Tag Archives: Curiosities

Skulls and music (non)preference

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This Halloween, let’s see what a series of experiments demonstrated about the influence of skull resonance on music (non)preference.

Listeners were presented with a set of original melodies and were asked to judge how much they enjoyed each selection.

Following the melody judgments, the resonance of each listener’s skull was recorded by firmly pressing a microphone against the temporal bone while the listener tapped on his or her head. The complex spectra recording from this tapping was analyzed to determine the fundamental resonant frequency of that person’s skull.

The skull was not found to directly influence the melodies that the participants selected at all. Participants preferred a wide range of musical keys and these musical keys had no simple relationship to the resonance of the skulls.

However, skull resonance was found to moderately predict the musical keys that people disliked. Unlike the preferred music, the disliked music tended to be found in a very narrow set of musical keys. In addition, the fundamental frequency of the musical keys themselves tended to have a clear set of non-integer, complex mathematical ratios to the skull.

In short, this research suggests that the skull might influence the music that a person dislikes rather than the music a person likes.

This according to “Music of the body: An investigation of skull resonance and its influence on musical preference” by Jitwipar Suwangbutra, et al. (Acoustical Society of America: 165th Acoustical Society of America Meeting/21st International Congress on Acoustics/52nd Meeting of the Canadian Acoustical Association: Lay papers, 2013; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2013-5013).

Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this study to our attention! Below, The Skulls discuss funding for future projects.

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Filed under Curiosities, Science

Enchanting voices

Voices can make our hair stand on end or send shudders down our spine more easily and more powerfully than anything else.

The classic evolutionary and philosophical writings tended to downplay the role of music in human partner selection; but popular culture indicates otherwise, particularly where the voice is involved.

Still, the enchantment that audiences experience when they listen to their favorite singers is highly subjective. For example, while critics of Lata Mangeshkar’s little-girl sound view her popularity in terms of a desire to keep women immature and vulnerable, her millions of admirers hear in her voice a timeless and idealized lover.

This according to “Enchanting voices” by Wim van der Meer, an article included in Music, dance, and the art of seduction (Delft: Eburon, 2013, 49-70; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2013-28812).

Above and below, Mangeshkar enacts her enchantment.

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Filed under Curiosities, Film music, Reception

Le style ballets russes

The influence of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the worlds of dance and music has been well-documented; less known today are the reverberations that the company’s productions sent straight to the heart of Parisian fashion and interior design. Schèhèrezade, the hit of the 1910 season, epitomized the exoticism of “le style ballets russes” for designers and their galvanized patrons.

The first, and perhaps the foremost, to espouse the company’s saturated hues, sumptuous fabrics, and seductive Orientalism was Paul Poiret, who daringly introduced harem pants and turbans (inset), with boldly colored silks and velvets. Poiret also popularized brightly colored interiors, replacing conventional furniture with divans and tasselled cushions.

The company’s visits to London had a similar impact. “Before you could say Nijinsky” Osbert Lancaster recalled in Homes, sweet homes (London: Murray, 1939) “the pastel shades which had reigned supreme on the walls of the Mayfair for almost two decades were replaced by a variety of barbaric hues—jade green, purple, every variety of crimson and scarlet, and, above all, orange.” He added that the style’s adherents had “a tendency to regard a room not so much as a place to live in, but as a setting for a party.”

This according to “The wider influence of the Russian ballet” by Stephen Calloway, an essay included in Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-20723).

Above, one of George Lepape’s illustrations for Les choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape (Paris: 1911), a book commissioned and published by Poiret in a limited edition of 300.

Below, a reconstruction of Schèhèrezade.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Reception

Globalization of the Rising Sun

Most people know the The House of the Rising Sun as a 1964 hit by The Animals about a place in New Orleans—a whorehouse or a prison or a gambling joint that has been the ruin of many poor girls or boys—but few songs have traveled such an intricate journey.

The launch of the song’s world travels can be traced to Georgia Turner (above), a poor 16-year-old daughter of a miner living in Middlesboro, Kentucky, when the young folk music collector Alan Lomax captured her voice singing The Rising Sun blues in 1937. Lomax deposited the song in the Library of Congress and included it in the 1941 collection Our singing country.

