The Thousand-Year Ears

A Musical Blog

Why music?

by lizabernstein

As I began reviewing for the midterm, I couldn’t help but return back to our initial question: why do we listen to music?

Music is everywhere.  And it isn’t a new phenomenon.  Music seems to be the most ancient of human activities with rituals from thousands of years ago containing musical components.  It makes us happy; it makes us depressed; it makes us laugh.  It makes us remember our wedding; it makes us remember a friend; it makes us remember our first kiss.  But why?  Evolutionarily, it makes no sense.  Cravings of sex and food are vital to our survival; thus, their survival over the years makes sense to us.  Their occurrence is intuitive.  So why has music survived?  Science may have an answer for us.

It turns out that music may be triggering two different parts of our brain: the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala.  The first is the same part of the brain that releases dopamine, while the second is the part of our brain commonly associated with processing emotion.  Thus, it seems there may be a scientific reason for our overwhelming intrigue for music.  An experiment was recently performed in order to determine how much a subject would pay for a song and if this number was dependent on how much activation occurred within their amygdala.  The subjects were put in an MRI scanner in order to measure the amount of activation that occurred within their amygdala when a song was played.  They were played songs they had never heard before but that they would presumably like based off of a Pandora-like algorithm.  The reason for the songs being previously unknown to the subjects was to avoid them having automatic emotional responses that had been previously created to songs they already knew.  The subjects were then asked how much they would pay for the song on a scale of 0-2 dollars.  The data showed that the subjects whose amygdala was more active for a certain song were willing to pay more for that song.  Thus, the scientists determined that we receive an intellectual reward while listening to music that stimulates our amygdala.

The scientific effects of music have always interested me.  In our culture, music is everywhere.  It is the way we express our emotions, the way we feel our emotions, the way we are.  And it seems to have always been this way.  Maybe eventually we will understand what it is that is so compelling about music.  But for now, all we can do is enjoy.

If you’re interested in learning more about the experiment, I read about it in this article:

Janissary Bands

by zachlichtenstein

Last week we learned about Janissaries and Janissary Bands, and these topics were very intriguing to me. Janissaries had a reputation for being extremely fierce warriors, and were feared all over Europe and the Middle East. In addition, the Janissary Band, also called Mehter, was the oldest military marching band in the world. It was very interesting to learn that some of the greatest composers, such as Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven were all greatly influenced by Janissary Bands. This just goes to show how much of an impact Janissary Bands had on the music of its time, as well as future generations.

Here is a link of a video of an Ottoman Janissary Band:

This video gives some insight into what a Janissary Band might have looked like, and what they might have sounded like when they were playing for the Ottoman Empire. Something that I noticed from watching this video was the ornate, colorful robes that the members of the band are wearing, as well as the different styles of hats. One can clearly see and hear the Turkish crescent in this video, a percussion instrument with bells that was used by the Janissary Bands. You can also see other instruments of the Janissary Bands, such as the Duval, Zurna, Boru, Nakkare, Kos, and Zil. At about the fifty second mark it was very interesting to learn that the Janissary Bands impressed the people they conquered with the “Turning March of the Janissaries.”  In addition, at the eight minute mark, you can see what seems like the leader of the Janissary Bands. It seems as if he is conducting the rest of the band by keeping the pace and setting the tempo. It was also very impressive to observe the discipline and order in which the members of the band played with.

What do people think about Janissary Bands after watching this video? Was it different than what people had imagined when we discussed it in class, or was it similar? Do you think that the Janissary Bands contributed to the fierceness of the army? What are peoples’ thoughts about the sounds of Janissary Bands?

New Age Gregorian Chant

by carlyjroman

A few weeks ago, when I was home for the holiday, I mentioned to my family that I was somehow going to have to be able to identify different Gregorian chants in a listening quiz. Some family members laughed and asked how I would be able to do that. But my uncle went over to his computer and put on a song that sounded like a Gregorian chant. Several voices started singing a monophonic, non-metric chant and at the time, I dreaded hearing it because I thought it would only confuse me more by adding in another indistinguishable Gregorian chant to my mind. Looking back, my first thought was actually, “why does my uncle have Gregorian chants on his iTunes?” It soon became clear as a drum set fill and rhythm joined in that this was not a regular Gregorian chant like those I had heard in class. It was Enigma’s “Sadeness Part 1,” of the new age genre. Some of you may recognize it from the movie Tropic Thunder. Today, I was telling another person about the classes I’m taking and I mentioned this music class and bragged that I now can tell apart different opera songs and Gregorian chants through their different musical technicalities. The first thing the woman said back to me was “Wait! I have to play this song for you! It was really popular in the 90’s!” And sure enough, it was the same modernized Gregorian chant that my uncle had played for me.

