position in the left-right plane and somewhat
sensitive to distance in the forward-back plane. Our auditory system assumes
that sounds coming from a distinct location in space are probably
part of the same object-in-the-world. This is one of the explanations for
why we can follow a conversation in a crowded room relatively easily—
our brains are using the cues of spatial location of the person we’re conversing
with to filter out other conversations. It also helps that the
person we’re speaking to has a unique timbre—the sound of his voice—
that works as an additional grouping cue.

The timbres are all very similar,
but some instruments are playing louder than others, creating different
streams in our brains. It is as though a filter or sieve takes the sound of
the woodwind ensemble and separates it out into different parts depending
on what part of the loudness scale they are playing in.

Yodelers can accomplish the same effect with their voices, by
combining pitch and timbral cues; when a male yodeler jumps into his
falsetto register, he is creating both a distinct timbre and, typically, a
large jump in pitch, causing the higher notes to again separate out into a
distinct, perceptual stream, giving the illusion of two people singing interleaved


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