"Quantizing S&cks"

My tongue-in-cheek (but not really) two-word synopsis of this article - the neurobiophysiology of what makes “good music” good, and vice versa.

Hope you enjoy!


April 18, 2011
To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons

The other day, Paul Simon was rehearsing a favorite song: his own “Darling Lorraine,” about a love that starts hot but turns very cold. He found himself thinking about a three-note rhythmic pattern near the end, where Lorraine (spoiler alert) gets sick and dies.

“The song has that triplet going on underneath that pushes it along, and at a certain point I wanted it to stop because the story suddenly turns very serious,” Mr. Simon said in an interview.

“The stopping of sounds and rhythms,” he added, “it’s really important, because, you know, how can I miss you unless you’re gone? If you just keep the thing going like a loop, eventually it loses its power.”

An insight like this may seem purely subjective, far removed from anything a scientist could measure. But now some scientists are aiming to do just that, trying to understand and quantify what makes music expressive — what specific aspects make one version of, say, a Beethoven sonata convey more emotion than another.

The results are contributing to a greater understanding of how the brain works and of the importance of music in human development, communication and cognition, and even as a potential therapeutic tool.

Research is showing, for example, that our brains understand music not only as emotional diversion, but also as a form of motion and activity. The same areas of the brain that activate when we swing a golf club or sign our name also engage when we hear expressive moments in music. Brain regions associated with empathy are activated, too, even for listeners who are not musicians.

And what really communicates emotion may not be melody or rhythm, but moments when musicians make subtle changes to the those musical patterns.

Daniel J. Levitin, director of the laboratory for music perception, cognition and expertise at McGill University in Montreal, began puzzling over musical expression in 2002, after hearing a live performance of one of his favorite pieces, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27.

“It just left me flat,” Dr. Levitin, who wrote the best seller “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton, 2006), recalled in a video describing the project. “I thought, well, how can that be? It’s got this beautiful set of notes. The composer wrote this beautiful piece. What is the pianist doing to mess this up?”

Before entering academia, Dr. Levitin worked in the recording industry, producing, engineering or consulting for Steely Dan, Blue Öyster Cult, the Grateful Dead, Santana, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder. He has played tenor saxophone with Mel Tormé and Sting, and guitar with David Byrne. (He also performs around campus with a group called Diminished Faculties.)

After the Mozart mishap, Dr. Levitin and a graduate student, Anjali Bhatara, decided to try teasing apart some elements of musical expression in a rigorous scientific way.

He likened it to tasting two different pots de crème: “One has allspice and ginger and the other has vanilla. You know they taste different but you can’t isolate the ingredient.”

To decipher the contribution of different musical flavorings, they had Thomas Plaunt, chairman of McGill’s piano department, perform snatches of several Chopin nocturnes on a Disklavier, a piano with sensors under each key recording how long he held each note and how hard he struck each key (a measure of how loud each note sounded). The note-by-note data was useful because musicians rarely perform exactly the way the music is written on the page — rather, they add interpretation and personality to a piece by lingering on some notes and quickly releasing others, playing some louder, others softer.

The pianist’s recording became a blueprint, what researchers considered to be the 100 percent musical rendition. Then they started tinkering. A computer calculated the average loudness and length of each note Professor Plaunt played. The researchers created a version using those average values so that the music sounded homogeneous and evenly paced, with every eighth note held for an identical amount of time, each quarter note precisely double the length of an eighth note.

They created other versions too: a 50 percent version, with note lengths and volume halfway between the mechanical average and the original, and versions at 25 percent, 75 percent, and even 125 percent and 150 percent, in which the pianist’s loud notes were even louder, his longest-held notes even longer.

Study subjects listened to them in random order, rating how emotional each sounded. Musicians and nonmusicians alike found the original pianist’s performance most emotional and the averaged version least emotional.

But it was not just changes in volume and timing that moved them. Versions with even more variation than the original, at 125 percent and 150 percent, did not strike listeners as more emotional.

