This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin: A Review

27 Oct
Note: The folks from Grammarly graciously offered to sponsor this post. I use Grammarly for proofreading online because it can free up more brain power for enjoying music.

Music is everywhere, especially when it has to do with our emotions. Music has the power to move us, physically and spiritually. It is familiarity and exploration simultaneously drawing from experience, atmosphere and energy… spatial points of reference blending in sound.

This is Your Brain on MusicI discovered this book while browsing Audible randomly for something interesting a few weeks back, and I’m glad I did. I found it to be entertaining, well-articulated and just technical enough to make solid points but not so much that I became lost in scientific mumbo jumbo. The author, Daniel J. Levitin states:

“This book is about the science of music from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience – the field that is at the intersection of psychology and neurology.”

Levitin is an experienced producer and studio engineer, who came by his musical appreciation honestly – his father offered to finance a set of headphones as long as the young author promised to use them whenever his dad was home. Sounds like good parenting to me.

Levitin later went on to become a bona-fide brain researcher and Ph.D., incorporating his musical background. This qualifies him to explore what’s happening with the brain in relation to music.

Consider how something as instinctive as “groove” works. Levitin notes: “when we talk about a ‘great groove’ in music… we’re talking about the way in which beat divisions create a strong momentum. ‘Groove’ is that quality that moves the song forward. When the song has a good groove, it invites us into a sonic world we don’t want to leave.”

That’s a pretty darned good description of groove, right there.

Beats and melodies, grooves and lyrics, disconnected ideas forging a shared energy… what happens with music is happening in our brains. So many areas of our consciousness activate together in a musical experience – like performance and interpretation happening at once. I’ve long believed music is the most powerful art form.

The book explores some of the author’s own, and other recent studies conducted on music, musical meaning, and musical pleasure, along with what’s happening in the brain in relation to music, from many perspectives – biological, physical, anthropological, and others.

“Music listening, performance and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have identified, and involve nearly every neural subsystem.”

This makes a ton of sense to me, since so many, many hours of my youth were spent listening intently to music closely, over and over, concentrating on untangling its secrets into something I could tap into and impart to others through a shared experience. It’s a beautiful thing, and this book illustrates some of the biological mechanisms that enable such magic. As a self-taught musician, I found it fascinating to consider all this from a physiological and evolutionary point of view.

Above: interview w/ Daniel Levitin on The Agenda with Steve Paikin

Levitin notes that “music is unusual among all human activities, for both its ubiquity and its antiquity.” I agree that there’s something primal about music, something as elemental as the air we breathe, as visceral as any vibration. Like the rhythms of a wind rustling leaves, hoofbeats on a plain, or a brook cascading among the echoes of a forest. It makes sense of the world through organization of energy, with the power to send us elsewhere and take us back home in our minds, something that has been happening since humans first started drumming on logs around a fire, continuing to this day in new and exciting forms.

“As our brains have evolved, so has the music we make with them, and the music we want to hear.”

Just think of a song you know, one that makes you tap your foot to the beat or sing along – maybe just the first melody that pops into your mind, maybe something you heard on the radio on the way to work… in a commercial… in college… last weekend at a friend’s house… years ago when you were just beginning to understand the world — what is that sound? It’s living in your brain right now and likely will be for a long time to come. This book can offer a new appreciation for that kind of art.

Update: author comments & recommendation!

What do you think? Have you ever considered how music affects the brain? What do you consider an example of a song that takes you to a certain place? Let us hear from you in the comments.

5 Excellent Image Sharing and Discovery Tools

22 Oct

Over the past few years of exploring art and developing my own creations through Instagram and smartphone apps like Hipstamatic and Dynamic Light, I’ve come to appreciate the merits of different websites for purposes of expression and curation. Here’s a look at my top 5.

