Tag Archives: Sound

Sound as Object

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

After World War II, audio recordings gradually replaced sheet music as the dominant means of distributing music to consumers. As a result, the musical centerpiece of the family home moved from the piano to the hi-fi system and, consequently, from active music-making to audition and record collecting. The LP (3313 rpm, long-playing, microgroove vinyl disc), introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, revolutionized the music industry. Along with changing habits of consumption, records transformed basic perceptions about music. Fleeting sounds became fixed objects.

Recordings had been around since Thomas Edison’s mechanical phonograph cylinder, patented in 1878. Within two decades, commercial recordings and distribution grew into an international industry. Popular titles at the beginning of the twentieth century sold millions of units. Gramophone records, which were easier to manufacture, ship, and store, hit the shelves around 1910, and subsequent advances in technology made audio recordings increasingly accessible. Still, sheet music—and the piano playing it depended on—remained king. The wholesale value of printed sheet music more than tripled between 1890 and 1909, when 25,000 songs were copyrighted in the U.S. Sheet music sales totaled 30 million copies in 1910. The popularity of printed music continued through the 1940s. An article in Variety on October 4, 1944 boasted “Sheet Music Bizz at 15-Year Crest.”

Sales declined precipitously as the 1940s moved into the 1950s. The days when hit songs were fueled by a combination of sheet music and, secondarily, record sales gave way to our recording-dominated era. A Variety article from November 21, 1953 captured the turning point: “Publishing Industry Alarmed by Pop Sheet Music Decline.”

The current ubiquity of recordings is the culmination of a centuries-long effort to mechanically reproduce sound—an evolution that began with musical notation and continued with programmable devices (hydro-powered organs, musical clocks, music boxes, player pianos, and the like). However, earlier inventions still required manual engagement and/or autonomous real-time devices/instruments. With recordings, sounds disembodied from their performance could be played back at any time. Music itself became the object.

Michel Chion details seven ways recording technology facilitated the objectification of music: (1) capturing ephemeral sound vibrations and converting them into a permanent medium; (2) facilitating telephony, or the retransmission of sounds at a distance from their original source; (3) enabling new ways of systematic acousmatization, or the ability to hear without seeing; (4) allowing sounds to be amplified and de-amplified through electronic manipulation, as opposed to the crescendo or decrescendo of live instruments; (5) affording phonofixation, or the fixing of sounds and reuse of fixed sounds in the recording studio; (6) paving the path toward phonogeneration, or the creation of sound “out of nothing” by way of synthesizers and computers; (7) giving engineers the ability to reshape sounds through editing, processing, and manipulation.

This last effect, in particular, contributes to Chion’s view of sounds converted into objects: “recording has been—above all from the moment that it enabled editing—the first means ever in history to treat sounds, fleeting things, as objects: that is to say, both in order to grasp them as objects of observation and in order to modify them—to act on their fixed traces.” Likewise, the listener’s control over recordings—through pausing, skipping forward, changing volume, using multiple devices, etc.—furthers the impression of music’s “thing-ness.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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The Original Echo Chamber

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“A temple is a landscape of the soul. When you walk into a cathedral, you walk into a world of spiritual images. It is the mother womb of your spiritual life—mother church.” These words from mythologist Joseph Campbell touch on the primitive spatial and acoustic appeal of Medieval and Renaissance cathedrals. Campbell connects the sensation to that of pictograph-adorned Paleolithic caves, which were also likely used for mystical and spiritual ceremonies. The melodic conventions and vocal techniques adapted to these acoustically active stone-walled spaces—epitomized by the straight, drawn-out, and separated tones of Latin ecclesiastical chant—exploit the echo chamber effect, creating an all-encompassing sonic and physical experience. As I explain in an earlier blog post, these ethereal sounds became synonymous with the cosmic voice.

The impression of safety and repose these spaces provide is captured in Campbell’s phrase, “the mother womb.” This image can be taken a step further. The sonically induced, archaic feelings take us back to the literal womb: the original acoustic envelope where direct and indirect sounds are experienced as an undifferentiated gestalt. Psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu describes it as a “sonorous bath”: a lulling sense of weightlessness, rebirth, and being transported.

The ear awakens during the fourth month of fetal development. By week twenty-five, the cochlea—the ear’s frequency analyzer—reaches adult size. From that point forward, the fetus receives, processes, and responds to a growing array of amalgamated sounds, including pressure variations in the bodily walls, two cycles of heartbeats (the mother’s and her own), and acoustic input from outside the womb. The unfiltered sounds are presumably analogous to those heard in a reverberating space, such as a cave or cathedral.

