The Thousand-Year Ears

A Musical Blog

The Importance of Frequency in Music and Sound

by jtalwar

Do you ever wonder how you can distinguish one voice from another?  What is it that allows you to distinguish one note from another in a musical composition?  The answer is frequency, which can be defined as the number of repeating events per unit time.  Simply put, frequency is the rate of sound vibration.

Outside of our ability to hear and distinguish specific sounds, you may be wondering why frequency is so important in music.  Each instrument has a range of frequencies it can play and correspondingly each note on a particular instrument has a different frequency.  Would you ever confuse middle C on a guitar with middle C on a piano?  Hopefully the answer is no.  Your ears are sensitive enough to distinguish the slightest differences in frequencies.

Building on this an important question comes to mind.  If you isolated the works of particular composers and evaluated the frequency spectrum of the musical signal (such as through a Fourier transform), would you find any frequency components that would dominate.  Can we identify composers by a set of particular frequencies?  Since each frequency corresponds to a particular note, such a method may help to unlock new insights on composers’ musical tendencies.

On a broader note we could also use frequencies to isolate particular genres of music.  Furthermore we could use frequencies to determine what makes particular musical combinations dissonant or harmonic.  By analyzing the frequencies of musical compositions we can gain quite a bit of quantitative insight into music.

What do you guys think?  Do you believe that this quantitative analysis into the frequency domain of musical signals would unlock previously hidden insights? If not do you think that music is best analyzed qualitatively and that quantitatively analyzing music would drain the mystique associated with it?

(For those interested frequency analysis plays an essential role in computer generated music.  One example of this is the Karplus-Strong algorithm which allows computers to synthesize notes associated with a plucked string).


by isamiro

Astor Piazzolla is a tango composer unlike any other. He spent most of his life in search of a respectable personal style and consequentially created a “new tango” that broke away from the conception of tango of his time. The way Piazzolla intricately develops the structure of his pieces while infusing them with the passion of traditional tango is admirable. Personally, I am a fan. I believe Piazzolla is an amazing composer. Surprisingly, however, there was a time in which Piazzolla believed his roots should remain buried and he should  focus on developing classical, sophisticated compositions. Thankfully, he learned to cherish his tanguero background and create exemplary pieces of pure musical genius.

In 1953, Piazzolla entered a competition in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for which he composed 3 symphonic pieces. He was awarded first prize, and his pieces were performed in a major Buenos Aires concert hall, but the response to his pieces was utter outrage. People could not believe Piazzolla would pollute the setting of the symphonic orchestra with common instruments traditional of Argentinian tango. Piazzolla then left Argentina for a scholarship in Paris to study music under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger. While he attempted to leave his past as a tango musician and composer behind, Boulanger would not allow the true Piazzolla to be lost in his pursuit of the purely classical. She encouraged Piazzolla to compose music that would take the tango that he knew so well to a whole new level. His style grew to become tango that refused to be nostalgic of old times in which classical tango that once took Buenos Aires by storm. Piazzolla’s tango is music brought to life and bursting with passion.

The following video is a recording of my absolute favourite piece by Piazzolla: Libertango. Originally recorded in 1974, this tango is infused with Piazzolla’s passion and creativity. The title literally combine the spanish word for ‘freedom’ and ‘tango,’ symbol of Piazzolla’s breakaway from existing conventions. The eerie piece is brought to life with a melody that encourages spontaneous dancing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

A New Wave of American Composers

by cherliu

Although we covered many well-known American composers last week in class, I would just like to mention a couple of my personal favorite pieces conducted by American composers that we did not get the chance to cover in class.

The first: Leonard Bernstein. One summer I went on a tour through Europe with an orchestra for a summer camp. Our program consisted of Bernstein’s Candide, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Having discussed Mussorgsky in class, I immediately thought of Bernstein’s soundtrack to the famous movie and how it compares to the rest of the program. What do you think of this soundtrack? What makes it so characteristically “American” given the tale of West Side Story that it accompanies? Is it like other things we learned in class? Personally, I always thought it was cool to play a program that basically had little programs within it: Pictures at an Exhibition tells its own tale, then Symphonic Dances from West Side Story illustrates a totally different one, making for an amazing musical journey. And the best part about this recording and about Bernstein is that it’s conducted by the composer himself!! It’s incredible seeing an interpretation and knowing it’s exactly how the man who wrote the music wants it.

The second piece I want to mention is radically different from the Bernstein, but may draw some similarities to pieces we’ve studied in class. It’s Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, and you can listen to the link on youtube. It’s been said that this 10-minute piece is so full of passion and sadness that it “rarely leaves a dry eye”. It’s often played in commemorations of deaths and other solemn events. Sounds pretty dramatic for a piece of music, but you decide: would hearing Adagio for Strings played live, or even through a recording, leave you teary-eyed? Does hearing it evoke any particular emotions or thoughts? How does it compare to some of the other American compositions we’ve heard?

Understanding George Crumb’s “Black Angel”

by yanru2013

Crumb’s work challenges almost every aspect of the definition for music. At the beginning of the course, we learned basic musical elements to be rhythm, meter, tempo, pitch, melody, dynamics, instrumental textures, harmony, tonality and form, etc. Crumb basically gives each of these elements a new meaning in his work, Black Angel. Many parts in this work are not written in bar lines, making it impossible to have strict meters. Therefore, this piece is highly free and depends on the interpretation of the performers. With exceptions of few fragments, the piece has no clear and consistent motifs, themes, or melody. It sounds like an experiment of dissonance intertwining with irregular beats in the rhythmic line. The use of instrument is also challenged in this piece, with the violins being performed in unconventional way that will make a traditional violin teacher turn pale. Personally I really appreciate the frank and unconstraint anxiety the piece displays. It reminds me of the extreme expressionist in the modernism era.

Compared with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Movement II, Black Angel does not have a form, a rhythmic pattern. While in Beethoven’s String Quartet the violinists play their instruments with conventional standards, Crumb developed several techniques producing sounds that we did not hear previously. These techniques produce a violent and grotesque quality for the piece. For instance, in some part, Crumb utilizes “scooping effects”, in which the high violins play fast glissandos to sound like crying and yelling; in other parts, Crumb also uses violins to imitate a flute by bowing their strings with the back of the bow (the wood). These new techniques add new feelings into this piece.

Black Angel has some underlying connections with Western Art Music traditions. For instance, I would like to label this music as a program music. Program music is a tradition of the Western Art Music, fully developed during the Romantic period. The title, Black Angel, and its subtitle, “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”, gives suggestions for the audience to establish their own listening experience according to the music and to the implication of the program. My own interpretation of the piece is that this piece’s emotion and tension has some connection with the very concepts of “Black Angel”, “Darkness”, and“Profanity”. Without the program aspect of this piece, I would very like go to a different direction when try to make sense out of this piece. Thus this piece still has connection with Western Art music in the sense that it is a program music.

Learning to Appreciate Fluxus

by scottrgs

I have to admit that, when we began to study the Fluxus movement in class, I had some serious doubts. I mean, just a couple weeks ago we were studying brilliant composers like Beethoven and Wagner. It’s hard to see Fluxus as something that carries on their tradition. The project of the Fluxus movement seems only even tentatively connected to music.

And yet, if I think Fluxus is absurd, the Fluxus artists probably think so too. There is a certain light-heartedness – a sense of humor, even – in this movement that is rare to find in the art world. I’m happy to say that I have a much greater appreciation for Fluxus after studying it in this course. That said, the one moment that won me over was the Fluxus performance in class. It was entertaining, silly, and in all honesty, fun to watch.

I think the success of Fluxus is its ability to connect with audiences in new ways. Fluxus performances have visual as well as aural aspects. They engage with the audience on more than just an aesthetic dimension. I tried watching a few Fluxus videos on youtube and, I have to admit, they are not nearly as interesting or fun. The emphasis of Fluxus art on live performance is, I think, essential to its nature. There is a level of connectedness that we experience during live performances that is lost to us when we watch a recording.

All in all, if we laugh at the Fluxus movement and don’t take it seriously, it’s probably because the artists themselves are laughing with us.

Penn Ancient Voices

by Roopa Shankar

On Sunday, I decided to attend the Penn Ancient Voices concert. Although my primary motivation for attending the concert was for the second concert review assignment, I truly believe that I would have attended even if I didn’t have to write the review. This made me think about how much MUSC 030 has changed my perceptions of music, especially “ancient” music.

I used to be extremely closed-minded when it came to music. I liked my mainstream music and then my classical music (and that’s only because I’ve been an instrumentalist for almost my whole life), but that was it. Electronic music? No. Country music? So weird. Opera music? Even weirder.

Now I listen to lieds, watch operas and musicals in my free time, absolutely love Gregorian chant and motets and renaissance mass music, and listen to arias while I get ready for class in the morning. How times have changed.

I thought it was especially interesting that I enjoyed the Penn Ancient Voices concert so much, considering how my 17-year old self would probably laugh at my now 19-year old self. I’m so glad that I’ve reached the point in my life where I can truly say that I appreciate all forms of music. I’ve become one of the most open-minded music listeners, and I feel as though being so open with the kinds of music I listen to has helped to enrich my life in so many different ways. There are emotions that opera music make me feel that a mainstream pop music piece cannot make me feel. There are certain days where country music just fits. And even though I am not a spiritual person whatsoever, I still completely and wholeheartedly feel the beauty of Renaissance mass music or religious Gregorian chant.

What I loved most about the fact that I enjoyed the Penn Ancient Voices concert so much was the fact that I understood not a single word of what they were singing; I followed along with the text in my program for bits and pieces of it, but mostly I got tired of staring down at my program and instead wanted to just relax and enjoy the beautiful melismas and the polyphonic melodies and the blending and merging of high female voices and stable lower male voices. To me that is a testament to the fact that there is something so appealing to me about this style of music, and this power and allure transcends the lyrics.

If you don’t know about Penn Ancient Voices already, here is a shameless plug: they are a select acapella chorus of 20 to 25 voices, and they perform music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, including Gregorian Chant and music from the likes of Dufay, Josquin (!), Gibbons, and Byrd. They perform two concerts a year, and I definitely will be at the next one! It’ll be interesting to see how my taste in music changes over the upcoming years, especially as I continue to explore new genres of music. I definitely encourage you to check out Penn Ancient Voices during your time at Penn!

Girls Rock

by Jungreis

Josquin, Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, Haydn, Bach…what do they all have in common?

I will not give an anatomy lesson.

This course has focused almost exclusively on male composers. There is valid rationale behind that, the reasons behind which go beyond this course: the great works in Western music have tended to be written by men. The course would be flagrantly fraudulent in advertising itself as a tour of Western music if it did not hit on pieces like Beethoven’s Fifth. Yes, we listened to a little bit by Clara Schumann, but her husband was a famous composer, so she gets fame by association. (She was also quite good.)

For now, I’m not going to concern myself with why it is the case that old, “classical” music is so male-dominated. I don’t care, because it’s ridiculous. Plenty of good music, even from traditionally male-dominated genres like shred guitar, has come from women.

I want to recognize a few contemporary ladies who play awesome music, some of whom I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog. I will certainly think of an awful omission right after I post this, so when you see that I’ve left off some of your favorites, note that I’ve done the same to myself.

Tarja Turunen: Tarja was the lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Nightwish, until her husband started managing the band and the keyboard player disliked dealing with him. They fired her immediately after a big concert in Helsinki, Finland; the show is now known as End of an Era. That was quite the era, though. They recorded great songs like Wishmaster, Stargazers, Romanticide (awesome title…stupid rap section towards the end), and Ever Dream. Tarja’s unbelievable vocals are critical to these songs being as good as they are. In fact, when Nightwish was forming, the intention was not to form a metal band. It was only after the others in the band realized that her vocals were much too powerful for an acoustic rock band that they went towards metal.

