Music and the Art of Noise
"It's not just the sound we hear from music that is important. What we feel and what we do not hear MAY be more important to our brain"
In music, there is a concept known as flow. Musicians strive for that time when they get lost in their music, and time seems to almost stop for them. They are experiencing a flow state with their music, total concentration with seemingly no effort. In listening to music, we can experience something similar. But listening to music played back through an audio system can create a barrier to attaining this state. An audio system may introduce artificial or out-of-place noise that we experience along with the music. When this occurs, our attention is compromised, and getting lost in the music becomes very difficult and rare. Noise in an audio system is one of the factors that can separate us from the music.
Music is a highly delicate phenomenon. It results from minutely calculated changes in air pressure affecting our eardrums. We don't think of it in that way, but it's no different (just more considered) than hearing a door slammed shut. With music, the pressure changes could originate as a stick hitting the skin of a drum, a bow drawn across the string of a violin, or a PA loudspeaker at a live outdoor event. It's all just air moving in and around our ears while our brains decode the changes in air pressure and convert them into what we know as sound. It is our brain that gives it meaning.
Our brains also have a constantly evolving and highly developed pattern recognition mechanism to help inform us about various air pressure changes from music. From our early childhood, we develop constancy in perception that we associate with live music. A very complex perception picture constantly forms in our brain, of which only a portion involves what we hear. It probably starts with the sound of a parent singing us to sleep - live intimate music.
Contributing to the way we "hear music," the rest of our body also recognizes pressure changes generated by both the instruments themselves and those born from the environment around them. If you can think of our bodies as being similar to a big bag of water (which is what we are, after all), you can envision how we feel the music. What we feel from this pressure is also sent to the brain to be "cross-indexed" with what comes from our ears. Music playback from a poorly optimized audio system does not apply correctly organized pressure to body that corresponds with what our ears are "hearing." Our highly developed pattern recognition mechanism can be left wanting when this deficiency occurs. This might help us understand why poorly set up large-scale loudspeakers booming away in the room can sound big but feel small compared to a small but properly optimized stand-mount speaker, which can sound full and feel satisfying.
Is your brain's pattern recognition mechanism satisfied by your audio system?
When multiple instruments or voices are involved in a structured event such as music, it's difficult to imagine how complex the pressure changes become. The task of a home audio system is not just the accurate transduction of the information represented in an electrical signal. It also has to reproduce the spaces or gaps in that signal. In those silences, you find the timing, rhythm, and emotion that define the complex structure of the pressure changes we hear and feel.
Within the structure of music, humanity lives in the shades of silence.