Friday, November 2, 2007

Buzz & Hum

I was listening to an interview yesterday with a man named Toby Lester, a contributing editor at Atlantic Monthly, who mapped all of the ambient sounds in his world: the buzz of the fridge, the fan inside the computer, the dial tone of the phone, and so forth. He figured out the exact pitch of each sound, so that he could determine what chords were constantly playing in his background. He did this in different locations around his home and office, and discovered that while some of the chords created by these background hums and buzzes are pleasing major triads, others were minor, and some were augmented; basically, to the human ear, those chords are typically interpreted as "sad," and/or "distressing."

That's incredibly nerdy, and yet, really interesting, too, given how we humans respond to sounds around us. I imagine some sounds -- the cry of a baby, the howl of an animal, the crackle of fire, for instance -- create the same basic set of responses in each of us, because of the shared stuff that's written in our DNA. The desire to create, or at least listen to, music must also have its roots in our DNA, since humans do it so well. While there must be some slight variation in human interpretation of different chords in music, it's pretty safe to say that ultimately, some songs sound sad, others sound triumphant, and others are so incredibly dissonant we just want to turn them off; music is the stuff of emotions, and that's pretty universal stuff.

If I heard the interview correctly, other than Lester's mapping of the sounds in his world, it doesn't seem that there's been any formal scientific study in the area of what these "ambient chords" are doing to our moods. So, what if you're in factory with an ambient major chord playing in the background, and the thump-thump-thump of the machinery provides a nice rhythmic companion to that happy sound? Or, what if -- gasp -- you're stuck in an office with a background chord with an augmented fourth? Do these sounds, when "positive," contribute to productivity, or when "negative," do they exacerbate a hostile work environment? It seems totally plausible, doesn't it? Pause for a minute and take a listen to the sound your computer is making; your HVAC unit; your fridge, microwave, fluorescent lighting. Listen to them together. How does it sound?

{take a minute to listen!}

To give this a Trenton spin, it makes me wonder what sorts of ambient sounds (underneath the noise pollution!) are present in the different offices around the city. Off the bat, I'd reckon that there must be terrible background chords in the various offices around town, given the level of crankiness, and general unresponsiveness. There are two well-known city officials that I keep thinking about, with regard to their ambient noise. Is Mayor Palmer in an office with a buzzing light and a hissing heater and a whistle outside his window that's creating a mixed-message chord that's making him feel so exuberantly egotistical that he doesn't have to listen to anyone else, all the while prodding him to get the hell out of the city each night?

Also, I can't stop thinking about the ambient noise surrounding Captain Paul Messina. I've heard that the Captain wasn't always the way he is, that is, hmmm, newsworthy, that he's become more newsworthy over the years. Maybe a move to a new office or cubicle brought about a relaxing chord that made him sleepy. Maybe if Captain Messina is in a different place or on a different shift there are different appliances/equipment running that might produce chords that agitate and/or enrage him. I'm not saying that anguishing and/or relaxing chords are the reason why things are the way they are over at the police department, but it's something to think about, isn't it?

3 comments:

Irving Bertrand Clean said...

I like the Dmin7 chord. I think it's the saddest chord ever.

Spinal Tap said D minor is the saddest of all keys, and I can't argue with this, but if you add the seventh tone of the scale to the root chord, you get some real sadness there.

Dmin7. Saddest. Chord. Ever.

pbaman said...

Capt. Messina must have the sound of a cement mixer going through his head 24/7. Maybe some Tchaikovsky would calm him down. pbaman

crom said...

Interesting topic. I wish I could find some kind of study that has been done on this subject but I have found nothing. Have you looked into this at all? I would love to read more on this topic. Post a comment on my blog if you know of anything.