Where Does Sound Come From?
Stranded on a dessert island.
Imagine a person born blind, living alone, on a proverbial deserted island, out of touch with society, surviving through what she can grasp with her hands. Sight has never had an influence on her notion of reality.
From a hidden vantage point we notice that a bird is singing near where she is standing. We assume she hears it; but cannot see it. For her there is only a certain quality of sound, to which only we can give the name bird. For her, it never gets beyond being just a sound, although she can distinguish one sound from another on the basis of its quality.
Thus she is someone who 1) has never seen, 2) never seen a bird, and 3) wouldn’t be able to conceive that there is something called a bird. There are simply no past connections between the sense of sound and the sense of sight. There is nothing linking the sound of the bird with the sight of a bird.
If the question “why” arises in her mind, probably in the form of “why this sound and not another sound”, the question can only be posed by her within the domain of time and not space: “why do I hear that sound now and not at another time.”
At this moment, a miracle occurs.
Our subject can now see. One of the first things that happens is that she sees a bird, although it is not at that moment singing. Thus at this point there is no reason for her to form any sort of link between the sound of the bird and the image of the bird in front of her.
Some scientists now enter the scene.
They introduce themselves, and present her with a series of pictures. Included is a picture of the same species of bird that she has been hearing. She is asked to choose from among the pictures the one she thinks would be most closely associated with the sound she already knows.
This request perplexes her. She cannot even understand the general form of the question. At this stage of the story, sight is still new to her. She knows of no reason why a sight and a sound should be related to each other, even that they could be related to each other. While the sound, for the scientists is the “sound of a bird“, she has no need to make, or even conceive, such a statement.
She has no grounds for choosing one picture as against another. This makes it arbitrary which picture she chooses. If she is “artistic” by nature, perhaps she may form an aesthetic comparison: which sight feels like it goes with this sound.
Her judgment in this matter cannot yet be based on cause and effect. And even if she has a notion of cause and effect from her previous experiences in which there was no sight, sound as far as she can tell, needs no cause.
“Excuse me”, she asks, “are you saying that a sound requires a sight to cause it? That among all the random lines and shapes I see, which seem aimlessly distributed in space, there are certain lines and shapes that for a reason I cannot conceive ‘belong’ to each other, stand out from the other lines and shapes because of a mysterious relationship, which in turn you call the cause of the sound I have been hearing – not just now, but whenever I hear it.
When you speak of this mysterious connection between just certain lines and shapes, you use the strange word ‘object’, as if by saying that word it should be obvious to me why just those lines and shapes clump together with each other. And then, now that I supposedly believe in something called ‘the object’ whatever an object is, it is also the cause for the sound – something that never seemed necessary to me for the sound to occur. Why should there be such a complicated and seemingly arbitrary way of connecting things in my mind, based on an invisible (at least to me) concept called ‘object’, without which, you say, I would not hear my sounds. Furthermore that I have to choose among several of these objects, and pronounce the words ‘this object is the cause of what I hear?’ That sounds like an enchanter’s spell. My universe was full and complete without sound requiring a cause. Being sighted is sure a complex thing.”
At last she picks one of the pictures. “If I pick this picture today can I pick another picture tomorrow to be the cause of this particular sound in my head? I ask you this because for now, none of the pictures that you show me bear any inner resemblance to the sound that I know.” The psychologists say: “No, you must believe that a sound arises in your consciousness because of a certain event happening in space, which something has to do with a particular object that you see, and always that object and not another.”
She comes to her “senses”.
She is left alone for a few days to ponder this perplexing situation, a situation that until now, without sight, had no reason or necessity to exist.
During one of these days she just happens to hear the sound of the bird at the same time that she is looking at a bird. This may have happened on the preceding days, but this time she notices that the beak of the bird moves in tandem, in time, with the occurrence of the sound. She knows this much more because of time rather than space. The togetherness of the sight and the sound is based on a common moment in time.
This forms the basis of a series of ongoing experiences by which the sound of the bird is gradually linked in her mind to the image of the bird.
