An Unending Flow of Glowing Sound
Fauré made a solo piano arrangement of the first movement of his “Dolly Suite” better known in its incarnation for piano four-hands. The glowing sound that is so easy for the two pianists to achieve with their control over at least four octaves at once, is very difficult to evoke and sustain for long in the solo piano arrangement, limited as it is to the pianist’s two hands.
At her lesson today, I wanted to show Rachael that even though one couldn’t be “all places at once” (or all octaves at once), there was nevertheless a way for creating an ongoing sound that is infused from all those octaves.
As an illustration I asked Rachael to put the right pedal down, leave it down, and then slowly play the notes of an extended E Major chord, starting with e1 in the bottom octave of the piano, then using both e2 and b2 in the next octave, and from then on proceeding in closed-spacing with e3, gs3, b3, e4, until gs4 (it could just as well have continued higher). After sounding the last note, the gs4, I asked her to wait a second or two, and then concentrate on what she heard coming out of the piano (the pedal still being depressed). After completing her examination of the sound, she could release the pedal at any time. Like a camera set to a prolonged exposure time while focused on an area in space in which there are objects moving about, what Rachael head was a stable, lasting, ‘large’, resonating, eight-note, overarching chord that spanned several octaves and derived its tone quality from all those octaves at once.
One noticeable quality of this sound was that it could be described as ‘glowing’. It glowed in a way not normally heard by the pianist when playing. I said to Rachael, here is a “model” for what you could hear coming out of the piano at all times. What we did was just to isolate it in time, but that potential is always there with every note we play. We may fail to “complete” it when we don’t take the time to accumulate it and then listen to it.
I called her attention to the fact that, in the order we did things, this glowing quality to the sound didn’t become obvious until a moment or two after completing the chord. This is because our habit is to listen to one note at a time when they are played sequentially and not concentrate on their overall effect. But the sound, the glowing sound, is always there, ready to speak back to you if you stop and listen. As you play each sound, almost pause and listen to listen for it to speak back to you. This requires a very active mind which can oscillate rapidly between “doing” or “making” sounds and, passively, “listening” to what was just “made”. The trick is to go back and forth between the two states.
If we see a picture that includes a circle, part of which has been cut off by one of the boundaries of the picture, but which, nonetheless complete in our mind. We complete the form. When we play piano, and especially this piece by Fauré, take any sounds that are part of a chord and complete the chord in your ear.
Afterwards, as Rachael played piece, I no longer heard bumps and zigzags between octave ranges. Nothing seemed to my ear to be missing or incomplete. There was a sustained glow to the overall sound
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!”.
Sound, Hearing, and the Brain
Spoiler Alert – this one is a bit dense and philosophical.
How do sound qualities arise? And how do we hear music as pitch, tone color, harmony, and melody, when nothing like these things actually exist in nature?
Sound waves go through cycles, often countless times per second. During each cycle the “amplitude” (the wave height) changes from one instant to instant. The number of cycles per second correlates with the ‘pitch’ that we hear. But in this conscious phenomenon there is no awareness at all of the loudness changing from instant to instant. As long as the frequency of the wave holds constant, the sound that we hear prolongs itself constantly through duration in time.
Thus, perceiving a steady pitch at a steady loudness is due to something that in terms of what is going on physically in nature is quite discontinuous. When the piano plays a Middle C, we do not hear a series of 261 sudden increases in loudness each second. Nor do we hear 440 sudden increases in loudness when the oboe plays its A above middle C to tune the orchestra. Something discontinuous, fitful and periodic in nature ends up as something continuous and steady in consciousness. Only when the vibration rate drops below around 20 cycles per second do we begin to hear the separate puffs of air, but at the price that we no longer hear a pitch.
What if our consciousness could run at a ‘tempo’ that allowed us to hear these individual peaks in loudness? Seconds would seem to take minutes, and small fractions of seconds would seem like seconds. The result is that the very nature of what we would ‘hear’ would be totally different: discontinuity in time would replace continuity.
This would be the equivalent in time of putting a specimen under a microscope and magnifying it in space. The greater the magnification, the less the specimen looks as it did to the unaided eye. If we were not told that it was the same object in both cases, we would be hard put to realize its identity.
Pitch, the basic substrate of all our musical perception, would disappear, and be replaced with an effect somewhat like a ratchet, or a rapid series of metronome clicks with silence between successive clicks. Gone would be the very building blocks out of which musical structure is created.
Sound: Instrumental Tone Quality versus a Chord of Pitches
Our experience of instrumental tone color (a clarinet’s sound versus a violin’s sound or versus the sound of a human voice) is, as with pitch, based on a fortunate illusion, a simplification and then recasting of sensations reaching our brain.
When an instrument, like a clarinet, plays what we perceive as a single pitch, a scientific examination of its wave form reveals something that resembles more a ‘chord’ of many pitches than what gives us the perception of a single pitch.
There is no ‘reason’ why, we might hear simply one chord versus another in the different instruments, minus any change in instrumental quality. After all, chords are part of the normal conscious phenomena that we perceive about sound. Why do we need something extra when we might content ourselves with just perceiving chords?
When we perceive what we term a chord, most often the various individual pitches in the chord are sounding with approximately the same loudness. What if the different pitches in a chord all had different loudnesses. This would add a serious level of complication. It is this extra layer of complication that the brain “simplifies” for us. What we hear is not different loudnesses among the different pitches in otherwise similar chords, but simply a different tone quality, or timbre, to the overall sound. A French horn and a violin playing Middle C produce the same chord of pitches, but the relative loudness of one pitch to another is different. How impoverished would our perception of sound be if it was bereft of this extra
parameter of tone quality. Sound would “sound” like shades of grey without any other color.
Part of the ‘illusion’ of tone quality is that we hear one pitch instead of many, and our brain casts the lowest pitch in the chord as the pitch we associate with the note, and as for the rest of the notes in the chord, depending on their mutual loudness, the brain recasts the phenomenon of pitch as the phenomenon of tone quality.
What if our brain had the ability to resolve the single sound of an instrument, at a single pitch, into a chord of many different pitches? The answer is simple. Gone would be melody and gone would be harmony.
Conclusion number two: This almost deceitful sleight of hand by the brain allows for the richness of musical structure.
P.S. Two other parameters of musical sounds, rhythm and duration, do not depend on sound to be perceivable. Duration is simply the inner experience of time in consciousness, and needs nothing external to
mark its progress. And rhythm, which in a way depends on duration, can be taught to a deaf person through a sense other than hearing: touch, for instance.
P.P.S. Of all the arts, music comes closest to being the simple conscious perception of time.