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February 2002
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Listen! The Sky Is Throbbing...
A Treatise On How We Listen To Music
Article By Herb Reichert

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  The sky is gray-blue and hanging oppressively low in the heavens. The hawk is out and the west wind is burning your face. You've got headphones on. They're under your stocking cap. You've got a wide wool scarf and arctic gloves. Your overcoat is heavy on your shoulders. It's pushing you down. Your shoulders are bent. Your feet are numb and you're tramping along holding your muscles tight against the driving sleet. But Furtwangler is conducting. Wagner: Die Walkure. Ms. Flagstad is singing. You are staggering - hunched over. You are transported. You hardly notice the weather. You barely see your fellow travelers - leaning into the same wind as you (are). But you are completely alone now... with the Immortals. Life is sublime. And intense. And highly charged... Or is it?

On the simplest and crassest of levels, it might appear (that) the act of listening to music is little more than a quotidian expression of humankind's desire to be distracted. To get out of themselves. To change their mood. And indeed, music is truly distracting. But listening to music, (i.e. following a composition or a song all the way through from beginning to end) is a profoundly intense and complex cultural experience. Even on the dumbest dance and drink at the Salty Dog Inn level, music can grip the moment with an iron fist. Music, on any basic level you may care to look at it, is always a complex emotional-cultural cocktail. The content of good music is nearly always intoxicating.

The subject matter of song is always living, wandering, dreaming, loving, looking about in wonder, touching and making small marks in the universe. Music speaks in movement and talks about who we are. It is never really about being alone. Or about itself. Music is never about music. Not at all. It is about sharing. About one person singing to another. A person playing an instrument -- with force and expression. About people dancing with each other. About people demonstrating and flexing their humanity. Music interfaces us in the most essential and positive ways -- with our environment, with our larger family, with the whole history of humankind. And most of all with our essential humanness.

 

Think, Dance, Be Born...
Thinking (for me) is the act of consciously recognizing pattern. It is also the alert discovery of causes and effects within these patterns. Feeling, on the other hand, is basically a more complex multi-layered freeform act of intuitive (re: automatic) reacting to environmental stimuli -- under the strong influence past experiences. One of the chief differences between feeling and thinking is: thinking is primarily a conscious self-directed activity that we engage in sporadically and with greater and lesser degrees of intensity. Feeling, on the other hand, is more typically a constant, steady state condition. The levels and intensities (and subjects) of feeling may vary but for most persons, feeling never seems to drop below a certain threshold levels. Under dangerous or stressful conditions, feeling and thinking levels may spike in both the time and power domains. (i.e. Imagine the speed and intensity of a driver's thoughts and emotions during the fleeting moments before a possibly fatal car crash.)

The average human spends the majority of his time feeling and very little time thinking. Most of our "decisions" are actually nothing more than feeling-based reactions to circumstances -- not carefully deduced and calculated behaviors based on our observations of patterns of cause and effect.

Music that incorporates large amounts of structural and poetic invention is designed to spike both our thinking and out feeling to very high levels. That is what it does best. Music's primary intention is to modulate our awareness processes. My personal experience suggests that what music does that is so amazing is: It stimulates and massages that imaginary point where thinking and feeling co-habituate. This is why the musical messages feel so direct, so cogent and so complete. This is why musical content is so rewarding and satisfying to the vast majority of humans.

Music, more than any other art form, is reacted-to-absorbed-understood-decoded, and appreciated, by both the body and the "mind" -- equally, simultaneously and (very often) with great vigor. And, it is precisely this mind/body connectedness that causes music to be recognized as a some sort of universal language. Pattern and tone displayed over time as vehicles of meaning. Rhythm, beat, tempo and periodicity as vessels for coded values. Momentum and forward potential as metaphors of the life force. These are some of the qualities that make music so rewarding as well as so difficult to reproduce mechanically.