As with the pictures of shown by the psychologists to the girl, sights that are visible to a growing, young child at only at certain times, during for example a concert, are only gradually coordinated by that child with something seen in space in the concert hall. It turns out that the people who are holding musical instruments in their hands seem to make motions that are most consistently synchronous in time with the changes of the qualities of the sounds.
Here’s the first important point. Once such an association is made by the child, he or she forgets that there was a time when no such association had been made.
The second point is: was either the woman on the island, or the person in the concert hall, missing anything crucial when they was unable to relate the object ‘bird’ or the object ‘violin’ with a certain specific sound quality of sound? I say no. Nothing essential to our understanding and appreciation of sound is added to by the tacking onto the sound a relationship with sight. And in the concert hall, it adds nothing important to essential qualities of the music as sound alone.*
For those of us who do not need such distractions as sight offers, and can remain glued to the sounds of the piece, we enter an ideal realm of pure relationships between pure sounds, closed off from everything else, and not lacking a thing.
* It is for some but not all of the concert goers, that visual impressions can serve as a distraction or refuge from just having to listen to sound from one moment to the next. For them there are the distractions of the appearance of the concert hall. For them, too, there is the all important information in the program notes, which they are relived to believe captures something essential that they miss in the progression of the sounds alone. But thanks to the program notes, they are able to go up to someone at intermission and say, wisely: “wasn’t it wonderful how the composer used the brass section in the second movement of the symphony to create a delicate halo of sound around the rest of the orchestra!”.
Simplifying A Difficult Passage
A simple example of the procedure.
Irving is a late beginner. He is playing just the right hand of one of the easier Bach pieces. He thinks it will be too hard to put the hands together. I suggest that the next time he plays just the right hand, he lay his left hand down on the keyboard hand and let it rest there passively. He says: I don’t see any advantage in doing this, it certainly is not going to make playing the two hands together any easier. But he tries it. He is immediately struck by the fact that the right hand seems harder to play when the left hand is simply present on the keyboard. He says the right hand feels different. I agree: what one hand does is influenced by the other hand. Still, he said, this is easier than playing both hands together.
What we had created is an in between point between playing just with one hand and playing with both hands. Instead of one larger ‘step’, going directly from playing with one hand to playing with both hands, we created two smaller steps: 1) right hand alone 2) right hand with left hand running interference, 3) both hands playing the written notes. Instead of going directly from step one to step three, all that’s left for Irving is to go from step two to step three.
However, what if going from step two to step three turns out to be too big a jump? We simply divide that jump into two smaller parts. Between step two and step three we insert this: the left hand, though not yet playing its part, now is moved around while the right hand plays. Not moving any place particular but just so he is conscious of motion occurring in the left hand while trying to concentrate of the right hand.
We were following in the foot steps of one of the great thinkers in the Western tradition. The philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), in his “Discourse on Method” suggested that one follow a four-step plan for seeking truth in the sciences. The second of these was, in his words “to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible.”
We interpolate new steps as needed. As soon as the transition from one step to the next is not easily accomplished, we interpolate another step. The beauty of this procedure is that one can interpolate as many steps as one wants between the starting state and the final state we are aiming for. The more intermediate steps there are, the smaller becomes the change in difficulty from one to the next. In its ideal form, when using this process, the pianist will not be aware of any increase in difficulty when going from one step to the next, and the final state, the one desired all along, will, when attained, seem no harder than the first step.
A careful analysis:
The trick is how to define the first state. It must bear a direct relation to the last state. In Irving’s case it was easily found: “I’ll start with one hand at a time before trying both hands together”. Other technical and musical difficulties require a more penetrating analysis. Often the starting state is found at the end of a reverse process that starts with the final state, and gradually simplifies it, step by step, each time by removing what is most difficult to execute from what is left, and/or what is least essential musically, until a simplest state is left or revealed, one that is simplest to play yet still bears a resemblance to the final state.* During this process, each stage, while simpler than the last, should still contain the essence of the previous stage.
We operate like a grammarian who diagrams a sentence in a manner that reveals its more essential and less essential parts and clauses. Or like a chemist who by analysis reduces a complex compound into smaller and smaller molecules until at last the atomic structure of the compound is revealed. Or like a philosopher who seeks into an issue to find the more basic principle on which it rests. In my case, it is a procedure I use especially when teaching ear training: taking an ear training ability that is presented as being simple and whole, but then refracting it through a prism and showing that there are other, simpler component abilities that underlying the target ability. And even some of the simpler abilities turn out to be, themselves, complex in relation to even simpler abilities. Start with the simplest abilities and build back up.
