Angels Dancing

Medieval theologians, or so I’ve heard, engaged in vigorous debate on such subjects as how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. This sort of thing is what happens when humans develop an elaborate intellectual discipline that has no relation whatever to anything real.

Last night I stumbled on a dissertation written at CNMAT, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at UC Berkeley. The author is Psyche Loui. Having picked up an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at Berkeley, she is now an instructor in neurology at Harvard. I guess I’m impressed, but I’m not sure.

Her dissertation is an entirely serious, scholarly paper that documents her research on how people experience music. Playing long series of artificial melodies to hapless undergraduates wearing headphones, that type of thing. She used the Bohlen-Pierce scale quite extensively. If you don’t know what that is, you’re not missing much.

I forced myself to read large chunks of the dissertation. (Okay, I skipped the statistics and went straight to the conclusions.) Having fought my way to the bitter end, I no longer think it’s hilarious. But I still think it’s a little creepy. Stuff that’s really obvious to any musician is nailed down by means of rigorous and highly artificial testing methodologies. I mean, did we really need to run tests to confirm that when people listen to melodies over and over, they’re more likely to recognize them the next time they hear them?

I took a whole bunch of notes, but I’m not going to bore you with them. Suffice it to say that while Loui’s dissertation investigates how the human brain perceives music, it has nothing whatever to do with music. I’m going to echo Sherlock Holmes here: Now that I’ve read her research, I’m going to do my best to forget it as quickly as possible. (I don’t remember which story it’s in, so that’s not an exact quote.)

I don’t need this stuff cluttering up my brain. And … and … what on Earth is the point of doing a bunch of research into musical perception if it doesn’t help us make better music?

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