European Polyphony and Low Tech Brain Hacking.

Sir Barken Hyena writes:

As a youngin’ I was first exposed to music theory in high school. I had a great music teacher, one of those rare souls blessed with contagious enthusiasm. I found, to my surprise, that I had a knack for it. It was the opposite of math: I got it instantly while everyone else struggled and lagged behind. Effortless A’s in a subject that was actually hard for once. I did my harmonization assignments in pen – no erasing! – and got 100%. Take that losers!

And yet, and yet…what did it all really mean?

I could hear that a Dominant Seventh resolved to the Tonic, and that same relationship could pivot to another key…but why? What forces were at work here? Where did these currents in sound come from? And, more mysterious, why did chords have emotional resonance at all?

Music Theory didn’t seem even to ask these questions. Now, at this time I was a devotee of Harry Partch. He was an early 20th century composer who threw the whole of western music out the window, along with it’s complex harmonic system going back to the Middle Ages. Instead of 12 tones per octave, he developed his own scale of 43, and an orchestra of instruments to play it. This led me to believe that music theory as I learned it was arbitrary, a matter of conditioning. We all grew up hearing the Dominant/Tonic thing millions of times (think 50’s doo-wop) and so it became implanted, and expected.

I gave up on music theory and hewed to the blank slate, as supplied by Brian Eno and others. (See my post The Brian Eno Disease). Having run that ship aground after rowing in circles, I’ve returned to the world of Dominants and Tonics and Modulations and all of that. But not Theory: I’m learning harmony by playing guitar and piano, empirically, with hands on and not a blackboard in sight. The right way. And I think I have a clue as to how and why those mysterious chords work their ineffable magic on us.

Here comes Mr Science!

To explain further, humor me while I put on my Mr Science hat. First let’s distinguish between noise and musical tone. Most natural sound is noise, which doesn’t mean unpleasant, only chaotic. Waves on the beach, wind in the trees, etc. But musical tone has pitch. And that sense of pitch comes from a defined series of tones hidden within that we don’t perceive outright, but the brain decodes. And it’s always the same: it’s called the Harmonic Series. Play a C on a trumpet, a piano, a flute, they all have this same series.

Now, why would we be able to hear this? It’s a complex process to decode sound, there must be some payoff or why would the ability have evolved? Because the series is also the key to timbre, or tone color, so it also helps us hear what kind of emotion is behind the voice: a growl from cooing, a cry from a shout of joy, and so on.

Thought That Was Dull? Now Comes the History

In the past, almost all music, all over the world, was monotonic: only one tone was sung or played at a time, no matter how many instruments. Harmony, or polyphony (“many sounds”), which is used in virtually every minute of music we’ve ever heard in our lives, had not been invented (I’m simplifying for the sake of clarity so hold your fire, pedants). No 50’s doo-wop for the Romans.

Harmony as we know it started to develop in the Middle Ages. Why would it take so long? Well, any non-musician who’s sat at a piano and made an awful cacophony can grok that there’s some secret knowledge needed to put tones together in a way that makes nice music. And bit by bit, the monks of Europe figured it out. Clearly, they had some time on their hands. Slowly they built a systematic method of harmonizing different tones that produced pleasing music. It was unlike anything heard before.

And the way they did it was to use the harmonic series, embedded in nature, to guide the placement of these new extra tones. Bit by bit the system was expanded, through Bach, Stravinsky and jazz to the deep complex harmonies we have today.

So Where Does The Brain Hacking Come In?

If the emotional content of a voice is imparted to us and decoded by the brain via the harmonics, perhaps chords work the same way? And that’s where the hacking comes in. Because the chords we use only approximate the harmonics of nature. The actual tones are rearranged in subtle and complex ways. When we go from simple sounds like our doo-wop to more complex harmonies like The Rite of Spring or Thelonius Monk, nature has been left far behind.

Steven Pinker in his fascinating book “How the Mind Works” speculated about the origin of the aesthetic response to visual art, which has no apparent evolutionary survival justification. Basically he described it as the equivalent of cheesecake. Cheesecake packs together dense flavors that don’t occur together in nature, which thus overwhelm the palette and make the pleasure meter go off the chart in a way that natural foods don’t. The visual senses are similarly overwhelmed by art.