In short order, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Josh White learned the song and each recorded it. From there it began to move to the planet’s farthest corners. Today, hundreds of artists have recorded House of the Rising Sun, and it can be heard in the most diverse of places—Chinese karaoke bars, Gatorade ads, and as a ring tone on cell phones. The song’s journey is a case study of how a cultural artifact moves through the modern world, propelled by technology, globalization, and recorded sound.

This according to Chasing the Rising Sun: The journey of an American song by Ted Anthony (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2007-6177). Below, Lomax’s original recording of Georgia Turner.

BONUS: The Animals’ classic recording.

Related article: Kumbaya: A song’s evolution

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Filed under Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Popular music

“God Save the Queen”

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022) Credit: Avalon/ABACA

On 8 September 2022, the world learned of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest ruling monarch. As one of any number of public displays of gratitude to her seven decades of service, communities across the globe, large and small, sang God save the Queen, the first song in the world to serve in the function of a nation’s anthem. A kind of prayer en-masse, the singing of the text is an expression of national devotion.

Christopher (Kit) Kelen, in his article “‘And ever give us cause’: Understanding the investments of the Ur-anthem God save the King/Queen” (National identities: Critical inquiries into nationhood, politics, and culture XVII/1 [2015] 45–61; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-86813), explores the kind of work the anthem’s text does to construct a sense of nationalism and national commitment, in a British context and beyond. A glance at the abstract brings the essay’s scope and goals into focus:

This close analytical reading of the lyrics of God save the King/Queen seeks to understand what the functional survival of this song reveals about the rhetorical-affective investments of national devotion in the British sense; it examines the lyrics’ meaning in the context of the general definition of anthem and the generic classification of anthems worldwide. Because of the song’s international distribution, and status as Ur-anthem, it provides insight into the nature of the speech act entailed in the prayer-type of anthem and the nature of anthem quality (defined as that soul-stirring effect which certain combinations of music and lyrics achieve, most typically in the service of national affiliation) more generally. Theories of nation and nationalism serve to frame affective relations between nation, state, and citizenry as implied by, fostered by, and used in anthems.

The three public performances of God save the Queen below vary in terms of setting, historical moment, and function. But each one reveals, in its own way, the anthem effect about which Kelen writes. They produce a sense of national closeness and identity, reverence, and pride, demonstrating how lyrics and music can be combined to stir the soul.

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Filed under Curiosities, Politics, Reception

Moroccan insult contests

Marrakech

A performance that occurred almost daily in a public square in Marrakech in the early 1980s traded on ethnic identity for fun and profit.

The performance began with an Arab duo singing in Arabic; as a crowd began to gather around them, a Berber—a member of a rival ethnic group—leaped into the circle with a song in Tashlit. After a few moments of cacaphony a shouting match began, with the Berber and one of the Arabs trading insults while the other Arab took one side and then the other, upping the ante.

“Monkey, block-headed windbag, long-fingernailed King Kong, hick, salt stealer, son of a whore!” Each string of insults was preceded by an ethnic designator, and audience members were encouraged to contribute money to the aggrieved party to demonstrate their own ethnic pride. Occasionally fisticuffs between audience members ensued.

The high point of the performance came when the monetarily losing antagonist was figuratively turned into a donkey and the winner climbed onto his back and called for his instrument; victory, however temporary, meant both being on top and singing one’s own song there.

This according to “Saints, prostitutes, and rotten sardines: The musical construction of place and ethnicity in a Moroccan insult contest” by Philip D. Schuyler, an essay included in Ethnomusicological encounters with music and musicians: Essays in honor of Robert Garfias (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 249–259; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-5436).

Above and below, examples of street music in Marrakech.

Related article: 50 best literary insults

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Humor

Women and gramophones

A letter published in the June 1925 issue of Gramophone noted the magazine’s general absence of women correspondents: “are the sweet little things too shy, or what?” A response published in August of that year dismissed the idea of women enjoying the gramophone: “ladies…want to be seen and also to see. They don’t want to listen. That will never interest them.”

The October issue included a letter from a woman reader who noted that women have less money at their disposal for entertainment than men, and that when she attends concerts she sees many women, including poor ones, listening attentively. “I can only conclude,” she wrote, “that certain of your correspondents have been singularly unfortunate in the circle of women they have drawn about them.”

The letters are reprinted in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2012-7059). Below, a gramophone recording by the incomparable Josephine Baker.

