Go to the profile of Ric Amurrio

Ric AmurrioMay 30


“We begin by misunderstanding the music we play: listen carefully and follow what [these voices] say to you, and you will see, you will then hear more and more distinctly, and you will know more and more about yourself”

[Dich immer besser in Dir auskennen]”.

Communication typically goes wrong because other people have, as we put it, the wrong picture of what we’re meaning. It can take an age for two people to realize divergences over quite basic things. We’re very bad at managing to make good pictures in the minds of others.


Messages get misunderstood because the way we categorize

What is taking place in our mind when we listen to music? Is it a construction of formal structures, or is it a correlation between emotional labels and musical motifs, electrical impulses in the brain and so on? This assumption, which is regarded almost as self-evident, is the starting point for all the attempts to explain the nature of the musical experience.

A lot of unhappiness comes about in this world because we can’t let other people know what we mean clearly enough. On the one hand, pure formalism, which claims that musical forms are constructed in the listeners mind while listening to the music, lacks the power to explain the importance of music to human life — the excitement evoked by a particularly marvelous performance, for example.

One of the philosophers who can help us with our communication problems is Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was a recluse. He had a stutter, paused for ages in the middle of his sentences and had a habit of storming out if he didn’t like what people were saying. It was weirdly the ideal background for someone intent on studying how easily communication between people goes wrong.

Born Vienna in 1889. The youngest child of a wealthy, highly cultured but domineering steel magnate. Three of Ludwig’s four brothers took their own lives, and Ludwig himself was frequently troubled by suicidal thoughts. After studying at Cambridge, his father died and he inherited a lot of money. He gave it all away, mainly to his already very rich relatives and went to live in spartan solitude in Norway.

His two great works, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) has fascinated artists, playwrights, poets, novelists, musicians and even movie-makers, and yet in a sense Wittgenstein’s himself realized, his style of thinking was at odds with the “Zeigeist” or “scientism,” the view that every intelligible question has either a scientific solution or no solution at all.

How do human beings manage to communicate ideas to one another?

Wittgenstein thought of this while reading a newspaper article about a Paris court case in which, in order to explain with greater efficacy, the details of an accident that had taken place a road junction, the court had arranged for the accident to be reproduced visually using model cars and pedestrians.

It was a Eureka moment. In Wittgenstein’s view words enables us to make pictures of facts. And his answer is that language works by triggering within us pictures of how things are in the world. To say: The palm tree is by the shore, paints a rapid sketch that like the model lets another person see the situation in their mind and understand.

On the whole, problems of communication typically start because we don’t have a clear and accurate enough picture of what we mean in our own heads. We say meaningless things which therefore can go nowhere in the minds of others or we read more meaning into the words of other than they ever intended or than is warranted.

You tell your partner you had a conversation with an interesting person at the hotel reception. The picture in your mind is an innocent one. But your partner swiftly forms a very different impression.

In the humanities, scientism takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies” — .

Ray Monk

Wittgenstein says that there are many questions, to which we do not have scientific answers, not because they are deep, impenetrable mysteries, but simply because they are not scientific questions.

Roger Penrose, has a theory, on Penroses own admission, speculative, in which he thinks that a stream of consciousness is an orchestrated sequence of quantum physical events taking place in the brain. But suppose he’s correct, would we, as a result, understand ourselves any better? Is a scientific theory the only kind of understanding? Well, you might ask, what other kind is there?

Philosophy is not a theory but an activity. It strives, not after scientific truth, but after conceptual clarity.

In the Tractatus, this clarity is achieved through a correct understanding of the logical form of language, which, once achieved, was destined to remain inexpressible, leading Wittgenstein to compare his own philosophical propositions with a ladder, which is thrown away once it has been used to climb up on.

Ray Monk

The difference between science and philosophy, is between two distinct forms of understanding: the theoretical and the non-theoretical. Scientific understanding is given through the construction and testing of hypotheses and theories; philosophical understanding, on the other hand, is resolutely non-theoretical. What we are after in philosophy is the understanding that consists in seeing connections.

Instead of thinking that language is only just about pictures, he developed the idea that language is like a kind of tool that we use to play different games, which doesn’t literally mean games, more patterns of intentions.

So if a parent says to a frightened child: “Don’t worry — everything’s gonna to be fine”, they can’t know it really will be fine.

They aren’t playing the Rational Prediction From Available Facts Game.

They’re playing another game: The Words as an Instrument of Comfort and Security Game Wittgenstein’s point is that all kinds of misunderstandings arise when we don’t see which kind of game someone is involved in.

If one’s partner says: “You never help me. You’re so unreliable.” The natural inclination might be to hear this as a part of a Stating the Facts Game; like saying: The battle of Waterloo was in 1815.

So one might respond by citing facts about how actually you got the car insurance yesterday, and you bought some vegetables at lunch time, too. But actually, this person is involved in a different language game.

