Beyond the Surf: Music?s magic and the missing third

Category:  BloggERy
Thursday, May 31st, 2012 at 8:13 PM
Beyond the Surf: Music?s magic and the missing third by Toby Keller


All I wanted to do after work was play my guitar. I showered, ate a light dinner, and sat down with the Ray in my lap. The small, black, pick felt good in my right hand; the textured grip dug into fresh calluses. I started like I always do—crank the amp up and run the sound through my Sennheiser 598 headphones. Usually I work through the fret board, up and down, down and up. Going from top to bottom with different finger patterns. One, two, three, four becomes one, four, three, two, and so on until I can’t stand it. This time was different because it sounded absolutely horrible. 
I got my tuner out—Gibson L&M Guitar App on my droid—and went through the strings. The fourth and fifth weren’t right, but for all I was worth I couldn’t get them to sound the way they should have. I twisted the Ray’s spikes left and right, watching a needle jerk uselessly back and forth across a screen. I put my left hand over the tail of the Ray, gripping the neck of the guitar and placing fingers on two strings. A simple intro from Opeth, eight strings in a repeated pattern. The hanging E note is mesmerizing, but as I picked through my memory, I could tell it wasn’t even close to right. My guitar, that beautiful Ray, sounded like garbage, and I couldn’t fix it.
I called my buddy over; he plays quite a bit. I didn’t know at the time that he had been drinking for several hours, enjoying his afternoon getting red-faced with a case of Labatt. He crawled through the window of my lower-level apartment with a backwards hat, gym shirts, and a white T-shirt. He was moving so fast, the colors of his clothing blended together, and all I could do was follow the whooping hollers reverberating throughout my living room. I handed him the Ray, almost regretting it. 
As soon as he grabbed a hold of the beast, he was calmed. He sat down and reached towards me for a pick. Once in hand, he started strumming through the strings and within seconds he looked up at me with a serious face I hadn’t expected and said, “What the hell did you do to this thing?”
I didn’t know. I watched as he spun the spikes, tightening and loosening the strings. Finally, after what seemed like a lengthy operation using only his senses, he handed the Ray back to me and said, “Your G string was an octave too high.”
I nodded in ignorance.
What had kept me on edge for a wasted half hour was fixed by a belligerently drunken friend in five minutes. 
The thought didn’t bother me for long. In a study this year at the University of California in Irvin—Cortical activity during music perception; comparing musicians and non-musicians—Assal Habibi found that “musical training is associated with changes in brain processing… non-musicians demonstrated left ear advantage to both pitch and rhythm changes … musicians may engage both hemispheres in response to pitch and rhythm.” The more you play, the more you listen, the better you get at hearing pitches and identifying them (even when you’re drunk, two hemispheres of the brain are better than one). So I just have to keep at it until I unlock that advanced brain processing…that of a musician.
I went back to my room to tangle with the beast myself. I had a list of 11 chords that I wanted to put to muscle memory. I plugged in, turned on, covered up with headphones, and started jamming. 
Going through E, E-minor, A, A-minor, and the like, I began to feel something. As I mentioned in my first post, music affects people as they hear it. It changes the activity in their brain. My neurons were scrambling, trying to latch onto some consistent anomaly that was new to me in this progression of chords, completely without definition, like a ghost I could only sense and believe through instinct.
I went to my drunken friend with a simple question: “What makes a major chord major, and a minor chord minor?” 
“Well,” he paused, leaned back in sofa and continued, “Get me your guitar for a second.”
I did, and he started playing a few chords I didn’t recognize. 
“Oh dude,” he slurred, “Major chords are happy.”
I was baffled.
“Yeah, that’s it. Minor chords are sad. See—“ He strummed on an E major, singing with it “EEEE,” then he switched to an E-minor and his voice darkened like a voice over for a horror movie’s commercial. I grabbed the Ray and walked back to my room.
I was unsatisfied until I sat down and went through those eleven chords again and sang along with them. That drunk bastard was right! Which got me thinking: Why does a major chord give me a happy feeling? And why was it easier to recognize that fact when it was voiced instead of played?
The easy answer: Most of us, myself included, have been dissecting human speech for a lot longer than we have been into music. We understand the subtleties of tone, volume, pitch, and rhythm that twist words into whole new entities apart from their definitions. I could hear the chords on the guitar and feel their emotion, but to understand it more easily (at least for now) I have to convert those sounds into vocalizations that my brain can process more efficiently.
In a study called The relationship between pitch discrimination skills and speech prosody decoding skills conducted by Ph.D Kenneth Nashkoff, professor at the University of Pheonix, it was found that “musical training transfers its effects into speech prosody skills.” In other words: it goes both ways. Having a grasp on the nuances of human speech will help you learn guitar and playing that guitar will improve speech prosody, which “benefits professionals and others who depend upon accurate interpretation of interpersonal communication” (or everybody).
That answered most of my questions, but I wasn’t able to track down a decent explanation as to why some chords are happy, and others sad. Are all musical traditions based that way? Is it a neurological process that is universal to all humans—when a certain sound is received it releases neurotransmitters that produce a response, and it is up to those little buggers to decide if it will be pleasant or despairing?
To ease my troubled mind, I did find this:
Rebecca Ann Pittenger of Dartmouth wrote a dissertation called Affective and perceptual judgments of major and minor musical stimuli. In it, she focused on reactions to chords that were unidentified. Participants were asked to categorize the sounds into ‘happy’ or ‘sad.’ She stumbled upon something interesting when her data showed that “chords with missing thirds (which determine whether a chord is major or minor) sounded more similar to major chords than to minor chords.” In a world with so much negativity, music defies the norm. It’s a glass half-full scenario played out subconsciously in the mind. What those people heard could have just as easily been sad minors missing a third. ‘It’s all in the mind, ya know?’ 
Toby Keller can be reached at
Previous entries and other work of his can be found here.

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