Orianthi: She has a last name, though she doesn’t use it professionally and I don’t know it. She is a guitar player. She worked with Michael Jackson towards the end of his life. She’s played with Steve Vai, who I’ve remarked is one of the all-time great guitarists. Her instrumental with Vai, Highly Strung, is a really cool combination of guitar harmonies and guitar combat. (The “combat” remark will make complete sense once you listen to the song.) Most of her other original music is pop/punk that is heavy on the pop, though she’s managed to put some cool guitar licks into mainstream-sounding songs, which I of course support – probably under all circumstances.

Ana Vidović: She is amazing. Ana is a classical guitarist; she does not write or even arrange her own material, as far as I know, though I really like the idea of her being part of a group that does original music. Nonetheless, I’ve posted on here a bunch of times that the mark of a great player isn’t just the ability to do what seems impossible, but the ability to do so while making it look easy, even mundane. I saw her in September in Baltimore. Some of what she played was incredibly demanding, and I’m a guitarist; I know the tricks we use to make ourselves seem better than we really are! She looked like “Ho hum.”

Lzzy Hale: Halestorm has about five good songs, but that’s not Lzzy’s fault. Vocally, she is at the other end of the spectrum from Tarja – very good, but hardly polished. It works better that way. Halestorm is much angrier than Nightwish, though I’d love to hear Hale singing at least one section Romanticide. (It is the angry part of the song, but still not the silly rap section at the end that should not exist.) What I in fact blame for Halestorm’s mediocrity is a perceived loss of aggression in a heavy rock setting due to having a female band member, and then overcompensating (in inane ways) for something that is in fact not missing.

(By the way, I’ve spelled her name right. For whatever reason, she does not write an “i” in what is pronounced “Lizzie”.)

Since Lzzy also plays the guitar (sometimes), I like the following idea. Have her learn to play the bass; it’s like the guitar but you get confused at first when you’re playing the highest strings. Ana and Orianthi will be the guitar tandem. Orianthi has the 80s shred style, and while Ana claims not to be so great with a pick, I’m sure that she would be just fine using a pick for rhythm playing and then using her fingers for lead lines. Tarja will be the lead vocalist, though she will split time with Lzzy and to some extent Orianthi. The band still lacks a drummer, so maybe grab Meg White from The White Stripes and see what happens.

Yes, the band has a lot of different styles that have the potential to clash. It would take some adjusting by all of them. They could pull it off, though. After all, these girls rock.

The Dance of Eternity

by Jungreis

One of our reading assignments concerns the free exploration of the full range of tones available, without regard for adhering to standard conventions (scales). I support doing this in the practice room. (The performance isn’t the time to get cute.) The other fundamental part of music that has a standard structure that is often ignored is rhythm. “Common time” (4/4) is four notes to a beat, the standard “1 2 3 4” that everyone knows. It is also somewhat common to play with a rhythm that is not at all like 4/4.

Go to YouTube and watch a music video for “The Dance of Eternity” by Dream Theater. (In fact, listen to that whole Scenes from a Memory album, and while you’re at it, listen to every Dream Theater song that’s posted, particularly “Under a Glass Moon” and “Stream of Consciousness”.) In a few places, the rhythm is fairly normal, no matter how bizarre it is to hear a ragtime piano solo in the middle of that song. Most of the rest of the song is not in standard four-four time, but rather “chaos-four” time. I do not quite consider it free time, as there is a clear structure and plan that they’re following (at least clear to them), but I’ve thought about how I would write the music, and I’m clueless about what kind of time signature I would use for most parts of the song. They at least have the decency in “Stream of Consciousness” to play in 5/4 for a while, and “Under a Glass Moon” isn’t even that weird.

I have a transcription (by someone else) of “The Dance of Eternity”. Here are the time signatures of eight consecutive measures: 3/8, 7/16, 2/4, 7/16, 5/8, 7/16, 2/4, 3/8. For the few seconds of music in those eight measures, the choices make sense to me. At the same time, the meter is supposed to be a guide to the performer about what the rhythm is, more or less. It will mathematically work out (eventually) to write something in 4/4 even if it really lasts five beats (after 20 beats, everything works out), but it would be extremely misleading in my opinion to write the Mission Impossible theme in 4/4 time, expecting the performers to catch up every five measures.