On each of these sites I house some variation of images I make, and I also explore them daily for inspiration. Following is my take on what makes each special and how I get the most from them with their unique characteristics:

500px: The Premiere Gallery

Check me out on 500pxI use 500px.com exclusively to house all my photomontage art. It has the fastest, cleanest, and overall best display, where the focus is on the art with the community and everything else coming after that. There’s a simple mechanism for favoriting, liking and commenting if that’s what you’re into, but primarily the site is about experiencing the art, and there’s generally more refined content than other image-sharing websites. http://500px.com/rsmithing

Pinterest: Mass Consumption Imagery

Check me out on PinterestPinterest is where I tap into a huge image-appreciating community, sharing my montages and other creations that happen along the way on a board called “My Creations.” Not everything there is totally fleshed out, but it’s decent enough to be on display, and interesting enough to repin and share across other boards. lt’s more transient and fleeting than other venues, but feedback in the form of repins and likes helps keep me interested. Plus, I follow a ton of cool boards there along the likes of what I produce, so it’s great visual candy for when the mood to browse strikes, or if I just want to curate some dreamy images or other photomontageshttp://pinterest.com/rsmithing/my-creations

Instagram: Keeping Things Fun

Check me out on InstagramIt’s funny; Instagram is what got me started on this journey of creation and exploration, yet it’s not the ultimate destination for me that it once was. Don’t get me wrong; I find and enjoy many great creations there, but I don’t share my most refined stuff there. The site has so quickly become so saturated, complete with spam and terms of service issues, leading me to keep a certain kind of profile there, and that’s fine. I’ll occasionally post a fully completed photomontage, but I tend to keep it light and more experimental on Instagram. http://instagram.com/rsmithing

Flickr: The Mother Lode

Check me out on FlickrFor me, Flickr has truly evolved into a fantastic tool and a force to be reckoned with. My photostream there is a hodgepodge of montages, original source material, experiments, and a running log of stuff that may or may not fall into any of these categories or even see the light of day. I’ve had a Flickr account for many years, but have only recently delved into the full experience it offers – chiefly because it’s such an excellent tool to share Instagram images on Pinterest and other sites like Tumblr. Plus, you can’t beat its sets/galleries/collections organization, curated groups, favorites browsing and full-size resolution viewing options. http://flickr.com/rsmithing

Tumblr: A Curated Garden

Check me out on TumblrAnd finally, there’s Tumblr, the place where I highlight everything I like, pin and favorite on all these sites, mainly through automation and RSS feeds via ifttt.com, but also through the occasional upload and reblogging of something cool I come across there. It’s taken me a while to get into Tumblr, but I’ve found a ton of great stuff there and have managed to be featured at some cool Tumblr-based blogs like Lensblr and Minus Manhattan, which is always a great feeling, reaching folks with an interest in the kind of art I like to make. http://rsmithing.tumblr.com

What do you think? Do you employ different websites along the same reasons but for different executions? Are you on any image sharing websites? Have you heard of these already, and what’s your experience been like on them? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Dream Theater After Uelsmann: Learning From The Masters

11 Oct

So I thought it would be fun to do another photomontage along the lines of my favorite visual artist, the amazing Jerry Uelsmann. Here’s my version of one of his works:

Dream Theater After Uelsmann

“Dream Theater After Uelsmann”
Click to view in high-resolution (way more interesting than the size shown here)

Here’s the original by Jerry Uelsmann:

Dream Theater by Jerry Uelsmann

Dream Theater by Jerry Uelsmann, 2004.

And here are my source images, all photographed by me over the last few years, with links to the full-size versions:

Originals for Dream Theater After Uelsmann

Original photos by me. Click for full size view.

Uelsmann is The Man

I hope to make it abundantly clear that the inspiration and vision for this image is 100% Uelsmann — I take no credit for the origination of the composition, and I’ve made efforts to make this clear in a number of places. My effort here is strictly a study of technique and a visual challenge, with full respect and homage to someone who inspires me. It was fun to do, and I’m pleased with the result.

What do you think? Have you ever photographed, drawn or painted after one of the masters or someone who inspires you? What was the outcome? Where do you go for inspiration? How does that take shape? Let us hear from you in the comments.

And Now, A Word From Our Sponsor…

4 Oct

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Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night ValeThe above text is from Welcome to Night Vale,” an excellent, surreal podcast. I receive no compensation from there (or Denny’s) for sharing this message; I’ve just really, really been enjoying the show lately. This radio-news-report-style “broadcast” from a mysterious town brings together the quaintness of Mayberry, the weirdness of Twin Peaks, and the spookiness of The X-Files in an chillingly funny, original way, with great writing and performance. Check it out on iTunes for free.

