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Ethnomusicologist Karl Signell proposes a fresh approach to thinking about music. In twelve half-hour programs originally broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) and Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Nature of Music series offers new ideas from the experts, from musicians such as violinist Yehudi Menuhin, from scholars such as Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, and from people in the business such as record producer Mitch Miller, etc.

It attempts a grand synthesis of old truths and recent discoveries about music, from psychoacoustics to biomechanics, from poetry to philosophy. By searching for universals, The Nature of Music asks what it means to be human.

The series won international honors from the International Radio Festival and the Japan Prize, and national honors from Ohio State and Armstrong. Funders include the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Australian Broadcasting Company, and the Skaggs Foundation.


performer  listener  commerce  time
creative  body  tools  words
brain  technology  meaning  defining


"Words" sample
Anthony Seeger, David McAllester
3.5 min, 3.5 MB mp3

Music & the Performer
What is the best way for a young musician to learn? How do you get music out of notes on a page? What is greatness? Individuality?

"We're Mets fans. Who's more valuable to the team: Wally Backman, who's constantly on base or Gary Carter, who's constantly driving him in? Who is the better artist? Is it Radu Lupu, who plays marvelous Schubert, or is it Andre Watts, who plays marvelous Liszt?" (Ax)

Guests: violinist Yehudi Menuhin, pianist Emanuel Ax, singer Joan Morris/pianist William Bolcom, jazz critic Martin Williams, jazz singer Betty Carter, Japanese folksingers, musicologists Leonard Meyer and Stanley Sadie, Kmhmu immigrants, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

Music & the Listener
What are you supposed to listen for in music? How do we use music? Why do we seem to need music on so much of the time?

"Listening to music technically for its devices is not good listening. Though I suppose many people think if they could do that, they'd get more out of the music. That's nonsense!" (Barzun)

Guests: Jazz critic Martin Williams, composer R. Murray Schafer, record producer Mitch Miller, poet Robt Kelly, Japanese vox pop, popular music historian Hugo Keesing, anthropologists Marina Roseman, Tony Seeger, ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, composer Libby Larsen, historian Jacques Barzun, pianist Emanuel Ax, conductor/harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock.

Music & Commerce
What kind of business smarts does a performer need? How does an independent record company survive? Do multinationals control all?

"See, if people listen with their ears, and not wait for somebody to tell them this guy just won a contest or a critic to say they were great, they would get the excitement of discovery for themselves." (Miller)

Guests: Record producers Mitch Miller, Jay Saks, Amy Horowitz, Gerry Wexler, syndicator Al Ham, rock composer/performer Frank Zappa, popular music historian Hugo Keesing, Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa.

Music & Time
How does music create its own time? Why is musical time different from ordinary time? Is rhythm more primal than melody?

"We normally see time as something against us, don't we? And of course, the great pleasure of music is that we can escape from that and we beat time at its own game." (Pinnock)

Guests: Conductor/harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock, art historian Robert Farris Thompson, anthropologist Tony Seeger, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, music historian Joseph Kerman, jazz singer Betty Carter, violinist Paul Zukovsky, educator Frederick Erickson, ethnomusicologist Charles Keil.

Music & the Creative Spirit
How did humble musical craftsmen become god-like artists? Do you need royal guilds to create great music? Where does music come from?

"Creation is what God did, it's not what Man did." (Kerman)

Guests: Music historian Joseph Kerman, anthropologists Tony Seeger, Marina Roseman, art historian Robert Farris Thompson, performer George Abe, French ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget, Baul mystics from India.

Music & the Body
Can we hear music with our bodies? How does a performer convey musical ideas with nonverbal signs? How important is the body?

"The violinist can feel much freer when he can swing on his feet, and when the toes are alive and can respond to pressure." (Menuhin)

Guests: Music historian Leonard Meyer, jazz singer Betty Carter, educator Frederick Erickson, ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget, soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, folk musicians John Dee & Fris, anthropologist Adrienne Kaeppler, composer/philosopher R. Murray Schafer, performer George Abe, Baul mystics from India.

Music's Tools
How does a conductor play his instrument, the orchestra? How does your instrument fit you? Why is a piano anti-physiological?

"There's no question that digital pianos will replace those copper-wound strings and felt-covered hammers. That won't exist in most homes twenty years from now." (Appleton)

Guests: Blues harpists Phil Wiggins, Michael Licht, pianists Józef Pacholczyk, Santiago Rodriguez, English psychologist John Baily, conductors Michael Tilson Thomas, David Zinman, organist Eileen Guenther, Synclavier inventor Jon Appleton.

Music & Words
When are words themselves music? How are words and music different? Same? Which came first? Can words describe music?

"And if you don't understand a language, and hear a poem in it, I think your tendency would be to listen to it as though it were music." (Cage)

Guests: Anthropologists Tony Seeger, David McAllester, zoologist Eugene Morton, psychologists Dane Harwood, Howard Gardner, composer/philosopher John Cage, historian Jacques Barzun, jingle composer Jake Holmes, anthropologist David McAllester, composer Leo Craft, anthropologist Steven Feld, jazz critic Martin Williams.

Music & the Brain
How do children learn music? What is musical genius? How does our brain make sense out of musical sounds? Why do we have scales?

"Mozart probably had as good a musical brain as the world has ever seen. But it was necessary for him to couple it to Western classical music. We don't know, if he'd lived in India or in Africa, whether his kind of musical mind would have been able to deal with those kinds of musics." (Gardner)

Guests: Harvard neuropsychologist Howard Gardner, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, experimental psychologist Diana Deutsch, PET Scan researcher John Mazziotta, psychoacoustics author Juan Roederer, Hopi Native American Michael Lomatawayma.

Music & Technology
How do radio, cassettes, music video affect music? For better or for worse? Is what you hear determined by a technician's taste?

"All kinds of music will have access to music video, from jazz to classical, to opera to country, to folk to blues. To Tibetan monk music! If they want to make a video, let people see what the hell Tibetan monks look like making their music. Why not?" (Shore)

Guests: Rock critic Michael Shore, ethnic records historian Richard Spottswood, media historian J. Fred MacDonald, audio engineer Jack Renner, anthropologist Tony Seeger.

Music's Meaning
Does all music have an ideological meaning? Why did Mozart sales surge after "Amadeus"? Does music video freeze interpretation?

"Any late Romantic nineteenth century orchestral work has a very solid ideological lining. It shows the predilection for education, for cultural improvement, for refinement...just the sort of mixture of experience that upper-middle class people find enlightening and elevating." (Brenneis)

Guests: Anthropologists Donald Brenneis, Marina Roseman, David McAllester, jazz critic Martin Williams, music historians Stanley Sadie, Terrance O'Grady, ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, rock critic Michael Shore, composer R. Murray Schafer, historian Jacques Barzun.

Defining Music
What is music? How do you decide what is music and what isn't? Is there such a thing as great music? Why is music so human?

"Dreams tell us something about ourselves that can't be told any other way. Drama does that. Painting does that. Music does that. We need to know these things." (Williams)

Guests: Composer R. Murray Schafer, bellringer Richard Dirksen, ethnomusicologists Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Józef Pacholczyk, Gilbert Rouget, anthropologist Steven Feld, music historian Leonard Meyer, composer John Cage, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, jazz critic Martin Williams.