Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Buzz Versus Bang

Aristotle opens his philosophical treatise, METAPHYSICS, with the following introduction:

"All men by nature are actuated with desire of knowledge, and an indication of this is the love of the sense; for even, irrespective of their utility, are they loved for their own sakes; and preeminently above the rest, the sense of sight. For not only for practical purposes, but also when not intent on doing anything, we choose the power of vision in preference, so to say, to all the rest of the senses. And a cause of this is the following, –that this one of the senses particularly enables us to apprehend whatever knowledge it is in the inlet of, and that it makes many distinctive qualities manifest."

In other words, as far as senses go, the Eye/Brain partnership has been engineered with far more capable intelligence gathering capacity than the Ear/Brain.

Graphics (that interest us) appear to possess an innate capacity to cut through competing visual clutter. For this reason, design, good or bad, has an advantage over audio (so long as it rests within an available range of vision). The Eye/Brain partnership is quite adept at selecting isolated points of interest, like stars in a night sky. Meanwhile even a trained Ear/Brain pairing finds itself overwhelmed when attempting to discern unique single tones if emitted from multiple competing sound sources.

Every try to enjoy –much less actually hear– a street fiddler playing a quiet tune when a New York Subway train pulls into the station with a 100 decibel roar? It’s impossible, and yet no problem at all reading competing –even muted– signage on both moving train and stationary platform, or even this article if you happen to be on the go and have your face buried in a mobile device.

For more anecdotal evidence, just walk down your local Main Street, or stare across a strip mall. Even a three-year old child can easily discern McDonalds' red and yellow arches amidst an urban sea of other corporate logos. Alternately, consider words on a page, all are individually and entirely legible, even if not digested in the prescribed linear sequence. Similarly, few will report any obstacle identifying one or all of a hundred fast food joints on along a given strip –by design cues alone.

In contrast, substitute the neon signs indicative of any congested suburban landscape for equally loud sounds. The result isn’t just aural clutter. It’s noise: a morass of overlapping sounds whose component parts played in unison become indistinguishable from one another, and their points of origin also indiscernible.

Would there be any problem with a jackhammer at two in the morning if it sounded like a purring kitten instead of a machine gun on steroids? Compound an angry jackhammer with a middle-of-the-night traffic jam and it makes many a city dwelling musician wonder why every car horn can’t be factory tuned to A440, and coo instead of blare. Who uses car horns as danger alerts anyway? A few certainly, but equally true most people honk to voice impatience, not to warn an unwary pedestrian that they’re about to be flattened by a minivan.

For some reason, competing audio is perceived as a racket long before competing design becomes disordered hodgepodge. Even when design does cross the threshold into clutter, the brain is more willing to try and make sense of visual hodgepodge than it is of noisy racket. Walls covered in graffiti earn appreciation from a global group of aficionados that appreciates not just design, but densely compacted, competing design elements. And in fact, puzzles are fun.

Neither copious nor bright, contrasting nor clashing color use, random points nor competing lines, nor unsymmetrical shapes are necessarily annoying –much less painful to our senses (Art School grads included). But unharmonious rumblings, shrill emissions and discordant notes can be irritating. And sound blasting at an excessively loud volume can actually be dangerous and damaging.

But therein lies one key to the power of sound, and especially as an enhancement –or 'power boost'– in the promotion of a message conveyed by a visual element. If design is the rocket, sound is the fuel that lifts it into our imagination, serving to imprint the image (of the media vehicle it accompanies) into our memories, and even if the sound itself is goes unremembered.

Or vice versa, of course. To be fair, any gifted multimedia artist is capable of using one sensory trigger to 'push' forward and enhance the perception of an experience delivered by another. That's why film, theater, opera, propaganda and advertising work when they do. Somebody is pushing your buttons, and in the case of an action movie (or a sports car commercial) the result can be thrilling.

In fact, it might be inaccurate for me to liken noise to clutter, when a more appropriate visual metaphor for racket is probably that of a focused emission, such as a laser, aimed directly at your brain.

Of course, one needn't make a big noise to gain attention. The buzzing sound in your ear from a bug will certainly capture your attention just as much as any loud sound will. In some instances, that soft buzzing sound might even be considered a more effective medium than a loud bang. Because of its incessant, repetitive nature, the sound –indeed the entire experience taken as a dimensional 'snapshot'– has a very good chance of becoming indelibly imprinted into one's neural circuitry for future recollection.

And that might be why the sound of cicadas, or of even one mosquito buzzing in your ear –not to mention an old pop song– can trigger a cascade of archival memories from so long ago, that you thought you forgot them. And you did until one single SOUND took reign of your psychophysic reality and quite effortlessly transported you back in time.

Maybe not Quantum Physics, but I think it's AMAZING anyway, and it happens almost every day to each and everyone of us.

So, Buzz versus Bang? You decide.

No comments: