Friday, April 23, 2010

Draw her home with music

In a Nature review of Philip Ball's new book on the science of music, Daniel Levitin asks: "Why is it that strangers plucking on strings, dragging horse hair over them or blowing into tubes can cause some of the most deeply satisfying moments of our lives?" With Ball, he offers this answer: "The secret to composing a likable song is to balance predictability and surprise."

Which prompts a reprise of some thoughts I developed in a Boston Gobe column of 1995.

In which I asked: Which of the following strings of letters do you find most interesting?
1) Aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa aaa.

2) One fish two fish red fish blue fish. Black fish blue fish old fish new fish.

3) How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon the bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears.

4) Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

5) Vfg w eklpsi muc dvpk dbjhq a v sm i yu ncq bfox w wgbm ifiai lvdymssa lsa s s aiuro y astwaeqyw rtwvme gv k ljr jxbkdq.
No. 1 is pure repetition. Bor-ring.

No. 5 is chaos; I programmed my computer to generate random letters and spaces. Not much interesting here either.

The human mind is most at home somewhere between perfect order and perfect chaos. Young children will prefer No. 2, a passage from Dr. Seuss with lots of rhythm and simple pattern. A few adults might profess to enjoy No. 4, from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, full of complex, deeply buried patterns.

My guess is that most of you picked No. 3, a snippet of Shakespeare.

Linguists tell us that all human languages are about equally complex, and the level of complexity is roughly equivalent to No. 3. My guess is that the complexity of languages matches the complexity of the human brain; that is, the richness of vocabularies and grammars is about that which the brain can process efficiently and without intolerable errors.

I'd also guess that the complexity of the brain matches the average complexity of the human environment.

We evolved in a world that is balanced somewhere between perfect order and perfect chaos. Our neural systems were presumably adapted by natural selection to recognize and process patterns in the environment.

If I am correct in these suppositions, then No. 3, from Shakespeare, is a pretty good match for nature's average level of complexity. Or, I should say, nature's average level of predictability and surprise. Our brains evolved to process our experience of the world. So too our pleasure centers. As with language, we like music that teases our sense of expectation, and satisfies our expectations just enough to maintain our interest.

Which is pretty much the consclusion that Bell, Levitin and other music theorists are currently proposing. Shakespeare said it long ago (Lorenzo, in The Merchant of Venice):
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn:
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,
And draw her home with music.