Devices vs Brains: Musical Memory

Hins Anders (Anders Zorn)
Hins Anders (Anders Zorn)

Thousands of tunes

Among other things, I’m a fiddler of folk music — have been for 25 years or more. Unusually, for an American, I specialize in traditional music from Scandinavia — Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland — instead of Irish, Scottish, or Appalachian. It’s a very rich tradition, with roots in the Baroque and earlier, and a number of interesting bowed string instruments besides the violin, namely the nyckelharpa and the hardingfele.

Except for a handful who grew up in a Scandinavian musical tradition in America (very few), we almost all come from outside the ethnic culture, inspired by the love of the music itself.

Most of us play for dancers or are associated with people who do so. There are a number of thriving dance groups in America — the ones that have local musicians dance to live music, and the rest dance to recordings. These are social dance groups, by and large, not performance groups — it’s like having a local square dance. Both the musicians and the dancers are tightly connected with their counterparts in Sweden and Norway, and instructors travel regularly to America to lead workshops and teach at dance and music camps.

At a guess, there are maybe a couple of hundred musicians who dabble seriously in Scandinavian fiddle music in the USA, and perhaps a thousand or so dancers. That’s a small community, small enough that the musicians who’ve been around a while pretty much all know each other, as do the leaders of the dance groups.

In a traditional community in Sweden, the locals would have had a dozen or so dances, and the musicians would have played tunes in those genres. In America, where it’s an adopted tradition, the dancers tend to have a collector’s mentality: “Ooh, let’s learn that dance next!”  So, while a fiddler tied to a village in Sweden might have mastered a few genres of tunes for dances (and many tunes for each type), a fiddler for a modern American dance group needs to be able to cover, say, forty dance genres, with at least two tunes each. A typical free-for-all dance party for Scandinavian dancers might require a basic repertoire of eighty tunes, to just barely cover an evening (80 x 3 minutes each = 240 minutes = 4 hours), and that’s assuming all the ad hoc musicians know all the same tunes.

One of my early Swedish mentors recommended that I specialize in the tunes of a particular district (almost any area has dozens or hundreds of tunes). I explained to him that, as an American Scandie fiddler, I was already specializing — I wasn’t playing Irish or Scottish. Different worlds.

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Gödel, Escher, Bach

An Eternal Golden Braid

Thirty-six years ago, one of the greatest books of its decade was published — Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach.

It’s hard to describe how this book affected a certain kind of person. You had to have an interest in logic, recursion, and self-reference in the fields of mathematics, music, and the visual arts, for starters. But if it caught you at the right stage in your life, when these interests were important to you and you had some familiarity with at least Escher and J. S. Bach, then there was nothing like this book. Anywhere.

And that’s still true. Even Hofstadter’s other books, fascinating and improbable as they all are, don’t come close.

It’s a tour de force — both witty and compelling.

There’s little original I can write on the topic, but here are some highlights…

The basics — Wikipedia and Amazon.

Here’s the reasonable (if not entirely sympathetic) review from the New York Times in 1979 by Brian Hayes. (Some readers just don’t seem to appreciate the linguistic humor, the playfulness with which Hofstadter approaches his subjects.)

In looking for good reviews, I was especially interested in recent ones, to see how the book is still received. I was quite happy to find this gem: A discarded review of ‘Godel, Escher Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid’. Not only do I advise you to read it (the comments section illuminates the variation in fans vs non-fans), but inside I found a surprise — a reference to a paean by Eliezer Yudkowsy, whose deliciously intelligent fan-fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a treat in its own right:

This is simply the best and most beautiful book ever written by the human species…

I’m not alone in this opinion, by the way. For one thing, Gödel, Escher, Bach won a Pulitzer Prize. Or just pick a random scientist and ask ver what vis favorite book is, and 1 out of 5 will say: “Gödel, Escher, Bach“. No other book even comes close.

It is saddening to contemplate that every day, 150,000 humans die without reading what is indisputably one of the greatest achievements of our species. Don’t let it happen to you.

