Music Meanderings 

9/9/18, 8:30 AM

Western Classical Music has a great tendency to focus on Melody and Harmony as it’s two most important aspects as they are incredibly powerful for delivering an emotionally engaging and cathartic excitation to the human system (to us). There are however many more and less obvious aspects of music which can be taken into account, and successfully managed to achieve emotional engaging outcomes.

If you have ever thought about the vast differences between live and recorded music, some can be explained technically along with economic consequences. At the moment most musicians earn their living from live performing and merchandise, not from recording, licensing  and collecting royalties. Presumably in part, this is because audiences are willing to pay a lot more to hear live music than recorded music. Many of the differences between live and recorded have nothing to do with harmony and melody but rely upon the factors.

In order to earn a living a musician, it may be worth understanding something about these other factors. Even if you are not a musician, but listen to music and would like it to continue to be written and performed, you may also want to be concerned about factors which impact most types of music in addition to classical.

Crossing over from the art side of music into the science side of sound, we find many correspondences but not identical one to one mappings which is the reason for this mini physics lesson.  The three dominant dimensions of sound are spectral, dynamic and spatial. 

The dynamic refers to the range from soft to loud.

The spectral refers to pitches from low to high (bass to treble).

The spatial refers to how energy is distributed in space.

Harmony and melody live firmly in the spectral domain where pitch and frequency are descriptors used by musicians and scientists which are denoted on scores by placing dots on staves to show what notes to play and for how long and in what combinations.

There are dynamic markings musicians use to indicate loudness while physicists use SPL or sound pressure level in decibels to measure loudness. Then there is the field that bridges these two called psychophysics which has to do with relating emotional variables of music to physical variables of science, by how we perceive sound. Here to there is not always a one to one mapping of variables as we are more sensitive to some pitches than others which also shifts as a function of loudness. For the most part recordings have been able to capture the full dynamic range from soft to loud and the full spectral range from low to high notes pretty well. However the remaining spatial domain not as well.  

If you attend a live concerts of multiple un-amplified instruments, you may have noticed you can tell where the instruments on the stage are located even with your eyes closed. The ability to process directional information has been critical to our survival because the ability to hear around corners, but not see around them, often saved us from predictors. This is one of the great losses of recorded music when compared to live music. A symphony is a hundred channel sound source not very credibly deliverable by a two channel system, 

Even when attending concerts pumping all instruments and voices through PA systems (which for the most part are monophonic and not even stereo) a tremendous amount of information is lost. I miss this information. High quality stereos in the past did a reasonably good job creating a spatial field that approximated the sound stage. Today most music we listen to is stored as mp3 files which are terrifically compressed to be able to be streamed. Compression is always achieved by losing information. Losing the spatial experience is one of several casualties. However, the incredible convenience of streaming compressed audio justifies me happily paying for Pandora and Spotify every month. I do not confuse for a moment that this sounds like live music, which is why single concert tickets cost much more than monthly streaming fees.

Musicians desiring sustainable business models might want to understand some of these issues. There is much more to say about this topic and an overall positive projection, as increasingly available bandwidth reduces the need to discard the information that contributes to music sounding live.