Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Human Ears Can Detect Human Music

I am sure there are more than a few classical musicians out there or those that appreciate good music in general. A piece of music is built from several different elements and all come together to create what you hear. Pitch and rhythm generally come to mind first, but we can't forget dynamics, texture and timbre. A group at Harvard has been studying how our ear perceives rhythm, or more specifically deviation from rhythm. Basically, we like how humans play better than how computers play because humans screw up ever so slightly and if we try and mess with computer music to make it sound more "human" it only works if its done in a specific way.

When music is produced on a digital system it is possible to get every beat exactly in time. Often though, when people hear this music they say it sounds "mechanical" or "not right." Even though most people's ears aren't sensitive enough to determine why they don't like computer produced music, they know they don't. Because music producers know that no one wants to listen to "perfect" music, there is plenty of software that is made specifically to add "defects" to music to humanize it. So basically, people use computers to make perfect music and then use them again to make it less perfect and better sounding.

The group initially looked at drumming and singing to find out if there was a rhyme or reason to how musicians are different from perfect in their rhythm. For a long time it was assumed that the varions were random, like white noise. Sometimes the musicians were ahead of the beat sometimes they were behind and how much they were off didn't really depend on the music they were playing. What they found was that these musicians are not randomly off, but if you look at if over a long period of time you can see a pattern immerge, in other words, there is a long range order to how their beats vary from perfect time. Their rhythm at one point will not only change their rhythm in the next tap or vibration, but also the rhythm many bars into the music.

But, just because people can be non-perfect in a predictable way, does that mean we as listeners prefer our music to be off in the same ways? To answer this question, two pieces by Bach were humanized using both white noise type humanizing and humanizing with long range order. They then created a survey and asked people across the globe to say which they liked best. I am no musician and when I took the quiz I had no idea which was which, but I did have a very clear idea which one I "liked better." Apparently I am not alone. People strongly prefer the music that is humanized like, well, humans would do it.

These findings could help create music that sounds almost as good as a live show. So the next time you are about to shell out some extra bucks for the "live" version, keep in mind that with new technology you may just be listening to that normally recorded Sugarland song with some screaming girls added in at the beginning and end.

Take the quiz here!

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