“I think it means that the pianist is very experienced in using these expressive cues,” said Dr. Bhatara, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Université Paris Descartes. “He’s using them at kind of an optimal level.”

And random versions with volume and note-length changes arbitrarily sprinkled throughout made almost no impression.

All of this makes perfect sense to Paul Simon.

“I find it fascinating that people recognize what the point of the original version is, that that’s their peak,” he said. “People like to feel the human element, but if it becomes excessive then I guess they edit it back. It’s gilding the lily, it’s too Rococo.”

The Element of Surprise

Say the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is playing a 12-minute sonata featuring a four-note melody that recurs several times. On the final repetition, the melody expands, to six notes.

“If I set it up right,” Mr. Ma said in an interview, “that is when the sun comes out. It’s like you’ve been under a cloud, and then you are looking once again at the vista and then the light is shining on the whole valley.”

But that happens, he said, only if he is restrained enough to save some exuberance and emphasis for that moment, so that by the time listeners see that musical sun they have not already “been to a disco and its light show” and been “blinded by cars driving at night with the headlights in your eyes.”

Dr. Levitin’s results suggest that the more surprising moments in a piece, the more emotion listeners perceive — if those moments seem logical in context.

“It’s deviation from a pattern,” Mr. Ma said. “A surprise is only a surprise when you know it departs from something.”

He cited Schubert’s E-Flat Trio for piano, violin and cello as an example. It goes from a “march theme that’s in minor and it breaks out into major, and it’s one of those goose-bump moments.”

The departure “could be something incredibly slight that means something huge, or it could be very large but that’s actually a fake-out,” Mr. Ma said.

The singer Bobby McFerrin, who visited Dr. Levitin’s lab and walked through several experiments, said in a video of that visit that “one of the things that I have found valuable to me in a performance, whether I’m performing or someone else is, is a certain element of naïveté,” as if “as we’re performing we’re still discovering the music.”

In an interview, the singer Rosanne Cash said the experiments showed that beautiful compositions and technically skilled performers could do only so much. Emotion in music depends on human shading and imperfections, “bending notes in a certain way,” Ms. Cash said, “holding a note a little longer.”

She said she learned from her father, Johnny Cash, “that your style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.”

“You’ve heard plenty of great, great singers that leave you cold,” she said. “They can do gymnastics, amazing things. If you have limitations as a singer, maybe you’re forced to find nuance in a way you don’t have to if you have a four-octave range.”

The Musical Brain

The brain processes musical nuance in many ways, it turns out. Edward W. Large, a music scientist at Florida Atlantic University, scanned the brains of people with and without experience playing music as they listened to two versions of a Chopin étude: one recorded by a pianist, the other stripped down to a literal version of what Chopin wrote, without human-induced variations in timing and dynamics.

During the original performance, brain areas linked to emotion activated much more than with the uninflected version, showing bursts of activity with each deviation in timing or volume.

So did the mirror neuron system, a set of brain regions previously shown to become engaged when a person watches someone doing an activity the observer knows how to do — dancers watching videos of dance, for example. But in Dr. Large’s study, mirror neuron regions flashed even in nonmusicians.

Maybe those regions, which include some language areas, are “tapping into empathy,” he said, “as though you’re feeling an emotion that is being conveyed by a performer on stage,” and the brain is mirroring those emotions.

Regions involved in motor activity, everything from knitting to sprinting, also lighted up with changes in timing and volume.

Anders Friberg, a music scientist at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, found that the speed patterns of people’s natural movements — moving a hand from one place to another on a desk or jogging and slowing to stop — match tempo changes in music that listeners rate as most pleasing.

“We got the best-sounding music from the velocity curve of natural human gestures, compared to other curves of tempos not found in nature,” Dr. Friberg said. “These were quite subtle differences, and listeners were clearly distinguishing between them. And these were not expert listeners.”