I was not sure I was going to write about this song because the drum rhythms and background melodies don’t seem to go with the Gregorian chants at some parts and make it somewhat unpleasant to listen to. However, as I listened to the song over and over, I had the same experience as I did when I was studying for the listening quiz. The song started to sound more natural and I started to enjoy it. Later in the song, some ominous voices sing, or whisper, words that I cannot fully understand (I believe they’re in French), and the Gregorian chant becomes the background music. The progression of this song from a predominant Gregorian chant to a Gregorian chant with rock music in the background, to whispered singing with a peaceful-sounding background band and background Gregorian chant is very original and worth a listen.

Is Music As Diverse As We Think?

by bstrekha

Throughout the course, I have noticed a pattern among the composers we have studied thus far. The pattern exists between Bernart de Ventadorn, Perotin, Machaut, Desprez, Palestrina, Weelkes, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Bach, Rameau, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Can you find the pattern? I’ll give you a second before telling you the answer. (No, the correct answer isn’t that they were all composers, although that is also true.)

They are all men! I found this fact very interesting. Where were all the women at this time? Turns out, they were always there. However, opportunities were limited for women before the twentieth century. (Some may argue that opportunities for women are limited to this day.) Most women were expected to be house wives and few held careers. Among their limited opportunities was a career in music. Opera needed females in order to succeed. But even then, women weren’t respected on the same level as the men. Women had to be on the stage displaying themselves, which caused some to question their respectability.

Even rarer than a woman opera singer was a woman composer. (Our textbook did mention Hildegard of Bingen, who is considered the first great woman composer by musicians. One of her compositions, “Columba aspexit”, can be found on Disc 1. It is the second track.) However, I wanted to concentrate on another name: Francesca Lebrun (1756-1791). Lebrun’s compositions gained praise and were even published in several countries. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough to reach the climax of her career.

Listen to one of her compositions, Sonata in F, Op. 1, No. 3, on the second disc, track 38.

Similarly, (you don’t have to listen to the whole thing) check out:

Francesca Lebrun 6 Sonatas for Violin and Piano Opus I –

I personally think that Lebrun had talent.

Did you wonder how things would be if more women were given opportunities? What if there was a women out there that was even better than Mozart and Beethoven but was not given the same opportunities? What do you think? Would music more developed or, in more general terms, different than what it is now if women were given the same opportunities as men?

Honest Opinions of Nabucco

by Jungreis

In class, it was mentioned that in the concert reviews, the composer and specific work were not to be criticized; the work was known and famous, so the focus was on the specific performance, not something that people have tended to like for 170 years.  For that particular assignment, that rule makes a lot of sense to me.  After all, what kind of critique of a Metallica concert is that they played loud and fast?  Those are the ground rules for thrash (though criticizing Kirk’s use of his wah pedal is fair game).  There are ground rules for opera, too.

Here, no one has amnesty.

I did not like Nabucco.  There were two layers of problems.

The first is the specific performance.  The Friday night performance (and probably all of them) tried to do the opera as it would have been done when it premiered in Italy in the 1840s.  Ignore for now that doing so would have involved using candles and torches rather than electric lights and that there would not have been Skittles for sale.  The first actors looked like the poacher in Jumanji.  I was soon corrected and told that they were not English elephant/Robin Williams hunters but rather Italian soldiers.  Either way, huh?  The story took place in ancient Jordan.  From the moment the show started, I was confused.  That never really left, and I was confused until — actually, I’m still confused.  There were no rifles 2500 years ago!

The second layer is the style itself.  I cannot be the only person in the class who is bothered by high-pitched howling.  More than just me finding it unpleasant, it becomes hard for me to take it seriously.  That presents a big problem with trying to enjoy opera.  There were a few points where I kind of liked the music —  and then they sang “ahhhhhHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”.  (I hope that the onomatopoeia is clear, but if it is not, that is supposed to be a high note by a soprano.)  The enjoyment died immediately.

This guitarist is happy to remark, however, that the instrumental part of the performance was really good and should have been the featured part rather than being down in a pit with the focus on the singers.