December 29, 2011

Compressibility: Why We Like the Music We Do

I’ve said it before: the music of Christmas is a part of the season I like most. And by that I mean – like everything in the world – IN MODERATION. If I worked in retail, and were subjected to the all-day, all-night Musak onslaught of holiday favorites, I’d lose my mind. Or what’s left of it.

At the Barnes & Hampton Consort Celtic Christmas concert I attended earlier this month in Georgetown’s candlelit Dumbarton Church, I was especially moved by several pieces – one very familiar (“Silent Night”), and another unknown to me (the blues music that lute/guitar/mandolin player Linn Barnes improvised while Robert Aubry Davis read several Langston Hughes poems.

The pieces were so different and so satisfying. A day later, I started wondering what it was in the music that made it beautiful to me. Yes, there were other factors in play – the church, the good feeling in the audience, the presence of family and friends, the warm gingerbread at intermission, the candlelight – that contributed to my feeling of pleasure, of satisfaction. But what was it ABOUT THE MUSIC that reached me?

Then, coincidentally, I ran across an article published earlier this year in Science Daily. The piece, “Creating Simplicity: How Music Fools the Ear,” suggested that our brains simplify complex sound patterns the same way that digital music programs compress dense audio files by “removing redundant data and identifying patterns.”

Our brains, apparently wired to find simple patterns pleasing, can recognize patterns inside complicated data. Researcher Dr. Nicholas Hudson used common music compression programs – like the technology that condenses thousands of our favorite songs so they fit onto our iPods – to assess different kinds of music’s “compressibility.”

Hudson made some intriguing discoveries. Random noise could be compressed to only about 86% of its original file size – not much compression. Techno, rock, and pop music was compressible to about 60% of original size. Yet Beethoven’s apparently complex Third Symphony could be compressed to an astounding 40% of its original size. Mind boggling!

Hudson concluded: "Enduring musical masterpieces, despite apparent complexity, possess high compressibility," the element in music he believes we respond to. The more compressible we find it – and different people will presumably assess compressibility a bit differently – the more we’ll like it.

The article concludes: “For a composer -- if you want immortality, write music which sounds complex but that, in terms of its data, is reducible to simple patterns.”

Well, OK, maybe you feel a little hocus-pocus quality in all this. We usually just end up thinking, “Everybody likes different stuff, and I know what I like.” Still, it’s interesting to dig a little, and to wonder why we like what we do.

Maybe I should suggest to my Parkinson’s support group – a pretty erudite collection, as I’ve mentioned before – that we begin weekly drum circles. Good exercise. Some pretty simple patterns there.

Compress THAT!

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