Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dangerous Music

 Krash, J. and Middleton, N. (2009) Dangerous Music, Jessica Krash and Norman Middleton: Music and the Brain. [podcast] January 29, 2009.
Link: http://www.loc.gov/podcasts/musicandthebrain/podcast_dangerousmusic.html [Accessed: October 12, 2012].

Dangerous Music

This podcast is another from the Library of Congress’ Music and The Brain series. It is an interview with Jessica Krash, musician and composer who teaches at George Washington University, and Norman Middleton, concert producer at The Library of Congress. Krash teaches a course on “dangerous music” at GWU and this is the subject of the podcast.

They begin the interview by discussing the tritone, considered by many throughout history to be a “devilish” interval. Krash explains that this may be rooted in physics, for if you take a string tuned to C and another tuned to F# (a tritone), the ratio would be √2:1. Historically the √2 has been an uncomfortable number for mathematicians and physicists; it was even forbidden on various occasions. Interesting how the sound of that ratio is also uncomfortable for our ears! Middleton mentions that diminished chords are still frowned upon in gospel music, adding to the negative connotation of the tritone today.

Continuing on the topic of Diabolis Musica, the “devil in music,” Middleton touches on urban myths linked to evil within music, including musicians selling their souls to the devil for enhanced talent. They discuss myths surrounding the Italian baroque composer Tartini, Italian violinist Paganini, and American blues musician Robert Johnson. And finally, naturally, they talk about the devil in heavy metal music. Middleton notes that heavy metal musicians use the tritone heavily in composition on purpose because they know that the interval is considered evil.

The subject takes a political turn when Krash starts discussing Jewish music in Nazi Germany during WWII. She says that the Nazi party was able to latch onto the negative reception of modern dissonance in Jewish compositions to gain public support. Germans were already uncomfortable with this new, modern sound and it was used against musicians like Schoenberg during the war. The Nazis claimed that he was destroying the triad and ruining German music, when Schoenberg saw himself as a rescuer of it. An interesting side note - the Nazi’s tolerated the same kind of modernist dissonance from the Italians and from Stravinsky in Russia.

Middleton goes on to discuss a specific instance of suicide that was motivated by rock music where two young men in Las Vegas committed suicide after listening to “Beyond the Realms of Death” by Judas Priest. They discuss the prevalence of murder and/or suicides being attributed to an individual’s reaction to rock and roll or heavy metal music.

Finally they touch on the subject of “dangerous” dance. Krash examines Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and the riots that occurred at the premiere of the work. She notes that the destruction of the traditional ballet hierarchy in the choreography represented a strong political statement; it was “provocative in it’s primitivism.” Middleton comments on the sensuality inherently associated with dance and notes the rules established within the three major religions - Christianity, Muslim, and Jewish – to include dance in their individual moral frameworks.


I have always been really interested in the social implications and culture of music. I love learning about specific instances throughout history when music was condemned and/or lauded and why that was. What I enjoyed most about this interview was not necessarily the information I learned, but the way in which I reacted critically to it. I found myself, for maybe the first time, unconsciously questioning what I was listening to and constantly asking “why”?

In keeping with our class subject I was really interested in the suicide-by-music story. Naturally, it brought to mind images of Charles Manson and I began humming The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” I wonder why some humans have a compulsion to act aggressively and sadistically when listening to specific genres of music. Does it happen with all types of music but we just don’t think about it the same because it doesn’t cause mayhem? Is it the music itself, or the associations one may have with music? We know music evokes an emotional response – is that all that it boils down to? What’s going on in the brain when someone is listening to satanic music? Are neurons firing in the same part of your brain that processes aggression? Morals? Is there a physiological area in the brain that is associated with “evil?”

If so, can we start looking at ways in which we can use music to combat aggression? Violence? Would it be the same way in which we lower stress and anxiety? Are these things all linked anyway?

1 comment:

Amanda Tosoff said...

This was a very interesting post! In regard to the tritone interval, I wonder what is happening in our brains when we hear it. Why do we consider this interval to be so dissonant? I thought it was interesting that we perceive this interval as being uncomfortable to listen to, while physicists and mathematicians also feel "uncomfortable" about the numerical ratio of this frequency. Fascinating! I also wonder if our perception of the tritone as dissonant is cross cultural? I ask this because jazz and blues make frequent use of this interval. Could the use of the tritone in jazz and blues be a result of the early African influences of this music? If so, would an African perceive the tritone interval as dissonant? It's also interesting that the more we expose ourselves to a sound, the better it sounds to us. This interval is so common in jazz, that I suppose it just sounds normal and "bluesy" to me now.

I am also curious about the how music could potentially combat aggression and violence. I just about to post a blogpost of a podcast called Music Therapy, Alzheimer's and Post-Traumatic Stress. Music Therapist Alicia Clair mentions how music dampens our autonomic nervous system, resulting in slower breathing and heart rates. Although she doesn't say it, I am assuming she is referring to "calming" music that is pleasant to the ear and slower in tempo (I can't imagine death metal would elicit such as response). It seems as if listening to music can in fact have a calming effect on our bodies. Perhaps it could be used to combat aggression!