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Post Publication Research   

More on Sequentiality and Simultaneaity

In one of my MAAC classes, there was some confusion regarding the ear's ability to simultaneously perceive multiple colors, whereas the construction of the human eye blends multiple frequencies into a new perceived color. Let's start with the Michael Thaut quote in Music, Rhythm and the Brain from which this observation comes:

Considering the nonreferential embodied meaning as a core function in musical communication, an understanding of the major organizing syntactical elements in music (i.e., those which create meaningful sound patterns) is of utmost importance. Musical "grammar" is obviously very complex, has undergone significant historical developments, and manifests itself in great diversity across different cultures. However, a somewhat reductionistic conceptualization will provide us with a fundamental understanding of the essential nature of musical grammar and syntax. One of the most important characteristics of music-also when compared with other art forms-is its strictly temporal character. Music unfolds only in time, and the physical basis of music is based on the time patterns of physical vibrations transduced in our hearing apparatus into electrochemical information that passes through the neural relays of the auditory system to reach the brain. Within this temporal basis, two core dimensions emerge: sequentiality and simultaneity. Music's particular nature permits it to express both at once. This is a unique feature among art forms and communication systems. Language is sequential but monophonic. Visual art has analogies of time dimensions expressed in its works within the physical essence of the spatial dimension, although the observer and the creator in the visual arts experience the work in time. Yet this remains a segregated process in contrast to music. For further expositions on these fascinating issues one may consult, for example, the brilliant writings and paintings of Kupka, Klee, Delauney, or the Cubists (ShawMiller 2002). Music's whole physical and cognitive-perceptual nature, however, rests solely within this two-dimensional temporality. Translating them into musical terms, we may speak of rhythm and polyphony as the two core dimensions of music. Rhythm and polyphony contain the two dimensions that organize sounds sequentially and simultaneously into meaningful patterns and structures, creating "the language" of music. (p 3)

In reflecting on this further, I am also reminded of a concept called the Critical Bandwidth (here's a nice Wikipedia explanation:, the band of audio frequencies within which a second tone will interfere with the perception of the first tone by auditory masking. This phenomenon takes place in the basilar membrane, which we discuss in Chapter 7, and is the perceptual mechanism that allows us to hear the bass guitar at the same time as the lead vocalist. This contrasts with the eyes' photoreceptors, where the rods and cones are intermingled throughout the back of the eye. So, when we perceive two colors mixed together in the same space, we perceive a new color. When we activate rods and cones on different parts of the retina, we perceive space, not simultaneity like we do in basilar membrane perception. Once again, the ears dominate in temporal perception, and the eyes dominate in spatial perception.

In the book, I also mentioned (p. 33) the phenomenon that we can focus our eyes on multiple monitors in a bar, but turn up the sounds of all the monitors and the result is more like cacophony (although you can read about another phenomenon called the cocktail party effect here: Why this happens should now be more clear: there are many frequencies across the perceptual range of 20 Hz - 20 kHz coming from each tv, so there is no critical bandwidth that would allow one tv to be heard aver another; e.g., presumably if each tv is broadcasting announcers their frequency ranges would be broad and tending to mask each other.

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