They’re using words not to capture facts. They’re playing The Help and Reassurance Game. So in the language game, they’re involved in, “You never help” means “I want you to be more nurturing.”

For example, if we ask a group of subjects to point at the appropriate colored rectangle when they hear the word “red,” we could come to some conclusions about the empirical link between the word and the subjects’ behavior.

In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein also wanted to draw attention to how much of our self-understanding depends on the words of others, on languages that have developed publicly and communally over many centuries long before we’re born.

To give as example, in Western cultures we roll out a red carpet for an honored guest; we do not wear loud red clothes at a funeral; a bride is dressed in white. Grasped as norms, these links constitute a meaning of these objects, and thus they are analogical to grammatical links in a particular language.


Non-theoretical understanding is the kind of understanding we have when we say that we understand a poem, a piece of music, a person or even a sentence.

How does one demonstrate an understanding of a piece of music?

What is needed, is “a culture”: “If someone is brought up in a particular culture-and then reacts to music in such-and-such a way, you can teach him the use of the phrase ‘expressive playing.’ What is required for this kind of understanding is a form of life, a set of communally shared practices, together with the ability to hear and see the connections made by the practitioners of this form of life.

The reason computers have no understanding of the sentences they process is not that they lack sufficient neuronal complexity, but that they are not, and cannot be, participants in the culture to which the sentences belong. A sentence does not acquire meaning through the correlation, one to one, of its words with objects in the world; it acquires meaning through the use that is made of it in the communal life of human beings.

We are bewitched into thinking that if we lack a scientific theory of something, we lack any understanding of it. Imagining, for example, that we will understand ourselves better if we study the quantum behaviour of the sub-atomic particles inside our brains, a belief analogous to the conviction that a study of acoustics will help us understand Beethoven’s music.

The British philosopher Alan Watts, said it best: A river is not its water, and by taking the water out of the river, you lose the essential quality of river, which is its motion, its activity, its flow.

One of the crucial differences between the method of science and the non-theoretical understanding that is exemplified in music, art, philosophy and ordinary life, is that science aims at a level of generality which necessarily eludes these other forms of understanding.

To understand a person is to be able to tell, for example, whether he means what he says or not, whether his expressions of feeling are genuine or feigned.

“Is there, such a thing as ‘expert judgment’ about the genuineness of expressions of feeling?” Yes, , there is.

But the evidence upon which such expert judgments about people are based is “imponderable,” resistant to the general formulation characteristic of science. “Imponderable evidence,”“includes subtleties of glance, of gesture, of tone. I may recognise a genuine loving look, distinguish it from a pretended one… But I may be quite incapable of describing the difference… If I were a very talented painter I might conceivably represent the genuine and simulated glance in pictures.”

“An inner process stands in need of outward criteria,” And where does one find such acute sensitivity? Not, typically, in the works of psychologists, but in those of the great artists, musicians and novelists. “People nowadays,” , “think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them-that does not occur to them.”

Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value


How is retrospection different from other memories? Why can music trigger memories in us? And how does expectation lead to the experience of emotion? Tune recognition or as I like to call it retrospection involves a number of complex neural computations interacting with memory. It requires that our brains ignore certain features while we focus only on features that are invariant.

The brain must be able to separate the aspects of a song that remain the same each time we hear it from those that are one-time-only variations. If the brain didn’t do this, each time we heard a song at a different volume, we’d experience it as an entirely different song! And volume isn’t the only parameter that potentially changes.


The relational school argues that our CPU and main memory system stores information about the relations between objects and ideas, but not necessarily details about the objects themselves.

If shown two cars that barely scraped each other, one group of subjects might be asked, How fast were the cars going when they scraped each other? Their memory output of what they actually saw had been reconstructed on the basis of a simple question the experimenter had asked a week earlier.

Have you ever tried to tell someone about a dream you had over breakfast the next morning? We naturally and automatically fill in this missing information when retelling the dream. The left brain makes up stories based on the limited information it gets.

We can change all of the pitches used in the song , the tempo, and the instrumentation, and the song is still recognized as the same song. We can change the arrangement say from blue- grass to rock, or heavy metal to classical and, as the Led Zeppelin lyric goes, the song remains the same.


how it is that songs get stuck in our heads. Scientists call these ear worms, from the German Ohrwurm. Our best explanation is that the neural circuits representing a song get stuck in playback mode, and the song or worse, a little fragment of it plays back over and over again.


Supporters of this view argue that memory is like a tape recorder or digital video camera, preserving all or most of our experiences accurately, and with near perfect fidelity. Experiences are stored as traces, they said, that are reactivated when we retrieve the episodes from the CPU and memory.

We also know anecdotally that people can recognize hundreds, if not thousands, of voices. You can probably recognize the sound of your mother’s voice within one word, even if she doesn’t identify herself. You cccan tell your spouse’s voice right away, and whether he or she has a cold or is angry with you, all from the timbre of the voice.

