You are a chord
October 12, 2010 2:13 PM   Subscribe

10 things you didn't know about sound. Among them: "You are a chord." A TED talk by Julian Treasure and responses by him to some of the opinions about his talk.
posted by nickyskye (38 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Everything I know about sound I learned from Mr. B Natural.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:22 PM on October 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

5.) Noise harms and even kills.

Not always.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:24 PM on October 12, 2010

MP3's don't make me tired, cranky or irritable.
posted by PuppyCat at 2:25 PM on October 12, 2010

I am pretty sure he is conflating data compression and amplitude level compression. I agree that the latter is exhausting, the former is at worst annoying in my experience, and at best unnoticeable. Also yeah duh everything that changes over time can be mathematically broken down into a series of sine functions of various phase / frequency / amplitudes. This is not a nifty thing about the world, it is a nifty thing about the mathematics of sine functions (which are a mathematical ideal that doesn't ever actually exist in reality, but are useful as a model for understanding reality).
posted by idiopath at 2:28 PM on October 12, 2010 [6 favorites]

Protip for Mr. Treasure. If you write something that sounds like woo? And people call you on it? Backing yourself up with quotes from an essay called "The Quantum Reality of Music" is not going to help those people take you seriously.
posted by escabeche at 2:33 PM on October 12, 2010 [8 favorites]

One definition of health may be that that chord is in complete harmony.

This guy is good at promoting his book, not so good at saying things that aren't bullcrap wankery.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:35 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94: "This guy is good at promoting his book, not so good at saying things that aren't bullcrap wankery"

Yeah, to spend that much time babbling about sound as if you understood the topic and then talk about amplitude and data compression in a way that makes clear you don't know they are two separate things is kind of embarrassing.
posted by idiopath at 2:39 PM on October 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'll say this, listening to highly compressed crappy mp3s by bad laptop DJs in clubs gives me a sterling headache, so he is on to something with that one.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:48 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

"You are a chord."

That's pretty silly. For one, the frequencies that make up a human being are for the most part inaudible. For three, they're each in constant flux, never keeping to a single pitch. For two, they're not harmonic, i.e. they don't vibrate against each other to combine into a single, complex waveform. For four, they're not true waveforms at all, but cyclical processes which could be depicted graphically as waveforms; just because something is repetitive and can be measured in Hz doesn't mean it's actually vibrating.

Might as well pick a trillion different frequencies of random cycles around the universe--everything from the number of days in the planet Zybulox's year to the number of times a particular Space Dinosaur takes a dump per week--and say they're a chord. Well, no. Even if these frequencies were audible (which they are not) as a single waveform (which they are not) made up of consistent frequencies (nope) measuring vibrations (nuh-uh) that'd most likely be noise.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:54 PM on October 12, 2010 [8 favorites]

I can too count. Shut up!
posted by Sys Rq at 2:55 PM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

He's actually talking about data compression, not amplitude (dynamic range) compression. Data compression is the subject of the article he links to in that section.
He then goes on to show that he has no scientific basis for the assertion at all when he says:
My assertion that listening to highly compressed music makes people tired and irritable is based on personal and anecdotal experience - again it's one that I hope will be tested by researchers.
posted by rocket88 at 2:56 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stickycarpet, he does go on to mention that later. When presenting to a lay audience and with so little time to speak, I can't really blame him for some hand-waving generalities. On the other hand, idiopath is correct that he did a poor job of differentiating between amplitude compression and data compression, which latter employs frequency masking - I can hear the latter in blind tests, but only at lower bitrates.

I've known (of) Temple for a few years, and don't know how I feel about him. It's great to have someone drawing attention to these issues in holistic fashion, since the popular imagination of noise pollution ranges from memories of being told to turn that racket down to irritable geeks muttering about allowable sound pressure levels (guilty). I'm a bit less enthused about his commercial activity; not the consulting on acoustics and Eno-esque soundscapes, but things like location-based transduction and the like which finds expression in things like adverts that whisper to get people's attention.

I occasionally think about setting up a Belcebron society, but past experience suggests that this will end in frustration.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:00 PM on October 12, 2010

11.) Timmothy Leary is dead.

12.) No. He's outside, looking in.

Seriously, this seems like he needed a topic and a 40 Kbps mp3 of "Ride My See-Saw" (Album Version) came up on his PC and, "Heyyyyyyyyy!"
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:03 PM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I wondered what he meant by "unhealthy" music, so I read his responses to see if he addressed that point.

But if health is equated with lack of stress, then it's hard to see how prolonged listening to music like rap and metal, with their prevailing emotional charge of anger and aggression respectively, can have a positive impact.

