After my review of I Am A Strange Loop, David French pointed me towards a very interesting book called This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin. I'm only into the 4th chapter or so, but already a couple of things have cropped up that are worth mentioning. I had heard - a long time ago - that Asian systems of music were quite different to, say, European ones. In particular, I was told, octaves were divided into finer intervals than our semitone. According to Levitin (who is not only a musician, and music producer but also a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist - don't you hate him already?) this is not so. There might be more use of temporary intermediate notes - the equivalent of a blues string bend - but the tendency to break the octave into twelve intervals is found pretty much everywhere, including Asia.
What does change is the way that scales are organized. Where children in the West learn their Do-Re-Mi scale, each with eight notes, there are 5 specific pentatonic scales (5 notes each) in the Chinese system. Scales are purely internal inventions of the human mind - they don't exist in the real world. As such they are learned - or at least partially constructed on the biological foundations of the brain's ability to understand music - and so have a strong cultural component. This is why Chinese music sounds Chinese, or Irish music sounds Irish.
So just like language, music is something we are all born to understand, even if we learn to speak it differently, depending on where we're born. I think this means that no matter how much I might find I enjoy Chinese (or any other) music, I'll probably never understand it, and so appreciate it, as fluently as a native. Though perhaps the same can be said of any inexpert listener, even of their own music.
Another interesting insight I got from this book relates to a particular kind of singing performed in Letizia's native Sardinia. I have already heard a lot of canto a tenore and I have a few CDs of one of the most famous performers of this style, called the Tenores di Bitti. I quite like this style - though it's best enjoyed, like Italian food, in small portions. Four male voices interact with three of the singers providing close harmonies while the fourth leads. But when the harmonies work just right, our brain - masterful at interpolating frequencies that it feels should be there - put in a fifth, female pitched voice called the quintina. Tradition has it that this is the voice of the Virgin Mary, joining them in song as a reward for their precise harmonies. Even a godless man like me can't help favouring this interpretation.