Six Musical Paradoxes -

Striking a bell creates a beautiful resonance; it swells and then fades to silence. Bizarrely, we find the experience beautiful. Music really is so simple. Make things vibrate and enjoy the consequence, that’s it! Overanalyse it and miss the point? 

Now for an analysis:

Much of our western harmonic system can be thought of in terms of the harmonic series, which is simply whole number multiples of a common fundamental frequency.  

An Octave     1/2 (yes, pedants it’s the reciprocal)

A Perfect 5th 2/3

A Perfect 4th 3/4

A Major 3rd   4/5

…                     …

Don’t let yourself be fooled by the language in Ramou’s Treaties on Harmony (1722) or The Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization for improvisation (Russell, 1961), underneath are simple primary-school fractions.  

Composers and musicians from Mongolian throat singers to Nigel Osborne understand this powerful simplicity and utilise it with varying degrees of consciousness and sub-consciousness. It seems we are innately tuned into these ratios that nature has handed us. Nevertheless, simple systems give rise to emergent complexity.

Music is Complex

Of course it’s complex! How dare I have suggested otherwise. Many people devote their entire lives in an attempt to scratch the surface of this deep, broad and complicated subject.  It is now well known how the making and participating in music [or musicking, a term coined by Small (1998) to draw our attention to music as an activity of rather than an artifact] ‘lights up’ many regions of our brain concurrently  (Overy, 2012; Potes et al. 2012; Zatorre et al., 2007 and many others).

The high level of engagement required to unpack music as an aural stimulus points to the number of component parts and complex interdependancies hidden within. My own compositional work (2012) in this area has used EEG as a control device; utilizing the mental effort required to task-switch between various modes of performance (Whalley, Mavros, Furniss, 2015).

Purely thinking about the time domain, our minds work at many levels. We are able to identify instruments and other sound sources very quickly after the onset transient (Attack). Amazingly, it is suggested (Kalayar Khine, Nwe and Li, 2008, p163) that a window size of around 60ms is suitable to extract timbre characteristics from a music signal.

By way of demonstration does it take you any longer to identify the three instruments below with this portion of the sound removed?

(Onset Transients Removed. n.d. Columbia College)

David Huron (2006, p66) shows that musician listeners are able to process quickly – on the order of seconds – notes that are likely to occur in a melody.  Also in this time range is our short-term memory ‘loop’ (about 6 seconds’) which ties neatly with phrase lengths and structures.  As music progresses into Minutes, we compare phrases, textures and sections. Long-form pieces over multiple hours are able to create structures, narratives and forms that we can follow and compare.

In the frequency domain, we are able to identify melodies transposed and inverted and recall them in relative pitch with incredible precision. They can be interlaced using simple (but tricky to implement) rules to generate fugues, a form of music implied by Douglas Hofstadter to perfectly reflect our brains maximum capabilities.

What’s more, in the frequency domain we also stack discrete pitches - notes- together to form tensions that propose to us a certain outcome – Cadences. Our cultural expectations of these tensions can be realised or played upon many times in a single piece of music - how wonderful! And that’s just basic western tonal music - Let’s not get started on polyrhythms, electronics, microtones, indigenous music, new interfaces, instruments and so on.

The interaction of nested idiomatic norms (many with a basis in acoustics and human physiology/psychology) created and broken in different forms of music and the cultural expectations surrounding them is in my opinion where the real complexity of music lies.

Like the complex emergent biological systems that it stimulates, music is a strange and complex loop.  Music is a metaphor of or reflection on ourselves as individuals.

However, it also speaks to us as a collection of individuals...

Music is social

"Music must look for its explanations far more often to social science than to physical science," (Farnsworth, 1969)

As a species I would argue that we primarily have a social epistemology, that is to say, our knowledge is mediated through our interactions with and expectations of each other. Music adds colour, context, and complexity to these interactions.

Whatever the evolutionary reason, music runs deep in us. Around the world, babies respond to the physical act of song. It clearly helps us bond with each other, both as recipients and participants.  The mechanism of this bonding perhaps lies in the release of Endorphins and ‘self-other merging’  (Tarr, Launay and Dunbar, 2014), others might wish to put a metaphysical or spiritual slant on it. Nevertheless, music’s ability to act as a powerful social ‘glue’ does not appear to be in any dispute.

However, strong social cohesion between members of a particular group can also be used to exclude others…

Music is anti-social 

There is a very good reason the All Blacks start with a Haka before matches. It scares the bejesus out of the opponent. Now, imagine standing in front of a terrace of football fans chanting – and you are on the opposing team. Or a parade in Belfast.

Imagine now, those same scenarios without the music – much more civilized. 

In every case, it is abundantly clear that over there is a large group of people and they are united and working together– and I am over here, not part of that group.

Music is central to the most antisocial of all human endeavors, war. It is also an important part of political warfare.

"Music affects the heart and emotions more than the intellect. Where then could the heart of a nation beat stronger than in the huge masses, in which the heart of a nation has found its true home?" (Goebbels, 1938)

Who knows how far back this paring goes? Perhaps this unsavory alliance gave our more musical ancestors a selection advantage? Interesting to consider.