Only in early childhood does the ear begin to categorize different sounds. Following R. Murray Schafer’s concept of the “soundscape,” or the combination of acoustic signals heard in an immersive environment, normally functioning ears automatically distinguish between background and foreground signals, both natural and human-made. This behavior, which combines innate capacity and cultural conditioning, is not present in the echoing womb. The lively reverberations, so closely associated with sacred spaces, recall that original echo chamber. Indeed, conceptions of God (or gods) as compassionate, protecting, loving, comforting, and so forth may even be rooted in this simulated return to the womb.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Sound and Spirit

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is considered the most spiritual of the arts. The designation refers equally to music’s substance and impact. Music is revelation: it manifests in ethereal air. Music is boundless: it transcends physical constraints. Music is invisible: its essence cannot be seen. Music reaches inward: it communes with the inner life. Music conjures: it stirs vivid memories and associations. Music alters: it changes moods and frames of mind. These observations point to the music’s immateriality. Although it abides by the laws of physics and follows a traceable line of causation, it somehow extends beyond them.

Music embodies the fundamental meaning of spirituality: “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Unlike the visual arts, which manipulate tangible matter, music lacks a physical presence. It is force without mass.

This is not to suggest supernaturalism, which is often confused with spirituality. The life of the spirit is not dependent upon an otherworldly plane. From a scientific perspective, everything—including sound—is part of the natural world. The separation of music from material existence is more perception than objective fact. Just as science has demystified the once-taken-for-granted duality of soul and body, the perceived disconnect between music and material reality would not pass scientific muster. Yet, insofar as art is expression and impression, the feeling of otherness is enough to sustain the mystery of music.

Musical responses can be attributed to chemical and neurological mechanisms. For example, dopamine release is the primary inducement of musical “highs.” But, just as scientific explanations of why and how we come to believe in the supernatural do not prevent people from doing so, laboratory studies of music’s effect on the brain do not compel us to pause, analyze, and dismiss musical-spiritual sensations as they occur. We are wired to feel and conceive of music the way we do.

How can these rational/scientific and non-rational/spiritual views be reconciled? One way is by appreciating music’s ability to meet incorporeal needs distinct from the material necessities of food, shelter, clothing, possessions, and the like. The fact that music is a natural phenomenon (like everything else) does not make it any less spiritual. What music accomplishes more than the other arts is a sense of going outside the measurable world, even while being a part of it.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Simulated Silence

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Our quietest surroundings are brimming with sound. The modern world is cluttered with humming freeways, droning light bulbs, vibrating appliances, buzzing electrical wires, and countless other incessant noises. These acoustic waves are so constant that we tend to block them out. But if we listen closely in a quiet bedroom or library, there they are (around 30 decibels worth). Likewise, remote habitats free of humanity’s sonic stamp—which are few and far between—are home to a variety of natural sounds. Absolute silence is simply not a feature of our planet.

The foreignness of pure quiet is on full display at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, a location certified by Guinness as the world’s quietest place. The lab’s anechoic (echo-free) chamber absorbs 99.9 percent of sound, with its mesh flooring, double-walls of concrete and steel, and lining of fiberglass acoustic wedges. Manufacturers use the chamber to gauge the volume of switches, triggers and other components of their products.

Founder Steven Orfield challenges visitors to sit in the chamber with the lights off for as long as they can. Most give up before twenty minutes; no one has lasted longer than forty-five. Orfield himself struggles to endure beyond the half-hour mark. The reason for this is that the brain, so used to filtering out environmental sounds, turns inward. It starts picking up the pumping heart, pulsating lungs, digestive gurgles, and creaking joints. The effect is so disorienting that participants invariably tap out. Absolute silence disturbs absolutely.

The anechoic chamber proves that there is no escaping sound. Even when auditory stimuli are sucked from our surroundings, we have the hubbub within. Thus, the ordinary quiet we long for is not dead silence, but relative silence. It is the absence of grating, high-decibel, out-of-place and otherwise unwelcomed noises. Relative silence is highly coveted in part because it is rare: not only is the atmosphere filled with subtle rumblings, it is also host to noticeable sonic intrusions.

