The frequency of a middle C on a properly tuned piano vibrates at 261.63 Hz. Consequently, the wavelength of that note is 131.87 cm at room temperature. If you double the frequency, then you go up exactly one octave. We tune instruments using a frequency of 440 Hz, aka concert A, aka the A above middle C, within half a hertz as dictated by ISO 1975:16. These are a few of the things about music that are constant regardless of the observer’s state or sound generator. I’m going to focus on the aspects of music that are constantly shifting because they’re relative to the listener. This is the more fun and interesting aspect of music for me. I’m not a composer. I’m not a neuroscientist. I’m not a professional critic. I’m not a music historian teaching at your local university. I don’t have the background to explain how the brain actually processes music nor can I explain the finer points of 18th century French classical music. Then why bother reading this? My hope is that this compilation of observations about the relativity of music, as approached from the perspective of the average music enthusiast, is easily accessible, interesting and more importantly enjoyable. This is going to be a series of posts spread out over a long period of time. The plan is to write one when I’m unable to do a review for a given week.
Music Source Relativity
Before we get into the relativity with respect to the listener, I want to address music source relativity. Basically, how the generator of the music and the surrounding environments change it, and the resulting impact on the listener. I’m going to skip over live music completely for this part because I’m trying to stay around my 1250 word limit. For now, let’s focus on a recorded music such as digital music files like MP3 or FLAC. Assume that if you play the music twice in a row under the same conditions, you generate identical sound waves in the air. I really don’t to go any deeper than that with the physics of sound. Maybe a guest writer could explain the joy of acoustics to your average person. With this assumption out of the way of a repeatable music source (for science!), time for the good stuff. How you listen to music is just as important to the experience as what you are listening to. I’m going to illustrate why the how is so important through a series of hopefully straight forward examples.
Response Frequency Expectations
My brother’s favorite earbuds break and he needs to replace them. Money is kind of tight now so he can’t buy the same pair he had before unfortunately. He orders a new pair after extensive research and picking out the best possible pair he could find off of Amazon based on his budget. Two days later, he opens the package and puts them on. He puts on his favorite track that he’s listened to thousands of times and the look of utter disappointment appears on his face. It’s the same song he’s listened to since 1997. It’s the same MP3 player he’s been using for the past two years. The experience of the music changed significantly though. What happened? The most likely culprit is the bass response of the earbuds didn’t match his expectations. My brother loves bass. More specifically he loves earbuds with a lot of bass. However, the buds were all about that treble; no bass. Is the lack of bass really the problem though? I don’t think so. Expectations played the biggest factor. Expectations can be even more important than the frequency response itself when it comes to enjoying music. Let’s take the same song and throw it on a small Bluetooth speaker. Small speakers are incapable of generating low frequencies. Even with complex fancy designs, there are still going to be limitations. My brother knows this so he happily listens to his song on the small speaker despite the lack of bass. His expectations of how he was listening to the music had a direct effect on the enjoyment of his experience. This why also so many miniature speaker reviews say the speaker is good or not good with the qualifier for a small speaker. Nobody expects them to sound like a home theater so we can keep enjoying our time using them despite their limitations.
Expectation Killer #1: Ear Fatigue
But when do expectations become less relevant or even irrelevant? I think when our ears become fatigued, expectations no longer matter. An older co-worker brought in his fancy new Bose table top system to an office party. He thought it was greatest thing since sliced bread. I felt like I was getting a pencil jammed into my ear. My co-worker experienced loss of sensitivity to higher frequencies as he aged. This is incredibly common. I don’t think you can avoid it. To make the music sound good to him, he turned the treble all the way up. Or at least I hope he did. I’d hate to think that is the default setting. Being in my early twenties at the time, I had awesome sensitivity at that range. And I wasn’t the only one. It looked like most of the people around my age were in physical pain at that party. Regardless of my expectations of how I thought those Bose should sound, fatigued ears trumped them. It’s not just high treble that can cause fatigue either. I’ve had subwoofers cause physical pain as well. A dual 8” Sony subwoofer I owned for a short amount of time before I took it back gave me headaches after listening for even brief periods. That particular subwoofer generated some seriously powerful low frequencies. It was an engineering marvel. I could very clearly feel the sound even though I was unable to hear it if I played a subwoofer test file. You would think that would be awesome but it wasn’t. Not with a continually growing headache anyways. So regardless of my expectations of what a subwoofer should sound like and how well it met them, it went back from whence it came.
Expectation Killer #2: External Interference
The other time I think when expectations are no longer relevant to your music experience is when the external interference overpowers the music to the point where you cannot clearly hear it. I have two examples that I think illustrate this. The first happens when I listen to music in the car. Specifically, when I listen to music with a wide dynamic range, which means there are both extremely quiet and loud parts in a song. Wide dynamic range is becoming a rarity in today’s popular music. If you really want to see what I’m talking about, go listen to some Beethoven. It’ll knock your socks off. I understand there is going to be significant background noise while driving on the highway. I have an expectation that the noise will make the quiet parts difficult to hear. Despite my realistic expectations, listening to that kind of music in my car is frustrating. I tend to avoid it at all costs to limit my frustration. And those in the music industry know this. They know you want music that sounds good in the car which is a primary listening environment so they purposely make music with limited dynamic range. I could go off on a tangent about the wall of sound, but I will save that for another post. The next example comes from my experience with trying to listen to music using headphones while doing yard work and housework. When your music has a loud noise source to compete with such as a lawnmower or vacuum, you’re usually setting yourself up for failure. There are two common outcomes: you’re either going to barely be able to hear the music and thus be frustrated with the experience or you’re going to turn the music up to a point where you can completely drown out the competing noise. Making the music louder is a very natural response given how frustrating it is to not hear it clearly but you are putting yourself at a very real risk for hearing damage.
Alright. I’m going to stop here. I’m barely scratching the surface of what I want to talk about, but I have to start somewhere. Much like the idea of listening to an album on repeat for a week and writing a review has been an experiment, so is this attempt at writing short essays on the relativity of music. I’m hoping this will get more entertaining as I continue these kinds of posts. And I’m always open to suggestions and feedback so I can improve my writing. If something really didn’t work for you, let me know.