Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Nolan Gasser: Why You Like It [2019]

[Notes from Vicki (email of 1/26/20).]
Note that we rated the book after talking with the author [who attended the discussion] and there was some openly admitted increases in points due to that.

Ron — 8
Book seemed to be over laborious. There was too much detail on some parts and then not enough on others. Over all it needed to be made less boring—the detailed sections bog down the reader. However, you can pick at it and get something out of it. Score is also affected by friendship with the author and his good discussion (but -1 point for going to Stanford!).

Jack [John] — 7
Only read the first hundred pages. Liked the history of Pandora, but once he got to the musical structure, eyes glazed over. Enjoyed the anthropological chapter, but not doing too well with music theory. Overall, want to keep reading and did like the author in person. Talking with him raised overall interest.

Barbara — 9
Very informative and information about the notes and history of music. Lots of various types of music were introduced. Author was dedicated and wrote a lot of detail about what he was interested in.

Kevin — 5
Did not enjoy the book. Although the author is knowledgeable on the subject—did not want a graduate course in music. Didn’t learn about personal likes and dislikes of music. Asked him about the genomics because it wasn’t clear in the book why he chose to call it the music genome project. It’s not very accessible and would not recommend to the general reading population.

Kirby — 5
Liked what was read, it was informative but didn’t have time to listen to the music samples which hurt overall understanding. Did notice some of the things he mentioned up until pg 165 when listening to music. Liked Gasser’s writing style, but didn’t like the subject.

Vicki — 5
Finished the book end to end—on the positive side, it really was thorough in its coverage of musical knowledge, the website with music samples helped with clarity, and it did eventually lead to thoughts about the connections between personal music favorites, such as soaring melodies, chromaticism, and rhythmic & harmonic complexities. On the negative side, the book is overly dense, full of academic defensive writing (explaining a theory in full just to toss it aside—which is not interesting to the general reader and even muddies the overall message of what he wants the reader to take away from a given chapter), and the structure of the regular chapters interspersed with interlude chapters got stale and irritating by the last half of the book. This was especially noticeable with the cell biology interlude where Gasser claims we are wired for music because cell division is similar to the structure of dividing up notes. Overall the book is successful at garnering a deeper understanding of musical components and how they come together to make up songs, but the reader has to have patience and determination to digest and understand it. Unfortunately, most audiences would not stick through this—the book is better aimed at fellow academics.

[The average rating for our group, on a scale of 0 to 10, is 6.5.]

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Q&A with Nolan Gasser (this is summarized, so not his exact words, though I captured as musch as I could).

1) How would you classify a genre bending song like “Old Town Road” from 2019, which mixes rap and country?
The music genome will evolve if it ends up spawning a new set of fused music in the same style, much like Jazz formed from the fusion of classical and African music. Otherwise, it will just be one of many fusion songs that exist in the genome—and this is why multiple genres share several of the same genes to account for this, much like humans share a huge number of genes with other mammals.

2) Take for example Loreena McKennitt’s Alhambra Nights, which fuses Celtic with Spanish and Middle Eastern influences—you talked about fusion, is this fusion or evolution or what?
Interestingly, the Celts moved from North Africa to Spain and then to the British Isles, and finally to the Appalachian Region, so some of this mirrors existing evolution. In fact, it has gone back the other direction as well, today in Moroccan and Algerian music there are Spanish influenced chord progressions. Celtic Scots music became bluegrass, country, and rock, at least in part. So Loreena McKennitt may be calling on that rich history to influence her modern Celtic work.

3) Bands like the Beatles didn’t have formal training, so how does that come together? (pun intended).
As alluded to in the book, we can process the rules of music without formal training, much like language syntax is naturally gleaned when you learn it via exposure as a child. In fact, theorists are just clarifying and mathematically explaining what musicians were already doing. For example, Sexy Sadie has a lot of chromaticism in it naturally—all written into the song without training.

4) These days I hear more about Spotify and Pandora, what are your thoughts on that?
Pandora came out along with Smartphones which initially helped it grow in 2007. However, record label feuds hurt it. Spotify made deals with the record labels to own 25% of the product. That gave them on-demand music. Pandora now has on-demand as well in its subscription offering, but unfortunately a whole younger generation are already hooked on Spotify—I even have to bribe my own kids to use Pandora instead.

5) What about crossing genres in film and TV?
I’m working on a new genome for film and TV now, so it’s a bit soon to say, but one thing is that there are more components to account for in film—narrative, acting quality, visual quality and even in fact the score. It’s also interesting to note that people are less likely to be entrenched in a single genre of film than they are to have a music genotype preference. However, just like in music, each genome will have similar properties with each other genomic type, so in theory you could recommend across genre.

6) Why call it a genome?
Metadata that is typically collected, such as artist, genre, composer, year recorded, etc., are not intrinsic qualities of the music, so I wanted to look at how we break down the music itself. Also, the human genome project was also very big at the time, so we started calling it the music genome as a kind of “cute” name until we later realized it would work and it stuck.

7) Do animals hear sound as music like humans?
Probably they hear pleasant and unpleasant overtones, but it’s unlikely they have enough processing power in their brains to get to the level of structure and other more complex musical concepts.

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