Part of music's content is delivered to the skin, the hair, the belly and the lungs, while simultaneously another (somewhat different) part is delivered to the ears and eyes. Likewise, every aspect of our body-mind-ego-id-conscious-unconscious apparatus is involved in the decoding of musical content. Perhaps (at least metaphorically), some basic musical content is decoded by the flesh and some further more subtle part is decoded by the spirit.

The absolute (and nearly indescribable) complexity of the musical stimulus is why we keep listening and why we continue to struggle with building effective music reproduction systems. We simply do not yet know for sure which distortions represent the most damaging interruptions of the data stream. There is no agreement (even among experts) on what constitutes the important aspects of reproduced music.

Nevertheless, some things are obvious. For example, if we fail to make out the lyrics to a song it is quite possible we are missing something. If a hi-fi is playing back a song less loudly than the artist originally sang it -- a significant part of the content is probably lost. If for example, while listening to music in the home, the orchestra appears to be smaller than a real orchestra -- if the impact, presence and sense of physical weight and palpable body are missing from the reproduced music, then the data-stream is already horrifically distorted. If all or part of the reproduced music is played back even a tiny bit slower or faster -- the potential for understanding the musical content will be severely compromised. More often than not, the recorded data stream is so terribly corrupted by it's mechanical reproducers as to make enjoying and/or understanding a song very difficult.

Even what was captured on the microphone(s) when the musical performance was recorded is considerably less than a true facsimile or analogue of the original soundfield -- it is little more than a thin, almost 'random slice' severed and extracted from all the data available at the site of the event. When we first examine the recorded data we are forced to ask ourselves; is the data of good quality? Have we captured enough information? And most importantly, does the recording adequately represent the artist's intent or the dynamic of the live session? This most important question is: does the character and purpose and attitude of the song survive the severe loss of data? Can the slice really represent the whole cake let alone the whole meal? Is the meaning of the art fully preserved?

People forget this. Especially audiophiles. But capturing enough of the right kind of information is still a very tricky technological problem. Why? Mainly because so few engineers understand the nature of the data they are trying to capture. Go on. Ask the next engineer you meet. What is art? What is a song? What qualities make a song effective as art? What is poetry? Better yet, ask an audiophile these questions. A basic truth is: You can't find or preserve or reproduce what you don't know exists. If you don't know art when you see it or hear it, how will you know if you have reproduced it correctly?

I ask you: what are the chances of any given recorded data slice being the right slice? What are the chances that the slice is big enough? Or that it contains the essence of the original program? How likely is it that the data is not too dirty messy bent twisted or otherwise corrupted? (Remind me, what is Murphy's Law?). The list of reasons why audio should not and does not work is nearly endless, but nevertheless, we still all participate in and receive pleasure from the playback of recorded music. That is because music is so good and so strong and important and provocative, even a tiny taste can drive us wild.

 

The Camera And The Tape Recorder...
I dare say that people find photographs and recorded music enjoyable for pretty much the same reasons. Both of these mediums precipitate little, vague, coded souvenirs of live events. But, these mechanically generated discs and pieces of paper are capable of wielding a not insubstantial amount of power. Both of these mediums are capable of stimulating their audiences into fits of reverie and exaltation. Both of these mediums can cause us to think and feel intensely. Both of these mediums can inspire us to take action or re-evaluate our world-view. Photographs and recordings are both capable of being stand-alone objects of art as well as cultural documents and tools for learning. Most importantly, photographs and recording are capable of elucidating human desire, ethics, as well as our highest sentiments.

I laugh when I see audio gurus using photographic analogies to describe audio reproduction. What a perfect (perfectly humorous?) concept. Light and sound are fairly analogous to each other. And reproduced music is about as real (compared to live) as a photograph of a person is to a real person. A 3" x 5" piece of paper with an artificially constructed image of a person is hardly at all like the real person. A loudspeaker with a flopping cone is similarly unlike an orchestra playing and a choir singing. Any serious comparison between a loudspeaker making noise in my living room and a band playing or a person singing in a music hall is absolutely absurd.