* By removing notes without compromising the general meaning of the passage. By removing melodically unessential notes from a melody leaving only the salient notes. By simplifying a complex rhythm into simpler rhythms (simpler in nature and simpler in execution). By simplifying a complex harmonic progression to a simpler one that is easier for the ear to track, and easier for the fingers to play.
Practice Technique 28: Using Registration To Bring Out One Voice of Several In Polyphonic Situations
Taking a cue from the organists (harpsichordists too) about bringing out one voice of several, in a polyphonic situation.
On an organ, it is trivial to link one of its several keyboard to several ‘ranks’ of pipes, some which sound in different octaves. Even a single rank of pipes (E.G. “principal”) can be set up so that if you play, for example, middle C (c4), air is sent as well to the pipes for any combination of these C-s: c2 c3 (c4) c5 c6.
If, now, the organist chooses to play a two or three voice fugue, so that one of the voices, and only that voice, sound in several octaves at once, something amazing happens. The voice that is “on top” can loose any advantage or special-ness due to being the highest of a group of simultaneously sounding notes. Any voice, from the lowest to the highest, can, can attain the ‘status’ of being on top. As a learning tool, to keep focused on just single voice among several, sounding that voice either louder than the others or in more octaves at once than the other, makes that voice go from being just one in the mixture of the voices, to one that stands out clearly.
At my lessons, I am fortunately to have two “kissing” pianos. If a student is learning a three voice Bach fugue, I will, during a series of run-throughs, choose one among the three voices and transpose either up or down a certain number of octaves. In this way, the bottom voice can sound like the top voice (the original top voice being now in the middle), the top voice can sound like the bottom voice (usually the second easiest voice for the student to pick out with her ears), or I can ‘liberate’ the inner voice from being imprisoned between the obvious top voice and the second most obvious bottom voice.
Sometimes I will reverse the arrangement. I will play the piece as written, and the student has to play along with me, in one octave or more than one octave, a single voice. The ability simply to isolate with the eye, just one voice, and follow its continuity through the entire fugue, is almost a necessary ability for the Bach player.
The most surprising thing to most students is that, even when the voices are shuffled (with or even without octave doublings) the sound of the piece is strikingly similar to the original arrangement. Just try to do this with reversing the hands of a Beethoven Sonata. What results rarely sounds enough like the original for the student to consider it as the same piece and not some strangely mangled version.
This means that we can conclude certain things about Bach’s “Musical Space as against Beethoven’s musical space.
The next paragraph is a bit more theoretical and can be skipped.
First a word or two about what I mean by musical space. I believe that music is the only art which is experienced by us, in its purest form, in time alone, and not in some combination of time and space.* This despite the many space-like things involved in playing such as the instrument we are playing, the types of movements we make in space to play that instrument, etc.. If we can legitimately use the term “space” in regard to music, then it is a highly abstract, non tangible space. The one in which “notes” have positions on a graph relative to a time-axis and a pitch-axis. Even a “note”, though, is already an abstract term. It is the result holding fairly constant, during a duration of time, three perceivable parameters of sound: namely pitch, loudness, and tone quality. One might add duration, but duration is the very fabric of conscious time.
If we accept the use of space as part of the phrase ‘musical space’, then in Bach’s musical space, voices are transparent to each other. We do not have to try to see through the opaque surface of the highest voice in order to see (sic) the other voices. And if the voices are on transparent layers in this space, we can order the voices in any permutation we want, and the full effect of all the voices seen through each other’s transparency will remain the same.
But if we consider Beethoven. His musical space has different geometric (sic) properties, such that things that are possible to do in Bach’s space may not be doable in Beethoven’s space. What is ‘on top’ tends be more opaque to the other voices than with Bach.
* This is one of the central theses in my book: “The Spectrum of the Arts” (available for free, in summary and in full text, on line at: http://www.AJourneyThroughTheArts.com.