We can hold in memory the sound of famous peoples voices, often as theyre uttering specific content or catchphrases: Im not a crook, Say the magic woid and win a hundred dollars, Go ahead — make my day, We remember the specific words and specific voices, not just the gist.


In order to survive, to find edible food, water, shelter, to escape predators, and to mate, the organism must deal with three scenarios.


Objects that may create identical, or nearly identical, patterns of stimulation on our eardrums, retinas, taste buds, or touch sensors may actually be different entities.


Second, objects, though in presentation they may be different, are inherently identical. Although I may be used to hearing your voice in person, through both ears, when I hear you over the phone, in one ear, I need to recognize that you’re the same person.

The first two are perceptual processes: understanding that a single object may manifest itself in multiple viewpoints, or that several objects may have identical viewpoints.


The third problem states that objects, although different in presentation, are of the same natural kind. A red apple may look different from a green apple, but they are both still apples.

Leonard Meyer notes that classification is essential to enable composers, performers, and listeners to internalize the norms governing musical relationships, and consequently, to comprehend the implications of patterns, and experience deviations from stylistic norms.

Our need to classify, as Shakespeare says in A Midsummer Nights Dream, is to give to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name.

Aristotle laid the methods by which modern philosophers and scientists think about how concepts form in humans. He argued that categories result from lists of defining features. For example, we have in our minds an internal representation for the category “triangle.” It contains a mental image or picture of every triangle we’ve ever seen, and we can imagine new triangles as well.


How do we get out of this reliance on definitions? Is there an alternative? Wittgenstein proposed that category membership is determined not by a definition, but by family resemblance. We call something a heavy metal if it resembles other things we have previously called heavy metal.

Although most heavy metal songs have distorted electric guitars, so does Beat It by Michael Jackson — in fact, Eddie Van Halen plays the guitar solo in that song. Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin is a heavy metal anthem, and there are no heavy, loud drums in 90 percent of that song.


Is a robin a bird? Most people would answer yes. Is a chicken a bird? Is a penguin? Categories do not always have clear boundaries. Questions of membership are a matter of debate and there can be differences of opinion:

Certain stimuli hold a privileged position in our perceptual system or our conceptual system, and that these become prototypes for a category: In the case of our perceptual system, categories like “red” and “blue” are a consequence of our retinal physiology; certain shades of red are universally going to be regarded as more vivid, more central, than others because a specific wavelength of visible light will cause the “red” receptors in our retina to fire maximally. We form categories around these central, or focal, colors.

Rosch tested this idea on a tribe of New Guinea people, the Dani, who have only two words in their language for colors, mili and mola, which essentially correspond to light. When shown a bunch of different shades of red, we don’t pick a particular one because we’ve been taught that it is the best red, we pick it out because our physiology bestows a privileged perceptual position on it.


(a) categories are formed around prototypes; (b) these prototypes can have a biological or physiological foundation; © category membership can be thought of as a question of degree, with some tokens being “better” exemplars than others; (d) new items are judged in relation to the prototypes, forming gradients of category membership (e) there don’t need to be any attributes which all category members have in common, and boundaries don’t have to be definite.

Think of “Revolution 9” (an experimental tape piece written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with no original music, no melody or rhythm, which begins with an announcer repeating, “Number 9, Number 9,” over and over again) how far is it from a prototype song?

There are three eras of Fleetwood Mac: the blues years with Peter Green on guitar, the middle pop years with Danny Kirwan, Christine Mc Vie, and Bob Welch as songwriters, and the later years after Buckingham-Nicks joined. Although Mick Fleetwood and John Mc Vie, the drummer and bassist, are the only two members who have been with the group from its beginning, neither of whom sings or wrote the major songs.


Most musicians cannot start playing a piece of music they know at any arbitrary location; musicians learn music according to a hierarchical phrase structure. Other experiments have shown that musicians are faster and more accurate at recalling whether a certain note appears in a musical piece if that note is at the beginning of a phrase or is on a downbeat, rather than being in the middle of a phrase or on a weak beat.

Heres a demonstration, done by Daniel J Levitin based on an experiment that Andrea Halpern conducted: Does the word at appear in the American national anthem ?

If you’re like most people, you scanned through the song in your head, singing it to yourself at a rapid rate, until you got to the phrase What so proudly we hailed, at the twilights last gleaming.

 Now, a number of interesting things happened here.

First, If you were only able to play back a particular version you had stored in memory, you wouldnt be able to do this.


Your memory is not like a tape recorder; if you want to speed up a tape recorder or video or film to make the song go faster, you have to also raise the pitch.


When you did finally reach the word at in your mind your target in answering the question I posed you probably couldn’t help yourself from continuing, pulling up the rest of the phrase, the twilights last gleaming. This suggests that our memory for music involves hierarchical encoding not all words are equally salient, and not all parts of a musical phrase hold equal status. We have certain entry points and exit points that correspond to specific phrases in the music — again, unlike a tape recorder.

