Friday, July 16, 2010

From Vox Humana to "Digital Drugs"

The vox humana stop on organs produces a vibrato-like effect by adding pipes tuned slightly off from the rest of the organ, creating audible beats.   Musicians tune to one another by listening to and eliminating such beats.  The characteristic throbbing and shimmer of Balinese gamelan music is due, in large part, to pairs of instruments being tuned far enough apart from each other to produce desired beating rates.  Much of the music of Alvin Lucier is based around creating audible beats between instruments, voices, and/or electronic oscillators.   Beating is an elementary technique in electronic sound production.

And now we learn that listening to beats — in the form of binaural beating, with sine waves slightly varying from one another in frequency sent to individual headset channels — is being promoted as a "digital drug" and, America being America, groups of bureaucrats, parents and educators have already been found to complain about this as a "gateway drug", with a young person's willingness to experiment with the psychophysics of sound being construed as a warning signal for further experimentation.

Now, it is undeniable that experimentation with sound is a form of exploring the boundaries of perception — right alongside Op Art and eating wasabi or capiscum —;  and it seems plausible that certain acoustical effects, like beats, can have identifiable psychological and, indeed, therapeutic effects*,  but associating such explorations with the consumption of controlled substances is plain BS:  musicians have always been investigating ways to optimize and extend the limits of sound production and perception, using the physical and psychophysical properties of the sounds themselves.  It involves no injection of chemicals and does not lead to physical dependency.  It is about being able to hear more rather than less, and use music to express more rather than less. 

I suppose that what this episode does say is that there continue to be agents out there who wish to instrumentalize the choice of sounds or music we hear for purposes that have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual sounds or music, but rather much more with distracting the public from attending to real issues and, perhaps, just to be able to demonstrate a capacity for exercising social control, in this case, over what we hear and how we hear it.


* One of my favorites such effects is that a certain frequency can render Carlsberg Elephant beer unpalatable while another frequency optimizes the taste!


Osbert Parsley said...

The organ stop that produces the beating effect you describe is actually usually called voix céleste. As a rule, the vox humana is a short-resonator reed stop. There are a few exceptions - in eighteenth-century Italy, the voce humana is an undulating principal stop - but for the most part the vox humana is a reed pipe

There's an interesting article in here somewhere about organ stop nomenclature and cosmology, and why certain sounds are perceived as "human" rather than "celestial". . .

Dave Seidel said...

Ooh, I guess that makes me a pusher. The first one is free, kids.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

I've used this effect too:

At the time, Ron Kuivila said it was a rarely used effect. It's kind of interesting hearing the sound shimmy between the speakers. I hope this catches on more generally!