14 November 2010


This is the promised follow-up to yesterday's post

In his lecture, Treasure asserts that compressed audio makes listeners tired and irritable, and that cheap headphones pose a greater risk of damaging hearing because listeners are apt to simply turn the volume up in order to compensate for the lack of clarity. I listen to a lot of compressed audio, usually on the cheapest headphones I can get, and to me, the listening environment has a lot more to do with the volume I listen at than the sound quality does. The middle of the day is the worst time for me to listen because that's when there's the most background noise, both outside and inside; morning and evening are much more conducive.

Whereas it has been observed that some people damage their hearing by continually turning the volume up throughout a listening session as their ears adjust to the new level, I find that the opposite is also possible. If things are relatively quiet, I'm able turn down the volume as the session goes along. I try to proceed this way whenever possible; it's not just healthier, but begets more focused listening. It also means that the levels at which I listen to highly compressed audio, while they may be higher, are not so much higher that I'm putting myself at risk.

All of this aside, the bit about our brains trying to imagine the missing data in a compressed file is laughable. The human brain is not capable of "sampling" at the rates of even the lossiest audio; if it was, we would actually hear the holes in the sound. And even if this was possible, it might be unpleasant, or it might not. It might be heard as a disfigurement of a great work of art, or it might be heard as a new kind of art. The truly dangerous aspect of what Treasure is putting forward is the direct attribution of various psychological effects to particular sounds in utter disregard of social and cultural context. If what he's saying is true, it would seem to preclude the very possibility of art music, most of which makes occasional (if not copious) use of the types of sounds he labels as inherently harmful. He's the first coming of the anti-Cage, if you will, and hopefully the last.

In fairness, Treasure had to squeeze his talk into an exceedingly small time frame imposed by TED; deep in the comments, he refers to, "the rather stressful experience of cramming a TED talk into 7 minutes" as an explanation for a minor omission. In this article, presumably not written under those kind of constraints, he's more rational, granting that different listeners will find different things soothing and irritating. Even so, his advice to avoid listening to too much rap and death metal because they convey anger is codgerly at best. Some people listen to these musics when they're angry precisely as a way to let it all out and get it over with quicker, which would seem to fit with the kinds of things he's advocating; but that point aside, I think it is, again, presumptuous to conclude that music which conveys anger and that which is made out of anger are necessarily the same thing, or that all listeners will necessarily perceive a nexus in the same works, whether there is one or not. And as I opined yesterday, the construction of a system for evaluating the healthiness of music based on something as subjective as the emotion it supposedly conveys is an outright dangerous idea, and invites 1984-ish dystopian visions in anyone who claims fealty to musical modernism.

An interesting test case here would be Messiaen, who often used birdsong he transcribed himself in his music, and whose sacred music could never be labeled as having been written out of anything but love; yet even so, there is much harsh dissonance in his music, and while it is clearly more accessible than many composers of the era, it still might as well be Webern to many people. I wonder if "good intentions" truly transcend style for Mr. Treasure?

The invocation of the term "schizophonia" is also bothersome. The "dog barking at the speakers" doesn't know what a speaker is or why it emits sound; it doesn't have a lifetime of social conditioning to help it understand when it's time for barking and when it's time for aesthetic contemplation; and it doesn't inherit an immaculate, centuries-old tradition of art music from its canine ancestors. One would think that the dissociation of sound from its original source is something humans are well-enough equipped to deal with, most especially if context is considered. Of course hearing a gunshot fired from behind you is scary! To compare this with listening to an iPod on a bus is completely absurd. Schizophonia is a big scary word that resembles the name of a common and devastating mental illness, yet it seems to refer to an exceedingly transient, externally imposed condition rather than a chronic, internal one (and one which is, ironically, imposed on us several times over in the TED lecture, notably by the crack that suddenly appears in the "schizophonia" graphic itself ca. 2:40; apparently it wasn't enough of a deterrent to warrant sacrificing some visual accoutrements). Besides, according to schizophonia's hilarious entry at Urban Dictionary, there's nothing to worry about.

Finally, consider that Treasure is a businessman. He has a book out. He runs a consulting firm. Some of this is so ridiculous that it almost seems like a publicity stunt. If you Google him, you'll see that it's working, as well as (frighteningly) finding some sympathetic followers. I'd otherwise be inclined to ignore it, but let's face it, if I in my very occasional sampling of only the most esoteric of music blogs managed to stumble on one of his lectures, then he's getting over. (And here I am giving him more publicity.) In any case, if you want to talk about making sound harmful, about abusing its properties, using it to manipulating people's emotions, or sullying its natural beauty, I can't think of a more distasteful use of sound than for the ends of Treasure's firm. It's an interesting pose he's striking.

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