Daniel J Levitin


We need a theory of category formation that will account for

(a) categories that have no clear prototype,

(b) contextual information, and

© the fact that we form new categories all the time, on the spot.

If Im only storing abstract, generalized gist information, how could I construct a category like songs that have the word love in them without having the word love in the title ?

The distinguishing feature of exemplar theory is that every experience, every word heard, every kiss shared, every object seen, every song youve ever listened to, is encoded as a trace in memory.


As we attend to a melody, we must be performing calculations on it; in addition to registering the absolute values, the details of its presentation details such as pitch, rhythms, tempo, and timbre we must also be calculating melodic intervals and tempo-free rhythmic information.

We are storing both the abstract and the specific information contained in melodies. They preserve context, multiple-trace memory models can also explain how we sometimes retrieve old and nearly forgotten memories. Have you ever been walking down the street and suddenly smelled an odor that you hadn’t smelled in a long time, and that triggered a memory of some long-ago event?

Wittgenstein uses understanding music as a model for understanding language. Understanding what it means to understand music can give us a clue to understanding language. The issue is particularly challenging when instrumental music absolute music, as Wagner was the first to name it is at issue: How could a collection of pure musical sounds express anything?

It seems obvious that people understand music when they listen to it,

However, understanding music is not a mental event that occurs in the listener’s mind as a reaction to musical sounds. We therefore cannot understand what it means to understand music through psychological or statistical studies of mental reactions.

We cannot answer questions about aesthetic impressions through empirical experiments or statistics as to people’s reactions and the agreements among them,

Rather, to describe a musical taste we have to ask about the whole musical tradition:

Did children give concerts in that musical culture? Did women give them or only men? Did widening the audience circle from the nobility to the bourgeois have any influence on these matters?

In the Brown Book Wittgenstein mobilizes music to clarify this idea:

Understanding and explaining a musical phrase. -Sometimes the simplest explanation is a gesture; on another occasion it might be a dance step, or words describing a dance. — But isn’t understanding the phrase experiencing something whilst we hear it? . . . Are we supposed to imagine the dance, or whatever it may be, while we listen? . . . If seeing the dance is what is important, it would be better to perform that rather than the music. But that is all misunderstanding.

Explanations of music, according to Wittgenstein, do not rely on decisive evidence, on justifying conditions.

We can whistle, draw something, do some movement with our hand or make a comparison with a clown walking a tightrope and almost falling. If we don’t succeed in explaining it in one way, we can always try another.

Thus, this is not the right way to approach the question of musical meaning. What is the right way, then?

We have to know music. We have to learn to play an instrument, learn harmony, forms and structures; we have to know the history of music, the history of its theory and aesthetics. We cannot explain or understand how we understand music without knowing music, as we cannot explain or understand how we understand language without knowing a language. We cannot really talk about understanding music without some degree of musical ability.

The more comprehensive one’s musical skills, the deeper one’s understanding. It is always possible to deepen it even more by practice.

Another language game that we can imagine is a music lesson: the teacher explains a musical phrase to the student through an image or gesture. From the student’s reaction — a light in his eyes, something he says and especially the way he now plays — the teacher can know whether he understood or not. If not, the teacher can try another explanation. Understanding music, according to Wittgenstein, is a matter of learning; that is what explanations in music are aimed at.

The clue to understanding Wittgenstein’s philosophy of music is, more than anything else, music itself. It is doubtful whether one can understand what he says about music without having significant musical skills. At a time when the humanities are institutionally obliged to pretend to be sciences, we need more than ever the lessons about understanding that Wittgenstein — and the arts — have to teach us.


Go to the profile of Ric Amurrio

Ric AmurrioMay 15


How Your Favorite Song Starts to Irritate You

Music gives pleasure because your mind keeps predicting what comes next,” writes Loretta Graziano Breuning. And it’s simple: each correct prediction triggers dopamine. If the music is unfamiliar, you don’t get the chemical. When it is somewhat familiar — you feel as if you want to tap your feet. However, when it is too familiar, your brain predicts what happens next effortlessly. And this doesn’t get you dopamine either.

So, as Loretta Graziano Breuning says, “to make you happy, music must be at the sweet spot of novelty and familiarity.” We’ll put it a bit differently: stop playing that song on the repeat! You’ll start hating it in few days.

The appreciation we have for music is related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like—the equivalent to grammar in spoken or signed languages—and to be able to make predictions about what will come next. Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic.

The Melbourne psych-rock septet have fed the past 50 years of rock history through a paper shredder and seamlessly taped the strands back together in intriguing new patterns. It’s never clear from the outset exactly which path they’ll explore or what sounds they’ll plop into the mix along the way. Horses neighing, xylophones, and instruments of unidentifiable origins have appeared in their songs, and, King Gizzard always manage to wrangle killer tunes.