One way to create a gratifying impression of silence is by contrasting attention-grabbing sounds with sudden stillness. This is best accomplished with music. Minimally defined, music is the art of arranging sound and silence—that is, tones and spaces between tones. Of course, the juxtaposition of structured sound and calculated quiet is more pronounced in some pieces than others, as the tempo and spirit of the music allows for longer or shorter rests.

However, in almost all cases there is room to prolong the moment immediately following the music, thereby creating the perception of silence. Such potent pauses occur whenever audiences hold their applause after a piece concludes, and in ceremonial settings when there are breaks between song and spoken word. Whether the music ceases abruptly or gradually fades into nothingness, it sets the stage for a pleasing audible quiet rarely discerned in our day-to-day lives.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Terrestrial Sounds

 Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

On September 5, 1977, NASA sent a probe to study the outer Solar System and continue on to interstellar space. Named Voyager 1, the sixteen hundred pound craft is now approximately twelve billion miles from Earth. An identical spacecraft, Voyager 2, was launched two weeks before its interstellar twin, but Voyager 1 moved faster and eventually passed it. Both probes carry a golden phonograph record containing sounds and images meant to convey the diversity of terrestrial life and human culture. The hope is that, should intelligent extraterrestrials find one of these infinitesimal records in infinite space, they would be able to decipher its contents.

The record includes 116 images and an array of earthly sounds: greetings in fifty-five languages, volcanoes, a chimpanzee, a heartbeat, a train, Morse code, a wild dog, a mother and child, rain, and much more. It also has ninety minutes of music, ranging from a Pygmy girl’s initiation song to Indonesian gamelan music to the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 to the “Sacrificial Dance” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The possibility of an extraterrestrial species obtaining, playing, and comprehending the Golden Record is minuscule. Not only is it a tiny object moving in the vastness of space, but the sounds it includes are utterly earthbound. In striving to portray sundry soundscapes, the record reveals a certain, if subtle, unity: every sound on this planet bears the imprint of this planet. Such earthliness would surely fall on deaf alien ears (if they even have an auditory mechanism). The sounds we make or perceive have an evolutionary history unique to our orb.

In the decades since the Voyager space pods were set in motion, much has come to light about the natural origins of music. Bernie Krause’s groundbreaking work on non-human “musical” proclivities suggests, among other things, the millennia-spanning influence of geophony (Earth sounds) and biophony (non-human animal sounds) on anthrophony (human sounds). Other theories of music’s origins point to environmental imprints in one way or another. A rough amalgamation of these nuanced hypotheses shows music as a combination of the imitation of nature and the exploration of human capacities.

Added to this is mounting evidence of the interconnectedness of Earth’s living creatures. As Neil Shubin explains in his popular book, Your Inner Fish, the close examination of fossils, embryos, genes, and anatomical structures indicates that all animals, prehistoric and modern, are variations of the same blueprint—hence the fish within us all. (Shubin remarked in a lecture that he could have just as easily called the book, Your Inner Fly.) What this means musically is that creaturely sounds of all sorts emanate from the same extended biological family, and are thus shaped by variations of the same constraints. The reason why researchers have been able to explore musical vocabularies of songbirds and bugs, and their probable influence on early humans, is because, despite surface dissimilarities, animals are people too (or, more accurately, humans are animals).

The extraterrestrial species that happens upon the Golden Record will almost certainly be nothing like us. Life on Earth shares an anatomical makeup that could have only developed here; other habitable planets would have other ingredients. This is a major criticism of popular depictions of aliens, which, aside from The Blob (1958) and a few others, invariably appear as insects, reptiles, humanoids, or a combination of the three. Genes on another planet would give rise to species beyond our Earth-born imaginations. And our sounds—musical, linguistic, animal, or otherwise—would be unlike anything they’ve ever heard.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Numinous Noises

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theologians often treat music as a potent tool for fostering sacred awareness. Music’s ethereal abstractness suggests a reality that is beyond the ability of words to describe. Of the resources available to humanity, musical sounds are the closest representation of the divine. To quote Joseph Addison, they are “all of heav’n we have below.” Yet, theologians are quick to remind us that music and theology are not the same. The absorbing impact and amorphous beyondness of music might hint at God’s immanence and transcendence, but this effect is, at best, a useful metaphor.

