Friday, May 2, 2014


Here's an interesting exercise for aural analysis. Imagine a piece of music as a programmed pattern for a massage chair. Lower frequencies massage the lower back, and higher frequencies massage the shoulders and neck. Loudness at a specific frequency band would correspond to the physical pressure and speed that the chair would provide at the corresponding area of the back. Articulated, percussive sounds would evoke that dreaded "percussive" setting on massage chairs that feels like somebody is trying to tickle you with a jackhammer. Of course, a massage chair that was completely informed by spectral analysis of our favorite music to relax to would make for a pretty mediocre massage, because our back muscles and our cochleas want different things. That being said, It's important to remember that the ear itself is a frequency analyzer of it's own. The basilar membrane is a stiff structure in the ear that begins as thick and resonant with higher frequencies at the base of the cochlea and thins out as it approaches the apex of the cochlea, thus making it more resonant for lower frequencies. The result is a structure that resonates at specific points when activated by the entire spectrum of human hearing. One could imagine the tactility of the thinnest part of this structure vibrating in resonance with thumping bass, or sound like white noise, which has about an equal amount of power across the entire spectra of frequencies, vibrating the entirety of the basilar. However, if we were going to create a piece of music that was going to be the best possible 'massage chair' for our cochleas, would it be good music? Would we find it entertaining?

A spectral analysis I did of Atmospheres, a mastodon of a piece by Ligeti.

Short answer: I have no idea. Long answer:

Although I have a strong personal disdain for the genre as a whole and have never enjoyed listening to it, I am fascinated by the extreme rise in success of popular electronic dance music, popularly referred to as EDM. After reading up a bit on exactly this subject, I have found that EDM is the most distilled and economical form of aural stimulation through music: 5 minutes of sequencing work from the music creator birth hi hats that click away at approximately 10 ms, creating a pleasurable loop of constant ABR (Auditory Brainstem Response). Because it is so easy to generate using modern tools, the genre is perpetually oversaturated with new releases. It is worth noting that the people producing this music are not often cognizant of the neurological origins of the music, but the people that create the software and sound libraries for these producers often are. Furthermore, it is also an assumption that is supported by anecdotal evidence that a great many of the people that listen exclusively to this type of music are on severely empathogenic drugs, so it is safe to presume that these listeners to this genre respond mores to lower level neurological arousal such as brainstem response than higher level stimulation that people approaching music with any academic interest or even mere sobriety would respond to positively, such as constant confirmations and denial of expectation and social and historical context. It is the undisputed massage chair of music.

This begs the question: What kind of tools, be they acoustic or compositional, did the popular music of early modern Europe exploit to make the listener "feel good"?  In this case I am correlating popular music with early medieval church music for a myriad of reasons: In the same way that cathedrals, vocalists, and composers of masses all worked in conjunction to recreate a specific sound that evoke the concept of God, clubs, DJs and EDM producers all work in conjunction to evoke the concept of pleasure. The issue with both of these spaces is that your enjoyment of this space is contingent upon an interest in those space's definitions of said concepts. Similarly to how serious issues arose when you're expected to align with both the churches expectations for personal faith, serious issues arise when somebody's idea of pleasure does not align with strobe lights and sweaty dance floors.

Furthermore, I'd like to talk briefly about white noise through the critical lens of spectral equilibrium.  Recently there has been a lot of talk in the sexier corners of academia about biophony: The phenomenon that vocalizing animals will  naturally select specific bandwidths-here being ranges of pitch- to vocalize in based on other competing regular sounds in that ecosystem. In conjunction with geophony, the study of non-animal sound, one could imagine there is a darwinian tendency for animals to find a specific bandwidth niche, and in doing so bring the ecosystem closer to equal power across the aural frequency spectrum. This all pertains to acoustic ecology, a field as interesting as it is difficult to bring up on first dates.
Before electronics conditioned us to correlate it with poor signals, white noise at a reasonably quiet volume was evocative of the placidity of nature.  Fifteenth century polyphonic masses, especially from the flemish school of polyphony, were incredibly spectrally dense and had an expansive range compared to prior music. This, in addition to the talking and other ambient anthrophony going on in the cathedral, meant there was a relatively high level of noise. Thus, a church of Early Modern Europe was spectrally similar to any natural ecosystem in many ways. The most alien, artificial feature of the cathedral was its acoustics. There was simply no other space built on the scale of a cathedral in 15th century Europe. With their vaulted ceilings, cathedrals like St. Donations in Bruges did more than provide spaces that projected the singing voice exceptionally well; Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals were spatially biased so that sound from the altar to the congregation came primarily from above. In conclusion, cathedrals were acoustically evocative of natural habitats with one key difference: voices perceived to be coming from the heavens.

