Some Music Mysteries
Okay, this page is as much about any kind of sound as it’s about music, but music gives us something more dramatic to focus on.
When I was a boy, transistors were a fairly new thing commercially. Most radios – and all car radios – had vacuum tubes, which are still used in high-end stereo components and certain pro recording gear. As far as the home “hi-fi” system was concerned, it was all tube-based and printed circuit boards and miniaturization were many years in the future.
There were only two hi-fi components back then: a radio and a phonograph player. (That’s a turntable for you younger types.) A phonograph record (uh, vinyl) is a fairly straight-forward device. The record grooves contain tiny wiggles that are pressed into the warm vinyl during manufacturing. When a needle with a point that’s small compared to the groove size is laid into the groove on the rotating record, it vibrates back and forth (and up and down more recently for two channels of sound – whereupon “hi-fis” became “stereos”), generating an electrical signal that reproduces the original signal when amplified and sent through speakers. The point is, if you look at record grooves with a magnifying glass, you can see a direct representation of the sound – all the wiggles.
In a recording or broadcast studio in those days, vocal and instrumental signals were transduced (meaning a change of energy form) through a microphone; audio energy became electromagnetic (EM) energy. For radio, this EM energy was suitably pre-processed, amplified, and shoved up an antenna, where it radiated itself into your home and mine.
For recording, the EM signal directly drove a phonograph cutter head, which carved the record grooves, making it necessary to record the entire side of a record in one take. The master disc was mechanically copied to create the records you and I buy. Bought. Later on, the recorded signal was stored on magnetic tape, making it possible to carefully splice different pieces of tape together before cutting the master.
The common point in all this was at every step of the process, you could see a representation of the music in one form or another:
- Guitar, violin and piano strings vibrate back and forth. High-speed cameras can show this motion.
- Vocal cords vibrate, causing tiny compressions and rarefactions in the air which cause the sounds our ears and microphones pick up. Wind and brass instruments operate the same way.
- Once transduced through a mic, the EM signal could easily be seen with an oscilloscope, either in real time or from the tape.
- Transduced again through a speaker, the speaker cone can actually be seen vibrating (especially on very low sounds), reproducing the original sounds more or less faithfully.
- The wiggles in the record grooves can be seen. The phone cartridge is another transducer, changing minute physical displacements into minute EM signals.
The constant factor in all this is that the representation of the original sounds at every step of the recording and playback processes is continuous.
- The track on the record is one long groove, looped in a spiral. The wiggles are continuous back-and-forth curves.
- The microphone diaphragm and the speaker cone travel back-and-forth continuously.
- The violin or guitar string vibrates in a similar fashion.
- An oscilloscope shows the continuous form of the EM signal.
- Magnetic tape contains varying concentrations of tiny magnetic fields that also vary continuously along its length.
The obvious conclusion seemed to be that music and sound were continuous phenomena; we could see their uninterrupted forms in various ways.
During roughly the last 100 years, physicists and mathematicians were formulating our current ideas of space and time. During exactly the same period, technology was advancing that made music recording and playback possible. Both streams of development were complementary: space was described as a continuous plenum, and time was thought of as, say, a river flowing by a fixed point, hence phrases such as “river of time.”
As quantum physics was developed through the 1920’s, certain experiments suggested that light was composed of waves – a continuous phenomena, while other experiments indicated that light was composed of discrete particles. This paradox about the nature of light still exists today, but whichever interpretation is taken, the particles or waves are thought to move through continuous space during continuous time.
Sound waves do not appear to have any sort of measurable particle nature, and are fully describable by wave-like math. We can see the waves on our instruments and in record grooves.
Fast forward. A curious thing happened regarding sound about thirty years ago. With sufficiently fast electronics, it became possible to measure the loudness of a sound wave many thousands of times a second. When these measurements were recorded then played back by an inverse procedure, there was the same sound! It was as if instead of recording long continuous wiggles, a dense line of dots could represent the same sound. The position of each dot is represented by a mere number. Now, instead of continuous, analog recording, non-continuous, digital recording became possible. Today, all CDs and all sound files on computers are non-contiguous, discrete digital representations of the original sounds.
The difference is easy to see. If we go back to record grooves, the tiny but smooth curves in the groove walls would be replaced by abrupt zigs and zags that look like stairsteps instead of smooth, tiny water waves.