This cautious approach is conspicuously absent in The Idea of the Holy (1917), Rudolf Otto’s influential treatise on the phenomenology of religion. Giving preference to experience over analysis, Otto claims that supernatural encounters—or numinous experiences—are real events that stand apart from ordinary occurrences. Rationalizations and approximations are used to describe the ineffable event, sometimes giving rise to myths, rituals, and dogma. The experiential moment—the thing itself—becomes religion.

Oddly, Otto assesses the musical experience in an identical way. Music is first received as an all-consuming, supra-rational force. Only subsequently is it understood in emotional or other humanizing terms. In contrast to the visual arts, music is not representational or expressive of anything specific in the physical world. Rather, it is “wholly other”—the same phrase Otto applies to spiritual communion.

Moreover, Otto believes that numinous experiences, while separated from day-to-day activities, are not unreachable or even uncommon. All human beings have access to episodes of transcendence. Thus, the regularity with which music brings about spiritual sensations is not a trivialization of the numinous, but confirmation of its accessibility.

The blending of musical and spiritual language in Otto’s treatise has its climax in the following passage: “Such is the effect of Music in the highest degree, for Music stands too high for any understanding to reach, and an all-mastering efficacy goes forth from it, of which, however, no man is able to give an account.” Replace “Music” with “God” and the point becomes clear. (The capitalization of “Music” further sharpens the effect.)

In a recent article, religious studies scholar Christopher I. Lehrich contends that Otto’s treatment of music in The Idea of the Holy allows for a “disconcerting” reformulation: “Suppose that, instead of writing a book about numinous experience, Otto had chosen to write one about musical experience.” Beyond merely discarding the theologian’s preference to mark distinctions between music and theology, Otto essentially groups them together. Music is not simply a means for coming into holiness. Music is Holy.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Sound in Wax

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The earliest wax cylinder phonographs—the first commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound—were entirely mechanical. They were hand-cranked and needed no electrical power. All that was required was a lathe, a waxy surface, a sharp point for a stylus, and a resonating table. To impress sound waves onto wax, the voice or instrument was positioned closely to the large end of a horn. The vibrations moved a needle, which carved a groove on the rotating wax. According to Walter Murch, an acclaimed film editor and sound designer, everything used in these early machines was available to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. But it took until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the genius of Thomas Edison and his team, to execute the recording process.

Why did it take so long to capture sound? Musician David Byrne has informally speculated that maybe it didn’t. Perhaps someone in antiquity invented a similar device and later abandoned it; or perhaps the device itself was simply demolished in the ruins of history. While conceivable on a technological level, this hypothesis is unlikely considering the prevailing ethos of the ancient world. The ephemerality of sound was part of its attraction: it was momentary, mysterious, transient and transcendent. As this fleetingness was highly valued, there was little or no inclination to record. Murch puts it this way: “Poetically, the beauty of music and the human voice was used as a symbol of all that’s evanescent. So the idea that you could trap it in any physical medium never occurred to [them] . . .”

This contrasts with the rush to develop written systems that enshrined language. The ancients recognized that certain things should be documented, like governmental records, priestly decrees, royal chronicles, philosophical treatises, etc. What these shared in common was a silent beginning: they were soundless thoughts committed to paper (or papyrus or parchment or tablets or wood). Writing gave concrete form to facts and concepts that, while often referencing observable phenomena, had no tangibility of their own. In contrast, sound was understood as being completely formed. It was received sensually, experienced kinesthetically, and processed emotionally. It existed in the moment it was made.

It is worth noting that Edison first thought of wax cylinder recorders as dictation machines. They were to record the owners’ ideas and messages and, ideally, preserve the great speeches of the day. This limited purpose reflected the limitations of the early devices: they were too crude and imprecise to capture the nuances of musical performance. True, music recording and playback were in Edison’s long-term plan, and they became major functions as the machines advanced. But it is feasible to consider that Edison’s initial goal of preserving dictation was—and arguably still is—a worthier and more practical goal than detaining music.

Musicians commonly lament that they are slaves to their own recordings. The version that appears on an album is the version that fans want to hear, and deviations are typically received as imperfections, inaccuracies or unwanted departures from the “authoritative” source.  Some improvising musicians even feel obliged to give their audiences note-for-note reproductions of recorded solos. This is not to negate the enormous benefits and incalculable cultural impact of musical recordings. Our understanding of music as a diverse human enterprise owes mightily to the proliferation of recorded sounds, and musical creativity thrives when there is access to other music. But something of music’s temporality is lost in recording. Imprinting sound in wax or digital audio creates the illusion of permanence.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.