'Human life is shaped by the strange vibrations that make up our world of sound'pixabay.com

From the moment of conception, human life is shaped by the constant information we receive from the strange vibrations that make up our colourful world of sound. Be it the high screech of a train whistling along hot rails, the low rumble of thunder or the soothing wail of the fire alarm at 5 am. But how do we discern this? How do we learn to distinguish between the sounds in the constant noise that makes up the backdrop of our audible experiences and what we might consider “music”?

'Our brains seem wired to be inherently musical, with our interpretations of pitch as a strong factor of this'

Very few people remember being born. But those who think they do generally associate the experience with bright lights and shock. Surprisingly, the audible change for a baby from the womb to the outside world is less than might be expected. As the auditory system of the foetus has already fully developed by around the 23rd week of pregnancy (in most cases), the experience inside the womb for the later part of development is a very noisy one indeed, the foetus often being able to hear external sounds which are, albeit, muffled by the amniotic fluid. The fluid acts as a ‘low pass filter’, creating a sound experience much like that of the party next door that you weren’t invited to. This, however, does not affect the intonation of the sound – the fluctuations in pitch – hence why infants are generally more intrigued by singing than by speech. Our brains seem wired to be inherently musical, with our interpretations of pitch as a strong factor of this (even if you can’t tell one end of a piano from the other). 

A way of making music more tangible to us is through the visual aid of a spectrogram and other wave – interpreting technologies. A spectrogram allows us to visualise the frequencies of sound waves that determine pitch (not to be confused with the height of the waves, which represents volume). Here we fall into an etymological problem: why do we refer to pitch as going “up” or “down” – an idiom shared in most languages? How do we make sure that what we perceive as certain pitches stand the tests of time? Most of us can hear when a musician is ‘out of tune’, and I encourage you to listen to Portsmouth Sinfonia’s rendition of “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss for you to realise this (although there is a lot more wrong with this performance than simply bad intonation).

This idiom is simply a way for us to make music comprehensible.

The tuning system that we have followed for decades is known as “Equal Temperament”. Put simply, the multiple tuning systems in place before this revised version meant that in a scale, two notes that should mean the same thing (i.e. F# and Gb), were often tuned slightly differently from each other, making for some strange early keyboard instruments that would sometimes have “split sharp” keys (two black notes where there is now only one). Thankfully, the tuning system we rely on today seems pretty faultless.  ‘Concert A’ – the A above Middle C – resonates at 440 Hz, slightly sharper than the French standard (A = 435 Hz), and much sharper than what is referred to as ‘Baroque Pitch’ (A = 415 Hz). In a sense, we’ve established a benchmark for universal relativity in pitch, however this is still only within the Western Classical sphere – it’s unlikely that an ‘ultimate’, worldwide tuning system will ever be established. It seems that to change pitch – either in ascent or descent – is what remains in common with most musical systems and this idiom (going “up” or “down”) is simply a way for us to make music comprehensible.


Mountain View

Does streaming spoil us for choice?

Background noise and the pitches resonating in our auditory environment can only really be appreciated once void of them. The first anechoic chamber was built in 1940 (30 feet high by 28 feet wide by 32 feet deep). It is a room that completely absorbs the reflections of any sound or electromagnetic waves, similar to the effect of a vacuum. The claimed record time for staying in one is 45 minutes, as the effect is maddening – one of complete isolation. John Cage visited an anechoic chamber in 1951 which encouraged him to write “4’33” – a piece that explores the impossibility of complete silence. On exiting the anechoic chamber, Cage reported that he could hear “two sounds, one high and one low”. When he was told that these were in fact his nervous system and blood circulation in operation, Cage concluded “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music”. It’s interesting how he connects music and sound and considers them intertwined in life.

Much of contemporary music aims to find the human within the music, to interpret the audible experiences of everyday life as musical ones, as they are connected by the basis of pitch change. We may not consider ourselves ‘musical’, but, in a way, we already are.