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Book Commentary/Review – Exploring Music by Charles Taylor July 20, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Charles Taylor, Exploring Music, music.
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(This is the seventh of what will be a series of commentaries about a series of ten or so books about the nature of music. The first six commentaries of this series were about the books Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain, Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr, Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker and Measured Tones by Ian Johnston. This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

In Exploring Music, physicist Charles Taylor goes into the technical details of producing music from instruments, both with conventional and non-conventional instruments. The book is formed from a series of lectures, and a subsequent BBC television series, during whichTaylor demonstrates sound/music production to a live audience, demonstrating the principles he describes. We can call this “Mr. Wizard meets music.” This is a hands-on, physics-heavy approach, a tinkerer’s paradise. For me, an important element of his approach is his use of the oscilloscope to look at waveforms and envelopes of particular musical sounds. This is another helpful tool for determining if there is some universal aspect to music, universal enough to be shared among any conscious creatures coexisting with us in our universe, universal enough to offer a bridge between the material and the divine, between physics and metaphysics.

Some key highlights:

  • Oscilloscope traces show that musical notes we recognize as “musical” tend to occur in regular wave patterns.
  • Taylor describes a Nigerian instrument called a “shantu,” a gourd that makes a pitched sound depending on the size of the gourd.
  • Taylor also examines the harmonic series part of his hands-on look at wind instruments. The harmonic series appears to be a universal component of sound.
  • Taylor looks at the harmonic overtones of gamelan “bowls and bells,” explaining their distinctive timbres by how the notes are generated.
  • In his discussion about what makes the “best” tone for a violin, Taylor offers a “philosophical problem.” He suggests humans may find “perfection” in musical tone to be “too bland.” He suggests we need some edge, some “non-uniformity” to interest us in the tone, to bring us musical pleasure. This opens the door to cultural subjectivity. There are clearly universal physics principles that apply to all music. But how we enjoy music once it is created is learned, through cultural tradition, and through education and willingness to experience something outside of tradition.
  • In a section on synthesizers, samplers and scales,Taylorgoes over the various theories on the physics behind the formation of consonant intervals and scales using the Pythagorean theories of ratio of string length vibrations and an examination of the harmonic series. This is material covered in other reading on this subject, but is covered byTaylorin a more hands-on way.
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