The Sound of Music

Does how music sounds matter, as long as the sounds move you?



It’s nothing short of miraculous! Thanks to some pretty smart people and their very nifty technological creations, I can listen to just about any piece of music I want, whenever I want and wherever I want. If I’m having a flashback to basement jams at my neighbour’s house during my teens, I can make Captain Beyond’s “I Can’t Feel Nothing” or King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part II” blare wirelessly from a speaker across the room. I can wonder aloud what Steve Vai’s been up to for the last decade, and then tell myself to wonder no more. A few clicks and I’m melting on discovering the surreal “Tender Surrender”. Want to relive that live bass solo from Alain Caron… do it. After the radio teased me with “Smoked Meat” from Dawn Tyler-Watson’s new album… bam! Thanks to Spotify, I’m streaming the whole album moments later. It’s never been easier for music lovers to wrap themselves in whichever musical blanket makes them feel good.

I know, I know. There was plenty to be said for unwrapping a new LP, cassette or CD, dropping the needle and settling in for a ride. It was hard work letting that go, as I lamented in my post A Minor Thing. Ultimately, it’s about the music. Does it move you? Whenever you can answer yes, it’s a wonderful feeling and, I think, a noteworthy accomplishment from the artist’s perspective. Last night, I dove head first (with the heart following closely) into the pages of Neil Peart’s book Far and Wide (I’m already having a tough time tearing myself away – as was the case with his previous prose). In it he shares a quote from big-band leader and clarinetist Artie Shaw that I found both funny and reflective of my preferences: “I could never understand why they had to dance to my music. I made it good enough to listen to.”

What makes it good enough to listen to for you? Whatever it is involves a mix of things. One of those things may be sound quality. Arguments can be made as to whether advances in sound quality have always been to benefit of the music. As I write this, a forty year old live version of Cream’s “Crossroads” is playing in the background. It sounds just fine to me! That said, I’m not an audiophile. I just like a decently mixed recording and some means to hear it at a pleasurable volume. So it was that yesterday afternoon I was reminded of one of the few situations where, regardless of how you feel about the piece of music that’s playing, you want it to stop. Immediately.

You see, my credit card underwent a re-birth last week after being compromised. In the short term, and I didn’t know it was short term until yesterday, my history of credit card statements was no longer available to me online. Uh-oh! It’s tax season and I need this depressing information. I got on the phone with my bank and, true to form, got bounced around a bit. This meant that I spent a bit of time on hold. See where I’m going? Despite Space X being able to land a stage 1 rocket on a small platform floating in the ocean, we still can’t get bearable musical sound quality while waiting on hold. The banks are one of the few institutions with more money than Elon Musk, surely they must be able to give me better sound quality while I patiently anticipate the arrival of a human!

This post was to begin as a rant about this unsightly stain on the resume of western capitalism. Prior to putting fingers to keys in WordPress, I opted for Google. “Why does on hold music sound so bad?” is what I typed. To my surprise, it’s not a conspiracy of the Secret Society of Music Haters (previously known as the Britney Spears Fan Club). In fact, it’s just about science. And I’m really bad at science so I’ll summarize as follows. Phone signals are sampled and compressed in a narrow range of frequencies which is barely good enough to make human voices sound clear. But we’re used to human voices so it’s not that bad. While compressing down to that range, it eliminates a ton of the high and low ends of the music coming through and turns it into the mush with which we are systematically tortured. Here’s a better explanation from someone who works in the industry.

This glaring exception can now be relegated to the “who knew?” folder and we can get back to the music. I now realize that I began by essentially thanking science for allowing me to enjoy art at my convenience. This form of art was at the core of humanity well before science or language appeared with their “look at me, I’m so cool” attitude. So I’ll end by thanking the men and women who create the music that moves us so. They who empty their souls into their words, melodies and rhythms and let us share in their joy, anger, sadness and despair. They who hone their craft and dare to be honest in their art. They who are composing, practicing and playing day in and day out; night in and night out, whether there’s anyone listening or not. They who are eking out a living by doing what they love authentically. To them, I am grateful beyond words.

Music is a safe kind of high. –  Jimi Hendrix