Visual Music: Part 1

When I think of “looking” at music, I usually picture notes on a piece of paper. But another fascinating way to experience music is through the actual representation of the sound waves. It’s been a while since I posted spectrogram analysis on here, so I thought I’d return to it a bit this week. I was fooling around with my Adobe Audition software recently, examining various “pop” songs, when I stumbled across a particularly cool-looking spectrogram of none other than Psy’s “Gangam Style.”

The actual patterns created by the electronic beats are pretty awesome, and that’s what initially drew me in. But as I kept looking and listening (and fooling around with functions that allow me to silence or single out frequency-ranges), I realized that the parts of the song where Psy is speaking look eerily similar to the sound patterns created by the electronic beats (just with more noise surrounding the outline of harmonics).

Spoken voice:

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Electronic beat (shown alone here, but underlies most of the song):

Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 3.58.02 PM

This can’t be purely accidental, but it also is not totally natural (as I discovered by muting certain ranges). The sound is definitely manipulated, but it still sounds like a speaking voice, and not Auto-Tune.  My hypothesis is that the general acoustic pattern of: o-ppa gang-nam seu-ta-il (오빠 강남스타일) was used to create the contour of the background electronic beat. Maybe this is far-out, but it seems possible! Pitch is more important to the Korean language than to English (though it is not a fully-tonal language like Mandarin Chinese). At the very least, it’s interesting to think about, and brings a new level to the meaning of well-set text.

I wish I could post a video of this, so you could watch the whole thing, but since I haven’t been able to figure that out, here are several snapshots of the most interesting places:

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And of course, the music video itself: 

Listening to Modern Music

I want to jump back into blogging with a post about the challenges of modern music. Something that often comes up when talking about this music and how to approach it is why we find it so difficult to listen to. Since I am trying to provide ways to make this type of music more accessible, I find this to be a very interesting question, and one that merits some rumination.

Change is a scary thing; it can be good or bad, expected or unexpected, but it always represents a sort of unknown. Some people deal with change better than others, and there is always some backlash when a big, universal change occurs. Change in music has often been received poorly, and the veneration of great composers frequently takes place posthumously. It takes the populace a while to adjust; as the next big thing rolls in, they are busy still lauding the works of late composers.

I believe timbre (in the sense of soundprint) has a great deal to do with the way we approach and handle change in music. Classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries comes out of a long tradition, but the connections to the past are generally more difficult to draw. This was, in large part, intentional. Modern composers were reacting to, and against, the music of their forbearers in favor of new and experimental methods of dealing with sound.

Out went the luxuriating melodic lines and rich harmonic progressions. Instead, audiences came to face bizarre and random sounds, electronic manipulations, recorded noise, all purporting to be this thing we call music. And not only did this epic change come to pass, but each composer treated it differently. Some more experimental than others. Some playing with recorded sounds, others with electronics. Some pushing boundaries in entirely different directions, like minimalism or chance or mathematical formulas.

I think it’s these discrepancies that make dealing with modern music (both tonal and atonal) difficult. There is not so much a unifying aspect as a unified canon they are against. So amidst all this musical confusion, timbre can provide a way to listen outside of melody and harmony and those more “traditional” aspects from which composers are running.  Yes modern music is different, yes it can be confusing, but we do have the tools to listen!