The thrills we experience from music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated. If the ascending musical partial octave “do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-…” is heard. Listeners familiar with Western music will have a strong expectation to hear or provide one more note. Margulis’s model describes three distinct types of listener reactions, each derived from listener-experienced tension:· Surprise-Tension: · Denial-Tension: · Expectancy-Tension:


An important way that our brain deals with standard situations is that it extracts those elements that are common to multiple situations and creates a framework within which to place them; this framework is called a schema.

Schemas inform a host of day-to-day interactions we have with the world. For example, we’ve been to a Concert we have a general notion — a schema — of what is common to concerts. The concert schema will be different for different cultures (as is music), and for people of different ages.

Schemata (pl. of schema) are “stock musical phrases” (Gjerdingen 2007, p. 6) that act as melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic/metric skeletons for passages of music in the Galant style. We can apply the term schema in three specific ways. First, a schema is a prototype — an idealized version of a common pattern. Second, a schema can be an exemplar — a single pattern that resembles the prototype. Third, a schema can be a theory — an explanation of a commonly occurring musical event. We understand an individual pattern (exemplar) as a version of an ideal general pattern (prototype), and that relationship helps us understand how that pattern is functioning within a particular passage of music .

Gjerdingen, Robert O

Our musical schema for Western music includes implicit knowledge of the scales that we be able to hold in memory. This latter memory may not have the same level of resolution as notes we’ve just heard, but it is necessary in order to establish a context.

Schema begin forming in the womb and are amended every time we listen to music. This is why Indian or Pakistani music, for example, sounds “strange” to us but it doesn’t sound strange to Indians and Pakistanis, and it doesn’t sound strange to infants. By the age of five, infants recognize chord progressions in the music of their culture.

Style is just another word for “repetition.”. We recognize when we are hearing something we’ve heard before. The standard popular song has phrases that are four or eight measures long, this is a part of the schema we’ve developed for late twentieth-century popular songs.This include a vocabulary of genres and styles, as well as of eras (1970s music sounds unlike from 1930s music), rhythms, chord progressions, phrase structure (how many measures to a phrase), how long a song is, and what notes typically come after what.

Take, for example, the opening 12-minute chunk comprising the four song stretch of “I’m in Your Mind” to “I’m in Your Mind Fuzz”. The rhythm section — bassist Lucas Skinner, drummers Michael Cavanagh and Eric Moore — stay locked in the same groove across all four songs while the guitars, harmonica, and Mackenzie’s vocals explore various melodies within that structure — different movements operating in the same theme.

Deceptive Cadence

Deceptive cadences refer to a particular pattern of chords in which the chord built on the fifth scale degree, which usually resolves to the first scale degree, instead proceeds to the sixth scale degree. This may be expressed in roman numerals as follows:

Authentic: V-I
 Deceptive V-vi (or, less commonly, V-bVI)

One of the defining characteristics of a deceptive cadence is the aural anticipation of tonic following the dominant chord. That expectation is then thwarted, thus the term “deceptive”. King Gizzard’ “Crumbling Castle” ends on the V chord (the fifth degree of the scale we’re in) and we wait for a resolution that never comes—at least not in that song. But the very next song on Polygondwanaland starts with the very chord we were waiting to hear.

The setting up and then manipulating of expectations is the heart of music, and it is accomplished in countless ways. King Gizzard does it by playing songs that are essentially the blues (with blues structure and chord progressions) but by adding unusual harmonies + Phrygian scales to the chords that make them sound very unblues.”

Like the euphoric peaks of 1970s-era Yes or the melodic sections of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s, a solid first impression and a memorable farewell. Syncopated drumming and clean guitar scales part ways for bandleader Stu Mackenzie and his gentle voice. The song’s rumination on fragility parallels the backing guitars harmonize with one another, a flute solo fades in, and barely-discernable keyboards whirr in the distance. Then, in the song’s final minute, the band trades that for a wall of stoner-metal sludge.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane made careers out of reharmonizing blues progressions to give them new sounds that were anchored partly in the familiar and partly in the exotic. On Sketches from East Brusnick they have songs with blues/funk rhythms that lead us to expect the standard blues chord progression, but the entire song is played on only one chord, never moving from that harmonic position.


Research on which this is based was performed on right-handed people. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, people who are left-handed (approximately 5 to 10 percent of the population) or ambidextrous sometimes have the same brain organization as right- handers, but more often have a different brain organization.

When the brain organization is different. Such that functions are simply flipped to the opposite side. Left-handers have a neural organization that is different in ways that are not yet well documented. Writers, businessmen, and engineers refer to themselves as left-brain dominant, and artists, dancers, and musicians as right-brain dominant.

The popular conception that the left brain is analytical and the right brain is artistic has some merit, but is overly simplistic. Both sides of the brain engage in analysis and both sides in abstract thinking. All of these activities require coordination of the two hemispheres, although some of the particular functions involved are clearly lateralized.