Digital music on CDs is recorded by measuring the volume of a orchestra, say, at least 44,100 times a second, called the sampling rate. When played back through your stereo system or MP3 player, speedy electronics read each number in sequence, and recreate a simulation of the original sound. Whether it’s as good as the original recorded by analog means is hotly debated in certain audiophile quarters, but it’s certainly close. “CD quality sound” is generally taken as good quality sound.
But a disturbing thought arises here. How is it that a discrete, sampled sound is perceived as anything like the original continuous sound? Even if the sound is sampled 44,100 times a second, there are infinitely many more times in each second that the sound is not sampled. Don’t those other times contribute to how we perceive sound? Music?
The answer is no, not much. The main drawback to CD sound is lack of high-frequency “air” or spaciousness in the high notes. This is attributed to the fact that the CD sampling rate is not fast enough. Now recording gear is widely available with sampling rates of nearly 200,000 times a second, which seems to solve the problem. (CDs and CD players with this sampling rate are not yet commercially available, and probably never will be. Some DVDs, though, are recorded at 96,000 samples per second.)
If our ears essentially can’t hear the difference between continuous, analog sound and discrete, digital sound, how could we tell if the space and time through which sound travels is not also discrete, and not continuous? Suppose our senses are too coarse to tell the difference? Our ears can’t tell the difference between discrete, stair-step sound (when the steps are small enough), and continuous, smooth-wave sound. Are our eyes and our very consciousness also discontinuous from instant to instant? Does what we perceive as reality blink on and off at a rate too fast for us to discern? Some interpretations of quantum physics suggest this might in fact be the case, although the “sampling” rate might be three dozen orders of magnitude faster.
What if we actually live in a blinkey universe? Then would we blink in and out of existence too? What about the sensation that our consciousness seems to be continuous? We feel we are “present” throughout our waking day, and are suddenly somehow “not present” during sleep. Is this a wrong impression?
It is well-known to psychologists that our senses fill in perceived stimuli that are not actually there. For example, we can often understand a sentence when a surprising number of letters are missing in it. We can identify a friend at a distance, in low light in the briefest instant. How much of our reality do we fill in that we are unaware of?
A quote from Buckminster Fuller seems appropriate here :
Metaphysical has been science’s designation for all weightless phenomena such as thought. But science has made no experimental finding of any phenomena that can be described as a solid, or as continuous, or as a straight surface plane, or as a straight line, or as infinite anything. We are now synergetically forced to conclude that all phenomena are metaphysical; wherefore, as many have long suspected – like it or not – life is but a dream. ( Synergetics )
If our “reality” is actually unreal in some definite sense, and we somehow construct it by filling in missing pieces, then why does it seem so solid? The answer is, we fool ourselves into believing in its solidity. After all, everyone else is doing the same thing, so we all must be right. Right?
The only way to convince ourselves about the true nature of the universe at large is to experience it. Rational thought and reason will never be sufficient, as these modes of perception inherently restrict the total perceived universe to a tiny slice of the total. One has to get outside rational thought via direct experience of the unknown to become aware of that which we are otherwise missing.
How does one do this? Drugs are one way. But with the aims of inner silence and expanded awareness, drugs have one major drawback: the drug is in control and the person using it is not. Any experiences had are helter-skelter and unrepeatable in any useful manner. Under their influence, we look helplessly through the wrong end of the telescope, allowing unknown chemical changes in our bodies to direct and control our awareness – the exact opposite of awareness under conscious control and direction. For this sole reason, reports of drug use by competent shamans in any given culture are exaggerated and misleading. Psychotropic drugs represent a limited road leading nowhere. The normal inner dialog under drugs is replaced not with silence as desired, but by a cacophony of uncontrollable images, sounds and sensory impressions that overwhelm and mislead consciousness – again, just the opposite of what is desired.
But something definite is necessary to derail the mind’s constant chatter. One proven way is to engage the body in non-verbal movement. Gurdjieff taught his students complicated and lengthy movements, and Castaneda’s last book, Magical Passes has as one of its goals the achievement of inner silence , also through controlled and specific movements.
A second way is through music. Certain music is written in a way that transports listeners to the same state of inner silence . The Memories of Home CD can do this. (More information is on the So What? page and throughout this site.)
So in the end, although recorded music, either analog or digital, can never entirely capture the feeling of the live performance, it is able to deeply affect our consciousness, allowing us to explore the universe and ourselves in new ways.