Diary of an OCW Music Student, Week 2: The Octave and Just Intervals

Education Insider talks a lot about OpenCourseWare (OCW), but maybe it's time we put some OCW to the test. Therefore, over ten weeks this fall we'll be taking an online class from the University of California - Irvine ourselves. What does a semi-professional musician stand to learn from an OCW course in music theory? It's time to go back to school.

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By Eric Garneau


The Presentation

Last week, UC Irvine's 'Introduction to Pitch Systems in Tonal Music' laid solid groundwork for some basic concepts relating to the physical properties of sound. In my previous column, I noted that while week one gave a nice refresher of high school/college physics material that most of us probably haven't thought about in awhile, there wasn't a whole lot about it that seemed to specifically appeal to musicians. This week, that changes; instructor John Crooks throws us pretty squarely into some serious music/physics concepts here, and the material covered seems complex enough that even a relatively experienced musician like myself felt the need to watch Crooks' lecture/presentation video twice.

But then, that's one of the biggest benefits of OCW - besides it being free and available to all, of course. OCW never expires, and it never refuses to repeat itself. OCW video lectures are infinitely rewatchable; you can return to them any time you feel like you need a refresher or watch a lesson twice in a row successively (as I did) to make sure you caught all its important points. It's like having your professor On Demand - you can fast forward, rewind and pause as much as you want. Try getting a flesh-and-blood lecturer to behave like that.

Another difference from last week's lecture: this 'episode' was about twice as long as the last, coming in at just under 20 minutes. It seems I was premature to state these video segments would each last around ten minutes, so I'll now amend that statement to say that each episode is as long as it needs to be, which is just vague enough as to not be falsifiable. Understandably, this course segment also felt more substantial than last week's; I suppose that was bound to happen once the introductory material was left behind.

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The Material

So what did Crooks actually cover this week? The lesson, entitled 'The Octave and Just Intervals,' is all about laying the groundwork for how we organize our pitch system in Western music. Crooks explains why octaves (the distance between one note on a scale and the note 12 tones away) make for natural organization, as well as why just or pure intervals like the perfect fifth, the perfect fourth and the major third are so prevalent in music and so pleasing to our ear. A lot of this should sound familiar to pop/rock musicians who possess even a passing familiarity with chord structure. Have you ever wondered why fifth chords (often called 'power chords') are so popular in rock music, why they seem to work in every song? Given this lesson, you can start to piece that together.

Where Crooks' lesson lost me a bit is in its discussion of overtones and partial harmonics. Apparently, according to Crooks, when you play a stringed instrument you're actually hearing more than one frequency produced from any given string. It's just that those multiple tones are subtle and harmonious, making you think you're only hearing the one note you're intending to play. Or something. I don't know, I still don't totally get it, to be honest. It's hard for me to wrap my head around that way of thinking - when I play an open G string on my guitar, I want to hear the G note which my tuner tells me vibrates at a frequency of 196 Hz. It's strange to think that other tones are bundled up in that but, hey, I guess you can't argue with physics.

And actually, I think it's okay that my mind's been slightly boggled by what I've learned. What's the point of education if not to open one's eyes, right? Besides, this is only week two of nine total lessons - I have a feeling that the information contained here will start to make more sense as Crooks' course progresses. And if not, that's okay too - I can always come back and watch this video again. And again. And again. And again.

What kind of positive effects can music produce in the human brain?

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