Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

The Perfect Note?

It is an intriguing idea that we have a natural affinity for certain sounds, shapes and forms.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the attraction that the pitch of B-flat major has for humans. For years musicians and some scientists have speculated that this single note shows up as the home key in a lot music, as well as other non-musical parts of our lives.  Is B-flat our homing frequency?  What accounts for all of the major pieces of music written in this key?  Is it an accident that a black hole in deep space seems to “sing” that note, albeit some 50-plus octaves below the pitch we know as middle C? Is it more than a coincidence  that our electrical system “hums” at 60 hz (cycles per second), close to the audible lower octave B-flat? And should we make anything out of the anecdotal evidence offered by some that human structures seem to sustain sound especially well in the neighborhood of the same pitch, as in the example below?

A# / Bb 466.16 Hz Tone For Instrument Tuning

A# / Bb 466.16 Hz tone for instrument tuning 8 seconds on 2 seconds off x6 My playlist with the twelve notes of the fourth chromatic octave: For an A 440 Hz (standard) tone, see: A sharp B flat 466 466.16 467 Hz hertz Music Pitch Frequency Musical Note Notes Sound Audio Tone Tune Tuning Instrument Tuner Concert Clarinet Soprano Saxophone Tenor Saxophone Trumpet Cornet Baritone Euphonium Bass

Actor Ethan Hawke’s interesting documentary Seymour: an Introduction (2014) includes a passionate pianist who is impressed by how many  composers were drawn to producing  works in the key of B-flat major, including concertos and symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Schumann, Prokofiev and others. Is it the perfect note: a kind of passkey that resonates with something inside?

A slightly broader question was asked by the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the first of his still fascinating Norton Lectures given at Harvard in the early 70s (available on YouTube). He argued that the idea in linguistics of an “innate grammatical competence” that allows even young children to form sentences may have its counterpart in how we are  “tuned” to the intervals that make up tonal music. The idea is that we already “know” a harmonic series like a triad of C, G and E without having to learn it.  Any set of notes built off the overtones of a low first note always sounds “right.”  We expect a simple musical work to find its way along what music theorists call the “circle of fifths” within a chromatic or diatonic scale.

To be sure, a more specific theory asserting a special affinity for a single absolute pitch has its problems.  After all, Mozart’s B-flat was lower than ours. In his time the nearby tuning note of A  was more likely to be around 420 hz rather than the more standardized 440 hz today.  But it is an intriguing idea that we may have a natural synchronicity to natural sounds, shapes and forms.  Think of how easily we associate music composed in a minor key as darker and more solemn.  When music “resolves” in a major interval it tends to perk us up.  We don’t have to be trained to notice the effect. Most of us are born into this world discovering that we have an unquenchable thirst to hear modulations of sound that build out from (and occasionally violate) music’s fixed chromatic intervals.

The motive to confirm a ‘hard-wired’ need is naturally interesting, leaving us at the doorstep of a theory of forms. Consider the rhyme that falls at the end of a second line of a poem; or the AABA structure of a pop song that satisfies our expectations by delivering the “B” refrain; or the third act resolution of conflict that developed and festered in Act II.  All are narrative forms that have become routine templates for thought. They sink their claws into us (or were they already there?) and can’t easily be set  aside, providing the twin pleasures of predictability and surprise.

It would might take some magical thinking to identify a form that is as controlling on us as something like the inviolate laws of physics. Even so, the question of identifying perfect resonances–responses tuned to our essences as humans–is intriguing.  We are usually better at naming specific human processes than single universals that may function as reliable North Stars. To be sure, religion fills this need for many. But it’s exciting to consider the idea of a physical property that exerts an enigmatic and irresistible pull.  If we need a visual reference, perhaps form as “deep structure” is perhaps like the inscrutable black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968). The possibility that anything can be the organizing principle that animates the rest of our world is always exciting.

Still from 2001: a Space Odyssey                                                                                        YouTube

Lunch Anyone?

 My Dinner with Andre                                             YouTube

I’m always interested in the response of my friends to a simple question. If they could conjure up anybody from the past or present, who would they like to have a leisurely lunch with? 

Sometimes we could use some new conversation-starters.  In my circle the usual topics run all the way from A to B, from the cool and wet summer, to the latest norm-violating behavior of our President. There are also some local issues that are good for a few minutes of hand-wringing, including plans to build an unwanted pipeline through our valley, or the always-good-for-a-comment angst about our state’s supposedly high property taxes are too high.

But sometimes it’s worth taking a leap into the unknown, or even the frankly impossible. I’m always interested in an acquaintance’s response to a simple question:  if they could conjure up a meeting with anybody, who would they like to have a leisurely lunch with? A meal can not only satisfy an appetite, but lead to ruminations that can surface when the weather is warm and the days are long.

All of us come into contact with remarkable people, sometimes through their words, their persuasiveness, or our awareness of a life well-lived.  Sometimes it can be little more than an intellectual exercise to imagine what it might be like to spend time with them over lunch. At other times luck and timing may make it more plausible. Think of the interesting conversations that bubble up in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) or Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013).

To be sure, it sometimes works out that someone with intimate knowledge of a notable achiever may come away from a meeting chastened. More than a few writers have admitted that their living or deceased subjects remained interesting, but not necessarily as candidates for a fantasized social outing.  Biographer Nell Painter remembers working on a study of the famous slave preacher, Sojourner Truth.  But several years ago Painter told a C-Span interviewer that her “closeness to me receded” as she worked her way deeper into her life.  She respected her subject to the end, but finally doubted they would connect in a conversation. Sometimes a little distance keeps the great and good on a pedestal where we want them.

In a recent dinner with friends the question drew various responses.  Singer-songwriter Paul Simon came  up as  a good lunch companion.  He  has been a stream-of-consciousness poet for several generations.  Another liked the idea of sharing a meal with Jesus.  And it’s hard to quarrel with that choice.  But the guest of honor would probably make me a nervous eater. Did I order to much? Should I have shared it? Why didn’t I suppress the joke about turning my water into wine? Another mentioned Barack Obama.  He’s articulate and sometimes funny.  And his off-the-record perspective in this political moment would be fascinating  to hear.  Would he make us feel better about where the nation is headed?

Another person suggested the African-American blues musician, Daryl Davis. Davis seems to have a knack for drawing in listeners, including KKK members, and demonstrating his simple humanity in after-performance discussions.  He told an NPR interviewer that in some cases he was the first black American these white men had spoken to socially. One measure of his success is that he has a pile of KKK robes that his newly sensitized friends have sent him after they renounced their membership in the Klan. Think of what he might teach us about the subtleties of face to face conciliation.

American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change.

My choice tends to change by the week.  But right now I’d love to have lunch with the arranger, musician and producer, Quincy Jones. He is in his 80’s, with a career that spans playing trumpet in several great 50’s bands, to arranging and conducting some of the best performances caught on record: everything from Sinatra at the Sands, (1966) to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982). He’s a walking history of American music: big-band Jazz, R&B, Pop and Funk. In interviews and a growing list of tributes (including 26 Grammys) Jones is unfailingly generous and interesting. Can a person still be hungry when sitting next to a national treasure?

There’s a useful point to this exercise. It’s a reminder that American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change.  They may be famous or obscure.  But their lives are testimony to the value of pluralizing our world beyond the shallow celebrities and politicians who sometimes narrow rather than broaden our horizons.

Since the fantasy lunch with the fantasy check is on me, who would you choose?