Machine Songs III: Music in the Service of Science-Science in the Service of Music Author(s): Jon Appleton Source

: Computer Music Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 17-21 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: Accessed: 25/02/2010 15:03
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BregmanElectronic Music Studio Dartmouth College Hanover, New Hampshire 03755 USA

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In many non-Western cultures the power of music is synonymous with magic. Music is as much a part of life as the air that one breathes. There is no attempt to explain music, nor is it often the topic of conversation. In Western culture the desire to explain the power of music is characteristic of intellectuals. For the masses, too, music is a frequent topic of conversation-the songs they enjoy and the lives of popular performers.Where does this desire to understand music in terms other than itself come from? Let me suggest that it is a by-product of self-conscious, rational thought, which we call science-the idea that everything can and should be explained. As our civilization develops and evolves, an increasing tension can be observed between disciplines that lend themselves to scientific inquiry (such as acoustics) and those, like music, that seem to constantly evade satisfactory explanation. Who among us today, aware of the recent advances in the study of cognitive processes, would attempt to account for the power of music? LeonardB. Meyer (1967) has written that, For two thousand years music theorists searched for a "natural"explanation of musical pitch systems and syntax. Their point of departurewas, as a rule, some sort of acoustical data-the lengths of vibrating strings, the overtone series, or some other natural property of sound. Using such data, an attempt was made to show that this or that system was natural-and hence, by extension, necessary and valid. Toward the beginning of the 20th century this search for a natural justification for music was abandoned. The development of
Computer Music Journal,Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1992, ? 1992 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

new tonal systems in the West, the study of the history of Western music, and research in comparative musicology made it clear that musical styles are not natural forms of communication, but are learned and conventional. Even if we conclude that music is a cultural phenomenon, perhaps a benign artifact of our powers of speech and hearing, we still cannot ignore the intimate relationship between music and modern science. It has been the subject of discourse by both scientists and musicians since 1636, when Mersenne wrote that "sounds can shed more light on philosophy than any other quality, which is why the science of music should not be neglected, even if all singing and playing were completely abolished and forbidden"(Cohen 1974). During the last 400 years the pendulum has swung between periods in which music was regarded as an "art"and those in which its kinship to scientific disciplines was touted. JacobOpper (1973) has written that "Rameau, in the tradition of Descartes, Huygens, and implicitly, Newton, [regarded] music and musical composition not as something arbitraryand dependent on mere personal choice, but as a physical phenomenon which can be known properly if it is treated as a mathematical and deductive science reduced to its basic axioms." In the 19th century, music and science were considered separate spheres. It is striking that the letters of Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt hardly mention the momentous scientific accomplishments of their time. Furthermore,an individual like Borodin, who was both an important chemist and a great composer, observed little connection between his two worlds. Although his mentor, the chemist Nikolai Zinin, once wrote, "Mr.Borodin, concern yourself a little less with songs. I am pin-





ning all my hopes on you to prepareyou as my successor, and you think of nothing but music; you cannot hunt two hares at the same time." Borodin's recent biographersstate that he "did not think about 'two hares' at all. In letters to friends and acquaintances he emphasized that his musical enthusiasm was only 'relaxation"' (Figurovskiiand Solov'ev 1988). In the 20th century, owing particularly to the acceptance of modern, experimental psychology, the validity of intuition and creativity were recognized by the scientific community because it was felt that they could ultimately be explained. R. K. Zaripov (1963) has observed that "not only in artistic creativity does intuition play such an important role-scientific discoveries, too, are unthinkable without intuition. Thus, a mathematician does not know in the beginning how to prove a new theorem, and he does not know whether he will be able to do so at all. Not always even after this is he in a position to explain how the idea for solving this problem came to him, how this idea was born and brought to maturity in his consciousness. [. ..] If creativity and intuition exist, then their rules indubitably exist also, and the task of science is to get to know them objectively." It has been observed that within the intellectual community, an unusually high proportion of scientists practice the musical arts. Since we can assume that music was the first discipline to come into their lives, is it then possible to conclude that music inspires the kind of rational thought necessary to productive scientific work? LazareSaminsky (1957) in his book Physics and Metaphysics of Music and Essays on the Philosophy of Mathematics, states that "the acoustical substratum of music lends it a kind of immanence and makes music a correlative of the universe in the same sense that mathematical norms are. In music too, there is an eerie residue of fictional reality or feasibility somehow related to norms of being: the same as in purely mathematical symbols and allusions-infinity, constants, curved dimensions, imaginary numbers." In both the Middle Ages and the 20th century, composers have celebrated music's link with the