Mckenzie often played guitar parts that are entirely novel, avoiding clichés. King gizzard’s guitar parts are unlike anyone else’s, and they wouldn’t even fit in anyone else’s songs. “The Wheel” from their album Gumboot Soup takes this rhythmic play to such an extreme it can be hard to tell where the downbeat even is.

Modern composers such as Schönberg threw out the whole idea of expectation. The scales they used deprive us of the notion of a resolution, a root to the scale, or a musical “home,” thus creating the illusion of no home, a music adrift, perhaps as a metaphor for a twentieth-century existentialist existence (or just because they were trying to be contrary). We still hear these scales used in movies to accompany dream sequences to convey a lack of grounding, or in underwater or outer space scenes to convey weightlessness.

Daniel J Livitin


When the sounds reach the eardrum they get segregated by pitch. Not much later, speech and music probably diverge into separate processing circuits. The speech circuits decompose the signal in order to identify individual phonemes — the consonants and vowels that make up our alphabet. The music circuits start to decompose the signal and separately analyze pitch, timbre, contour, and rhythm.

The output of the neurons performing these tasks connects to regions that put all of it together and try to figure out if there is anything in our memory banks that can help to understand this signal. Have I heard this particular pattern before? If so, when? What does it mean? Is it part of a larger sequence whose meaning is unfolding right now in front of me?

As tones unfold sequentially, they lead us — our brains and our minds — to make predictions about what will come next. These predictions are the essential part of musical expectations. But how to study the brain basis of these?

The structural processing — musical syntax — has been localized to the frontal lobes of both hemispheres in areas overlapping with those regions that process speech syntax, and shows up regardless of whether listeners have musical training. The regions involved in musical semantics — associating a tonal sequence with meaning — appear to be in the back portions of the temporal lobe on both sides, near Wernicke’s area.

The brain’s music system appears to operate with functional independence from the language system — When portions of his left cortex deteriorated, the composer Ravel selectively lost his sense of pitch while retaining his sense of timbre, a deficit that inspired his writing of Bolero, a piece that emphasizes variations in timbre.

Daniel J Levitin

The close proximity of music and speech processing in the frontal and temporal lobes, and their partial overlap, suggests that those neural circuits that become recruited for music and language may start out life undifferentiated.

Babies may see the number five as red, taste cheddar cheeses in D-flat, and smell roses in triangles

The process of maturation creates distinctions in the neural pathways as connections are cut or pruned. What may have started out as a neuron cluster that responded equally to sights, sound, taste, touch, and smell becomes a specialized network. With increasing experience and exposure, the developing infant eventually creates dedicated music pathways and dedicated language pathways. The pathways may share some common resources.


Like The Dark Side of the Moon, Nonagon Infinity is constructed as an infinite loop, meaning its final notes connect perfectly with the album’s opening. The record is mixed to feel like a continuous 41-minute live performance, complete with recurring musical and lyrical passages. Nonagon Infinity is an energetic, fast moving nonet of songs which constantly picks up speed that never takes a single break that, at the end of the final song, “Road Train” seemingly loops back into the first song “Robot Stop” thus forming an actual Nonagon (9 songs) Infinity. Weaving in and out of different melodic motifs while remaining locked (for the most part) into a propulsive, breakneck rhythm that sounds like Devo riffing on Hawkwind’s “Motorhead.”

Mackenzie’s psych-pop accessibility, as he spits out a stream of fragmented hooks like a jukebox of hook singles on an Autobahn of a record. The band also possess an innate sense of knowing just the right moment to switch things up, like with the loose Krautrock boogie that introduces “Mr. Beat,” or the twinned Allman Brothers leads dropped into the “TV Eye”-style surge of “Evil Death Roll,” or the Yes-worthy contoro-riffs that overtake “Invisible Face”.

In “Mr Beat,” the main melodic phrase is seven measures long; King Gizzard surprise us by violating one of the most basic assumptions of popular music, the four- or eight-measure phrase unit (nearly all rock/ pop songs have musical ideas that are organized into phrases of those lengths). In “The River,” King Gizzard violate expectations by first setting up a hypnotic, repetitive ending that sounds like it will go on forever; based on our experience with rock music and the classic fade-out. Instead, they end the song soloing in 4/4.

King Gizzard have made a career out of violating rhythmic expectations. The standard rhythmic convention in rock is to have a strong backbeat on beats two and four. Gizzard music turns this around by using 3/4, 5/4, 6/4, 6/8, 7/4, 7/8, 9/8, 11/8, 13/8 putting the snare drum on beats one and two, and a guitar on two and four. It’s a new sound that fulfilled some and violated other rhythmic expectations simultaneously.

We were talking about this the other day — our minds are in seven, so that feels like the normal time. 4/4 feels weird.

