Must-Read Article On Perception of Musical Sound


Too Many Notes
Apr 26, 2012
There's an incredibly interesting and well-researched article on how the brain perceives and processes musical sound in the January 28, 2013 New Yorker magazine, by a writer named Adam Gopnik. A friend dropped it off the other day and I just read it this evening. Because we'd talked about musical tone, how instruments produce timbre and pitch, and how the brain interprets these elements in several other threads relating to guitar tone, etc., I thought the article was really timely.

Anyone truly interested in music who cares deeply about sound would probably enjoy it.

The article explains how complex our hearing mechanism is, and how interwoven it is with the operation of our brains. One of the scientists interviewed (who is also a rocket scientist working on ion propulsion for the space program) explained to the writer that, "We hear music with our minds. Reproduction isn't transparent." Later, the article states, "In some sense, our taste for music may be a byproduct of the way our auditory system intends to eliminate audio chimeras. We want to distinguish the rustle of the vines from the slither of the snake. Musical sounds both draw on and stymie the mind's mechanisms for making distinctions."

But my favorite statement in the article is this one summing up what one professor stated:

"Human ears aren't natural reflectors of sound in the world. They are themselves these transducers that make reality - the perception of sound is not a mirror of nature. Therefore, perception in a way makes sounds, and it makes sounds differently from a microphone and a computer detecting vibrations out in the world."

This, to me is a wonderful explanation, because it causes realization of where the ART in creating music, and creating musical instruments, too, comes into play. The art of music, and of making a great instrument, is in how it works in concert with the mind.

When I pick up one of my PRSes, an awful lot of information floods my brain. There is tactile information transmitting sensory data from my hands and body to and from the instrument; there is auditory information, both from the guitar and the amplifier as to pitch, phase, time, timbre, melody, harmony; there is artistic information. There is technique information. There is musical intent. There is deliberate human "error" that we want to hear in vibrato, grace notes, touch, and other anomalies that aren't written on the page that we use to give more emotion and depth to a note. And I'm just scratching the surface.

And it's all being processed at once, in a great feedback loop, by our minds.

This, to me, is one reason why a great guitar isn't just a matter of "tone," because what's that anyway? If I can more easily manipulate the string to create vibrato, if the guitar responds a certain way to touch, if notes seem lively and jump off the fingerboard, isn't that part of what we hear and evaluate with an instrument? Of course it is. And much more.

If an instrument helps you to achieve a tone you want, makes it easier, I think we perceive that as the instrument sounding better, too.

Anyway, these are things that I like to think about. I highly recommend seeing if you can find a copy of the article if you find this kind of thing in the least bit interesting.
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I'll look for it, definitely!

There have been lots of studies where people get MRI brain scans while listening to music. They play pop songs that have sold very well to people who don't like pop music, and their brains light up in ways they can't control. There was another that showed a normal brain at rest, a normal brain listening to music, and a brain listening to music where the person is getting goosebumps because the music is so good. Those brains are lit up like crazy! Same with someone who is actively playing a musical instrument while they're getting he MRI done, their brains are very lit up. I love it.
John, I think the article is really interesting, because it's got to do with our perception of music, sound, and by implication, it makes you really think about instruments, too.

I liked it.