Hmmm. Both of those genres have the power to make me pretty happy, though, and can certainly be infused with love, warmth and humor. Rap tends to be emotional, but it isn't always angry, and at its core tends to value loyalty, family, trust and respect. Metal is fast, but those who play it well and understand it value musicianship, and there's something playful about the genre's sense of grandiosity - metal embraces the ridiculous and excessive which is fun.

I like music that engages me, that inspires me, that takes me through a range of emotions, not just "loveprettyhappy." I like to be challenged and intrigued, not just soothed. Sometimes it's cathartic to listen to music that expresses pain, anger, sadness or loss. It's can be like an exorcism, or at the very least let a person know that they aren't the only person who has ever felt this way. In fact, aggression and anger are emotions that, at their most raw and pure, are connected to love.

From a purely physical standpoint, I can understand why one might advocate the avoidance of certain types of music, but it's easy enough to listen to anything safely. But to say that certain types of music are unhealthy because they aren't made with "love" is trying to quantify something highly subjective and to attach a definite value to something that isn't really knowable.
posted by louche mustachio at 3:17 PM on October 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

5.) Noise harms and even kills.

I bet he abhors Metal Machine Music.
posted by elmono at 3:22 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, that article was awful.

To add to what you're saying, louche mustachio--even if it was true that you could characterize rap and metal as "angry," he's assuming that listening to "angry" music makes the listener feel angry as well.

He also assumes that the transitory stressed caused by angry entertainment--giving him for the moment that it's angry and it does cause stress--has the same negative health effects as stress caused by other factors. But this is questionable as well, because a large contributor to stress is a lack of control. Being angry at a character in a movie isn't the same as being angry at your boss, because you can turn off the movie.

So, he assumes that rap and metal are angry, he assumes that that will make the listener angry as well, then he assumes that that anger and stress leads to health problems are equivalent. It just fails on many different levels.

I wonder if he would extend this reasoning to entertainment that has more prestige--such as critically acclaimed sad movies, or Russian novels. Are those also unealthy, or is it just rap and metal?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:32 PM on October 12, 2010

You know, I got caught up in the whole "data compression" issue and for awhile insisted on ripping all my CDs using only lossless codecs or at the very least at 320 kbps.

Then I got some nice Sennheiser headphones and a a headphone amp and did some blind tests of lossless vs. 320kbps vs. VBR High Quality vs. 192kbps vs. 128kbps. I only a very few instances could I ever tell that I was listening to the lowest quality file, and I could never distinguish between any of the other compressions.

Conclusion: audio data does matter on some level, but there's no need to wax fanatical about it. And certainly nobody actually needs to buy fresh vinyl of the favorite albums and rip it at 192khz into FLAC. That's just wankery.

That being said, dynamic range compression is a problem, most notable when listening to pop music on a pop music radio station (that's at least TWO levels of compression, good grief!).

Some of his points are a bit suspect, especially the bit about men and women listening in different ways...yeesh are we still rehashing the Men=Mars, Women=Venus crap?

But! I really liked that he encouraged the audience to get into sound design. I'm a musician but I've never tried my hand at sound design and I must say that I'm really intrigued now. It seems like an avenue of creative pursuit that cold open up a lot of new ideas for me.
posted by jnrussell at 3:47 PM on October 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Data compression artifacts are audible. I notice it most often on live performance recordings, and even then only during audience applause. Applause is very broad-spectrum noise and hard to compress, so the "missing information" results in perceptible effects in the sound. Cymbals and, to a lesser extent, percussion impulses are also broad spectrum, so they tend to produce audible artifacts as well, but much less noticeable.
The idea that they can cause the listener to become tired and irritable is pure unscientific hogwash.
posted by rocket88 at 4:17 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Minor derail: the point of lossless backups is future-proofing, not maintaining transparency. And there's no reason at all to buy a vinyl edition because CDs are a superior distribution format, provided that the CD mastering was properly made.
posted by Bangaioh at 4:18 PM on October 12, 2010

Oh I totally agree with Bangaioh about the future-proofing idea, and I still archive my CDs at lossless...but I don't necessarily recommend it to friends who happen to be far less obsessed with music than I.

And to rocket88's point, it's true, the only time I could tell that I was listening to the low quality bitrate stuff was in some live jazz music, which had both clapping and cymbals.
posted by jnrussell at 4:30 PM on October 12, 2010

Yikes. TED has really been going downhill in the last 18 months/ 2 years. From what used to be a series of interesting talks by legitimate experts in legitimate fields, it's gotten increasingly woo-woo or weird bourgeois preoccupations as they cast their net ever wider. They still throw up good talks, but now they throw up a lot of crap as well, which used to rarely be the case.
posted by smoke at 4:44 PM on October 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

I still archive my CDs at lossless...but I don't necessarily recommend it to friends who happen to be far less obsessed with music than I.