As a theory of aesthetic pleasure I find this wanting, to say the least, but I’m not trying to explain pleasure but communication. Suppose that our modern chords plug into that part of the brain that expects to decode emotions from voices, but the sounds going in don’t quite fit the templates, and so it tricks out strange new sensations, never experienced in nature?  The brain’s system has been hacked, and the internal workings exposed to the harmonic scientist now in control, who takes it where he will. That would make the polyphony of those ancient monks, and modern Monk, a form of low tech brain hacking, quite akin to the way graphical perspective tricks the eye in art.

If so, it makes me wonder what other strange sensations might be slumbering within us, just waiting for some genius to think of a hack to bring them to life?

About Sir Barken Hyena

IT professional and veteran of start ups. Life long musician and songwriter. Voracious reader of dead white guys. Lover of food and women.
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10 Responses to European Polyphony and Low Tech Brain Hacking.

  1. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    I was barely exposed to any music history, let along theory, during K-12. It was only when I started taking guitar lessons about a year and a half ago that I specifically asked my teacher to throw in a heavy helping of theory. Can’t say I’m a natural at it like you, but it’s great fun to play around with chords and scales.


    • Sir Barken Hyena says:

      i only half know it now. I forgot everything from high school and some college courses. If in doubt jump up a fifth or down fourth I say! Which is super easy on a guitar. Same finger positions in a lot of cases with simpler chords. Piano sucks, every chord is a different hand position.


  2. Maule Driver says:


    I’ve always been mystified musical theory, harmonics, and the different scales used in different cultures at different times. Having been encouraged to sit in front of piano and to blow into a clarinet, the mysteries only grew. They are mysteries that will remain so.

    But brain hacking is an intriguing perspective. Given how little we know about how our brains work, the polyphony legacy could actually be thought of as high science in the grandest tradition. Pure empiricism that is; hypothesize, experiment, analyze results, document and repeat. At some point you discover what tweaks the brain as surely as poking it with electrodes.

    Wondering what other strange sensations lie in our heads is what keeps people chasing various psychedelic experiences.

    Great stuff!


  3. chucho says:

    Joe Pass supposedly said that there really are only three types of harmony: major, minor and dominant. Everything else is some kind of embellishment. A Cmaj7b5 still sounds “major.” Pass was a traditionalist, but I think he’s right (at least with respect to Monk; I know less about Stravinsky).

    I’m hopeful as well, but I think someone would have figured it out by now if there were any great discoveries left in harmony. The 20th century saw a great expansion for sure, but in the end it just resulted in minimalism. Bach would have found it pretty funny, I presume.


    • Sir Barken Hyena says:

      “three types of harmony: major, minor and dominant” interesting and I think I see what he means – power chords show how major or minor are implied even when no thirds are present..

      A real revelation for me came from an interview with the Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye. She was griping about how guitar teaching today emphasizes scales over chords – she said that’s backwards. Scales are just something to pin chords on. Listen to Bach’s solo works, like the Cello Suites. The melodic material expresses the implied harmonies perfectly.


      • chucho says:

        For the record, I don’t think he was trying to come up with some grand theory of harmony–it was just a rule of thumb he followed when deciding what to play. If the sheet says 7#9b5, you can just think ‘dominant’ and be free to embellish as need be. But I think the rule speaks to a larger truth about a limited harmonic taxonomy that our brains may be hardwired for.

        And just to tie it all together:


  4. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    Thanks for that – she had the most incredible tone.


  5. Colyn Brown says:

    This is great stuff BH… No doubt you’ve read Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks?


  6. Fascinatin’ stuff. I grew up at the piano keyboard and did a little studying of jazz theory and beginning counterpoint. But I couldn’t see much use to it at the time — I’d have been much happier learning a half a dozen guitar chords and playing with a stupid neighborhood rock band. But I’ve gotten re-fascinated, at least a bit. I recently really enjoyed this Robert Greenberg lecture series for the Great Courses — he really takes western music down to its most elementary building blocks, discussing pitch, harmonics, timbre, scales, modulations, etc. Lots of history and technical info all mixed together, and presented very vividly and helpfully. I wish I’d been thru it years ago, and I suspect I’ll be going thru it again sometime.


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