The Levitin project found that musicians were more sensitive to changes in volume and timing than nonmusicians. That echoes research by Nina Kraus , a neurobiologist at Northwestern University, which showed that musicians are better at hearing sound against background noise, and that their brains expend less energy detecting emotion in babies’ cries.

Separately, the Levitin team found that children with autism essentially rated each nocturne rendition equally emotional, finding the original no more emotionally expressive than the mechanical version. But in other research, the team found that children with autism could label music as happy, sad or scary, suggesting, Dr. Levitin said, that “their recognition of musical emotions may be intact without necessarily having those emotions evoked, and without them necessarily experiencing those emotions themselves.”
A Matter of Time

The ability to keep time to music appears to be almost unique to humans — not counting Snowball the cockatoo, which dances in time to “Everybody,” by the Backstreet Boys, and became a YouTube sensation. Both the Levitin and the Large studies found that the timing of notes was more important than loudness or softness in people’s perceptions of emotion in music.

This may be a product of evolutionary adaptation, said Dr. Kraus, since “a nervous system that is sensitive and well tuned to timing differences would be a nervous system that, from an evolutionary standpoint, would be more likely to escape potential enemies, survive and make babies.”

Changes in the expected timing of a note might generate the emotional equivalent of “depth perception, where slightly different images going to your two eyes allows you to see depth,” said Joseph E. LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University.

And musical timing might relate to the importance of timing in speech. “The difference between a B and a P, for example, is a difference in the timing involved in producing the sound,” said Aniruddh D. Patel, a music scientist at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. “We don’t signal the difference between P and B by how loud it is.”

Michael Leonhart, who played trumpet and produced for Steely Dan, said he thought “the ears of most people have started to become less sensitive to dynamics” as music recordings crank up the volume and “the world has become a louder place.”

Subtle timing differences, on the other hand, are critical, Mr. Leonhart said, citing a triplet figure in the beginning of Steely Dan’s song “Josie.”

“The tendency is to start rushing it, to get excited,” Mr. Leonhart said. But the key is “to lay it back, don’t rush, make sure it’s not ahead of the snare drum. It changes the slingshot effect of where things snap and pop.”

Mr. Simon plays with timing constantly, surfing bar lines. He squeezes lyrics like “cinematographer” — six short notes — into the space of a two-syllable word, and will “land on a long word with a consonant at the end, so that you really hear the word,” he said. “My brain is working that way — it’s dividing up everything. I really have a certain sense of where the pocket of the groove is, and I know when you have to reinforce it and I know when you want to leave it.”

Musicians like Mr. Simon consider slight timing variations so crucial that they eschew the drum machines commonly used in recordings. Dr. Levitin says Stevie Wonder uses a drum machine because it has so many percussion voices, but inserts human-inflected alterations, essentially mistakes, so beats do not always line up perfectly.

And Geoff Emerick, a recording engineer for the Beatles, said: “Often when we were recording some of those Beatles rhythm tracks, there might be an error incorporated, and you would say, ‘That error sounds rather good,’ and we would actually elaborate on that.

“When everything is perfectly in time, the ear or mind tends to ignore it, much like a clock ticking in your bedroom — after a while you don’t hear it.”

Unknown, Maybe Unknowable

Of course, science has not figured out how to measure other elements of musical expression, including tone, timbre, harmonics and how audience interaction changes what musicians do. While there may be some consensus about what makes music expressive, performers say it is hardly immutable.

“Every day I’m a slightly different person,” Mr. Ma said. “The instrument, which is sensitive to weather and humidity changes, will act differently. There’s nothing worse than playing a really a great concert and the next day saying, ‘I’m going to do exactly the same thing.’ It always falls flat.”

Ms. Cash, who on a recent road trip listened to multiple versions of Chopin nocturnes and quizzed herself on which pianist she preferred, learned a lot about musical flexibility after developing polyps on her vocal cords in 1998.

“Because of these little polyps I’ve had to learn how to resing some of our songs, use breath where I used to use force, use force where I used to go delicate,” she said.

