Gresham Lecture Series The Nature of Music (2023-2024)

Why does music – formed of mere vibrations in the air – affect us so profoundly? This series examines how music exploits our innate and highly evolved listening faculties in order to communicate complex and otherwise inexpressible emotions. Using a diverse range of examples – from Bach to Beatles, Bossa to Björk, Bartók to Billie Holliday – we explore the universal building blocks of prediction, rhythm, pitch, scale, dissonance and multiplicity in the musical experience. Details and registration below

Lecture/RegistrationDateDescription
Why Music Moves UsThu, 14 Sep 2023How is music able to convey and trigger such range and depth of emotion? Why does it elicit joy, sorrow, consolation and the chills? Employing research and theoretical models from neuroscience, psychology and musicology, we examine the extraordinary ways that primal and conditioned listening combine to such complex emotive effect. Examples from pop, jazz, rock, film, global, traditional and classical forms are presented under the light of nostalgia, visual imagery, emotional contagion, rhythmic entrainment, aesthetics, expectation and the extra-musical.
The Poetry of Prediction: Musical Time, Rhythm and Groove


Thu, 09 Nov 2023Music is a temporal art, unfolding like a ribbon and transforming our experience of time itself. This lecture demonstrates how music harnesses our unique and intricate listening faculties creating a complex interplay between sounding events and our internal predictions. This forms a predictive tapestry whereby the listener – usually unconsciously – ‘explains’ temporal events in reference to multi-layered streams of expectational waves. How musicians exploit such expressive opportunities is explored in a wide range of musical styles.
The Art and Science of TuningThu, 18 Jan 2024This lecture presents the rich history of musicians’ engagement with pitch. From the tuning systems of Babylon, Pythagoras and Hindustani ragas, through the temperaments of the Baroque and Classical eras and arriving at contemporary electronic, blues, jazz and global practices, we explore how musicians have organised, sliced and manipulated the pitch continuum for expressive effect. In so doing, we reveal the mechanics that determine the 12 notes of the piano keyboard and the beautiful spectrum of pitch colours between them.
The Colour Spectrum of Scales and Modes


Thu, 22 Feb 2024A musical scale – a hierarchical collection of pitches spread over multiple octaves – is a fundamental building block in the creation of melodies and harmonies in a wide range of musical practices. But where do these scales come from? Are they invented or discovered?
This lecture looks at the history, theory and artistry of scale construction in a wide range of styles, and how each scale can, through ‘rotation’, form a colourfully expressive palette of modal colours.
Musical Consonance and Dissonance: The Good, Bad and Beautifully Ugly


Thu, 25 Apr 2024What makes a piece of music challenging, bland, intriguing, beautiful or ugly?
This lecture explores the concept of ‘musical flavour’ formed by intervallic, rhythmic and timbral components and how they contribute to a sense of consonance and dissonance.
In particular we look at the interval vector, a system by which harmonic objects are analysed as a series of ‘handshakes’ between pitches, providing a measure of harmonic ‘bite’. The ‘Hendrix chord’ is used as a case study of such harmonic flavour.
Is Music Infinite?


Thu, 16 May 2024This lecture explores the very limits of music: investigating historical efforts to catalogue musical materials including the melacarta of Carnatic music, the wazn of Arabic maqam, Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, Schillinger’s Encyclopedia of Rhythms, Forte numbers, and contemporary attempts to ‘pre-copyright’ every possible melody yet to be written.
It also tackles the bigger questions: how much music might exist, whether it ever will be exhausted, and if there are any boundaries of our musical perception and imagination.
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