logic of mathematics by introducing parametric systems of organization (primarilyin the pitch domain), which are largely unrelated to aural perception. In the Middle Ages these techniques were invariably hidden, existing below a surface that conformed to stylistic norms. In the 20th century, some composers used a technique that introduced a novel way of orderingpitches, but did so within the context of traditional musical forms. It is Pierre Boulez who is perhaps best remembered for casting aside any remnants of tradition and declaring his own music to be the expression of a new "rhetoric" more akin to the sciences than to the intuitive procedures of traditional art. In his Penser la musique aujourd'hui, Boulez (1963) wrote that "music is a science as much as an art." Stephen Travis Pope (1991) has discussed the renewed consideration of music as science within the context of developments in computer science in "Music Representation, Compositional Methodologies, and Computers." Perhaps it is a characteristic of the rapid changes that have taken place in the 20th century, a time when science assumed the place of religion in Western culture, that within a lifetime one could have witnessed, on both political and artistic fronts, the rise and fall of great experiments meant to "liberate"mankind from economic and musical systems that were seen to cripple society. Just as Marxist-Leninist thought led to forms of government meant to remedy the excesses supposedly caused by the exhaustion of capitalism, so Sch6nbergian-Boulezianpractice was touted as the alternative to an exhausted system called "tonality." These attempts to revolutionize, respectively, our economic and musical worlds had several other things in common besides their Germanic origin. The application or enactment of both ideologies required that their alternatives-and those who would support them-be publicly denounced and discredited, and a form of double-speak was employed in support of these "revolutionary"ideas. The apologists writing in Pravdaheld sway in support of a failing system in the same way that Herbert Eimert, Milton Babbitt, and Charles Wuorinen dominated the pages of Die Reihe and Perspectives


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of New Music for many years. What is so interesting is the suddenness with which these applications of science-some have said pseudo-science-to economics and music have been rejected and are now seen as merely interesting experiments that failed because they denied basic human realities: economic and cultural diversity in the political realm and the necessity for perceptual forms of organization and the power of intuitive processes in the world of

centuries of harmonic development have passed" (Cohen 1974). One need only peruse the theoretical writings of polemicists such as Iannis Xenakis (1971) or Allen Forte (1973) to understand how the misapplication of scientific methods of inquiry can result in opaque and ultimately meaningless music "theory." Significant applications of science to music in our time have occurred in three main areas:the invention of new tools for the production and remusic. It is my intention to explore the positive aspects production of music, the study of timbre, and the creation of new forms of musical instruments. of the interaction of practitioners of music and Most of this work would have been impossible science in more recent times, beginning with the more difficult side of this question, namely, what is without the use of high-speed, digital processors. it that musicians have contributed to science? H. F. More than a decade ago, F. RichardMoore (1980) Cohen (1974) concludes his important book on the suggested, "music and technology have become so of 1580 and 1650 science music between by stating interpenetrated [that] the futures of music are little that "artindeed influences science; that the nature different from the futures of technology, and that to of such influences cannot be found by drawing glimpse one, we must examine the other." Many of the important discoveries that led to practical apbroad analogies but only by searching for precise and detailed causation patterns; and, finally, that plications were conducted in laboratoriesfree of the pressure of commercial exploitation. Work done at developments in art may effect themselves over StanfordUniversity in the United States, CNRS long stretches of time, but many may just as well make themselves felt in the development of science and IRCAM in France, the Royal Institute of Techwith surprising immediacy." A specific example of nology in Sweden, and other such institutions, has this kind of influence was the work done by Max V. provided the basis on which giant companies like Mathews at the AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories Phillips, Siemens, Sony, and Yamaha have been able to mass market products that daily transform our during the 1960s and 1970s. Although inspired by musical culture. It is the scientist, free to experihis own love of music, Mathews also realized that musical communication served in many instances ment, and the private inventor turned entrepreneur who continue to make discoveries that have an as a less complicated model for the way human impact on the way music is made. The path is not beings process speech. While the results of his research ultimately produced tools of benefit to always an easy one, however, as nearly every invenit was music itself that these tor of new musical instruments who has sought to musicians, inspired of research into another discipline. bring his or her creations to market has ultimately productive years love of music than the been frustratedby corporategreed and stupidity. it is more their However, Such talented inventors such as Sydney Alonso, nature of musical phenomena that draws scientists into musical research."Forunlike all other sciences Donald Buchla, Robert Moog, and Thomas Oberthe science of music deals with a changing subject. heim have all had their progress thwarted-and Light rays, or moving bodies, if repeatedly subjected sometimes their own companies taken from to a given treatment, invariably display the same them-by businessmen and accountants for whom the development of musical culture was never a behavior. [.. .] But in the science of music this is not so. Owing to the unidirectional course of music consideration. The results of scientific research have brought history there is a difference in the way a musical about a fundamental change in the way music is interval was perceived by a 13th century musicologist and the way it is perceived now, after seven presented to listeners; most music now heard is