I don’t know how to handle something as bizarre as the Dream Theater example. The best I can do is to use something like a dotted vertical line to denote the end of a measure, suggesting to the performer to take my notation with a grain of salt: don’t expect the time signatures to be at all helpful in learning the song.

Now consider Tool’s song “Schism”. I’ve always seen the main riff with the quick triplet written in alternating 5/8 and 7/8. That is not the least bit helpful in clarifying what the rhythm should be, though it’s completely correct. However, combining 5 and 7 to write the riff in 12/8 is probably worse. There’s no triplet rhythm as 12/8 typically indicates. (The “triplet” to which I referred is just a quick flash of three notes; it is unrelated to the triplet rhythm suggested by 12/8 time.)

I think one sign of a good songwriter is the ability to write something good that is difficult to notate.

Where do YOU draw the line?

by cgallopo

In our latest class discussion, we touched upon the likes of John Cage and Alison Knowles, two performers whose performances blur the lines between music, performance art, and something completely different. With performances ranging from the absurd “Shoes of your choice” from Alison Knowles, in which the performer puts his or her shoes on a music stand and then speaks about them for an undetermined amount of time, to John Cage’s “4’33””, in which the performer lifts the lid of the piano and then sits in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

Now, before this goes any further, let me preface this post by saying two things: first of all, I’m a huge fan of John Cage – I was introduced to his compositions in a music class my freshman year and have had an affinity and an appreciation for him ever since. Second, I do intend to open up a class-wide discussion on what we consider music, or performance art, or simply a lady talking about her shoes. I am genuinely curious about the class’s opinion, because I do not consider the aforementioned compositions (and others like them) to be music.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines music as “the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity”. Although I am certainly not opposed to learning about performance artists pushing the limits of expression, I’m not sure that “Shoes of your choice” in any way fits the definition of music. In a class titled 1000 Years of Musical Listening, I am asking the open question of “where does this fit?” Clearly it lies somewhere along the music spectrum, or it would not have been introduced in class; I am curious as to how others delineate their respective spectrums, and whether or not they include Alison Knowles and John Cage.

The music class that I referred to in the second paragraph was MUSC-016 The Technologies of Listening. In this class, we explored the idea of sound, the reproduction of sound, and silence; it was John Cage’s fascination with absolute silence that intrigued me the most. He went so far as to visit an anechoic chamber at Harvard to experience the quietest place on earth. While Cage compositions are fascinating, my music spectrum is such that these pieces lay beyond it’s boundaries.

Igor Stravinsky—20th Century Role Model

by qkalantary

Igor Stravinsky was an incredible character and thankfully, the first composer we’ve studied who was captured on film. When I first saw him hit a chord he loved over and over again on the piano, it was hard not to smile ( This composer had a special personality in his own right. Stravinsky was all about the power of music in itself, rather than as a form of expression or something meant to generate an emotional response. To me, this at first seemed contradictory. It was hard not to see the joy that Stravinsky had playing that 8 note chord—why does he claim to care little of emotion? When i investigated this quote in context, it was much easier to understand his argument.


Stravinsky said that these people who focus on emotion in music “want a drug – dope -…. Music would not be worth much if it were reduced to such an end. When people have learned to love music for itself, when they listen with other ears, their enjoyment will be of a far higher and more potent order, and they will be able to judge it on a higher plane and realize its intrinsic value.” He further says listening is different from hearing. “A duck hears also.” Stravinsky thought of music as something further than entertainment. He thought of music as that which transcended humanity’s seemingly innate desire to “feel” a certain way. This is why he is so often thought of as a mechanical musician. To be fair, he did refer to himself as “a maker” in a documentary and claims that for him the process of making music was more satisfying than the final process. In his work, Stravinsky showed that this new style of 20th century music may not be directly appealing to the emotional sides of the human existence. He was so controversial that he was even escorted away from his productions like a prized fighter after a match. Stravinsky’s attitude towards emotions in music was very unconventional for the time yet eventually matched the lack of convention in his music and the music of the 20th century, where all rules were broken and musicians were free to do things which seemed far too outlandish for the confines of a symphony or opera.


See a great documentary on his life here: