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Music database Spotify’s newest commercial endorses the replacement of words with music to communicate when you can’t find the right words. Perhaps without meaning to, Spotify may have tapped into the same consensus that Schutz and his team did.

A team of researchers headed by McMaster researcher Michael Schutz have looked into the patterns behind established compositions in musical history. The paper published in Frontiers of Psychology: Cognition focused on prominent European composers Frédéric Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Michael Schutz, director of McMaster’s Music, Acoustics, Perception & Learning Lab and associate professor of music cognition and percussion, has long been immersed in the musical world. He worked closely with Matthew Poon, McMaster Music alumnus, and other students, to analyze three 24-piece sets by Chopin and Bach.

“Music is very powerful at communicating emotion. In fact, that seems to be one of the core things that is important about music,” said Schutz.

“The common speech patterns we use to convey emotion show up in music,” Schutz found. These tools were employed by Bach and Chopin to infuse their compositions with emotion, using high pitch and fast timing to convey joy and low pitch and slow timing to convey sadness.

“It is one of the oldest issues in the whole field of music cognition. Darwin talked about how the way in which music communicates emotion seems to be paralleled to language, and Plato was speculating about these things as well. It’s a really old issue and certainly a very important one,” Schutz explained.

While the group focused on the structural cues crafted by composers, there is a secondary layer in which performers interpret those cues and cast their own impression over them. For the most part, this dialogue between composer and performer is separated by many years and even eras. A third layer is present in the audience’s interpretation, which varies among people who have heard the same piece performed.

In one sense, it is an intentional effect. These patterns aren’t laid out haphazardly and left to chance. Yet whether these composers could explain every choice is not quite so certain.

“Composers and musicians in general have very good instincts about what works for the perceptual system, but we don’t usually talk about it in those terms,” Schutz accounts.

Culture is another important factor to consider, as there are certain aspects of music, such as major and minor keys, which do not translate well across cultural boundaries.

“I remember a friend in grad school heard this one piece of music that he thought sounded so happy because it sounded roughly like our major mode, but it was actually a funeral song” remembers Schutz.

Other cues tend to be slightly more transferable. High and low pitches, and fast and slow timings tend to fall into this category.

“One of the things that I did not expect is that Bach and Chopin used these two cues in very different ways. Bach had a big timing difference for both of his sets of pieces, but for Chopin there was no difference between major and minor keys.”

There is an opposite pattern with pitch, where Bach preludes have the smallest difference while the Chopin preludes have the largest difference. This might have something to do with the versatility of piano sound that existed at their time.

“The cool thing is that it ties in with a bunch of studies that look at the basic way in which composers use cues changed in different eras . . . What minor meant seemed to change in a significant way in the Romantic era.”

When picking the composers, Schutz looked for a balance between major and minor pieces.

Around 80 percent of composers write in the major key. As such, Chopin and Bach were chosen for their equal representation of both modes.

The study is based on previous findings on metronome markings or pitch themes.

“I think it’s the first time we have the complete section, where you are looking at all the voices. The harmony matters, it is not just about the melody. It builds on what’s been done before but in a bit of a different way.”

Explorations such as these have direct implications in musical education, for performers and significantly for composers.

Photo Credit: McMaster Humanities

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By: Alex Florescu

Midterm season is upon us, school has begun to pick up and I’m starting to feel the stress. Last Friday was no exception.

However, in between group meetings, library study sessions and online quiz completions,

I found free time to visit Ian Johnston’s exhibit The Chamber at the McMaster Museum of Art. I went from frantically dodging the 20-minutes-after-the-hour-crowd on my way over the museum to being the only one in a cavernous, nearly silent room.

I say nearly silent because, as it was, there was a familiar sound emanating from the corner of the room. I ventured over and discovered that what I thought was a corner is actually another room. It is in this room that I found Johnston’s Chamber, a dynamic installation that towers above you one minute and lays flat on the ground the next. More specifically, it is an inflatable white bag that covers the surface area of the room. When fully inflated, the installation fills the room in a white mass. In this state, the installation is accompanied by a recording of trickling water. It is this sound that first drew me to Johnston’s art piece, a sound that seemed so out of place in a museum.

As I stood in front of the piece, I noticed, with surprise, that the installation was changing. The bag was slowly deflating, the sound of water was gradually replaced by the sounds of a crackling of a fire and the dimmed lights became strikingly bright. By the time all of the air had been vacuumed out of it, the bag had become completely plastered against the mass of objects piled underneath it. Through the nearly translucent nylon bag, I could make out familiar forms and colours. There were pots, pans, plates, board games, bins, lampshades and other common-use objects. As it turns out, these items were removed from a waste stream in Medicine Hat and incorporated into the installation - a comment on the detrimental effect of consumerism on the environment.

Intrigued to delve deeper into the motivation behind this piece, I watched an interview with Ian Johnston. The architect-turned-sculptor began his career in art by creating large-scale ceramic installations. However, he soon discovered that he had a passion for vacuum forming the art of placing a bag over an object and vacuuming the air out of it. He would do this to any range of objects, from bicycles to telephones to cappuccino makers. What fascinated him most was the bag, and how it would inflate and deflate to reveal and conceal its contents.

It is from this discovery that he drew inspiration for The Chamber and the other pieces in his series of works called Reinventing Consumption. To Johnston, The Chamber represents the things we know exist but choose to ignore, things like consumption and refuse. With exhibits in several places around the world, one thing is for sure; Johnston’s message is loud and clear.

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