prerecordedon tape or disk and broadcast from a remote location. Within the first decade of the 21st century, another profound technological change will be complete-most music heard will be composed, played, and distributed by digital techniques. At this stage, this revolution is occurring more for economic than for aesthetic reasons. The synthesized and "sampled" sounds that imitate conventional instruments in many film scores and commercials are far cheaper to produce and record than are similar sounds played by traditional instrumentalists. Many digital keyboards are also far cheaper to buy-and apparentlymore attractive to young musicians-than are most conventional instruments. This is reflected in the fact that the sales of conventional instruments continue to decline. Currently, many of the synthesized imitations of conventional instruments are much less subtle and much less flexible than the original instruments themselves. Digital musical instruments will continue to improve, however, and to gain recognition as instruments "unto themselves" with subtlety and flexibility that far exceed (and need not imitate) conventional instruments. The dramatic appearanceof the musical instrument digital interface (MIDI),which, among other things, enables someone to play a saxophone and sound like a marimba, or play a marimba and sound like a clarinet, and so forth, has markedly altered the traditional concept of the performerin our culture. While advances in digital electronics account for many changes occurring in contemporary culture, in music these revolutionary developments were possible, in part, because of discoveries in the timbre domain. It seems remarkablethat only 30 years ago we had little understanding of what makes a sound interesting to the human ear. The pioneering work of Jean-ClaudeRisset, and later David L. Wessel (1978), as well as a growing number of psychologists and acousticians, led to ever more convincing techniques for music synthesis. David Cope (1991) and others have begun to produce serious studies that illuminate the constructs of musical style. The work of Johan Sundberg (1983) and his colleagues, who have extended perceptual studies from the micro to the macro level,

has further advanced the practice of the musical arts by explaining what it means to be a musical performer. It is in this arena, the way in which people make music, that I believe we will shortly see remarkable developments. It is rare that an essentially philosophical observation about musical performance leads to a radically new approach,but this has recently happened with the invention of the radio baton by Max V. Mathews at StanfordUniversity. Mathews (1991) observed that many individuals are capable of expressing musicality even though their musicianship, the physical techniques needed to execute musical tasks in a short span of time, may be limited. He also observed that most styles of Western music were not improvisatory, that the notes one played were fixed by the composer and were not subject to modification by performers. Thus, Mathews posited, why should the performer be burdened with years of study to acquire what he considered a meaningless task-playing the right note at the right time. Why couldn't this task be assigned to a computer, leaving the human performer free to concentrate on the parametersand variables over which he or she had meaningful control? How this instrument will be used by both amateur and professional musicians remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that the invention of the radio baton will provide amateurs with the ability to play complex musical works that would formerly have been too difficult for them. There is generally a greater degree of musical literacy today than in previous centuries. This occurredwith the rise of the middle class and the creation of more leisure time. During this century universal education has become established, even for the working class, and parents' aspirations for their children's education have often included study of a musical instrument. The sudden and explosive growth of the record industry at midcentury temporarily halted universal musical education as young people became passive consumers of music rather than active performers.New forms of musical instruments will reverse this trend, as can be seen by the enormous popularity of the electric guitar and keyboard synthesizer.


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Universal education has also, of late, come to include computer literacy. Even a decade ago it was fashionable in some circles to exhibit ignorance of computers. This is no longer the case, with young people becoming aware of how many opportunities are open to them if they are computer literate. These opportunities now include musical ones. What is still left to accomplish is the integration of musical and scientific education. There are increasingly more individuals who, like Jean-Claude Risset and John Chowning, practice both science and music at a professional level. There would be still more if the rigidity that characterizes our institutions of higher education were eliminated. This is truly the important task confronting scientists and musicians today who care to invest in future generations. Musical studies must take their place in our engineering schools and scientific laboratories. Engineering, computer science, acoustics, and cognitive psychology must be embraced by conservatories and schools of music. The ultimate triumph of the collaborative interchange between science and the musical arts will be, ironically, the invisibility of technology. The positive public reception of early motion pictures relied less on content than on the unprecedented technological feat of filmmaking. It did not take long for filmmakers to master the technology, and consequently the art form assumed the sophistication that we have come to expect today. Musically, we are in a transitional period in which the miracle of digital recording and computer music often seems more important than the musical product. It will not be long before the technology of production is of little interest to the listener.

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