Whatever the case, we know that Iron Age Celts two millennia ago intimidated  their enemies by playing the Carnyx. A modern reproduction is played today by John Kenny, and the sound is unique to powerful.

Three Carnyx players [right hand side] as depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron

Three Carnyx players [right hand side] as depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron

Groups can work collectively against society, but we can also wish to temporarily withdraw ourselves from social interactions individually. We can do this by putting in our Microsoft Zune (or iPod) headphones. We are rewarded with a new personal space, when physical space is restricted.  Others worry that this new personal music experience will have negative consequences.

“The iPod immerses the listener in a private world, cut away from the community-building nature of popular music that has been a characteristic through much of its history. So much of rock ’n’ roll was fired by a shared experience of rhythm, dancing, sweating and singing. The iPod is different, slicing the geography and history away from sound. […] It is a personal soundtrack, not a collective sonic experience. “

                        (Brabazon, 2008)

I am much more sanguine about it, I see no reason why social music making and personal music consumption are mutually exclusive.

Music is pointless

Can you imagine an alternative universe without music?  How different is it really? So, there are no concert halls, piano lessons, mp3 players or music festivals.  If you are a musician you are out of a job (sorry) but otherwise life carries on as usual.

[political rant] I would be only playing devils advocate a little to interpret current government cuts in the arts as an attempt to bring about this theoretical alternative universe. The so-called 'creative industries' in a post Thatcher United Kingdom are often under pressure to justify their output in terms of a means to an economic end. In this paradigm, music has no intrinsic value. [/political rant]

Clearly music has an economic value, but ‘ We do not live in a poem based economy ‘ Grey (2014). Nor do we live in a music-based economy. Like cheesecake, the arts are a dispensable luxury. 

            "I suspect music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of...our mental faculties."  Pinker (1997)

Pinker clarifies his position by auguring "As far as biological cause and effect is concerned, music is useless".

Music is pointless, but that's kind of the point.

Music is purposeful 

Do a Google search for 'what is the point of music' and you will find lists (the Internet likes lists). Often near the top is a variation on theme of Music gives meaning to your life. The spiritual significance of music is undeniable. It would be naive to try to separate the religious conviction of composers like Messian, for example, with his music; they are so deeply embedded. 

I contend that no higher authority (godlike or otherwise) gives our lives meaning but it is something that we discover or create for ourselves.  It appears that many people find that music can act as a catalyst that enables them to live fulfilled and rounded lives.

Is the purpose of music true transcendentalism?


            Sound pressure waves are,

            A nested contradiction,

            Vibrating my ears.


Brabazon, T. (2008). The isolation of the iPod people. The Times. [online] Available at:

Carnyx, (n.d.). Carnyx Gundestrup. [image] Available at:

Farnsworth, P. (1969). The social psychology of music. [Ames, Iowa]: Iowa State University Press.

Goebbels J. Amtliche Mitteilungen der Reichsmufikkammer (1938) cited in Etlin, R. (2002). Art, culture, and media under the Third Reich. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.54.

Grey, C. (2014). Humans Need Not Apply. [video] Available at:

Huron, D. (2006). Sweet anticipation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, p.66.

Kalayar Khine, S., Nwe, T. and Li, H. (2008). Exploring Perceptual Based Timbre Feature for Singer Identification. Computer Music Modeling and Retrieval. Sense of Sounds, [online] pp.159-171. Available at: [Accessed 12 Mar. 2015].

Onset Transients Removed. (n.d.). [.wav] Columbia College, Chicago - Audio Arts & Acoustics. Available at:

Overy, K. (2012). The Neurosciences and Music IV. Boston, Mass.: Published by Blackwell Pub. on behalf of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: Norton.

Potes, C., Gunduz, A., Brunner, P. and Schalk, G. (2012). Dynamics of electrocorticographic (ECoG) activity in human temporal and frontal cortical areas during music listening. NeuroImage, 61(4), pp.841-848.

Rameau, J. (1971). Treatise on harmony. New York: Dover Publications. [Translation of the 1722 Edition]

Russell, G. (1961). The Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization for improvisation. New York: Concept Pub. Co.

Small, C. (1998). Musicking. Hanover: University Press of New England.

Tarr, B., Launay, J. and Dunbar, R. (2014). Music and social bonding: self other  merging and neurohormonal mechanisms. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.

Whalley, J. (2012). Clasp Together - beta. [Vln, B.Cl, Tbn, Cb. EEG, NGS] First performed by the 'Red Note Ensemble' featuring Pete Furniss, The Jam House Edinburgh, 2012 as part of the 'Inventor-Composer Co-Action'.

Whalley, J., Mavros, P. and Furniss, P. (2015). Clasp Together: Composing for Mind and Machine. Empirical Musicology Review, (In Press).

Zatorre, R., Chen, J. and Penhune, V. (2007). When the brain plays music: auditory–motor interactions in music perception and production. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 8(7), pp.547-558.

First published in "thinking about music" in 2015 as "Six things I Really like about music"