Reality and reasonability will be best served if we can now grasp how absolutely different the two events really are. In New Guinea we have cargo cults. They set up camp on abandoned WWII, U.S. Air Force, airfields. A couple of cult members wear orange buckets on their heads and stand on the runway waving little flags that they've made. Another one sits up in the tower with a hard-brimmed hat looking out the window and chanting into a broken microphone. Two more are downstairs with their feet up on their desks. One is talking into a Coca Cola can and the other is moving scraps of paper from one side of the desk to the other. Why are they doing this? They are waiting for the "umfall" to come. What is "Umfall"? It is stuff. They are waiting for the airplanes to come and land on the runway bringing them "umfall" that they and their families can use. Eventually the planes do come. And they do bring umfall. Usually the umfall is things like acrylic paint to paint their faces and UHF antennae to wear as necklaces. This scenario is less fake and more real than the either the photograph or the recording. These guys are closer to being real U.S. Air Force workers than the photo or the recording is to being a singer or a song.

The point is, a photograph of the Rolling Stones on a little piece of paper and a loudspeaker with its cone flapping are about equally unlike the real Keith and Mick playing. At best, both are simply teeny tiny analogies. Symbols or icons. Little makeshift effigies that only vaguely resemble the real Rolling Stones. The amount a photo or the loudspeaker can tell you about the artistic content of a song like "Sympathy for the Devil" is trifling. But these trifles are all we have and I am addicted to them and they definitely tell us way more than nothing (does). Because of the strength and economics of this addiction, we continue to fiddle with these analogies and make them better.

 

G-d Is Not In The Details, He's In Between Them...
Music is made up largely of intangibles. Of very subtle relationships between simultaneous sonic-artistic-visual events. Musical content lies mostly in the spaces between the notes. So many aspects of musical performance are going faster and slower, louder and softer, darker and lighter, forward and back, that capturing these fugitive gestalts is more than daunting. Especially their scale, power and proportions. It is nearly impossible. The same applies to the more subtle, cerebral and poetic aspects of a performance. Just the tiniest loss or rearrangement of a few inscrutable energy relationships and boom! The song becomes unintelligible. (A big chunk of any music is typically captured in the tiny hesitations and momentary gropings the singer makes while singing the song.)

 

You Are What You Notice
And You Know What You Recognize
In order to receive and experience the complete palette of musical content, in order to receive a songs full range of coded sentiment, the listener must learn to notice and recognize this content when it appears. Remember, we can't find what we are not looking for and we don't experience what we don't notice... right? Therefore, it is of absolute importance that we learn to recognize the poetry, philosophy, and attitude -- the value system -- coded into every song we hear. Before we can decode this type of information we have to know it is in there and where to look for it. We have to spot it before we can analyze or enjoy it.

The primary mistake most people make when they discuss or evaluate reproduced music is to think about it as sound. People imagine, well, this reproduced music "sounds" very much like live music. They think that if the sounds they hear coming from the loudspeakers reminds them of "the sound" of live music in several prescribed ways then it must be "accurate" and it must therefore contain the entire artist ordained musical content and meaning. I swear this is not true. Leastwise, my experience will not confirm this thesis.

Sound, to me, is just the vehicle for musical-artistic expression -- not the content. (God drives in cars, but s/he is not necessarily in the car my loudspeakers are driving) When audiophiles discuss music they mostly talk about sound. Base, treble, mid-range, soundstage, dynamics. This is so weird. Because when musicians talk music they usually talk about riffs. When songwriters talk music they usually speak about content. What the song is about. What is its subject matter? Music critics usually discuss the social, cultural and industry contexts upon which the music impresses itself. Dancers employ the rhythm and the beat. Seated listeners usually relate the music to their lives. Seated listeners usually stay quiet and enjoy the music-induced reverie. Seated listeners like to think and dream. My feeling is that if we are going to discuss the virtue or value or quality of mechanically reproduced music -- we must discuss it in terms that relate primarily to the music's uses. We have to confine ourselves to using the same vocabulary as the musician and the songwriter. We want what they want. Right? Good reproduction makes music more useful and accessible. Good reproduction should always make music more engaging and more provocative. Isn't that the same as the singer hoped for?

