In my previous post, I spoke about the thought experiment (maybe more accurately called a “feeling” experiment) of what it might be like to be a star. This reminded me of a thought I had a while back about harmony and intelligence.
Here is how it unfolded:
“Monophony” is a term used to describe music that is a melody only, without accompaniment. Sometimes, so-called “Eastern” music is classified in this way because it generally has a very linear structure, focusing heavily on a single melody. Often this kind of music includes highly sophisticated forms of melodic ornamentation and rhythmic structures. This kind of music is very often vocal and highly poetic, or if played on an instrument, it references a vocal style quite heavily. Arabic and Indian music are often cited as strong examples of this.
“Polyphony” refers to music where a melody is accompanied by a harmonic instrument or orchestra, and specifically to music where each note or phrase of a melody is given a chordal context. Most Western music is classifiable as polyphonic in some way or another.
A sub-category of polyphony is “counterpoint”, where more than 1 melody is performed at the same time. The melodies are composed in such a way that they constantly complement each other in a harmonically pleasing way. The classic example of this in the Western world might be fugues of JS Bach, or the choral construction of something like Beethoven’s vocal quartet from the 9th Symphony. Dixieland would be another notable example – simultaneous melodic improvisation.
Most people are able to listen to 2 part counterpoint, that is music with 2 independent voices, without any difficulty. With training, most are able to listen to, play, or appreciate 3 and 4 part harmony. It seems that beyond this, normal human listening becomes strained and the music stops being pleasing. In some ways this marks a transition from “music” to “noise”.
Consider now the idea of white noise. This is the sound that is heard between the stations on a radio, or on a TV channel that was snowy. Basically, white noise is a sound that contains every frequency within the range of human hearing in equal amounts. Pink noise and brown noise are interesting variants of this. The sounds of white, pink, and brown noise can actually be quite pleasing.
Could it be that adding layers of melody over and over would eventually produce a sort of white/pink/brown noise? That is, there would be so much audio information that eventually all frequencies would be represented equally?
Holding these ideas in mind, a very entertaining image emerged: if human intelligence can accommodate up to 4 parts of independent musical information, what would it be like to be an intelligence that could hear, make sense of, and enjoy 20 voices? 100? 1000? a million? billions? Not just hearing the pleasing result of the noise in totality, but the individual music within each voice. It would be like looking at a tree and in addition to seeing “TREE”, also seeing the individual character and beauty of every single leaf simultaneously…every cell in a flower simultaneously…every atom…every star.