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Beyond Pandora

Beyond simple curiosity, this is Thinking Too Much. If you're interested in philosophy and/or wild theories, you've come to the right place.

Location: Australia

Paddling somewhere between a mad scientist and an organisational artist. Indecisive, inconsistent and often incoherent.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Sound, Light and Fury (a rant)

I'm annoyed.
Why am I annoyed?
Partly because I only just realised Tru Calling is on at 11:30 tonight, not 10:00. I started struggling to stay awake at about 7.
Mostly I'm annoyed because I haven't succeeded in making sound into colour.

See, I was always fascinated by the idea that someone could create a computer program that would convert music into a visual spectacular ('Visualisations' on things like Media Player don't count - colour, for instance, has nothing to do with the kind of music playing).
I've always wondered what qualities of music/sound I would match with which qualities of light. What would blue sound like? What colour is jazz?
This fascination was reawakened by physics lectures this year, in which we were taught as an aside the mathematical reasoning behind harmony and dissonance. Also that light and sound are both waves.
Anyhow, after much agonising I decided that silence is black, an increase in volume gives an increase in colour intensity, and that all notes played at once results in gray. (White would mean all notes are played at once, and loudly).
Which leaves colour to correspond with pitch. Running up or down a keyboard would result in a rainbow. But how to tell which pitch should correspond with which hue? If the colour spectrum runs from red to violet, should low notes be red or violet?
I went to check out the scientific measurements of colour and pitch, and wound up finding more than I realised - though less than I hoped.

Sound Facts: The range of pitch perception is from about 20Hz to 20,000Hz (cycles per second - how often the sound wave repeats itself within a second). The A note above middle C is standard at 440Hz. Any pitch transposed an octave higher has double the frequency; an octave lower has half. Pleasant-sounding harmonies will be in reasonable ratios - the frequencies of a major chord are in the ratio 4:5:6.

Then I came across a rather alarming fact: Modern musical instruments do not use these ratios. As it turns out, if you tuned an instrument to use the correct ratios for the key of C major, music played in any other key would be distorted - musicians used to have to re-tune their instruments for every new song. Modern instruments approximate the values for all pitches (other than the constant A) so that no matter what key you play in, the intervals will be the same. BUT NOT HARMONIC! I am absolutely shocked to realise that I cannot play a major chord on a piano, despite my years of playing. I may never have actually HEARD a true major chord!
My world has been pulled out from under me... wow!

In a daze, I went to check out light, and my theory (that I could equate light and sound because both are waves) was promptly picked apart. The range of visible light is roughly from 400nm (nano-metres) for violet to 700nm for red. This is a measure of wavelength - the physical distance between two peaks in a wave. (A nanometre, by the way, is a thousandth of a thousandth of a thousandth of a metre. If you take an ordinary metric ruler and look at the space between one millimetre mark and the next, and then divide that space into a million equal parts, you would have one nanometre.)
What this proved to me is that light is not some kind of hyper-fast sound, so there was not going to be any scientific way to say that Middle C is fuschia-coloured (Go figure). It would be like saying that one second is equal to one metre.
Which, of course, doesn't mean I can't say that it is (physics seems to be based on equating unrelated things)- it just means I can't prove it.
So sure, a second is a metre, two seconds are worth four pence and Mozart composed in green.

But while we're at it, what is green anyway? I know I've had many an argument over fluro pens or post-it notes - they're either yellow or green. Usually green, but people like to argue with me. Colourblind people might tell you the grass is red - and for them, maybe it is. Where is the benchmark? How did people originally decide what was red and what orange?
Perhaps we could take the primary colours of light as benchmarks - RGB. Most people would agree that the three colours that dot their computer monitors are different. But who decided on those three colours for monitors anyway? Were there calculations made, to pick three that were evenly spaced in the spectrum, so as to blend well? Do you realise that the colours displayed on your monitor aren't complete? Every colour shown on the monitor has to be made by combining different amounts of those three colours - that's why you can get so many shades of lime in Paint but can't get a decent orange. Natural light is made from many different colours, not just red green and blue.

So as a result of my delirious bid to convert sound to colour, I now can't play the piano in tune, and don't know what colour my socks are. I also realised I can't trust my computer, so I've got myself another stupid idea - that I should re-design computer monitors so that they make sense.


And now it's just about time for Tru.

(This is why/how I don't get bored.)


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