Friday 25 May 2012

Ramage on the Information in Music

I've been meaning (for years!) to write something about information in music but never got around to it. My colleague Magnus Ramage recently posted the following in his Present on Earth blog:

I attended my daughter Alice's school concert this afternoon - mostly recorders with a bit of singing by 6 and 7 year olds. Quite amazing how much music can be obtained from just a few notes - the Year 1's could only play two notes on the recorder, the Year 2's perhaps five notes. But from those notes they were able to do remarkably much.

So it's not an original topic but it got me thinking about the information content of music. The individual notes are the least part of it. First, there's the intervals - the shift from one note to another. One piece today was 'Indian', and this was signalled by the use of particular intervals we associate with Indian sounds. Second, we have the sequencing of those intervals together. Then there's the silence between the notes; and the rhythms; and the tempos...

But even these things are just really about the notes as written by the composer. The interpretation of the notes is something different, and varies from one occasion to another. There's the relationship between the different performers. Then there's the interpretation given to the music (especially if it's just music without words), which can come through the title of the piece, or the programme notes, or an introduction by the conductor, or by the way the audience experience the piece. And then there's the setting, and the nature of the audience, and even the dress of the performers.

All of these different components (and many others that I've not named) carry information. The significance of each one might vary from one occasion to another, but to me the joy of music is their combination together. You can never step in the same river twice, said Heraclitus. Likewise, you can never listen to the same piece of music twice - even if it's made up of two notes on the recorder. 

The Information in Music Magnus Ramage, 24 May 2012
And here is a comment from me (slightly edited from comment I put on Magnus's blog post). I've wondered about the difference between live and recorded music. All those aspects of 'context' that you identify make a difference, but also the fact that each time you listen to the same recording, so much of it is the same. It's not quite the same river, but pretty similar. I think that a new context always brings something extra to a performance, so you can get more out of listening to a new 'poor' performance of a piece of music than from listening again to the same 'good' performance you've heard many times before. On Saturday mornings when doing the housework... I often have Radio 3's 'building a library' on. It seems to have an assumption that there might somewhere exist the 'perfect' recording of a piece, and if you found it, that would be all you need. If they are suggesting that (and actually they're probably not, but it suits my story to suppose that they are!), I think that is completely wrong.

I've also wondered about the difference between analogue and digital recordings, and why sometimes analogue recordings are more enjoyable (or so I think). I wonder whether a merit of analogue over digital is that each time you play an analogue recording back (I'm thinking of records), there are more differences than when you play a digital recording (CD). A record will have different dust particles and the minor changes in rotation speed will be different. These are imperfections, of course, but maybe they create more of a sense of the performance being live simply because they make the music sound different each time you listen to it, even though it is the same recording that you listen to?

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