time to change the way we view music and the arts

Sensible or not: Scrutinizing the subtleties of sound


Thus far, our senses have led to some pretty solid sounding instruments.
How much should we or shouldn’t we abandon relying on them?

“Sound waves”, Online Image, Wikimedia Commons, 12 August 2014
< http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSM_V13_D058_Sound_waves_1.jpg >

Busting out the microscope, testing protocols and then turning massively specific — these choices that revolve around pursuing absolute certainty don’t necessarily align right away with the very free flowing, interpretive, abstract nature of artistic performance. True, when a person reaches for their instrument in preparation to play, tuning often involves steady listening and exact precision in order to settle on the proper micro tone and set oneself up with proper intonation. Meticulous behavior and meticulous standards have a place amidst music but perhaps only when it comes to all the stages prior to playing.

After all, if we started to makes things too precise and memorize them too intimately without room for variation, that would result in overly sanitized sounds wouldn’t it?
Oh, wait, we might be a little late on that one… *cough* digital manipulation *cough*
The construction of virtually any instrument, many steps prior to it ever reaching a musician’s hands for play, involves an exactness, much like that of any architect. It is intriguing to note the inherently opposing approaches to understanding and navigating an instrument’s assembly when looking at modern, machine aided evaluation and the reliability of tried and true human experience over many years of training and formation of individual intuition. The sheer variety of instruments there are in the world, deciding to do such a compare and contrast for any single one would be daunting. The choice to study the piano in this more intimate way, one of the most stylistically multi-faceted and physically complex instruments out there, only seems like the most maddening of options to pick.
Yet this is exactly what some professors from around the country and have set out to do, one step, or one note rather, at a time. According to a recent podcast with Science Friday, Agnieszka Roginska, a professor of NYU’s music technology department and Alex Case, an associate professor of music with the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, are working together to create a sonic map of piano note radiation in relation to each key’s frequency. Repeated, identical strikes of piano keys (for the time being, middle C,) using an electronic Disklavier player piano for play consistency, and ever increasing microphone placement along the length of the piano, presented them with a rough sonic image of the radiation pattern for that particular note on the piano.

Prior to doing anything, simply walk into a room with a piano and one is faced with an intricate device of many delicately interconnected parts — the hammers, strings, and sound board to name a few — each capable of many different kinds of manipulation that all affect how well or poorly the pieces work together to do their jobs and then collectively how well the instrument itself sounds at the time of play. Most of our senses can even be trained to observe an instrument like a piano in such a close way: through sound, feel of string vibrations and even merely by sight, with enough experience.
On the one hand, knowing how many minute differences there can be in each and every piano that’s made (because humanity and artificially forced copying just don’t match up 100%), and given the piano’s inherent mechanical complexity, understanding its inner workings in a more straightforward and measurable way could certainly paint a better picture of what specifically makes every new piano sound the way it does. This elucidation would then conceivably make it easier for pianists to choose a piano with a sound even more tightly catered to their individually preferred timbre. Think, ultimate level of customization! 
Still, is it a good and or necessary advancement that people want to further strip down something self-taught and apprenticed masters have been capable of building with refinement since long before mass production lines were even a thought?
In the context of some very isolated purposes, dissecting a piano note down to its many, often unnoticed, harmonics and overtones leaves less room for gross misuse or excessive application. Discovering more about the very origins and behavior of timbre for example, (e.g. the pluck of a guitar string vs. the pluck of a piano string.) would simply be an expanding of comprehension about sound as an entity. The idea that we might have a better sonic visualization of piano tone resonance against its soundboard and be capable of applying that to studio micing that will give a piano player stronger recorded input, long before any plug-ins or EQ are used, such an application feels much like a maximizing of pre-existent potential. If a soundboard in a piano is what is it and we just have a clearer picture of what it does with the notes people play, there’s nothing forcibly excessive about that either. Again, thumbs up to technology and advancement here.

Going back to the first mention of ultimate customization though…does gaining the ability to create the “perfect blues piano” or “perfect symphonic piano,” by way of (eventual) zoning in on the ideal combination of harmonics, feel like sliding too far outside the area of balance between having/utilizing science and technology’s capabilities and retaining some area of gray obscurity necessary to keep music’s human character? It’s not just about human character in playing the music but in what is used to play the music as well.

There’s the argument that electric instruments have already somewhat answered the question of this dilemma but the fact of the matter is that they are separate from their acoustic counterparts. If you want a specific sound, you reach for an electric guitar and trick it out using technology to give you the sound you want, but, we don’t technologically manipulate the construction of a guitar that is meant to exist acoustically, in order to give it some level of digitally acquired specificity.

Doing so might just change how we view the meaning behind a “truly acoustic” instrument or a “truly digital instrument” and may just create a new category of hybrid between the two. Will that be the first move toward a type of natural sonic predictability? An auto-tune even outside of auto-tune? Or is this just another flow of evolution in music making akin to the when electric instruments came on the scene in the first place?

As with any new developments that result from scholarly research, it will come down to what we desire out of the music we go forth to make and where we place the lines of application and musical differentiation amidst new information.
Bob Berger, Steinway’s director of customer satisfaction put it perfectly for Science Friday, and it’s people like him, especially given in the position he’s in with Steinway, that makes his objective view toward this kind of potential change, so valuable:

“And you know the idea of having sophisticated equipment to measure acoustic performance is wonderful to have, but never discount the ability of your hearing to be able to discern very subtle changes in many different aspects of tone and sound.” 

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