This blog has been fallow for a little while, but this isn’t a post about this blog – it’s about what it means to be fallow, or infrequent. More precisely, it’s about frequency. And amplitude. And timbre. Acoustics. Sound.
It’s occurred to me recently that much can be learned by viewing media ecologies through a lens of acoustic analysis, using its precepts. Communication media all have frequencies, amplitudes, and timbres (fundamentals of acoustic analysis), which we can observe and interpret. Some media are loud, some are quiet, some are shrill, some more ‘droney’ (note that I didn’t use the word “monotonous”, which is highly problematic), some have wide or narrow dynamic ranges, some exhibit a wide range of timbres, and some are timbrally homogenous.
Sound is conceived in the acoustic sciences in terms of vibrations detectable by the human ear. The patterns of these vibrations determine the forms of the sound we hear. Conventional acoustic science breaks sound down into a few basic units of analysis:
waveform: the form or shape of the vibration, which may be square, sine, saw, or some complex combination of these elemental patterns.
frequency: the number of occurences of a waveform within a fixed interval of time (inversely conceived as wavelength, or the length of time of each instance of a waveform), expressed in Hz (cycles per second).
amplitude: the magnitude of maximum variation within a single wave cycle, when squared, expressed as decibels.
These fundamental properties of sound roughly underlie more familiar tools of sound perception and differentiation: pitch (frequency), volume (amplitude), and timbre (waveform).
Media ecology is an approach to studying communications that emphasizes whole environments within which messages (information) are exchanged. The Media Ecology Association defines media ecology as “the study of the complex set of relationships or interrelationships among symbols, media and culture.” My living room contains a computer connected to the internet, a television, a radio, a land line, a mobile phone, and myself. This constitutes a relatively complex ecology of personal media, or an information environment, in which I interact with other individuals and machines via text, voice, sound and video.
Media environments normalize themsleves. I become accustomed to using different media in different ways, and come to expect certain media to present predictable forms of communication. I know that fixed telephones offer the tense dualism of whisper-in-my-ear informality and we’re-so-bogged-down-with-stuff-to-do IVR systems and touchtone menus. I know that I can blog or watch Homestar Runner endlessly. I know what sorts of bias to expect on CNN, GlobalTV, or the CBC in news coverage. Music audition demands completely different modes of attention. And so on. When a new medium is introduced, or a new way of organizing multiple media (such as a music phone) enters the stage, the environment is transformed, and along with this, information consumption and communication activities change. Such is the stuff of ecology.
Sound Found Not Found Sound
All the media within an ecology present forms that utilize frequencies, amplitudes, and timbres that are partly determined by the physics of each medium, but also partly by the background of culture and society.
There are two recent articles that bemoan the heightened use of dynamic compression techniques in contemporary popular music, flattening the dynamic range of music (making the volume level as homogenous as possible throughout a song), combined with apparent efforts to make music as loud as possible. Amplitude is being amplified, in the McLuhan (1989) sense of the word.
What these two authors say about compression is readily observable. And the effects are primarily moan-worthy. And in many areas of popular music, frequency has become amplified as well. The rise of heavier and faster forms of punk and metal music during the 1980s-2000s represents an increase in both amplitude and frequency (increased tempo of the music). Note that tempo, in musics dominated by repetitive percussion, has a special relationship with frequency. A prominent rhythm, when sped up significantly, begins to resemble in our perception a continuous note, just as a progressively detuned bass guitar string will eventually break apart into discernible rhythmic units. There is much to investigate on the topic of what happens to timbral diversity in a situation of overemphasized amplitude and frequency, though a cursory glance at these two genres (punk and metal) over the past twenty five years indicates that timbral variance has declined.
Cognate tendencies can be observed in television and radio over the past few decades. This is where the acoustics analogy starts to become really instructive. In the high definition, unparticipatory, “hot” (McLuhan 1964) medium of television, all unnecessary silences are now invaded, exploited for their potential to sell something (ideology or consumer items). Just watch any evening news program (though CBC Newsworld and PBS stations still respect pauses, silence, and quieter overall volume levels than their commercial counterparts). However, media everywhere tend to compress audio to within a very small dynamic range. The filling of silences increases the tempo or velocity of messages, as well. We see a similar process in news media as in popular music, then: increased frequency and amplitude, and I’ll propose a coincident decline in timbral variation (which in the news and other televisual media roughly corresponds to ideological diversity, which has sharply decreased over the past few decades).
In popular music, there’s a domino effect, partly inscribed into the tools of audition. Unless you set iTunes to correct the volume level of each song to be consistent, some recordings are much louder than others (like a television commercial being louder than the sitcom, apparently sort of a ‘best practice’ in the TV industry now). Once one commercial artist is louder than the rest, the others have to start shouting too just to be heard – much like political debates on commercial television. So Oasis (whose craptastic album Definitely Maybe is cited in Southall’s article as the watershed moment in pop music loudness) is really the Rush Limbaugh of pop music. Drab timbres and drab opinions, shouted rapidly on all channels.
Audiences Acting Out and Passing Out
On the other hand, some music is made to be listened to as background music, which Southall effectively derides:
One result of [overcompression] is that modern CDs have much more consistent volume levels than ever before. But when is it desirable for music to be at a consistent volume? When it’s not being actively listened to; i.e. when it’s intended as background music…Music isn’t meant to be at a consistent volume and flat frequency; it’s meant to be dynamic, to move, to fall and rise and to take you with it, physically and emotionally. Otherwise it literally is just background noise
Ambient music such as likes of Eno or Philip Glass (or even Sigur Ros – who aren’t ambient, but pop that requires a different listening behaviour) should be defended on the grounds that “active listening” to music is also socially constructed, and culture-specific. I could go even further with this critique using an ethnomusicological approach, arguing that active music listening isn’t the pinnacle of civilization.
Nevertheless, the flattening of dynamics and boosting of loudness invite passive consumption. The new loud music is “hot” and flat like television.
It’s possibly as dangerous as television in this regard, too. When we watch television or dance to music, we turn off our analytical, left-hemisphere mental faculties (McLuhan 1989), and sort of float in the ether of the emotive, the symbolic. It is precisely at this time when we are most vulnerable to suggestion. Being literate creatures, we are viable targets for propaganda (Ibid.). And when our critical, logical faculties are dormant after a long day, we are still susceptible to the structuring effects of lineally-sketched (but emotionally charged) ideological programmes embedded in news, and popular music.
I take up some of the literature explaining these processes in Snippet #2, coming soon. I will also flesh out some of the points raised about ideological narrowness in news media, pointing to sources that document that phenomenon in better detail than I can.
Until next time…