But I remember a huge change or shift was definitely [2016’s] Nonagon Infinity — learning the stuff live was like, Holy shit, I’ve got to get better. For me, the endurance thing of having to do 16ths the whole show was, like, impossible. I definitely struggled in the first couple tours, but then you just get better from touring, I guess.

Eric Moore

During the song “Nuclear Fusion,” and Altered Beast Part IV Eric, holds down the 8th notes on the hi-hat, and Michael, plays the off beats.

Eric: I always make Cavs play the inside out [off] beats, and I play straight. [laughs]

Eric Moore


The brain constructs its own version of reality

The brain constructs its own version of reality, based only in part on what is there, and in part on how it interprets the tones we hear as a function of the role they play in a learned musical system. In Language there is nothing intrinsically catlike about the word cat or even any of its syllables. We have learned that this collection of sounds represents the feline house pet.

Similarly, we have learned that certain sequences of tones go together, and we expect them to continue to do so. We expect certain pitches, rhythms, timbres, and so on to co-occur based on a statistical analysis our brain has performed of how often they have gone together in the past.

So what is the brain holding in its neurons that represents the world around us? The brain represents all music and all other aspects of the world in terms of mental or neural codes.

Flying Microtonal Banana (2017) recalls Krautrock. The standout feature of this album is the use of microtones which is a music interval that’s smaller than a semitone that are rarely, if ever heard in Western Music. To use microtones, special instruments have to be made. The album opens with the repetitive but strangely hypnotic Rattlesnake and then

“Melting” combines rhythms from ’70s Nigeria with observations on the present-day Arctic (“Toxic air is/Here to scare us/Fatal fumes from/Melting ferrous”). “Open Water” channels anxieties over disappearing coastlines into a marauding, seafaring-fantasy epic, like an updated “Immigrant Song” for Vikings who drive their ships to new lands only discover they’ve been swallowed by rising ocean levels.

But as the record rolls on, it starts to resemble an FM dial spun awry. Brief blasts of spaghetti-western balladry (“Billabong Valley”), acidic Southern blooze (“Anoxia”), and gritty Afro-funk (“Nuclear Fusion”) that are connected only by the chaotic harmonica and zurna bursts. And it becomes increasingly clear that the only difference between a three-minute King Gizzard track and a seven-minute one is where they arbitrarily decide to fade out (sometimes mid-chorus).


We have to reject the intuitively appealing idea that the brain is storing an accurate and strictly isomorphic representation of the world. To some degree, it is storing perceptual distortions, illusions, and extracting relationships among elements. It is computing a reality for us, one that is rich in complexity and beauty.

A basic piece of evidence for such a view is the simple fact that light waves in the world vary along one dimension—wavelength—and yet our perceptual system treats color as two dimensional

Similarly with pitch: From a one-dimensional continuum of molecules vibrating at different speeds, our brains construct a rich, multidimensional pitch space with three, four, or even five dimensions (according to some models).

Life presents us with similar situations that differ only in details, and often those details are insignificant. Learning to read is an example. The feature extractors in our brain have learned to detect the essential and unvarying aspect of letters of the alphabet, and unless we explicitly pay attention, we don’t notice details such as the font that a word is typed in. Even though surface details are different, all these words are equally recognizable, as are their individual letters.


Melody is one of the primary ways that our expectations are controlled by composers. Music theorists have identified a principle called gap fill; in a sequence of tones, if a melody makes a large leap, either up or down, the next note should change direction. A typical melody includes a lot of stepwise motion, that is, adjacent tones in the scale. If the melody makes a big leap, theorists describe a tendency for the melody to “want” to return to the jumping-off point; this is another way to say that our brains expect that the leap was only temporary, and tones that follow need to bring us closer and closer to our starting point, or harmonic “home.”

On “D-Day,” for example, Brettin, Mackenzie, and multi-instrumentalist Joey Walker all play microtonal instruments on a musical theme that blurs the line between fusion, Moroccan folk, and Southern rock in the vein of the Allman Brothers. At several other points — “Countdown,” “The Spider and Me,” “Cranes, Planes, and Migraines” — Brettin and the band walk a slippery tightrope between blue-eyed soul, bass-popping funk, and swooning, sun-kissed indie rock.

Like its mouthful of a title, Polygondwanaland delivers songs that seep into one another for an immersive listen. The stirring, quiet percussion of “Inner Cell” tiptoes into “Loyalty” for a slow buildup, before it splashes into the punctuated vocals of “Horology,” a sea of guitar tapping and rich, warm woodwinds. As usual, transitions are key in King Gizzard’s work, Closing track “The Fourth Colour” opts for the same dazzling effect. After endless, bright guitar trills and a rhythmic drone, a risible drum fill prompts the band to wreak havoc in the song’s final minute, exploding with the psych rock frenzy of Flying Microtonal Banana or I’m in Your Mind Fuzz.

