Thank You For The Music: A Deeper Look At Resonance

We’ve all gone through days when the facts suddenly become too much to handle. That important link between gathering facts and processing them seems to be some kind of bottleneck. That’s when I need to shut out the physical world. I invariably resort to music. It is my first weapon of choice for a mood change.

Why does music make us happy?

Now I’m trying to see if I’m just pleasing my auditory senses here, or if the relaxation happens because of some other factor. True, some good sounds that hold you in rapt attention can take your mind off the reality you just faced. So temporarily, your energies are devoted to something pleasant. Which means, there was something about the real world that made you tired, de-energized, and there’s something about some well harmonized sounds, that ease out your tiredness, and relax those constricted muscles. This could be natural – because music is by definition a collection of sounds that are harmonically related to each other, and even with distortion, can sound quite pleasant.

What about songs that can make you hit the roof with excitement?

That happens when there’s visible gaining of energy … somewhere some resource is being unleashed in your body and as you get absorbed in the rhythm, melody ( or whatever it is you look for in a song)… and as the intensity of the song picks up, you feel your energies returning full strength, and these keep increasing till the end of the song, leaving you on a high.
This intensity of the song, causes your own positive energies to come out and spread themselves on you. This visible gain of energy is worth looking at. It probably doesn’t make sense to rationally analyse these energy transactions, because the very idea of a clinical analysis separates you from that source, but here’s a go at it. Let’s start with the clinical definition of resonance from wikipedia:

In physicsresonance is the tendency of a system to oscillate at a greater amplitude at some frequencies than at others. Frequencies at which the response amplitude is a relative maximum are known as the system’s resonant frequencies, or resonance frequencies. At these frequencies, even small periodic driving forces can produce large amplitude oscillations, because the system stores vibrational energy.

Naada Brahma – The Universe is Vibration

The first idea I’d like to talk about is the Sanskrit phrase – Naada Brahma -which means, the universe is vibration. So you, me, the laptop, the dog, the bridge, the building, are all vibrating bodies. Now we know that this is true at least of structures – structural engineers calculate resonant frequencies carefully. Not doing so results in disasters such as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge – where side winds set up vibrations approaching the resonant frequency of the bridge – and this turned into a self-feeding mechanism that resulted in the bridge swinging wildly with larger and larger amplitude, till it broke at the center. Here’s a video:

Now if seemingly rigid structures can have resonating frequencies, why not the rest of the world? The songs we listen to are all a combination of instrument vibrations, so the song must have its resonant frequency? What about us? Are we resonant ? On at least some tangible level, yes. Some people we ” resonate” best with, are our close friends. We’re on the same “frequency” with them.  Others cancel out our fond beliefs, so we tend to stay away from the likes.  And so, there are songs we like,and songs we don’t. There are people we like, and people we don’t.  “It’s a vibe thing” …

Least Resistance

At this resonant frequency, the two bodies in question have the least amount of resistance between them. And so there is a maximum transfer of energy – no energy is lost in any kind of impedance/resistance.

Manodharma – Expressing the Inner Energy

Now the other idea about why we suddenly gain energy from some kinds of music.

The song is a collaborative effort of a few people who got together and established contact with their inner energies and instincts and expressed whatever they felt then. It could’ve been their rational minds exploring a technique or a scale, or it could’ve been their feelings taking them up and down the scale. Either way, their rational mind or their emotions, contact with something inside has to be established before their skill can express it. Their skill can only express it. The word for this “something inside” is Manodharma . Carnatic musicians use this word to describe an artist’s ability to express themselves completely – this part of the concert is a mix of skill, intuition, feelings, rational intellect. Wikipedia says ” Manodharma plays such a significant role that a capable artiste may never render a raga the same way twice.” There’s a fixed part of a carnatic concert dedicated to this, while the rest of the concert rendering follows rigid rules of structure.

So when I listen to bands that take off on lovely riffs or ones like Shakti, where each person is spontaneously exploring their domain within the framework of the song, I feel that my reaching a high has as much to do with seeing this contact they’ve established with their inner selves, as with appreciating their skillfulness.

I don’t know yet, but on some level, my inner peace gets unleashed, the frown vanishes, the set jaw relaxes, the gaze softens. Some songs build up on intensity instead of just soothing their way till the end. Then I can actually feel my toes and fingers bubbling with energy towards the end. After these visible energy changes, I feel like I just shrugged off those silly inane worries.