“The World Unseen,” on her album “Black Cadillac,” “gained some curves and some sweetness that I didn’t realize was there,” she said. “We recorded that really late at night, a live track, and it wasn’t that good of a vocal. The producer said he wanted to get a better vocal so we did it a few more times, but we kept going back to that live version. I keep it in a certain part of my voice. If I do it too breathy it sounds cloying. If I hit it too hard, it sounds like rock.”

But thinking things through goes only so far. For one melody, Mr. Simon started out using the words “going home,” he said. “But I said I’m not going to write ‘going home.’ Nothing interesting about that,” he said. “Then I stumbled on this word, ‘Kodachrome,’ which of course, had no meaning.”

In Dr. Levitin’s lab, Mr. McFerrin gamely tried several experiments, including seeing how long he could hold his hand in ice water while listening to different types of music (an effort to find out if music can ameliorate pain). He described a story by Hermann Hesse in which a violinist, granted his wish to be the best musician he can be, vanishes as soon as he starts to play.

“He completely disappears into the music,” Mr. McFerrin says on the video. “And I think that’s actually a big key to a successful creative moment for me, is when I disappear, and maybe the audience disappears into the music and becomes so engaged in the music that you forget that you’re even there.”

As Ms. Cash put it: “Some things you can break down, and some things are ineffable. Some things are just part of that mystery where all creative energy comes from. It’s part of the soul. Music is an ever-moving blob of mercury.”

Very interesting! :slight_smile:

Thanks for posting.

Glad you liked it, HornForHire!

Here’s a follow up article - they are on a roll over there!


April 18, 2011
Between the Lines, Where Music’s Soul Resides

On Timing

MICHAEL LEONHART, trumpeter and producer, on “Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan.

“The horn line is extremely soft and it’s long, and you want to try and grab as many places to breathe as you can. But the horns serve as almost an organlike section. When we started breathing more, everyone knew it was wrong. We had to work harder to get the same dreamlike quality. It was more detached — the gel, the wash was gone. Instead of breathing every two bars or four bars, you needed to breathe every eight bars.”


“The thing that’s fascinating to me about duration of notes and rhythm is I listen to singers, great phrasers — the classic is Sinatra — it seems so completely natural that that’s the way you would hear that song, but nobody else does it that way, and even the people who imitate him can’t get it right. The same is true of Willie Nelson, who’s a great phraser.

“I think what goes on with that is they have a very sure sense of the internal metronome and they know where the beat is all the time. It may seem like the note is floating out across the bar line, which it is, but they know when to land it so that it’s graceful. I think it’s very pleasurable to be over the bar line but know where it is.”


“I miss mistakes. My son was listening to stuff that was heavily auto-tuned, with drum machines. It’s got all feeling bred out of it in the way that it’s as if he was watching ‘The Matrix.’ ”
On Musical Expression


“I like restraint. I like expression that’s framed in restraint, that gives a certain dignity to it. I don’t like this kind of yelping, where everybody’s a victim and everything’s all out there. To me there’s a bottom line that there is a life lived in back of the instrument, and I want to hear what that life is.”


“If you take Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the ‘Goldberg’ Variations, it’s pretty amazing. I used to go back and forth and think which one I liked better. The ones toward the end of life were much slower. He showed that in the hands of a genius you can bring a different perspective to something.”
On the Elements of Music


“The sound is really the air vibrating, and then it touches us. Deep bass is like the whole room is shaking. Very high sounds, shrill sounds, it’s almost like tinsel to hear, whispers. All of that stuff actually affects us physically. There’s the actual tactile sense that gets to our skin.”


“Sometimes you record a melody line, turn it around and play it backward, and every once in while you find there’s a completely beautiful melody and it’s completely unexpected. Sometimes it’s so intriguing the way it falls not with the chord.”

Hello alexis,

Good read, thanks for the post.


Hi Alexis

Very interesting indeed.

The connection between ‘good’ expression and natural body movements is part of my training method. It is based on Dalcroze Eurythmics

Which I studied in the 80/90s with Karin Greenhead, which whom I fell in love, and is one of my main muses of all time.