Related article: Gramophone ethics

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Filed under Curiosities, Mass media, Reception, Women's studies

Debussy and gamelan

Claude Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music from a relatively small group at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle; he finally heard a full ensemble at the 1900 Exposition.

While he generally disapproved of the Orientalism of earlier Romantic-era composers, he found tremendous inspiration in gamelan music—not in its surface exoticism, but in the details of its structure, texture, and modality.

Exposure to Javanese gamelan music was one of the important catalysts in the flowering of Debussy’s mature style, and it left its mark on his work in a much broader and more profound way than is generally supposed.

“Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play,” he wrote, “and if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”

He also wrote of “Javanese rhapsodies, which, instead of confining themselves in a traditional form, develop according to the fantasy of countless arabesques.”

This according to Echoes from the East: The Javanese gamelan and its influence on the music of Claude Debussy, a 1988 dissertation for the University of Texas, Austin, by Kiyoshi Tamagawa (RILM Abstracts 1988-4625).

Today is Debussy’s 160th birthday! Below, “Sirènes” from his Nocturnes, a piece in which Tamagawa demonstrates extensive influence of gamelan music; this influence may be best discerned in the two-piano version presented here.

Related article: Historic Balinese gamelans

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Impressionism

Romy Lowdermilk redux

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In the mid-1990s a staff member at the American Folklife Center received a note asking if the Center would be interested in an old LP of a cowboy singer named Romaine Lowdermilk. Not having heard of the singer, she stopped by the office of the director, Alan Jabbour. “Romy Lowdermilk!” he exclaimed, “Who’s got a recording of Romy Lowdermilk?”

Jabbour knew the name only through accounts of the singer (1890–1970), who had written and published several popular cowboy songs (including Goin’ back to Arizona, which Patsy Montana performed as Goin’ back to old Montana). Lowdermilk had stated that he never made a commercial recording; this LP appeared to be a unique record of his singing. The owner generously supplied the disc in 1999 and the Center digitized it, assuming that it was a solitary specimen.

The discovery of an exact copy in 2006 led to a full unraveling of the story. Lowdermilk had recorded several songs in a recording studio in 1951; the studio then had copies pressed on demand for the singer’s clients at Rancho Mañana, the Arizona dude ranch where he worked.

This according to “Long-lost twins: The curious case of the Romaine Lowdermilk discs” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXXVI/3 [summer 2006] pp. 11–12; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2006-10837).

Below, Patsy Montana’s recording of Goin’ back to old Montana. In a letter to John I. White, Lowdermilk wrote “Patsy Montana liked it and wanted to sing it on her road appearances, so I just called it Goin’ back to old Montana and she recorded it for Victor and it was on the juke boxes for quite a spell. You can sing it Back to California or Oklahoma or Wyoming—or any damn place you want to go back to. So I figured it was an all-around western. I got paid for it by WLS, so I didn’t really care where the singer went back to.” (Quoted in Ten thousand goddam cattle: A history of the American cowboy in song, story, and verse [Flagstaff: Northland University, 1975; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1978-3562].)

More stories about the American Folklife Center are here.

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Filed under Curiosities, North America, Performers, Popular music

Music for cats

David Teie has composed music for cats, and he has published, along with two colleagues, a report on a scientific study demonstrating this music’s efficacy.

The report presents two examples of Teie’s cat music in counter-balanced order with two examples of human music, and evaluates the behavior and response latencies of cats to each piece.

The cats showed a significant preference for, and interest in, species-appropriate music compared with human music (Median (IQR) 1.5 (0.5-2.0) acts for cat music, 0.25 (0.0-0.5) acts for human music (P<0.002) and responded with significantly shorter latencies (Median (IQR) 110.0 (54-138.75) s for cat music, 171.75 (151-180) s for human music (P<0.001). Younger and older cats were more responsive to cat music than middle-aged acts (cubic trend, r2 = 0.477, P<0.001).

This according to “Cats prefer species-appropriate music” by Teie, Charles T. Snowdon, and Megan Savage (Applied animal behavior science 20 February 2015; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-1206).

Today is International Cat Day! Below, Teie sketches the background of his music for cats, followed by brief samples.

BONUS: One of our favorite scientific studies of cat behavior is here.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Science