Fair enough, I wasn't implying that someone who chooses not to do lossless backups is doing it wrong or somesuch, just that there are legitimate reasons for doing so when storage space isn't a concern.

And yes, dynamic range compression is a far worse threat to sound quality than lossy data compression (with a good encoder and high enough bitrate); I've never been able to ABX lossy codec artifacts yet I managed to do it the first (and only) time I attempted to with a DR-compressed sample, and I certainly do not have golden ears.
posted by Bangaioh at 5:04 PM on October 12, 2010

fuck this guy.
1) everything is a chord by this definition. Everything comprised of 3 or more vibrations is a chord. useless.
2) that IS one definition of health. it's just utterly useless and kinda silly.
3) this is kind of interesting, but false equivocation and it completely ignores why and how we actually experience these spectrum.
4) this is pretty good. but most listeners take in music in a variety of ways, and learn more as they go. so this is ridiculously reductive.
5) fuck this guy. sounds like his 'listening position' needs tweaking
6) yes gramps, I'm afraid of all this noise, too. why won't those kids quiet down. (yeah, I'd like more public quiet too, but 'noise' is ill-defined)
7) i can't quite refute this, and certainly the higher fidelity the better, but all recorded media suffers from some level compression and/or reduction. A large portion (prolly the majority) of listeners can't really tell or feel the difference.
8) yeah. that's pretty solid and obvious. 'course, with all the terrible background noise, why not numb those poor ears a little?
9) ok.
10) while I agree with this basic premise, I wouldn't trust any prescription Julian Treasure might give me.

I've spent a lot of time (to the point where it's really one of my passions) studying and meditating on the effects of sound and music on people and especially modern people. I'm not an expert and certainly not a scientist. But i'm still going to say fuck this guy.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:00 PM on October 12, 2010

Yikes. TED has really been going downhill in the last 18 months/ 2 years.

I've become increasingly bothered by something about TED in general. Oh, I have quibbles with specific talks -- we effectively dealt with the fallacies in the Sam Harris one. When Julian Treasure talks about "WWB" (wind, water, birds), he blatantly commits the "We evolved to do this, therefore we should do this" fallacy. (He might be right that it's beneficial to listen to WWB, but the fact that we evolved to want to do this in our ancestral environment it isn't a sufficient explanation why we should seek it out in our modern environment.)

I've watched a bunch of TED talks and been very impressed by most of the ones I've seen. But my problem with TED is: it's too good. Too persuasive. Too polished. It has inordinate power to make you feel swept up and convinced by whatever the speaker is saying.

Everyone on TED uses that same ... TED-like style of presentation and cadence and bag of tricks. Instantly connect with the audience. Delight them your visual aids. "I have such an incredibly short time here that I hope you don't mind if I wow you with my 10 brilliant insights as rapidly as possible." End on a note that's soaring, uplifting, makes us dream of the limitless possibilities contained in this perfect little presentation.

It's all a bit too facile in how it makes us feel like we've just become smarter in the past 10 minutes. There's usually no section devoted to grappling with strong counterarguments. (There was something like this after Sam Harris's TED talk, where some guy came up and asked him questions about the talk, but I didn't find this very rigorous.)

I'd rather see a couple smart people having a more relaxed, off-the-cuff, long-winded discussion that may or may not reach a clear conclusion and leaves me wondering what the right answer is.
posted by John Cohen at 6:36 PM on October 12, 2010 [7 favorites]

OK, on the Blue we tend to quibble about what may be very important issues to us, and I have been enlightened by the above responses regarding compression and the age-old issue about angry music and its psychological effects.

But, his point about many many humans living with constant noise - especially traffic noise - is very important. I lived by a major cross street for two years and the noise of 24/7 trucks was not good for me. Consider what the residents of Mumbai, Delhi, Rio, Manhattan, and Lagos deal with every day. Is that healthy? There is air pollution, water pollution, light pollution (OK, not a big one!) and noise pollution, which I think should not be disregarded as a major cause of ill mental/physical health.
posted by kozad at 8:23 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

omg he did it: wind water birds. Hey, traffic is also stochastic. And it sounds like the ocean!
This talk was just a little too Schafferian.
Not that I disagree with the fact that noise pollution exists, but his language is so deep ecologist that I just can't stand it.
posted by ddaavviidd at 8:28 PM on October 12, 2010

kozad, I agree noise pollution is a serious problem. I plug my ears anytime I'm on the street and there's a loud siren going by, even if it makes me look silly. I even do this sometimes with flight attendants' announcements and beeping city busses.

But if we take the problem seriously, that's all the more reason we should scrutinize and criticize commentators on noise pollution. If we care about an issue, we should want the public discussion about it to be as well-supported and well-reasoned as possible.
posted by John Cohen at 8:41 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I got through that by convincing myself it was an episode of "Look Around You".