When I listen to a classical piece, I can see the singer so much in contact with the feel of the raaga, and yet retaining judgement to express skill within its framework. In fact, our ancestors have classified raagas so accurately according to the feeling they induce, that one wonders how they gauged all this rationally – it really deserves a separate post. Maybe it wasn’t all rational.  Maybe it’s not just music. Maybe it’s directly rejuvenating to see anyone establish a moment’s connection. Music is more instantaneous to me because I posses some basic skill.

But I’d be wrong if I tried to limit all my happy moments to music. Resonance happens with us on many levels. 

It may be a piece of art, it may be a deed of kindness, or it may be a program that worked after you spent all your energy on it trying to make it work, or just something you cooked that turned out well. If we only took time to take a step backwards for just a second, and savour that moment – the very next moment, you’re already smiling.

Music, art, work, anything… they’re all reflective of human thinking, and of human transcendance, and are a direct expression of the vibrational energy that exists around us. Regardless of what moves you –  please take a moment off to step aside and shake hands with it.

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Acousticspeak : Things You Will Hear Acousticians Saying

Acousticians speak physics. They don’t speak convenience. :). But here’s a post outlining the basics of what you’ll hear them talk about.

Loudness
Yes, I know you know what loudness is. You may even know that we measure this in decibels. But what you should know is that the human ear perceives loudness logarithmically, not linearly. What does that mean to you? It means that we humans therefore use a logarithmic scale to measure loudness. And that means, that a 10 dB increase in noise levels means a doubling of the noise you hear. Similarly, to bring down noise to half of what you’re hearing, you need a 10 dB loss.

Frequency
This is roughly the ‘pitch’ of the sound you hear. Buses, bass guitars, bass drums, and all rumbles in general are ‘low’ pitches. Most vocals figure in the ‘mid’ frequency range. Shrill voices, instruments, female opera singers figure in the ‘high’ pitch range. Generally, if you have a piano before you, low pitch is to the left, and high pitch is to the right.

Why do you need to know this? When you get a room acoustically treated, you must know that high frequencies scatter more easily and predictably around a room. Low frequency sounds tend to bend around life-size objects such as chairs, sofas, etc, producing irregular shadow regions. Absorption helps kill most high frequencies, but it can’t keep the low frequencies from bouncing around the room. Trying to ‘absorb’ low frequencies would eat up most of the space you have – around 3 feet on all sides.

Reflection
Of course, this is about how sound bounces off walls. High frequencies bounce off walls and surfaces like light does. Low frequencies have a mind of their own. They bend around objects, ignore most wall treatment, and pretend that your single partitions don’t exist. These are what your neighbours will most often complain about. Quite simply, sound acts like a particle at high frequencies, and like a wave at low frequencies.

Absorption
This really needs a separate post, but we’ll stick to the definition for now. So absorption is the fine art of reducing sound energy in a room. Absorber materials are essentially porous in nature – sound goes where air goes, and then while passing through a maze of pores, being  in frictional contact with maximum surface area, sound energy gets dissipated into miniscule amounts of heat.

Diffusion
This is the process of scattering sound around a room. Egg crates work here, only for high frequencies, though. Nowadays, there are products available which absorb as well as diffuse.  Again, space constraints in most site conditions make it difficult to build diffusers for low frequencies. These constraints are sometimes marginally overcome by making the opposite wall surfaces non-parallel.

Reverberation
This is a measure of how long it takes for sound to die out in a room. Well, not exactly die out – reduce by a certain amount.

Isolation This may seem too elementary to define, but the number of times people confuse this with reverberation treatment makes this worth mentioning. Isolating is to prevent sound from leaving a certain space.  Materials that ‘absorb’ sound seldom ‘block’ it.

There are plenty of other terms – depth, clarity, speech intelligibility, etc. There are also terms describing what sound sounds like – warm, cold, bright, mellow, intimate, etc. These will be dealt with in another post.  For now,   the above terms should lessen some of the the geek (!) and latin in your conversations with your consultant. 🙂

Myth Busting : NRC, and its cosmic significance

Here, many unsuspectingly enter into a spot. There are acoustical tiles available, whose “NRC” ratings are x, and people blindly assume higher the rating, more the absorption.  That is only true to an extent.  NRC itself is an average of the absorption at 4 different frequencies, and  inevitably, the performance of the acoustical tile at low frequencies is poorer than the stated NRC value.  Further, lab reports show that the shape of the tile has significant effect on the NRC value. I am writing this as caution to the hordes of professionals in the audio industry who rely entirely on NRC values for judgement.

