- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

When Radiohead appeared recently at the Grammy Awards with the University of Southern California’s Trojan Marching Band, it was an odd juxtaposition not merely because the British alt-rockers interact sparingly with the mainstream.

The song they performed, “15 Step,” was in a tricky time signature known as 5/4.

March to that at your own risk, kids.

To most ears, and even some trained ones, such a time signature (also known as meter) feels off-kilter, accustomed as we are to 4/4 — the conventional grouping of beats that goes one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. Or, in the triplet feel of 3/4 waltz time, one-two-three, one-two-three.

Why that’s so is one part of a fascinating, ongoing critique of modernism by thinkers such as Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, who mingle the worlds of evolutionary neuroscience, literature and art history to arrive, roughly, at this conclusion: Some things — linear storytelling, representational painting — work easily, and other things don’t.

Exactly why do “odd time signatures,” as they’re commonly called, sound odd? Is it a case of sensory responses traveling along — and flying off the rails of — well-worn synaptic grooves of the brain? Or is it the product of Western acculturation?

Denis Dutton, founder and co-editor of the prestigious Arts and Letters Daily blog, joined the debate with his recent book “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.” In it, he argues that standards of aesthetic appreciation are not socially conditioned; rather, they emerged across cultures out of evolutionarily useful activities — not least the ability to woo potential gene transmitters.

About the topic of musical time signatures, Mr. Dutton is more than a passive critic; he has played the sitar for 40 years and, as a California-born Westerner, struggles mightily with the exotic meter of Indian music.

On the phone from Christchurch, New Zealand, where he teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, he describes the subtle distinctions in the time signatures of Indian styles known as “chanchar” and “dhamar,” with their intricate seven-beat groupings.

Mr. Dutton wonders “whether, like learning a language and acquiring an accent, early musical experience sets up what might be permanently engraved expectations for rhythm and harmony.”

“This may make it difficult or impossible to fully appreciate a foreign music later in life,” he says.

Yet he suspects that complex raga music can play tricks on the brains even of native listeners.

Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, author of the entertainingly informative book “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession,” says via e-mail that when listeners encounter complex time signatures such as 9/8 or 12/8 in the music of Beethoven, Chopin and others, they tend to break them down into more familiar, assimilable bundles of three or four.

“It may be partly innate and partly a process of enculturation,” Mr. Levitin continues. “In Indian music, the listener may have to hold in mind time signatures that only work themselves out over several minutes. Clearly, the brain can be trained to do this, but such training probably needs to occur early.”

Recent studies have begun to demonstrate how humans’ perception of rhythm is a deep-seated neural response. As reported in the magazine New Scientist, researchers at Budapest’s Institute for Psychology and the University of Amsterdam found that even sleeping infants have a sense of rhythm, as measured by electrical activity in their brains in response to calibrated drum recordings.

The finding wouldn’t surprise Frederick Turner, a poet-scholar at the University of Texas at Dallas. He has discovered two things about poetry that have important implications for music: First, every culture does it. Second, every culture does it more or less the same way — in lines that follow universal metrical patterns.

Along with German brain researcher Ernst Poppel, Mr. Turner says the human brain takes aural information in roughly three-second chunks. If a line of poetry extends too far outside of that window, it will spill onto a second line and become a couplet, he says.

Even more intriguingly, Mr. Turner says the pattern extends to other mammals — in the intervals of whale songs, for instance.

Poetry is a “beautiful and dangerous cocktail” that affects both sides of the brain — the left, which logically organizes grammar, and the right, which recognizes melody.

A political speech, a protest chant, a song, a poem — each depends to some extent on this “cocktail” of rhythmic perception.

In “This Is Your Brain on Music,” Mr. Levitin adduces a simple, functional explanation for why we favor the 4/4 meter: It matches our evenly numbered footfalls in the act of marching or dancing.

If we had three feet instead of two, our sense of meter might have evolved differently.

Also, it should be noted, it’s not as though the 4/4 meter or its 2/4 cousin are inelastic. For instance, American funk and Latin bossa nova rhythms obey this conventional structure with distinct results.

Nevertheless, composers have fiddled with time signatures since the classical era and on through to 20th-century jazz, progressive rock and today’s “math rock” (so named for its use of complex meters).

Such artists, ever mindful of avoiding cliche, prove that odd time signatures can work in a pop context.

Russell Greenberg, of the New York City-based experimental pop band Hi Red Center, studied music as a postgraduate. Informed by West African drum music and Javanese gamelan music as well as adventurous white men such as Paul Simon, the band tries to layer cycles of differently metered patterns that eventually synchronize, he says.

“It’s tricky,” he adds. “We get a confused mix of reactions.”

Mr. Greenberg likes the idea of perking up a listener’s ears and making him “listen harder” by adding a beat here or subtracting one there.

The Beatles’ catalog includes a number of irresistible odd-metered tunes, including “All You Need Is Love,” “Good Day Sunshine” and “Good Morning Good Morning.” Pink Floyd’s “Money” made 7/4 time sound deceptively bluesy. Pearl Jam’s “Last Exit” — in 5/4 — is positively ferocious. (For an exhaustive, cross-genre list of works, search Wikipedia for “unusual time signatures.”)

“With all music, what you’re trying to do is surprise the mind,” says Mr. Dutton, author of “Art Instinct.” “Musical perception is fundamentally built around expectations. The human mind, at every moment, is making intuitive predictions about what the next note will be.”

Having those intuitions “foiled” can be one of the pleasures of music, he adds.

That those intuitions exist in the first place — and for reasons that are becoming increasingly well-understood — is no longer up for debate.

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