An inaccurate but simple statement of the Dalcroze premise is: Experience of the physical movements implied by the auditory ‘notes’ is essential for precise conveying of the intended expression.

While setting up the ‘background’ or ‘ground’ against which, for example, variations of mood may be distinguished, then basic training in the 4/4 beat involved learning to ‘trot’ the 8 notes, ‘walk’ the 4th notes, ‘slow stride’ the half notes, and do Slooow martial-artist walk for Whole Notes, which last the bar.

The more evenly one can 'feel and generate them, the more one’s Variations can be called ‘Interpretation’ rather than lack of control. And the more the listener can feel them … backgrounds are solid, therefore more subtle variations are audible.

The more the ground and expressive ‘figure’ are ‘harmonizing’ with natural body movement, then more the listener had ALREADY ‘mirror neuroned’ themselves into synchronization, therefore the More intense and complete will be the response to the musician’s ‘expressive variations’, because the ‘inner body’ as well as the ‘inner ear’ will have been pulled away from its expectations.

Our Mirror Neurons are a great help when interpreting instructions such as, ‘trot like a fairy’ or ‘trot like a gorilla’
Even people who cannot dance will, especially drunk, respond to the phrases “Sugar Plumb Fairy”, and “That’s BALLET, innit?” with uncannily similar behaviours.
Mirror Neurones work very well when drunk. Think of all those times you have been travelling to or from a Game in a Bus or coach … you’re all drunk, and one of you drops your pants to press glutes against the window. Within 10 seconds, you’re all Mooning. Last one’s a sissy. Mirror Neurones.

Mirror neurons! These are all the rage … in the world of neuro-linguistic programming and developmental behavioural modelling, we have been getting excited about them, because their discovery gives a ‘hard’ scientific basis, to well established observations and principles in the ‘soft’ behavioural sciences. Matching and mirroring is one of the principles of empathy in natural language communication. This research in music is examining the same in the world of structured non-verbal.

Exciting times, and Alexis, thank you for sourcing and sharing this

All the best
Glyn :slight_smile:

Hi Glyn - I took a bit of time to read through the websites - very interesting indeed! I am always dancing to music - if not at a whole-body level (frowned upon in the day job!), certainly at an internal or cellular level. My playing, is more freeform dancing than strict on the beat (DWQ - down with quantized!) playing (which I attribute to not being formally trained, and also to being just 2 generations removed from Andean mountain people … I strongly believe that the primitive, as defined by isolation from civilization, is associated with many skills and perceptions that are not easily quantifiable, definable, or even identifiable by Western culture …), more so when performing on stage. So, from my point of view, and based on the limited information I saw in your links, I buy very much into the premise that music is enhanced by motion - both the performance and the appreciation of it. A thought that comes to mind is the orchestra conductor … would that be the epitome of marriage of music and motion?

Also wondering … how does the Dalcroze paradigm deal with the observation that some excellent musicians, who can reach deep into the souls of their audience, are singularly lacking in motion? Not that I can think of any off hand, but I’m sure there are a fair number.

Thank YOU for sharing also, Glyn!

P.S. And on a very shallow and superficial basis … I was very sorry to see that there was no photo of Ms. Greenhead, with whom you fell in love, on her website http://www.themovementofmusic.com/personal.htm !


I have to get back and read this all over again.

It just makes sense!

Thanks for posting! :sunglasses:

You’re welcome, Howling Ulf!

Here’s a link to a “listen quiz”, “What Makes Music Expressive?”, that illustrates the points made in the articles:


Hi Alexis

here is a photo of her. She was younger than that when I was working with her - but that is still her same energy shining through in the picture. I am biassed.


Concerning your question … I cannot speak ‘for’ Dalcroze however, my understanding is that IF they are very good, though not mobile, then Dalcroze training would have made them EVEN better.