Lab reports sometimes show NRC of 1.3. This should baffle most people who go by accepted definition that NRC is roughly the percentage of the sound absorbed by a tile. So does it mean that a tile of NRC 1.3 absorbs 130 % of the sound incident on it? Where is the extra sound coming from?

If this isn’t enough ambiguity, the fact that lab tests are always more ideal than real life situations should be enough to make you think again. There’s flanging, there’s external noise, there’re differences in performance depending on the way the tiles are mounted, ..etc.

Acousticians have answers to all this, and beyond a point, their value lies in their sheer experience with products.  Add to this, many products are touted to be acoustical in nature, and very few have been clinically studied and experimented with.

With so many factors affecting the way a room sounds – the interiors, the decor, the upholstery  the positioning of speakers and listeners, the sound transmission properties of the surrounding walls, the noise from surroundings,  the mounting and installation of products, the very shape of the room, etc., it is vital to have some scientific basis as a starting point before giving in to the variables.

The lucky part is, a wide variation  in ambience is tolerated and enjoyed rather well by human ears.  Plus the variations in “perception” of music are profoundly influenced by many factors – physiological, cultural, environmental, etc. So regardless of accurate or faulty calculations, home theaters continue to sound acceptable to some, and unacceptable to others, always. Hallelujah!

Why Worry About Noise?

Honestly. Aren’t we all used to random amounts of noise? Don’t we collectively accept noise as a part of the urban soundscape? Don’t we count noise as one of the experiences in our daily lives? Why else would the phrase ‘sights, sounds and smells of the city’ be so commonplace? Are you acousticians expecting to make the whole world deathly quiet and get paid for it too? I mean, nobody ever died because something was too loud.

To start with, let’s differentiate between sound and noise.  Sound is an auditory sensation. Noise is too, but the difference is, Noise is always unwanted. It is never what you ‘wish’ to hear.  You may yearn to hear the  bustling, noisy bazaars of your hometown when you first move to colder countries and see all windows closed. The quietness gets to you. Some people even feel enlivened and enthused on their way to work, as they hear the whole city bustling about them, preparing for the day ahead. I am one of them.

But you don’t want to live in one of those bazaars. If your house was located there, you’d be shutting your doors and windows all the time to shut out the clamour and the chaos.  The keyword here is time. Noise never killed anyone instantly. Well, it did, but that’s rare.  What’s commonplace, is prolonged exposure. That can do you in. And you’ll never even know what caused it. You’d blame it on your genes, faulty lifestyle, etc. I’m not trying to take the blame away from those factors, but if you’ll excuse the irony, noise is a silent killer. And not many can pinpoint that.

If this sounds far fetched, the next few posts will  look at some common examples, and then more believable facts and figures. The next post looks at the “kinds of” noise that exist, that we sometimes don’t even notice, and that we could all really do without.

Soundscapes

Well, Hello World!

Soundscape is the difference between trying to hear bird tweets in a city, and bird tweets in the countryside. This is not to say that cities are generally noisy. The soundscape is also the difference between a quiet boardroom and a noisy village classroom.

To start with the crusty, brusque definition, acoustics is the science of sound. This is about how sound moves around you. Why would you care? If the spoken word is important to you, or if music leaves you feeling blissful, you might be interested to ensure that car horns and rumbling vehicles don’t drown the more subtle aspects of your music.

Conversely, if you can hear every footstep of your neighbour on your ceiling, or if you wish to god drum kits were never invented, you might be interested to contact an acoustical consultant.

While the bulk of us largely ignore the soundscape around us and concentrate on the work at hand, soundscapes are so much a part of our lives that it’s easier to make some small improvements to them than use will power or unknowingly suffer attention lapses and raised blood pressure.

Quite simply, sound affects our mood.

And this is the corner of the internet where you’ll find my accounts of soundscapes I have seen, and of things we can do to change the soundscapes around us for the better.