Want to start an interesting discussion? Go up to someone and say, “I think Barry Manilow represents the pinnacle of music in the rock era.” Assuming you can avoid being locked and/or beaten up, you will have demonstrated the fact that music is a topic of great interest to just about everyone.
Topics of great interest to just about everyone are also topics of great interest to those of us who want one or two people besides our parents to read our columns, and so this week I give you: music.
Fact is, though, it’s a bit difficult to talk about music in scientific terms, because it’s a subjective experience. Aristotle saw no reason to take it seriously: “It is not easy to determine the nature of music or why anyone should have a knowledge of it.”
Yet obviously music has considerable impact on the human body and mind. Music has always been attributed with the power to move people (sometimes in pretty silly-looking ways, as you’ll see if you observe people dancing) and to have “ecstatic possibilities”–the ability to lift people out of themselves.
For that reason, it has almost always been a part of religious ceremonies, and has often been carefully regulated. (Even today, in countries like Iran, certain kinds of music are forbidden.) Plato insisted on simple music. He felt rhythmic and melodic complexities were to be avoided because they lead to depression and disorder. (Sounds like a Muzak fan, doesn’t he?)
But where does this powerful influence on people come from? Music, after all, is just sound. Whether that sound is music or not is decided by the culture. Historically, the musicians within each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will permit to be considered music.
In our culture, we expect music to consist primarily of “tones,” instead of “noise,” although the distinction between the two is purely arbitrary. “Noises” are identified not by their characteristics so much as by their source–the noise of a dog barking, for example, or the crash of a suit of armor rolling down the stairs. Tones, on the other hand, are considered “autonomous”–existing apart from their source–because they possess controlled pitch, loudness, timbre and duration. Obviously it’s much easier to organize those kind of sounds into music than it would be to organize crashes and barking dogs.
Pitch is how high or low the tone is, and is dependent on the frequency of the sound waves. Sound is emitted as a spherical pressure wave at about 340 metres per second.
The higher the pitch, the shorter the length of the sound waves. (Middle C–the key directly under the first letter of the brand name on most pianos–has a wavelength of about 1.3 metres.) Pitch is often measured in “cycles per second,” the number of complete waves–peak to peak–passing a given point in a second. Humans can hear sounds from 15 to 18,000 cycles per second, depending on age, health and gender. (Women can generally hear higher pitches than men can.)
Loudness is determined by the amplitude of the wave–its height–and duration, obviously, is how long the sound lasts. Timbre, the remaining component of a tone, is not what lumberjacks yell as they finish cutting down a tree. It’s the total “feel” of the sound, arising not only from the main vibration that determines pitch, but from all the secondary vibrations set up in the instrument producing the sound. “Pure” tones, without secondary vibrations, are very rare. Among traditional musical instruments, the flute, with its simple tube construction, comes closest. Violins, on the other hand, with their complex curves and wooden bodies, produce sounds particularly rich in complementary vibrations, called overtones. (It’s these missing overtones that are difficult for electronic synthesizers to duplicate, which is why electronic music often sounds–well, artificial.)
The timbre of the tone may also change depending on the environment in which it is produced. As sound bounces off objects in its path, it changes character, especially at high frequencies (low frequencies are less easily affected, which is why the Metallica CD the guy in the apartment upstairs is playing sounds like it consists entirely of bass drum beats).
As well, the speaker cabinets and sometimes even the room itself resonate. (This is why singing in the bathroom sounds good. Small rooms have a resonant frequency that can be matched by the human voice. Match the resonant frequency and you get a big, booming sound. In large rooms the resonant frequency is generally too low to be matched vocally.)
All right, so you have tones. Now how do you turn them into music?
Again, it depends on culture. In South Asia, for example, harmony never developed–but the melodic complexity is far greater than in western music. Certain forms of music played in Toronto’s night clubs wouldn’t go over big in the local senior citizens’ centre. They’re all using tones–but they’re arranging them very differently.
In the end, it appears that music falls into that realm of human experience that so far defies scientific quantification. Like warmth, taste and smell, we all appreciate it, but we have a hard time finding words to explain it. We use it to boost productivity in factories, to enhance our love lives, to help soothe mental patients, even to drive warriors into a battle frenzy or strike fear into our enemies (the purpose of bagpipes). Yet we still don’t understand exactly how or why music works. We can’t even agree on a non-cultural definition.
It finally all comes down to the listener. If your idea of great music is your neighbour’s eight-year-old playing Slim Whitman’s greatest hits on a broken kazoo, what right does anyone else have to argue with you?
None! But they probably will anyway.