Compare this to the archetypical well engineered EDM song, with it's restrained use of specific bandwidths during specific EDM tropes: the introduction of the low end with the drop, the hi hats, clicking away at 10 milliseconds, using the frequency cutoff of a lowpass filter to control the dynamic of the ubiquitous "wub-bass" rather than wholesale attenuation of the signal. On our hypothetical massage chair, this is music designed to deliver concentrated payloads to specific pressure points, while the church music of early modern Europe was more of an all-encompassing, slow massage meant to entrance you, in addition to a fan which you can imagine is emanating from a higher power if you keep your eyes closed.

So what is lost in the analysis of music in terms of how good it is to your ear hole? For one, it is not accounting for the push-pull tango of confirmation and denial that good music performs with our expectations. Even more than that, however, the aural massage chair does not consider the literary ambitions of great music. I spend a lot time thinking about what kinds of music I cannot get out of my head, and why I'm so enraptured by it. I have found that the common thread of my favorite music is strong narratives, characters and setting. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, my favorite singular piece of music, is a piece about pagan ritual, and renders convincing musical commentary on the volatile relationship man has with nature.  Avalanches' Since I Left You weaves an album-long tapestry of musings on travel and exoticism, using a collage of samples from various genres and ethnicities in an attempt to create die Ɯbergenre der Musik, or at least a globally-minded gesamtkunstwerk. Biggie's Ready to Die's dichotomy of charismatic malefaction and hysterical guilt asks the listener what it really means for a person to be bad, especially when that person is trying to escape from under the thumb of institutionalized racial oppression. The counterargument to this is that music is abstract and meaningless so that we can create our own narratives while listening to it. I think that is merely an excuse not to dig into the implications of the music at hand.

My fascination with the literary component of music is the reason why I do not enjoy the vast majority of EDM or early modern church music. EDM is intentionally vague as a function of the space it is for, allowing listeners to fill in their own narrative of a classic night, chiming in with occasional pseudo-philosophy about how short life is and the only way to appreciate your existence and the existence of your closest friends in this transient window of mortality is to "go all night". Church music expects you to fill in a narrative of your personal devotion to God within the cracks between the Kyrie and the Credo. It's this contradiction that keeps me from actively enjoying both genres of music: The expectation that the ambiguous nature of the music will allow you to fill in your own narrative, as long as it is the very specific narrative the music and the space it is built for wants you to experience.

Some further reading:
A soon-to-be colleague of mine Madeline Huberth wrote an excellent masters thesis on arousal and musical memory.

A soon-to-be professor of mine Jonathan Berger wrote an excellent article on confirmation and denial of expectation in music

Thanks for reading.

Suggested listening:

Not my favorite track on the album (Made Possible has been my jam for a month or so now), but still a great piece.

One of the most visceral songs I've ever heard. Listen for Jay Rock's structurally flawless guest verse, as well as the fantastic use of a segment of His and Her as a postlude

Cedric sounds like a fucking rock star in this project, and Omar's playing has all the manic energy that was missing from Mars Volta's final album, Noctourniquet.

In celebration of returning to the Island for a little bit after graduation.

I'm graduating! Also worth noting: This song does not resolve until the very end, just like Tristan and Isolde. Does that mean Kanye West is the Wagner of our generation? Yes.