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Music and the Brain

There are good reasons to study music aside from being able to play.


Simply listening to music “involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem” (Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, p. 86).


For instance, following along with music engages certain parts of the brain – the hippocampus (memory center) and the frontal lobe; tapping along with music engages others – the cerebellum’s timing circuits.


Performing music uses the frontal lobes for planning behaviour, as well as the motor cortex and sensory cortex. Listening to, or recalling lyrics, involves language centers in the brain.


And the emotions we feel in response to music involve structures deep in the primitive regions of the cerebellum and the amygdala.


Simply by listening to music, we strengthen our brain. By learning to play, the benefits multiply. So even if you don’t become a professional musician, music lessons have a lasting benefit that positively affects your entire life.


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Upcoming activities

Hermit Crab is now on bandcamp –;

on cdbaby –;

and on itunes –

Aside from playing shows, there are a number of projects and/or possible projects coming up – video production with award-winning filmmaker Kyle Armstrong; dance production with dancer/choreographer Nancy Sandercock –; and theatre production with director Sandra Nicholls, and writers Karen Wall and Michael Andrew.

That last one is a theatre production presenting a vision of environmental apocalypse. You know. Rising oceans and drowning cities, crop plagues created by genetic mutation. That sort of thing.

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Hermit Crab Bio

Hailing from the northern beauty of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Hermit Crab is the collaborative project between composer Dave Wall and the instrumental post-rock trio Gary Debussy. Using the classic two guitars/bass/drums rock band format, it combines the driving intensity of punk with minimalism and the harmonic sophistication of jazz. Noise, improvisation, and electronics are also part of the sound, creating a focused, exciting, and sometimes unpredictable experience.

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Placement of notes is crucial for producing metric tension. Generally, the production of metric tension means notes not lining up with the pulse.  Repeat the following example, and the notes in the top stave will line up with the downbeat of every bar, and nowhere else.


Does the next example hold more tension or less? Conventional thinking says that more notes equals more tension, at least in terms of rhythm. However, to my ear (at least in this case), less notes makes it  less predictable. Because of this, it holds more tension.



For someone else, it may hold less tension, especially if they’re hearing a composite rhythm instead of a metric relationship.

The measurement of rhythmic tension relies a great deal on number of notes. The measurement of metric tension looks at the relationship between pulse and the notes played against the pulse. Your experience of tension arises from how you are listening.

These examples highlight the idea of defining different qualities of tension, instead of defining tension based on quantity of material. Quality is almost completely subjective, however.

So how do we define rhythmic quality?

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Circular Rhythm

This image…

…informs much of my research. It’s pretty, but what does it mean?

Visual template

Essentially, it’s a template for visualizing metric and rhythmic tension. The outer circle shows four bars of the pulse in 4/4; each black dot is the ‘1’.


Moving towards the centre, the next circle represents the South Indian karnatic system (konokol) in 1/16 notes; each coloured circle indicates an accented note. More on the karnatic system in later posts.

1/4 Note triplets

The next circle is 1/4 note triplets (blue circles) against the pulse, and then 1/4 note triplets (red circles) superimposed against each two notes of the blue 1/4 note triplets. To do this, the blue 1/4 note triplets are conceptualized as a 1/4 note pulse then the red 1/4 note triplets are mapped onto that pulse in the same way that the blue are mapped onto the primary pulse (outer circle). Note that where the red circles line up with the blue layer, and you’ll see the 3:2 relationship.


The inner circle is a Turkish usul. Usuller (plural for usul), are rhythmic modes in Turkish makam music. The one that I’m using here is in 11/8. There are two ways to use this usul: as 11 against 4 (as used here) or as 1/8 notes against the primary pulse.

Each circle, then, holds a specific rhythmic personality. Different personalities can be inserted by using different konokol patterns, different usurer, etc. I leave it to your imagination to find these personalities.

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Tempo Levels

The consistently alternating dynamics in post 4…

… bring up and interesting perceptual dilemma. Namely, that they can be perceived as three simultaneous tempo levels.

Take the quarter-note triplets; simplify and repeat:

The notes marked forte can be perceived as downbeats, the piano notes as upbeats; this creates a half-speed tempo. While it’s less intuitive, the piano marking can also be perceived as the downbeat, with the forte sounding like a strong anticipation.

Both things occur simultaneously, much like the common image of the wineglass and/or two faces.

That gives us two half-speed tempos, along with the original  tempo. Three in one!

The ambiguity here creates a really interesting kind of tension as we flip between three different experiences.

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