In fact, I dare say "engaging and provocative" should always be the primary criteria for evaluating the quality of live and reproduced music. It is simple. And surprising. Is the music engaging, thought and feeling provoking, emotionally and intellectually useful, does it access our ability to empathize or have compassion -- does it cause us to identify with the song's protagonist or narrator? Does it inspire us to action or change? These are the kind of questions that we should ask of both live and reproduced music. If mechanically reproduced music does these things, then it is good.

Conversely bad reproduction makes music dull, uninspiring and inaccessible. And useless. A good song can always survive a bad recording. A good song by an inspired artist cannot be brought down by loss of bass definition or dynamics. Poor imaging or ill-defined sound stage will never affect Jimi Hendricks or J.S. Bach. If the highs are a bit rolled off, we can still (probably) get the meaning of the song.

Many think that if a home hi-fi could accurately reproduce the soundfield at the site of the recording -- the reproduction would be perfect and the engineer's job would be completed. Any creative or interpretive issues would therefore have to be resolved between the artist and the listener -- not the engineer. She or he would then have done their job by supplying the us with sufficient data. Unfortunately, it is not that simple or easy.

First of all, something tells me that music reproduction is not about the amount of recorded data. It is about the quality of that data. Why? Because (again) god is not in the details -- he is behind, above and in-between them. God and Poetry are the actual muscles and connective tissues of art. With reproduced music we are working with such a small bit of data that the actual character of that data becomes important.

A "song" is not sound. I say this again: A song is not sound. It is something a person sings. It is the act of singing. No singer, no song -- that is the rule. A song is something a whole lot more than just an arrangement of tones. It is a conception that precipitates an event and, a song is the event of singing itself. A song is something a person makes and does. A song is an orchestrated auditory and visual performance with (usually) moral, ethical and poetic content. A song can have a subject and a theme. It can tell a story. Sound cannot do this. A song can describe a feeling or a sentiment. Sound cannot. People say music is a language but they do not say sound is a language. You can measure sound but you can't measure a song. A song is a sentimental event that (hopefully) represents the attitude and vision and value system of the artist, his support group, and the society in which his constituency functions. A song is a pure artifact of human culture. Sound is not.

What we are trying to capture when we record a song is the artist's attitude, vision and value system. The sound is the boat that ferries the passengers. It is not the river and it is not the lives of the humans in the boat. The identity of any given sound appears quite plain and simple and lifeless compared to the identity of a song or a singer.

This is why we have record producers as well as engineers. The engineer's job is to make sure the recording machines work properly. The producer's job is to make sure the songs work. The singer's job is to reveal the artistic content of the composition. In the process of recording music, the most difficult task is getting the meaning of the song across the mechanical gap. Audio is about making facsimiles of songs happen in our living rooms. Audio is about loudspeakers making noises that remind of real singers singing real songs. But! The "real" part is not about the sound. It is about the meaning and attitude of the art. When someone says, "Keep it real". They are talking about feelings and consequences and causes and effects and subtle patterns. They are not talking about whether something "sounds like real sound" -- which is what audiophiles always do.

Therefore in both live and mechanically reproduced music, we must forget the sound and learn to spot the clues that tell us about the singer and the song. The clues that illustrate the attitude and vision of the artist. The clues that tell us what the composer believes in. This is learned behavior. It does not come natural. It takes insight and practice. We must pay attention.