Schizophonia. Write that down.
posted by condour75 at 8:44 PM on October 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm kind of disappointed. If you read the responses on the TED site, Treasure says, "I have now posted on my blog a full discussion of issues raised around my talk in this forum and the YouTube one. The post has all the references I didn't have time to give, plus much more."

Which is, strictly speaking, untrue. It's just a bunch of pre-emptive rambling designed to give the impression of a "discussion" without addressing any of the actual questions.

Then he claims that R. Murray Schafer is an audiologist, for Christ's sake. That won't win you many points in these parts.

In fact, Schafer covers a lot of the same territory, plus he's an actual composer. Maybe he should be doing the TED talk?
posted by sneebler at 9:27 PM on October 12, 2010

1.) You are a chord. This is obvious from physics ...

What extraordinary and egregious bullshit.

Related to the frequency of a particle is the wavelength: "... given the enormous momentum of a person compared with the very tiny Planck constant, the wavelength of a person would be so small (on the order of 10−35 nanometer or smaller) as to be undetectable by any current measurement tools."(De Broglie Relations, Nice discussion) This is not physically meaningful; we never did the double-slit experiment watching a hapless lab-partner on a wheelie-chair diffract off a pair of doorways.

Or ... we can look at the human pulse, order 1 Hz. Which is not really related in an interesting way to peristaltic ripples of one's intestines, and may have a subtle relationship with neural oscillation, that is, rhythmic or repetitive neural activity in the central nervous system (via wiki), but to go from that to calling a person "a chord"?


2.) One definition of health may be that that chord is in complete harmony.

Another definition ties into something called the "Germ Theory of Disease."


5.) Noise harms and even kills.

Now, I wouldn't want to live with loud machinery next to my bed, and it's plausible that street noise leads to --> people feeling like crap --> stress/fatigue --> impaired immune system --> higher infection rates, heart disease, cancer, etc.

Hmm .. skimming ... "The European Union says: " yadda yadda

The World Health Organization says: "Traffic noise alone is harming the health of almost every third person in the WHO European Region. One in five Europeans is regularly exposed to sound levels at night that could significantly damage health."

Now, this is actually worthwhile and significant, and not something I've ever really thought about or encountered formally.

But, yes. Another vote for "Fuck this guy".
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:03 PM on October 12, 2010

Once again, I absolutely refuse to read any article that tells me in advance that it contains information I don't already know. This behaviour is so fucking rude and this gimmick has to die, and soon.
posted by Decani at 2:03 AM on October 13, 2010

Oh, it's a talk, not an article. No matter: same objection. Do NOT tell me what I do and do not know, you impertinent fellow.
posted by Decani at 2:05 AM on October 13, 2010

I'd rather see a couple smart people having a more relaxed, off-the-cuff, long-winded discussion that may or may not reach a clear conclusion and leaves me wondering what the right answer is.

TED is for people who think that Malcolm Gladwell writes non-fiction rather than entertainment.
posted by atrazine at 2:39 AM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: The double-slit experiment watching a hapless lab-partner on a wheelie-chair diffract off a pair of doorways.

Sebastuenbailard, thank you for the funniest image to have crossed my mind in a month.
posted by Goofyy at 5:19 AM on October 13, 2010

This is hilarious, to back up his claims about compression, he links to a seriously outdated article from 1991, where we read:

Assuming an hour's worth of music recorded over 48 tracks (not an uncommon situation), plus another hour's worth of 2-track space to which the 48 tracks are mixed, we find ourselves needing 127 billion bits, or nearly 16 gigabytes (16,000 megabytes) of hard-disk storage. Anyone who has priced large hard-disk drives can relate to the huge cost of such a capacity...

Another factor that could fuel the rush to incorporate data reduction into professional applications is the emergence of the MO (Magneto-Optical) disk, a technology destined to supplant traditional hard disks...

Not quite in sync with the reality in 2010!
posted by crazy_yeti at 6:17 AM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Fuck this guy" -no argument from me on this. He's full of shit.
posted by ob at 6:28 AM on October 13, 2010

I'd rather see a couple smart people having a more relaxed, off-the-cuff, long-winded discussion that may or may not reach a clear conclusion and leaves me wondering what the right answer is.

Allow me to introduce you to some of my favourite exchanges from bhtv.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 11:33 AM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Allow me to introduce you to some of my favourite exchanges from bhtv.

Thank you for introducing it to other people. It needs no introduction to me. I have listened to Bloggingheads every day for years. I only didn't link to it because my mom is frequently on the site.
posted by John Cohen at 11:37 AM on October 15, 2010

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