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Man of Random Science: Music

Have you talked to your pets about the danger of raves?

Have you talked to your pets about the danger of raves?

Music and science, yo. That's my jam. Sure I have other hobbies like breathing and occasionally eating food, but the lion's share of each and every day is spent engaged with science, music, or some combination of the two. I particularly love it when they are combined and today I want to talk about a couple of my favorite intersections of music and scientific technology.

First we need to define some terms. Music is sound. A pattern of sounds to be more exact. Sounds are created when something causes air to move. Vocal chords wiggling as you exhale, a string vibrating after it's been struck, Skrillex pushing play on his Macbook, anything that starts the chain of events that ends with air moving.

Somewhat like waves in the water, each little bit of air doesn't move very much. It moves just enough to bang into another little bit of air and transfer the energy that caused it to move in the first place. In fact, you can think of sound as energy moving wavelike through the medium of the air.

In this way we can answer the old koan which asks "If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear, does it make a sound?" Yes, it does. The falling tree will displace all kinds of air and make all kinds of sound, regardless of who is or isn't there to listen. Unless you want to get all philosophical and argue whether a sound is truly a sound until it is heard. But I digress....

Probably the earliest way of making music was with our voices. Those wiggly bits of flesh in our throats are remarkably adept at making all kinds of sounds as air passes through them. Bobby McFerrin can illustrate this way better than I can.

Moving beyond the human body, people found it useful to find ways to amplify the movement of air caused by whatever method they chose. For example, the sound of a plucked string is amplified by the hollow body of the guitar. The sound or energy generated resonates with the help of the instrument, increasing the energy and amplifying the sound.

Somewhere along the way people realized that striking an object or blowing air across it or rubbing it with the hairs of another animal tied to a stick could be avoided altogether and the wonders of electronics could generate sound. Although, to be pedantic, we can't escape the movement of air since at a certain point we need to make the sound audible by jolting a small piece of material like a speaker drum to get the sound out in the air where it belongs.

And so the era of electronic music was born.

The first electronic instrument was made way back in 1876 by Elisha Gray when he discovered sound generation from a self-vibrating electromagnetic circuit. It was the first of many instruments such as the Teleharmonium and the Theremin.

SWAG circa 1920

SWAG circa 1920

The Theremin, first designed in 1920 by Leon Theremin, is still in use today. It is operated by the musician's proximity to two antennas. One controls the frequency and the other controls the volume. A full explanation of exactly how a Theremin works is beyond the scope of this post (buy me a drink and I'll tell you all about it) but it is awesome in that the musician is physically interacting with the energy (electricity) being generated and acting like a grounding plate in an electrical circuit to change the pitch and volume.

It wasn't until the 1950s that RCA created what became known as the synthesizer. Still, the variety of sounds created and the ability to mimic the sounds of real instruments was severely limited if not impossible, and in fact it took much more work before the synthesizer became what it is known today, with a keyboard and buttons to push to make it sound like a trumpet or piano or laser. The issue was that while the creation of a sound wave was a relatively simple matter, real instruments produce many overlapping sound waves and recreating those one at a time is a real technological feat. When you hear the word "timbre" being applied to music it typically is talking about the effect of the overlaps and timbre is why a note of A next to middle C (440htz) sounds so different when played on a piano versus a guitar versus it being sung by the human voice. The waves of energy are all different and they interact in many different ways to produce the sound.

As computers got more advanced and the size of computer components shrank though, the ability to synthesize sound became ever more complex and affordable. By the late sixties you could buy a small analog synth called the Stylophone which was operated by pressing a stylus against a metal plate shaped like a keyboard. I own a modern recreation of one and made sure to use of it on some recent recordings that I will eventually be forcing upon you. Follow the link above for an, uh, interesting video on the stylophone homepage.

Yup, the badgermin is a thing. A horrible, horrible thing.

Yup, the badgermin is a thing. A horrible, horrible thing.

And on to the present day where I was recently made aware of the existence of the coolest combination of technology and music I've ever heard. No, not the badgermin. I'm talking about the Drum Buddy.

You have a metal cylinder that sits on a turntable, enclosing a light bulb. There are holes in the metal cylinder so, as it revolves, light shines briefly out of the holes. Arranged around this are four light sensors that correspond to four electronic drum sounds. Change the speed of rotation and the frequency of the sounds and you have perhaps a needlessly complicated but incredibly cool instrument to make music with. 

If my description lost you, watch this instructional video. Or check out a performance by Portland band Toyboat Toyboat Toyboat. Wild!

Yet, all of this comes down to a pattern of energy moving through a medium. How that energy starts out can be accomplished in myriad ways. From wiggling bits of flesh to streaming bits of electrical impulse. That's why music and science is my jam.

Copyright 2017 by Aaron Berenbach and Don Riefler

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