Thursday, 24 May 2012

The information in music

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.


  1. I remember hearing Jimmy Blades do a five minute piece written for him by Benjamin Britten on two kettle drums - it was basically two noted but it was mesmerising.

  2. More pieces of information include the layout of the performers (i wrote a piece once - 60ish minutes long, in seven movements (the number of movements indeed was significant to the philosophical basis of the work) and the performance had the seven performers sitting in a circle facing inwards, with the audience sitting in a circle around us), and also specifics of the instruments themselves - a trumpet is not just a trumpet, it could be a standard Bach strad Bb trumpet, it could be a schilke (slightly different design), it could be one of a variety of piccolo trumpets (higher pitched, but not necessarily always played higher), it could be a pocket trumpet (same length of tubing just coiled up in a more compact form), it could be silver or brass, it could be shiny and new looking, or like mine deliberately allowed to look distressed and tarnished, it could even have a sparkly red hammerite finish. And that's before I start mentioning the differences in mouthpieces!

    The crook of a bassoon (the short metal tube between the reed and the bassoon proper) - no two are the same, producing subtly and sometimes wildly different sounds, as I learned at college when my bassoon-playing best friend had me accompany her to spend half a day at the shop to help her buy a new one, listening closely to the sound from each one to choose the best.

  3. 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 a 'good' performance. 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. 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?