Text of above “ad” from Episode 27,First Date,” at about 17:39 [transcript]
What do you think? Are you into anything you’d describe as surreal? Do you listen to Night Vale? What are some podcasts you enjoy ? Been to Denny’s lately? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Artwork Feature At Lensblr.com

27 Sep

Many thanks to Lensblr.com for featuring my photomontage art today! The folks there were kind enough to highlight my recent piece, “Find What You Love,” which I created earlier this month. Here’s what it looks like at Lensblr:

"Find What You Love" by rsmithing

My art featured at Lensblr.com. Click to see more of my art at 500px.

Lensblr is a site that, in its own words, “advocates the original photographers on Tumblr — the ‘creators’ in the Tumblr world.” The site focuses specifically on Tumblr, where it seeks to “bring more attention to the creative works of the content creators on Tumblr.”

Social Media, Art and Blogging All In One

This is great for a Tumblr newbie like myself, since only recently do I understand Tumblr – which is exciting for more reasons than just having my artwork featured. I never would have discovered Lensblr were it not for the direct suggestion of another Tumblr user at Darkdisturbingbeautiful, who suggested I submit my art to Lensblr after having followed my blog and then messaging me through the site. Thanks again, Jason!

Adding to the experience, Tumblr user zombodystripe messaged me asking about how I created the piece. My reply made for a neat post on Tumblr all by itself, since adding images and links in replies is just as easy there as blogging. Here’s what I said about my process:

Q via zombodystripe: How did you do Find What You Love on your iPhone? Is there an app? What is it called? I’d love to try it!

My reply via Tumblr

My reply via Tumblr

A: For Find What You Love I took three photos with the Hipstamatic app: the treetops, the peeling paint and the flowers. I put them all together in a now-extinct app called Photoforge2, but you can use any app that supports layers (like Filterstorm, Superimpose, others). I set layer modes according to light/dark for blending — mainly using overlay mode. Finally, I masked out areas I wanted to keep or erase, then merged all layers and did overall sharpening/exposure adjustments to bring it together. I use things like vignettes and textures to unify also, so everything has a similar feel. If you like this, definitely check out more of my photomontages at 500px, and especially the work of Jerry Uelsmann – he is the grand master of montages and my inspiration. And he does all this by hand with film in the darkroom. More on him at this post I did at my blog: “Learning From The Masters.”

Sites like Lensblr greatly enrich the Tumblr experience – and I don’t just say that because they featured my stuff. Definitely check it out if you’re into creative photography and images.

What do you think? What’s something you’ve been turned on to by way of social media or a blog? Was it a temporary interest, or did it further a lasting connection? Let us hear from you in the comments.

 

A Good Man Is Hard To Find Read by Flannery O’Connor

22 Sep

Flannery O’Connor reading her short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”

My all-time favorite author, Flannery O’Connor, reads here one of my all-time favorite stories, A Good Man Is Hard To Find. It’s so interesting to hear the creator of such a widespread work (the story appears in many college “English 101” college compilations) reciting her own creation.

A Southern Accent

I know many people who sound exactly like this around where I’m from. To me it sounds comforting. And that’s saying quite a bit, considering how disconcerting the subject matter of the story is.

5ebf6c0b6f62e8b061fe613ccf3a9177

I wonder what O’Connor would have thought of Breaking Bad. If I ever meet Vince Gilligan or any of the writers, I’ll bring this up.

What do you think? Have you ever heard any of your favorite authors reading one of your favorite works? Do you think hearing the words from the person who wrote them affects the interpretation? Let us hear from you in the comments.
Characters of "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" - The Misfit, et.al

Characters of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”

Find What You Love

18 Sep
Find What You Love by rsmithing
Find What You Love, a photo by rsmithing on Flickr.

And let it set you free.