This is an illusion made possible by the many layers of translation and amalgamation going on, all of it invisible to us. This is what the neural code is like. Millions of nerves firing at different rates and different intensities, all of it invisible to us. We can’t feel our nerves firing; we don’t know how to speed them up, slow them down, turn them on when we’re having trouble getting started on a bleary-eyed morning, or shut them off so we can sleep at night.


When we say a neuron is firing, it is sending an electrical signal that causes the release of a neurotransmitter. Neuro-transmitters are chemicals that travel throughout the brain and bind to receptors attached to other neurons. Receptors and neurotransmitters can be thought of as locks and keys respectively. After a neuron fires, a neurotransmitter swims across that synapse to a nearby neuron, and when it finds the lock and binds with it, that new neuron starts to fire. Not all keys fit all locks; there are certain locks (receptors) that are de- signed to accept only certain neurotransmitters.

Generally, neurotransmitters cause the receiving neuron to fire or prevent it from firing. The neurotransmitters are then absorbed through a process called reuptake; without reuptake, the neurotransmitters would continue to stimulate or inhibit the firing of a neuron.

Because, well, you have millions of additional neurons which don’t really know what to do — so they invent themselves tasks.

Try to understand them: they got the way that they are by alarming you whether running away from lions is good for you. And now — there are no lions to run away from.

But, which are these happy brain chemicals?

Well, there are four.

First of all — dopamine. Or — the “I can get it” hormone. In the animal’s world, this is the chemical released when a tiger sees an eland it can catch. In your world — it’s the excitement you feel when you reward yourself a chocolate bar for dieting few hours.

Next — endorphin. Or — the “I’m feeling no pain” hormone. It’s the chemical which masks pain. So, when a gazelle is bitten by a lion, she is still capable of fighting back, because her brain releases endorphin, telling her “that bite mark’s not so serious now…” Of course it’s going to hurt afterward.

The third one — oxytocin. Or — the “I trust you” hormone. This one’s released when an animal is among its own kind. It feels protected — and knows that it can rely on those around it. But, you know this: you’ve felt its effect best that time your mother patiently took care of you when you were sick as a child.

Serotonin is the final chemical on our list. It’s the “I’m top dog” hormone. Or, in other words, the one which makes you strut so proudly!

Some neurotransmitters are used throughout the nervous system, and some only in certain brain regions and by certain kinds of neurons. Serotonin is produced in the brain stem and is associated with the regulation of mood and sleep. The new class of antidepressants, including Prozac and Zoloft, are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) because they inhibit the reuptake of serotonin in the brain, al- lowing whatever serotonin is already there to act for a longer period of time.

The precise mechanism by which this alleviates depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and mood and sleep disorders is not known. Dopamine is released by the nucleus accumbens and is involved in mood regulation and the coordination of movement. It is most famous for being part of the brain’s pleasure and reward system. When drug ad- dicts get their drug of choice, or when compulsive gamblers win a bet— even when chocoholics get cocoa—this is the neurotransmitter that is released. Its role—and the important role played by the nucleus accumbens—in music was unknown until 2005.

As is probably already apparent from these descriptions, all of these chemicals come with a caveat. For example, serotonin may make you feel isolated and result in frustration about your own uniqueness; oxytocin may result in herd behavior, and that helps no one.

Even if you’re an endorphin-addict causing yourself pain may debilitate you in a much more physical sense. Finally, dopamine is habituated pretty quickly, leaving you with a “been there/done that” feeling even about things you really like.

However, once it teaches you that something is good, it doesn’t bother to release the hormones anymore. Leaving you with a habit — but taking away the happiness from it.

There Are Unhappy Chemicals as Well

For example, cortisol. It’s a sweet little chemical which has helped you survive, by telling you what you shouldn’t do. However, nowadays, there are no risks — so it’s basically obsolete. But, it still transforms into stress — over utterly irrelevant matters.

With Quarters they didn’t drop a 30-minute improv jam and called that an album. Whether it was released by a ATO, a small Aussie indie like Flightless, or, well, you, each of their 2017 releases is an elaborately constructed, carefully considered statement that opened up new vistas to the multiverse for the listeners and the band to explore.

Where the vocals in a given King Gizzard song tend to mimic the pattern of the main guitar riff/rhythm in mantric repetition, here, it’s the other way around. Keyboardist Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s tries swinging cocktail-lounge pop of “The Last Oasis,” gently engulfing the song in an aquatic whirl. What’s more, the fantastic, hallucinogenic delicate“Begginers’s Luck” is so captivating, you could be excused for a celebration of greed, as opposed to a preventative moral story for unchecked avarice.

“Great Chain of Being” verges on heavy-metal parody (“I usurp the precious stones/I have come to take the throne/I transcend the natural flesh/I will lay your god to rest”) like dispatches from the Oval Office.

The appreciation we have for music is related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like — the equivalent to grammar in spoken or signed languages — and to be able to make predictions about what will come next. Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic.

Go to the profile of Ric Amurrio

Ric Amurrio