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.


Festival Noise Pollution

This post was long in the making – the seeds of it sown during the recent Ganesh Chaturthi  celebrations, and now culminating in the Durga Pooja celebrations. This note is for the organizers of such festivals. Having been on both sides of the fence, I expect this post to be a balanced view.

Indians love noise. 

Let me begin by Indianizing the context – we love noise during festivals. Bustling preparations that set the whole household abuzz a week before the festival contribute majorly to the excitement – and they’re all needed to take one away from the drone of daily routine. All this has been happening for thousands of years – and frankly, not just in India – festivities involve huge preparations all over the world – and are always accompanied by noise/music/gatherings/storytelling/rituals, etc.

Festivals are ages old. So is noise. Why this hue and cry about Noise Pollution now?

So why this brouhaha about noise pollution now? What’s changed is that loudspeakers now transmit sounds over long distances, and communities are more widely spread out than they used to be.  This means there’re always a mixture of people living around you – some who don’t share that festival with you, and some who do.

What can one or two days of noise do to you anyway?

We’re talking noise 24/7 on those days.  Eight hours of exposure to 85 dB of noise can be the beginnings of permanent ear damage. And noise at a loud dandiya hall,  or near some cultural programme can exceed 100 dB on an average. In general everyone faces irritation and annoyance, students face anxiety due to their inability to concentrate, and  some exam or the other is always looming near, the older folks face raised blood pressure, the infants are  repeatedly startled out of deep sleep, and disturbed sleep makes everyone cranky – infants and adults alike.

The Legal Angle

A little bit of consideration can save you from legal action. These days people don’t take things lying down, and there are android apps available for every passer by to measure the noise levels leaving your venue.  Along with GPS mapping to pinpoint location, it’s easy to gather proof and lodge a police complaint.

Any solutions here? 

I’ve mentioned enough about what noise pollution can do to your health, so here let me only speak of the solutions we can think of.  There are strict mandates by the courts of law about acceptable noise levels in urban areas being less than 55 dB uptil 10 p.m., and less than 45 dB after 10 p.m. Organizers of the events are bound by law to adhere to these norms.  Here are some things they should do  – these will ensure

  • that you enjoy your festival while not causing physiological distress to others who don’t share your festive mood
  • that you don’t get on the wrong side of the law.

To start with,

  1. Ensure that noise levels at the boundary of your event is less than 55 dB. This is easily possible these days, and it doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. Talk to an acoustical consultant. Solutions can be easier and cheaper than you think, and they may cost you less than a  twentieth of the average budget for such events.
  2. Tilt your speakers. Rock shows use line array speakers which are tilted at an angle – this ensures that the main beam of sound coming out of a speaker does not run parallel to the ground, but will surely hit the ground at some point, minimizing the direct energy leaving the area.  The reflected sound leaving the venue is easier to contain with barriers. Your sound engineer or acoustical consultant can help you with this.
  3. Cut out celebrations at 10 p.m .  Everyone needs their shut eye after a tiring day. Ask tired moms whose infants wake up 4 times an hour thanks to your mood. The solution is simply to celebrate during the day. If you can’t do that, please spend more from your budget on soundproofing. It’s not as expensive as you think, and a lot of features of the venue can be used to mitigate sound after a certain boundary.
  4. Avoid mounting horn loudspeakers on streetlamp poles for half a mile on each side. In other words, there’s no need to tell the whole town about your celebrations. Use posters/hoardings to publicize, if you have to. Keep all your loudspeakers within your venue.
  5. Use ear plugs yourself. Quite honestly, your ears aren’t made of sterner stuff  compared to those who get disturbed by noise at a distance.  Before you find out the wrong way, please do things to protect your hearing. You will be able to dance quite well to the music despite ear plugs in your ear – they only reduce the direct sound hitting your ear. Try it.

So is it really possible to contain noise in such venues? 

The simple answer is yes. Distance does a great deal to help attenuate, so if the venue is large, it is more easily possible to contain sound at the edges. I was once posed with a client’s requirement – they wanted me to think of some kind of enclosure that tests audio setups for live sound. So this enclosure is to have about 50 dB of sound on the outside, while the inside sound levels would be about 120 dB. The catch is, because this enclosure tests live sounds, it has to be completely modular – one should be able to dismantle, transport, and assemble it.  Now THAT’s a difficult project. Only heavy mass can block sound over short distances.

So, controlling noise levels from leaving a fixed area meant for large gatherings is decently possible.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 🙂

Sound- The Fourth Dimension

To understand what your pair of ears really mean in your life, just walk around half an hour with your ears closed. Experience how distant it makes you feel from the environment around you. The soundscape is such an integral part of the cognitive memory of a place in time, that without it, things just don’t feel normal anymore.

I don’t know if there is an evolutionary reason as to why our ears are much more sensitive than our eyes – our eyes see only one octave of the spectrum of light, but our ears can hear 10! We’re talking about 10-12 zeroes after a number – loudness levels of the the tiniest flutter of a leaf, to that of the roaring engines of a jet plane.

What does that mean to you? It means cognition, connectedness with your planet. This is directly about how much of the universe you are able to percieve. 

There is something about feeling connected and alert, that keeps many harms at bay. Disconnectedness leads to depression and poor performance, while feeling connected and alert also makes you  feel calm, vibrant, and alive!

In this day and age, our ears are subject to much more noise than there ever was. Imagine how quiet and natural sounding the pre-industrialization days must’ve been. Let’s not go so far back in time – in India, the pre-liberalization days were also reasonably quiet, except near the railway lines. In the last 10 years alone, so many more cars, bikes, trucks and autos have hit the road, that our current soundscape is “noisy” most of the time. We don’t realize how much, because our brains are using up precious energy to overcome that noise and pretend it doesn;t exist, so that they can concentrate on other things that need our cognitive attention. This means that we’re not conscious of the environment anymore. We’re insulating our attention to an inner space where other thoughts exist. This tends to move us towards a mechanical state of mind, which means that in the absence of some motivational excitement, we reach a state where deep down we’re really happy to just move away from that source of sound. Needless to say, this disconnected state of mind does not foster creativity and spontaneous ideas.

That doesn’t sound like a very critical problem, really. 

There is a bigger danger than being generally disoriented and unproductive. Noise Induced Hearing Loss is so commonplace now, that protecting your hearing is not optional anymore. NIHD needs a separate post, so in this post we’ll talk about what you can do to keep your hearing happy.

What Can I Do?

There are things we can do to make things easy for our brains, and to protect that delicate, and highly intricate mechanism of hearing.

– Move away from sources of noise as much as you can. Thoughts will flow more freely in quieter spaces.
– Buy a pair of earplugs – they help to reduce the overall impact on your system.
-Keep your earphones/headphones on in noisy environments.
– Don’t listen to really loud music, for long hours., else by the time some of you reach marriagable age, you will not be able to hear the sweet nothings your spouse whispers into your ears .This is more likely to happen than you think.
-Listen to natural sounds as much as you can – chirps, tweets, waterfalls, waves. These sounds have elevated and energized our hearts and minds for thousands of years now. They sometimes bring back that lost connectedness with our environment.
– Listen to music that has genuine talent. Listen to it more often than you plan/manage to. Make time for this. Nothing like it to charge you up.
– Listen to music at volumes that existed before amplification happened. If someone was to sing in front of you, with no mic, how would it sound?
-Listen to yourself. Spend time listening to the sound of your breathing. At the end of a day of battering your hearing with sound and noise (from traffic, television, podcasts), listening to gentle breathing is the best gift you can give yourself. This sharpens your hearing skills, soothes your frayed nerves, elevates your state of mind, relaxes and energizes you.

Anytime you’re feeling disconnected, move to a pleasant soundscape and stay still for sometime. It will give you back those dimensions one by one.