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):

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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: 

The Importance of Movie Music (The Hobbit)

If you’ve ever watched a movie with a bunch of musicians, you know we pay attention to the music pretty closely. It’s what we’ve been trained to do and it’s a hard habit to break. Movie-music composition is a big industry and whether or not you’re sensitive to it, the music makes a huge difference in the emotional effect of the movie. You may not know why a certain moment in the movie makes you tear up, or feel on edge, or gives you a sense of victory, but I’m willing to bet that it’s more than the acting and cinematography. The music in the movie provides a sort of emotional backup; it tells us how to feel based our associations with different types of music.  Here are some examples from the newly-released movie, The Hobbit. While you’re watching/listening, try to imagine these scenes with no music at all, and how that would change them. Did you notice these things the first time you saw the movie?

In this clip we hear “danger” music starting with a low drone around 0:05. This is then followed by brass leaps of 3rds and 4ths and the low rumble of drums. At 0:26 higher strings come in with Gandalf’s accusing questions, signaling urgency and suspense.

This chase/fight segment uses instruments with high spectral centroids (“bright, nasal” sounds, like brass) to cut through sound of fighting. In addition, brass have a connections to military music. The “chase scene” music has quickly paced bass notes overlaid with full choral sound and brass, lending an “epic” quality to the nature of the fight; they’re not just running away, they’re fighting for their lives. The suspenseful, dissonant chords we hear serve to put the audience on edge.

In this, we hear sustained strings preceding an moment of conference between Gandalf and Galadriel. At about 0:20, high strings come in at a suspenseful unison, followed by a quiet oboe solo, an effect that creates intimacy and underscores the importance of what Galadriel is saying. Then, representing a recollection of Gandalf’s, the hobbit theme comes in at 1:06 as a plaintive solo; it sounds distant due to relative volume and echo. We usually hear this theme as played by a string section in the movie, so this setting is particularly telling. The instrument choice and ornamentation makes it sound rustic as well; Bilbo is a simpler man from a simpler place. At 1:39 the strings return, stronger, lower, and fuller-sounding this time perhaps highlighting Galadriel’s faith in Galdalf and her promise of aid.

There is a notable absence of music until Gandalf mentions the Tooks at 0:18. Then we hear the hobbit theme, that transitions from a low, full, quiet strings to brass (connotations of adventure?).

In this clip we hear the “dwarf song”( in full orchestra. This, in combination with the scenes shown could be representative of the epic quest of the dwarves and the duration of time. The full orchestration gives the sound depth and breadth, and allows the story to continue through beautiful cinematography without much action in the actual plot.

The Piano Guys

I am newly obsessed with the group “The Piano Guys,” ( and featuring their work in this blog is perfect because so much of what they do involves timbre. Using just a piano, cello, and sometimes vocals, they recreate popular songs and perform mash-ups of popular and classical works.  Though they restrict themselves in the number of instruments used, they overlay tracks and use the instruments in non-traditional ways to create a wide range of sounds. For example, some of the videos show extended techniques such as plucking the strings of the piano or using the body of the cello as a percussion instrument. In doing this, they create an array of sounds that when combined enables them  to imitate a huge variety of sounds.

Take, for example, their rendition of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” I find it to be far and away the most interesting version of this song. It’s just under 3 minutes long, so if you have time to listen to it twice, I suggest listening the first time without watching the video. See how many different sounds you can pick out. It will make your second listening (while watching how they created the work) that much cooler.

First, the obvious: IT’S ALL A PIANO! (With some vocals toward the end….) This turns the traditional idea of the timbre of a piano on its head.  Sure, I can tell it’s a piano if you strike a note for me, but if you pluck or slap (or bow?!?!) a string? Or strike the soundboard? Or thump the side? No way. It completely changes the meaning of “playing the piano.” This touches upon one of the current problems in defining “timbre,” because with all the extended techniques invented in contemporary playing, the timbre of an instrument now depends entirely on how it is being played.

But what I found really amazing about this is the way they imitated and expanded upon the original version of the song. For example, using delicate pizzicato piano at the beginning, they set a very intimate, personal tone for the muted “first verse” to enter upon. The original version does this to an extent as well, adding instruments/tracks until the refrain. Yet the dramatic contrast is greater in the piano version because, miraculously, they found more timbral nuances to work with than the “pop music” version, though they are merely using a piano.

Listening to the way “The Piano Guys” alternated between the subdued moments and the more extroverted ones got me thinking about how timbre is used to convey emotion and to build to a climax in a song.  It’s more than dynamics. I tried to pinpoint what exactly I was hearing in the more extroverted sections of version and decided that contributing timbral aspects included a more sustained sound, more harmonics, a greater range (both upper and lower), and more overall noise. I guess that these characteristics of musical high points can actually be applied to most songs, but here, as you can see on the graph, the dichotomy is HUGE. In retrospect it seems fairly obvious, but I usually don’t take the time to dissect the sounds I’m hearing in a piece of music; I mostly just follow the melody. I can tell you that the climax of a Mahler symphony is loud. But really, that doesn’t capture the half of it.  Volume alone doesn’t bring down the house.

piano guys graphic