 

The Singer And The Songs
When you separate the singer from the song, when you separate the visual from the auditory, you loose a really BIG chunk of the artistic content. (You have to see the sweat dripping down Tina Turner's thighs and the movement of her ass to completely understand the meaning of the song) Imagine, instead of having real live sex, you just have some sounds and a little bit of the touch. Your partner is gone. (Sound familiar?) Imagine that so many of the tactile aspects of sex have been removed that you can no longer tell how fat or thin or old your partner is. Whether the skin is tight or loose. Whether something is wet or dry. In addition to the loss of touch, you don't get any of the visual either. You can no longer see whom you are kissing. Imagine pornography that is only mechanically reproduced sound. Pretty bad huh? Well, don't laugh, that is exactly what reproduced music is like. (I can't tell you how many audio systems I've experienced that were so bad I couldn't even tell who was singing! Ahhh? Is that Frank Sinatra?) And even worse, reproduced music not only takes away all of the visual and most of the tactual, it takes away most of the auditory too. Like I said, all you get is a thin twisted little slice of music -- being jacked out of a pair of tiny wooden boxes!

At this point I beg my reader to stop for a moment and really reflect upon how much is actually missing from the experience of live music when we play our stereos in our homes? Did I say "stereos"? Jeepers, just ask yourself: does the music coming out of your state of the art high end hi-fi more closely resemble live music, or the music coming from the elevator speakers?

 

What We Hear Is Not The True Story Of The Song
On top of all that, how we actually perceive the "sound" of music is very different than how we come to "understand" or appreciate musical content. We perceive the sound of music by decoding one set of sensory constructs (primarily acoustic) while we understand the meaning of a song by decoding another (different, primarily abstract-emotional-subliminal) set of constructs. The second set, the part that caries the song's meaning, is a set of very subtle and discrete patterns woven inside the larger acoustic armature. You must remember that with music, sound is only the medium, it is not the message. This is the problem with all purely sonic criteria for evaluating reproduced music. They do not reflect the art or performance aspects of the reproduced music. At all.

Music consists of an extremely complex, dynamic and interwoven barrage of patterned information all connected up to a unavoidable forward potential. And, all this is connected up with a cornucopia of cultural-historical contexts. This forward potential and these multifarious social-economic and cultural contexts are THE most important aspects of all music. Why? Because these are the aspects of music we identify with. They are what make music interesting. Without them music is boring. These are the things we must train ourselves to notice while we listen. Sensing the forward potential and searching for cultural clues and new coded information are among the glorious proactive joys of listening. We can spend our whole lives just finding the socio-economic and cultural-historical clues in one symphony.

And then there is the artistic decision making. Every song or work of art or invention of humankind involves a series of decisions. How big, how long, what material, what key, what instruments, how many voices, etc.??? These kinds of decisions. As listeners, our job is to notice and consider the virtue and value of these decisions. This is the challenge of music and art. Each of these decisions reflects the attitude and world-view of the creator. All of these decisions reflect the message of the art. Together, they represent the meaning. We must look for these decisions and ask ourselves what they mean. This is how we appreciate art and music. We don't like the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Dr. Dre, we admire the decisions these artists make. We identify with their process. These decisions are the things we must direct our attention to. In mechanically reproduced music, if we can find them easily -- the reproduction is good. If they seem hidden or unavailable for scrutiny -- the reproduction is bad.

In all of our lives. In all of our affairs. We have choices. We must make decisions. And all of these decisions have moral and ethical implications. Just like the artists. We can make these decisions with our full faculties -- we can employ high intensity thinking and feeling (Just like the artists) or we can abdicate. We can choose to zone out. To disengage. We can avoid the confrontation with the Immortals. Or, we can actively pursue the content of our experiences. Meaning and poetic content are always at the core of our experience. We can find it if we look. But finding it is work. So is reconciling it. But the reward for this kind of work is always a direct experience of the sublime. All we have to do is look for the proper clues and learn to decode them.

So remember the guy in the snow? With the headphones under his cap? Maybe he wasn't using Wagner to escape from the wind after all. Maybe he was using Wagner to understand the wind. Maybe the Wagner patterns (and their myriad cultural contexts) superimposed over the wind and sleet patterns (with their myriad magnetico-electric permutations) combined, and together, they interfaced his skin and his muscles and his psyche -- showing him just how comfortably he fits into the larger scheme of things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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