Biomusic, Music in Nature and Musica Universalis

The following post is an edited version of the third of four chapters from my honours thesis, originally written in 2013. The thesis as a whole acts as a kind of “how to” guide for composing in a few different styles, each of which somewhat removes human aspects of music composition, at the same time exploring ideas of musical universals – those aspects of music that seem to be ubiquitous across all cultures or even found to be in common across different species! This chapter details one method of musical data sonification, which I used in order to create musical representations of the orbits of planets around distant stars.


 

Chapter 3: Biomusic, Music in Nature and Musica Universalis

 

Universals are rooted in nature, but have effects in culture” (Leman, 2003, unpaginated)

Given that music can exist in numerical data, and in the sounds produced by animals, naturally occurring patterns can also hold musical information, and could have had profound impact upon the creation of early music. Natural patterns such as the rhythms of heartbeats, the natural walking pace of an individual, the night/day cycle and the changing of seasons are all examples of patterns that hold potential musical information and are all intrinsic parts of life.

Biomusic here differs from zoömusic in that it refers to sounds, pitches or rhythms created biologically, but without an intended aesthetic aspect. While the ‘voices’ of many animals used for mating calls are widely considered to have an intended aesthetic aspect, other sounds that are purely functional or biological come under the heading of biomusic.

Musica Universalis is an archaic philosophical concept relating the movements of celestial bodies – the Sun, the Moon, and the planets – to a form of music. This ‘music’ is of course not audible, but rather it can be described in the same terms as music – through mathematical and harmonic principles. The implications of this have historically been thought of as astrological rather than purely mathematical (Kepler, 1997). The harmonically described motions of celestial bodies (the rotations, orbits and resonances with other objects) are yet another example of patterns in nature which contain musical information that can be used in compositions.

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Zoömusicology: Music in the Animal Kingdom

The following post is an edited version of the second of four chapters from my honours thesis, originally written in 2013. The thesis as a whole acts as a kind of “how to” guide for composing in a few different styles, each of which somewhat removes human aspects of music composition, at the same time exploring ideas of musical universals – those aspects of music that seem to be ubiquitous across all cultures or even found to be in common across different species! This chapter is all about creating music that is based on birdcalls, and the technique could be altered for any natural (or non-natural) tuneful sounds.


 

Chapter 2: Zoömusicology: Music in the Animal Kingdom

 

“To ask questions about a basic and omnipresent human activity is to implicitly ask questions about evolution” (Levitin, 2006, p. 7)

Zoömusicology is part of a framework within biomusicology, first described by Wallin (1991), which combines the fields of evolutionary musicology (dealing with the origins of music, animal sounds as music, and ‘selection pressures’ resulting in the music we hear today), neuromusicology (the brain areas and cognitive processes involved in music making and interpretation), and comparative musicology (looking at the functions and uses of musical systems, as well as universal traits; comparative musicology was the precursor to modern ethnomusicology). In this chapter, I have looked at bird song.

No sound in nature has attached itself so affectionately to the human imagination as bird vocalisations. In tests in many countries we have asked listeners to identify the most pleasant sounds of their environment; bird-song appears repeatedly at or near the top of the list. And the history of effective bird imitations in music extends from Clément Janequin to Olivier Messiaen. (Schafer, 1977, p. 29)

Mâche notes the similarity between human music and animal music,

There is not a single musical procedure which does not have its equivalent or its prototype in one or other of the innumerable signals of animals. The simplest, in animals as in man, is naturally repetition. (Mâche, 1983/1992, p. 115)

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Music By Numbers

The following post is an edited version of the first of four chapters from my honours thesis, originally written in 2013. The thesis as a whole acts as a kind of “how to” guide for composing in a few different styles, each of which somewhat removes human aspects of music composition, at the same time exploring ideas of musical universals – those aspects of music that seem to be ubiquitous across all cultures or even found to be in common across different species! This chapter details the creation of an alternate tuning system for musical notes which is based on phi, a mathematical relation found in art and nature.


 

Chapter 1: Music By Numbers

Music is numerical by its very nature. The subdivision of time into rhythms, beats and pulses; the subdivision of frequency into myriad distinct scales and tonal systems, the mathematical principles underlying the combination of frequencies and notes in the creation of harmony. Many aspects of music are based on numbers, but is there a correlation between the numbers that define musical theory, and those that can be used to define natural phenomena? If such a correlation exists, implications could be drawn regarding the development of musical systems, as well as the ideas of musical universals.

There are several ways in which number patterns can be used to describe natural phenomenon. The self-similarity of fractals can describe the growth of plants, logarithmic curves and Fermat’s spiral can be used to describe the shapes of spirals in ram’s horns, the arrangements of leaves on plant stems, and the spiral curves in nautilus shells; chaos theory can explain the flow and shape of rivers, and the shapes of seashells can be described through the use of cellular automata. One pattern that can be found in nature as well as art to a great extent is the Fibonacci sequence.

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Score Analysis – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

 

George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) is considered a groundbreaking work in modern cinema, particularly within the science fiction genre, and particularly also with respect to film scores and sound design – John Williams’ score to the film is often credited with reviving the practice of symphonic scores – and particularly the use of Wagnerian leitmotif. The film’s sequel – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – continued this tradition, using many musical motifs from the first film, while also introducing others. The series’ sound design, led by Ben Burtt, has also been praised as a shining example of what could be done with pre-digital technologies, and both the score and the sound design are major reasons why these films have stood the test of time as well as they have.

While the original Star Wars and its second sequel – Return of the Jedi (1983) – both feature sequences with specifically composed diegetic music, all music in The Empire Strikes Back is non-diegetic.

 

Musical Score Analysis

 

20th Century Fox Fanfare (0’00” – 0’19”)

The first cue in the film, and one that became something of a tradition in Star Wars films, is the 20th Century Fox Fanfare, originally composed for the studio by Alfred Newman in 1933. For Star Wars in 1977, director George Lucas wanted to use the fanfare, which was, at the time, being rarely used in films from the studio. Composer John Williams wrote the iconic Star Wars Main Title in the same key as the fanfare (Bb) to act as an extension and to blend the fanfare into the score for the film more seamlessly. For Star Wars, the 1953 CinemaScope recording of the fanfare was used, but for The Empire Strikes Back, John Williams conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a new recording for the film. The fanfare plays over logos for both 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm.

 

R1Pt1: Star Wars Main Title/R1Pt2: The Imperial Probe (0’27” – 4’14”)

As with each of the six films in the Star Wars saga (as well as related TV shows and video games), the film opens with the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” on screen in silence. The Star Wars logo appears on screen in synchrony with the opening full-orchestra chord of the Star Wars Main Title, a march-like, heroic theme that is one of the most recognisable music cues from the series, and perhaps from cinema as a whole, and represents the main protagonist of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker (figs. 1 & 2)The musical style is similar to that of ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ composers such as Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Erich Korngold and Franz Waxman. This was primarily by design, as director George Lucas wanted John Williams to compose music that already felt very familiar, and that was reminiscent of serial adventure films from the 1930s and 1940s such as Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Zorro, and Tarzan. This familiarity and style creates something of a contrast between the music and the exotic and futuristic locales, characters and settings seen in the film.

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