9/40 Infinite Harmony

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.

2 thoughts on “9/40 Infinite Harmony

  1. I think that could be annoying after a while, if that facility couldn’t be switched on and off… It makes me think of the species in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ who are ‘sentenced to telepathy’ for being too peaceful. :-)

    On a more serious note, as a somewhat musically educated (?) listener, I may wish to dissect music in order to appreciate and better understand its individual elements, but I think that experiencing the sum total of those elements in a way that transcends any analysis is what I’m looking for most of the time. At least, I’ve tended to find that the music which I enjoy most is that which I don’t find myself analyzing when listening to it. The more I take it apart, the less it’s hitting me on an overall emotional level.

  2. Hearing and analyzing are often different things I’d say. I think of it this way:
    I can HEAR a conversation in a language I don’t comprehend. I can’t accurately judge what’s being said but can guess at some of the emotional content by the rhythm and energy output. For an English conversation I can LISTEN to it and both understand its content and its emotional content. I don’t have to analyze anything in order to do this. For me, to analyze the conversation is to either interrupt it, suspend it for some period to reflect, or replay it over and over in order to penetrate it on other levels, like re-reading a sentence over and over.
    For some who ‘speak’ and understand music there is an ability to understand what is being communicated both emotionally or artfully and syntactically. Same as pulling a word out of a conversation because you know you heard it. I would speculate that the majority of people hearing music do not understand the language except in very basic terms. This is similar for me hearing lyrics sung in Portuguese. I really like the SOUND of it, but I have no idea what’s going on. When I go look up a translation of those lyrics in an effort to understand them better I don’t feel a loss of anything except maybe my expectation or assumption that something ‘exotic’ is going on. Often it is just the same lyrical ideas of most songs; not disappointing, but not amazingly alien and exceptional either.
    Conversationally, I don’t want to hear too many voices talking at me unless I can parse. It may indeed seem like noise but it’s still English and it’s still harmonic in the majority.

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