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Measured Tones: The Interplay of Physics and Music (3rd Edition) – Ian Johnston June 27, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Ian Johnston, Measured Tones, music.
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(This is the sixth of what will be a series of commentaries about a series of seven or so books – it looks now like the total will be around ten – about the nature of music. The first five commentaries of this series were about the books Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain, Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr and Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker. This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

Ian Johnston’s book Measured Tones is another excellent discussion of music and physics, probing in even more depth into the physics aspects than my previous reading on this subject (see above). As I have indicated, my interest in these books is to learn about the physics of music as part of a larger quest to examine the combining physics and metaphysics, and if somehow music offers humans, or even other intelligences elsewhere in the universe, a spiritual door to the metaphysical, a bridge between the material and the mystical. I will discuss Measured Tones in the context of these issues.

Johnston, a physicist by profession, tells us he wants to “develop the physical concepts and musical applications together.” This leads to a sometimes bumpy organization, with detailed, step-by-step chapters on the physics concepts pertaining to music punctuated by “interludes” that go into details about specific musical instruments (and with a final “interlude” about the human voice). He does attempt to introduce instrument “interludes” as he describes the physics concepts applicable to them. Of course, much of this material is covered in my previous reading. But Johnston’s attention to detail brought me to some new ideas on the subject of my concern:

From Chapter 1: Why these and not others?

  • Johnston discusses the pentatonic scale, the closest to a universal scale evident across cultures. (In Appendix 7: “Pentatonic scales,” Johnston examines pentatonic scales in depth, bolstering the assertion that this is the closest there is to a universal scale by quoting pentatonic scale tunes from cultures all over the world, including the unique Japanese scale, E-F-A-B-C-E, which has no third in it, and is perceived instantly as Japanese by anyone with even a passing exposure to Japanese music.) He relates planetary orbits to the same ratios that are evident in musical scales, a compelling relationship between the astronomical and the musical. He goes into great detail on the ratios of string bisection needed to create scales, making the case that there is something universal in the physics of what we hear as consonance and dissonance, and in the physics of music scales.

From Chapter 2: Music and scientific method

  • He examines the harmonic series and the behavior of “stretched strings,” building more physics origins for the scales and harmonies we experience, and continuing to build a case for some universality of how we experience music. In my opinion at this point, the best way to think of this is that physics does bring us a basic musical framework, basic “notes” that comprise harmonies and scales. But that basic framework is then subject to cultural influences. So while the octave, and the perfect fifth, and maybe even the pentatonic scale may be universal, the choices made by humans (or other intelligences capable of music) can vary a great deal among cultures, based on familiarity and tradition.

From Interlude 1: Brass instruments

  • We run smack into the overtones series again, a phenomenon inherent in discernible notes of all kinds, as we look at tone production for brass instruments.

From Chapter 3: Harmonies of a mechanical universe

  • Johnston elaborates on concepts of “universal harmony,” expanding on “the law of stretched strings” and other ideas as he surveys the evolving scientific thinking about physics as those ideas relate to musical development.

From Chapter 4: Overtones of enlightenment

  • Johnston expands into a meticulous analysis of the overtone series to offer a physics explanation for what became the tradition of “Western harmony.” He draws on the work of Jean-Paul Rameau, a composer/theorist known for his musical theories underpinning conventional “Western harmony,” intertwining those ideas with a developing understanding of the physics related to those ideas.

From Chapter 5: Over the waves

  • Johnston details the concept of waves in physics and offers us the simple but profound idea that sound is nothing more or less than energy waves. Sound is energy. Music is ordered energy. This is a huge idea from Johnston’s book for my area of concern.  I have discussed this in [post on how we are energy] that we are energy fields. So with music, we are feeding energy waves into ourselves, directly into our brains via our ears, sound energy waves organized by us, derived from tones with a universal quality to them because of the numerical ratios evident in the harmonic series/string bisection/string stretching principles. This could be the concept that brings music and physics and metaphysics together.

From Interlude 5: Woodwind instruments

  • Archeological evidence “confirms that nearly every society, however isolated from the rest of humanity, has always started off playing flutes.” Could this be close to a universal instrument for any intelligent creature capable of producing a column of air?

From Chapter 7: Summer in Heidelberg

  • Here Johnston goes down to the micro level to detail how the ear discerns pitch. With this is a discussion of how much our ears are capable of distinguishing—pitch-wise, overtone-wise—and how that relates to the perception of consonance and dissonance. He concludes “we have found a truly basic exclamation, in terms of the properties of the ear, for why these intervals should be pleasing to listen to.” As mentioned earlier, some basics can be considered to be universal: 1) an octave or perfect fifth sounded together will be considered consonant, 2) a half-step (or less) sounded together will be considered dissonant. For other perceptions of consonance, culture and tradition factor in. Also, we are left to wonder if the human ear is a unique sound perception tool, or whether other intelligent creatures would hear sound the same way we do. That is an issue will not be able to address directly for the foreseeable future—until we meet and greet intelligent extra-terrestrial creatures! But we may be able to speculate that if there is a basic nature of sound, the biological evolution of intelligent creatures to sense that sound as music could well be the same or similar to our own.

From Interlude 6: Percussion instruments

  • Johnson touches on Gamelan music (from Java/Indonesia) and its odd, nonstandard scales sounded with percussion instruments. I will want to hear this music in its pure form to see how my Western-traditional (but open-minded) ears perceive it. That will be part of the future study of this issue.

From Interlude 8: The sublimest of instruments, the voice

  • Johnston mentions that from “the very earliest writings, we know that people have always sung, and that singing has always had religious associations.” So humans use their bodies, through the process of running air through their vocal cords, to generate tones/sound energy waves that can be absorbed by other humans—and by the humans themselves who are doing the singing. This is an inherent quality. Are we looking at a key argument for music as a bridge for humans between the physical and metaphysical, an aptitude wired in, perhaps even placed there by a greater power as a conduit of communication, placed there as part of a process we have yet to understand, or that may even be unknowable to us?


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