This is a play on the phrase by Charles Bukowski, “find what you love and let it kill you.” I like his phrase, but I also like the idea of setting something free or being set free in the name of love. This is a montage I assembled on my iPhone using a shot of a couple of treetops at sunset (with the moon rising), a roadside view of some wildflowers, and a gash of peeling paint in a parking deck. I also consider it to be in the style of my favorite visual artist, Jerry Uelsmann, whose work is endlessly inspiring to me. Click to see the originals and full-size version in greater detail at my Flickr photostream.

What do you think? Are there any litereary quotes that have stuck with you through time? Have you ever been inspired visually by something from literature? Let us hear from you in the comments.

What Do You Do When A Song Is Stuck In Your Head?

12 Sep

MusicOnTheBrainI experience music looping in my head on a regular basis, and I’m sure you can think of several times this has happened to you. I’m also a self-taught musician, having learned to play guitar by ear from an early age through careful listening, so, I have a hunch my brain is more active in the “melody-analysis” area, and that I’m prone to experiencing this more often (or at a higher volume) than others. This doesn’t affect my life in any huge external way — I carry on productively and engaged in most any situation. But in a moment of relative quiet, the internal soundtrack often cranks right up.

But Isn’t That What Vocal Hooks Are For?

I’ve found it’s usually key phrases from songs that stand out — like dramatic flourishes or expressive riffs. It’s not always the “pop hook” or vocal element that grabs me, and it can be any obscure track from any time in history, of any genre, not just so-called “popular” music specifically music designed to lodge itself in the brain. Though I’d bet a quantitative analysis of the last 50 years would reveal more bias toward, say, The Andrews Sisters than Metallica.

And then, after a few hours… it’s gone. Maybe I’ve made an effort to listen to the track somehow and exorcise its hold on my spirit. Or, what was there before just gets replaced by another track.

Rick Neilsen of Cheap Trick

Rick Neilsen of Cheap Trick – Power Pop Hook Maker Extraordinaire

Why Does This Happen?

Perhaps as early human cave dwellers, the ability to memorize sound served an evolutionary purpose. Hearing a growl in the distance might have prevented being eaten by a bear, so that would have been a good sound to repeat into memory for an advance warning next time. Or maybe hoofbeats in the distance signaled a tasty herd of beasts just over the ridge. I’m totally guessing, but it’s not implausible given what we understand about the fight-or-flight response.

What Do You Do?

I really wonder if there’s a course of action here. Is there some type of “resolution” or lesson to be learned — or does there even need to be? What purpose does having a song stuck in your head actually serve?

What do you think? Do you find that actually playing the song works to “release” the melody from your brain? Or do you find that songs usually dissipate on their own? Any guesses as to why this happens? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Pontiac Introduces Smart Watch

9 Sep
Pontiac Introduces Smart Watch

K.I.T.T. – I need you buddy!

If you’re a Gen-Xer, there’s a chance you might have had a favorite TV show back in the early ’80s, Friday nights on NBC: Knight Rider. Sort of Dukes of Hazzard meets “the future” with David Hasselhoff as a renegade crime fighter…. with a smartwatch! Not to be outdone, Nissan has just introduced a smart watch of its own (yes, Nissan), following Samsung and perhaps Apple.

But let it be known that Pontiac was first, by way of K.I.T.T., the crime-fighting 1982 Firebird Trans-Am of Knight Industries.

Corporatespeak Is Not Good Public Relations: A Revist to Best Buy

6 Sep
Best Buy at Forbes

A story at Forbes inspired my analysis of Best Buy from a general PR view.

I wrote this article a while back when Best Buy was at the precipice of failure (at least in a PR sense). But now their “Renew Blue” turnaround strategy looks to be gaining traction (again, at least in a PR sense). One thing is for certain: theirs will be an interesting case study.

Best Buy: A Look Back on a Christmas PR Blunder

From January 2012In PR and communications, negative news can sometimes have a positive side just by way of the delivery. And what an opportunity that can be: either to recast in a positive light, to minimize damage… or to make it worse.

We have more respect for clear, direct communication, especially when something goes wrong. Owning up, making things right, and letting people know about it is not only the right thing to do, but can also be a PR win, a point completely lost last month on Best Buy as it addressed customers about orders that they weren’t going to be getting… keep reading >>

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