Sure, if you’re just an average person, you might not understand everything in this book – but when you’re done reading, you won’t be an average person any more.

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A habit of old words

A great many writers (perhaps most) have known they wanted to be writers all their lives, scribbling away in childhood, until finally some breakthrough brought writing to the forefront and they began completing and publishing their work.

Many musicians work in mathematics or computer-related fields

But not all of us…

I have an intellectual background in mathematics, which (indirectly) led to a career first as a programmer and then as an IT executive in a number of startup software and computer consulting firms for almost 40 years. But, like many math-types, I also had a competing fascination with music, languages, and the visual arts. Everything, in fact, except writing.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s all Tolkien’s fault. I was a high-volume, indiscriminant, and rapacious reader as a child (still am), never going to grade school with fewer than half a dozen paperbacks to get me through classes, with a strong focus on science fiction and such fantasy as was available in the early 60s. My encounter with Tolkien when his first American editions and then the “authorized” editions came out in paperback, in early high school, gave me a sudden and immediate focus. In brief, I’m the sort of person who reread the Appendices obsessively, trying to understand why his hints at deep history worked so well, how he had built a world with so much consistent detail and background that resonated so effectively with his readers.

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A fashion for resonance

A variety of nyckelharpas
A variety of nyckelharpas

Some discussion of the early history of Western music is necessary in explaining the ancestry and origin of the Swedish nyckelharpa.

In the early Middle Ages, vocal music was performed as a single melody line (monophony). Gregorian chant (or plainchant) originated circa 800-1000 AD, from an older tradition of sacred singing in the early church. This musical style was based on scale arrangements called modes which have a theoretical basis going back to Classical Greece via Jewish and Byzantine religious traditions. Our modern major and minor scales are a weak bi-modal descendent of this system. Modern Western classical music developed in a different direction: that of harmonic modulation.

One of the musical innovations of the Middle Ages was the introduction and development of polyphony, the singing of two musical lines simultaneously. This began as singing in simple octave intervals for mixed choirs of men and boys. Later, melodic lines based on intervals of parallel fifths or fourths developed. This style of singing, called organum, was first described around 895 AD. Organum was not true polyphony, featuring an independent melodic part. It was instead a reinforcement of the main melody, typically sung as the highest line. The first reference to organum describes a well-established practice, so the actual date it became popular is not known. True musical notation only began around 900 AD, so earlier history remains obscure.

The practice of organum singing created a parallel fashion in musical instruments, in which continuous sound either in parallel to the melodic line or as a fixed drone became popular. Pipe instruments (in the form of organs and bagpipes) and stringed instruments were particularly well suited to this style…

Read the rest of The Swedish Nyckelharpa in Its Historic Context.

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Computers are not instruments


It is wonderful to have lived through the birth of the personal computer, and to be part of the computing industry. I have been a programmer and systems designer, and today everything I do has some computer aspect to it: professional work, photography, music, research, websites. With my background, they are not black boxes to me.

Computers are great machines, but they are bad tools at a very fundamental level.

I want to draw a distinction between a machine, which you set up and assign work to, and a tool, which you wield directly, as a human animal. What makes a tool great is its capacity to function as an extension of yourself, as though it were part of your body. Poking a hole with a stick is not importantly different from using a finger; the tactile and visual feedback is immediate in the same way. That stick is a tool.

Becoming adept at stick wielding (think: swordplay) is a matter of entraining muscle movements and responses to real-world feedback. If you have to think about the movement, it’s too slow. Animals like humans are well-equipped for this sort of learned skill. We learn how to walk, run, reach, throw, poke, and so forth as part of our repository of behaviors. Any tool we have that we can treat as a bodily extension is incorporated into our reactions in the same way, and we can become expert users.

In music, we speak of knowing a piece “in the fingers”. “The hands know how to play the tune”. We can add to that tacit skill our rational decisions, reacting to other musicians, to the emotions of the moment, to an experimental harmony, and so on. As beginners, we find that we have to “think too much” about what we’re trying to do. Music becomes a performance pleasure to the degree that our mastery is at our command to be directed as we will.

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