NSCI 157: Neuroscience of the Arts
There is a messiness in how we process and react to change. Seemingly instantaneous changes in our lives manifest themselves as anything but.
Intuitions of a seeming wrong-ness or off-ness often preempts change. You can feel when there is something off about a situation. Maybe you’re about to graduate college (and be at a loss for what to do). Maybe you’ll be in a near miss with a car. Maybe it’s going to rain. You can feel when a relationship is ending, even if you don’t yet know how or why.
What is more, it takes time to grieve after change. Although everything is temporary, grief for what-is and what-was and what-might-have-been are ongoing and sometimes unending processes.
mo(u)rning song explores this agitation between change and our reaction to it. The main mechanisms for change in the song consist of repeating patterns which change slowly over time, as well as sudden drastic changes in texture. These types of changes are meant to be analogous to our experiences of change. I try to create sonic lines that smoothly fuse and differentiate from each other over time, creating tension in answer to the unconscious questions how did we get to where we are now from where we were?, and what comes next?
Because these sentiments are expressed through the sonic medium, it is important to understand a bit about how our brain understands and processes sound, to be able to understand the other compositional processes I use to explore change in mo(u)rning song.
Our brains forms discrete sound percepts (sounds) from the battery of noise constantly surrounding it in a few main ways—through exploiting location, timing, and spectro-temporal cues.
Location cues hint as to where the action that created the sound is, physically. The brain can do this mainly through consideration of differences in input between both ears. If a sound is coming from your right, it will be louder in your right ear and take a little bit longer to reach your left ear.
I removed all panning and other locational cues from mo(u)rning song. This makes it more difficult to differentiate between musical lines—an effect I am shooting for.
Simultaneous noises are often grouped together. So are periodic noises.
Although most songs are unified by some tempo, there is a repeating telephone busy signal/ alarm clock noise whose periodicity has no relationship to the tempo of the other sounds in mo(u)rning song. Every so often, by happenstance, it will align (and group together) with other sounds in the song. This periodic coupling and de-coupling adds to the desired affect of an implicit organization complicated beyond our conscious understanding.
Although the name complicated, sounds can be differentiated by patterns in how the relative level of the different frequencies that comprise them change over time.
A basic application of this is differentiation of different sound objects by using different registers for each object. For instance, in chime examples 1-3 (sound files starting with “chime”), listen for contrasting chime-like higher frequencies (otherwise relatively-unused in the song) that delineate contrasting musical sections.
Additionally, in the following example (see sound files starting with “beep”), the first two notes of the figure are very close in frequency to everything else that is happening, which makes them very difficult to hear. Instead, we only group the very top pitch (which sounds almost like a heart-monitor in a hospital).
Another type of spectro-temporal cue is the presence of a harmonic series.
Spectro-temporal cues: Harmonic Sounds
Harmonic sounds are made up of a fundamental frequency, and integer-multiples of that fundamental frequency. The brain discriminates harmonic sounds based on the presence of a harmonic series (this linear-multiple frequency distribution), and the relative intensity of each of the harmonics (the integer-multiples) over time.
To make sound discrimination more difficult, I elected to use sine waves as the only sound sources (aside from my voice) in the song.
In addition to carrying minimal spectro-temporal information (a sine wave is either on or off, and is only comprised of one frequency), our brain may group sine waves ‘incorrectly’ into harmonic sounds, if their frequency relationship is correct.
As the western 12-note division of the octave is somewhat based on the harmonic series, sine waves played simultaneously (to avoid timing cues) will closely resemble some section of a harmonic series, and our brains group them.
Additionally, our experience with telephone-sounds (which are made-up by playing two sine waves at the same time) and my inclusion of telephone-sounds (including the ‘line busy’ and ‘line disconnected’ tones) entrains the listener to perceptually fuse simultaneous sine waves presented in the song.
For example, the following excerpt contains five distinct musical lines (also see sound samples starting with “telephone” for recordings of each individual part, the parts in unison, and the parts in context). However, in context, simultaneous notes merge, and it sounds like a telephone being dialed.
Here is one last example of how I have employed both spectral and temporal cues to fuse multiple musical lines (see sound samples starting with “raindrop”):
Although the two parts are relatively separate, by staggering two notes in the last chord of Part 2, the figure following figure is created, perceptually.
Because the two parts contain the notes in the same register, presented at regular intervals (that of a sixteenth note), the brain makes a new line out of the two old, repeating patterns.
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In addition to exploiting limitations of our auditory system’s ability to discriminate sounds as a metaphor for the way we process life changes, mo(u)rning song digs into my personal experiences with sleep troubles, interpersonal disconnection, and sensory processing problems—as well as the complex relationships we maintain with our alarm clocks.
Those issues are not trivially put, and beyond the scope of this post.
Sweet dreams. I hope you awake rested. I’ll miss you.
Note: When actually formatted (I’m going to put some version of this blog paper on my portfolio website), the examples will be embedded in the text, with buttons to play each sound file, and an appropriate scrolling marker over the musical notation.
Word Count: 1010
Blauert, Jens. (1997). Spatial Hearing: The Psychophsyiscs of Human Sound Localization. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Goldstein, Julius. (1973). “An Optimum Processor Theory for the Central Formation of the Pitch of Complex Tones”. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. Vol. 54, No. 6. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.1914448
Jeffress, Lloyd. (1947). “A Place Theory of Sound Localization”. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. Vol 41, Iss. 1, pp. 35-39.
Lieberman, M. (2000). “Intuition: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Approach”. Psychological Bulletin. Vol. 126, No.1, 109-137.’
Middlebrooks, John; Green, David; and Makous, James. (1989). “Directional Sensitivity of Sound-Pressure Levels in the Human Ear Canal”. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.
How we react changes in music
“mo(u)rning song” is about the natural boundaries that change induces in our lives, and how we react to them.
When writing the song, I was most interested in how instantaneous changes in our lives manifest themselves as anything but:
In social situations, a feeling of dread (that their is something off in the status quo—although impossible to rationalize or make sense of). often
It takes time to grieve. It takes time to wake up to your alarm each morning.
crossing boundries. be they changes in life conditions that necessitate,
lack of clear separation in our lives around clear boundaries
especially as our sensory systems are hardwire for edge detection. dynamic systems, edges are blurry.
This song was written for a
This premise really connects with me both as someone with developmental issues that make it difficult for me to parse sound events, someone with problems sleeping, .
Because this sentiment is expressed through the sonic medium, it is important to understand a bit about how our brain understands sound to be able to better understand particular compositional devices.