The science of what I’m doing right now: music

I’m currently in the middle of a Saskatchewan tour with the Canadian Chamber Choir. In fact, we have a joint concert with Juventus in Regina on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Westminster United Church.

Because my brain is currently stuffed full of music, it’s hard for me to come up with a scintillating new science column. So instead, here’s a modified version of one I wrote 17 years ago.

Its topic? Music; what else?

Not that music is easy to talk about scientifically, 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 can produce a powerful emotional response. It’s said 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. Plato insisted on simple music. He felt rhythmic and melodic complexities were to be avoided because they lead to depression and disorder.

Yet music is just sound. It’s the culture that determines what sounds are a permissible part of music.

In our culture, we expect music to consist primarily of “tones,” instead of “noise.” “Noises” are identified not by their characteristics so much as by their source — a dog barking, for example. Tones, on the other hand, are considered “autonomous” — existing apart from their source — because they possess controlled pitch, loudness, timbre and duration.

Pitch, how high or low the tone is, is determined by the frequency of the sound waves: that is, how many complete waves, peak to peak, pass 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.)

Another way to think of pitch is in terms of wavelength. Sound is emitted as a spherical pressure wave at about 340 metres per second. Higher-pitched sounds have a higher frequency because there is a shorter distance between wave peaks, so more of them can pass a given point every second.

Loudness is determined by the amplitude of the wave — its height and duration. Timbre, the remaining component of a tone, is 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.

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 you can always hear the bass of music in another apartment, but usually not the higher pitches).

The speaker cabinets and sometimes even the room itself resonate, too. (Which 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.)

All right, so you have tones. Now how do you turn them into music?

Again, it depends on culture. In South Asia, unlike here, 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. 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 (see: bagpipes). Yet we still don’t understand exactly how or why music works. We can’t even agree on a non-cultural definition.

But come hear the Canadian Chamber Choir and Juventus on Friday night anyway. I can’t prove it scientifically, but I know you’re going to hear some wonderful music.

I’ll be the tall guy in the back.

Permanent link to this article:

1 comment

    • Elyse Bruce on October 24, 2008 at 7:26 pm
    • Reply

    It would be interesting to hear your insights on synesthesia as it pertains to sounds and colours.

    Have fun performing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Easy AdSense Pro by Unreal