Monday, January 17, 2011

music and perception and communication

I have been reading Boing Boing more regularly, it has always been a fun/interesting blog with a great deal of variety and activity.

The way things tie together, and untie, then re-tie is something that you observe throughout life. For example...

Like a lot of people I work in a cube office by day. I sit in a comfortable chair in a well-illuminated and clean workspace, that gets some natural light as well, in a mostly quiet setting. While the various Dilbert-esaue commentary on cube dwellers is abundant, and often on the mark, I am by and large very grateful for the conditions and employement therein.

The office is "mostly quiet", because there is the ventilation system that runs, the soft clicking of keyboard keys, and the sound of traffic with occasional sirens going past the window on the street three stories down. There are various machines and things humming, also, that seem to make for a high-frequency 'wash' over the whole thing.

Unless it is artifically introduced, there is very little "musical" noise in this environment-- no regular rhythms and very little harmonic noise. It is mostly white/pink noise.

Which makes the other noises once I get out of the office seem very rich in musical content sometimes. Even the sound of a compressor running seems musical, and there are pleasing harmonics in the most unusual things.

To try to point out these sounds and perceptions to someone else would be an fairly intensive effort: for one reason, just by talking you'd be disrupting the audio environment. For another, not everyone will hear it the same way.

If there are purposes for music other than the overt ones like entertainment value and expression, I think one less obvious is to provide a frame of reference for sounds. You can say "it sounded like a trumpet" and people know what you mean.

One thing I've wondered about is if a theoretical person grew up hearing instruments that are nothing like traditional instruments, what they might say to complete "this thing sounded like...". "This thing sounded like the instrument in the melody on [song title]" maybe. But if you hadn't heard the song, you would not have the referent, and so there would be no communication.

Also, instruments communicate things through their inflections in a subtle way. There is often a very easy connection to be made between an instrumental line and a series of implied words and/or emotions. These implications are not based the context of how they are used in songs, but how they instrinsically evoke certain feelings.

It is very easy to make electronic music that is theoretically very musical but devoid of these interesting inflections. It is also possible to add a great deal of inflection, using formant filters and such, but there seems to be a correlation between the 'fluidity' or 'connectedness' of a phrase in a way that it hints at language. Because of this, a "live" instrument or voice in an electronic piece can add a great deal.

It is that "hint at language" in a series of sounds that I think captures the ear and is pleasing.


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