I have heard it said that a person who canNOT move, is necessarily disabled in their ability to give full rhythmic experience in their music.
I uphold the principle from which that is said, HOWEVER, I strongly disagree with the with the specific conclusion. Our movement is NOT genetically governed by strict rules as to which body part is for what purpose, and which learnings are ‘limited’.

You can test the ‘wedge’ of my disagreement by doing the following now: Write your name on the ground with your foot. Ah … you might have done that already. OK … do so with the tip of your nose against the mirror. This is becoming clear? Yes? The learning is that of outcome.

Someone who has no use of their legs, can do a lot with their upper body and arms. I am not referring to mere playing the instrument, but of going through the process of maximally physicalising their understanding of music.

When I was doing National Ballroom Dancing competitions, there were events for people who could not walk. They were in wheelchairs. Obviously, translation of moves was needed for forms which would have required legs but which were now on wheels, but their FULLEST use of what body parts they had access to, was the key to their success - by which I mean their success in ‘understanding’ the forms.

A pianist who wishes to play the waltz will, ideally, be able to dance the waltz. A great pianist who has never been able to dance, will still benefit from learning the dance … the average adult Body-Swing … the feel of it, is something which can be guessed - by extrapolating approximations derived by, for example, swaying about in the chair, but the direct Knowledge of feelings of lightness and heaviness, whereby you can cover ridiculously massive distance with correct technique, and feel like you are flying and swooping … For that to translate onto the piano, the player must have had that experience. Otherwise one is translating a guess.

Plenty of brilliant young players lack ‘Emotional Maturity’, whatever that is. ‘Life Experience’ is what develops them. Similarly with Physical Maturity … the experience … the backlog of previous experience of correct and incorrect general balance, becomes the foundation of future physical choices.

If the above feels obscure or incoherent, please come back at me, because my Qualifications are in training the stuff, and I never paid much attention to making ‘formal’ my understanding of the principles in a ‘write about it’ way. Pardon my inarticulacy, and help me clarify, if needed.

Karin: Alexis, believe me, that picture … her … for nearly three years, she was almost everything to me. She was permanently ecstatic. I realise now … I am highly exuberant in my music, and also in the music of others. When I see people honouring this great Cubase software, and their Own Potential with their honest best, I am ecstatic. Karin taught me how to free this ecstasy - it is the constant state in which she lives.


Almost finished with reading James Gleick “The Information” about the current state of information theory. While he doesn’t, or hasn’t yet - hundred pages to go, directly address music he does talk about the relationship between information and randomness. For example, the pattern 10101010 is repetive and boring and contains very little information. But 10101013 contains far more information because it is more random.

Just a thought

A wonderful, attractive woman who is always positive, can dance supremely, and holds a shot glass well … Ahh … :slight_smile:

Oh man! That’s my usual ‘Ctrl+A, Q’ out da window! :frowning:

^ :laughing:

I never use quantization.

IMHO, it is better to have a part that schwings than a part that is perfect.


I don’t use quantization as well, but I do tweak a few notes here and there when needed.
But if there’s to much to tweak I’d rather do an extra take (or takes).
I like to keep the ‘live’ feel.

"your style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.”

Good, I should be able to make a lot of money now :sunglasses:

I usually quantise everything, my playing is too sloppy. Maybe I should try iterative quantising, that might work.

Well, my part is perfect AND schwings! :smiling_imp: :wink:

RokGeetar said

Well, my part is perfect AND schwings! > :smiling_imp: > > :wink:

Only guitarists can do this! :laughing: :laughing:

I read the article, which is fascinating. But the more I think about it, it applies to solo piano music. You can’t dance to a rock tune played “rubato”, and rock music is meant to get you up and move. Solo piano music is for sitting very still suppressing coughs and sniffs. It would be interesting if they had taken a rock tune and created a version that more or less matches the rhythmic variations of the pianist. I think it would make rock audiences sit still and suppress coughs.

Hey there,

I have released my new single and a tribute to Adele Turning Tables.

Please support and Subscribe to my youtube channel

Adele Turning Tables Cover by Fergus