Mumbling Music

How do you pick up a tune, and hold it in your hand?

A gentle music drifts around the room. It comes from the piano in the middle — an antique, with a sturdy wooden body and ivory keys. Inside, tiny hammers strike at strings every time a key is pressed, giving a sound much deeper and richer than any digital device can ever make.

Then, there’s a stool. This is what people sit on to make the piano’s wonderful music. But here’s the thing: there’s nobody sitting there.

The piano is playing itself.

What is music? It’s hard to define. When you hear music, you know what it is, but you can’t say why exactly one thing is musical when another isn’t. It isn’t random, though: researchers have found some parts of the human brain that respond to music, and to nothing but music.

One thing everyone can agree on is that music is a kind of sound. At it’s most basic level, music is just vibrations in the air. It comes up when somebody sings or plays it, and then vanishes forever.

Which brings up the question: How do you keep music? How do you pick it up and hold it in your hand?

One of the earliest attempts to do that was with the Player Piano.

A Player Piano is a piano that can play itself without human help. It knows how to press its own keys.

This is how the Player Piano worked. First, someone would actually play a piece of music. As they played, the piano keys would punch holes into sheets of paper, to mark which keys they pressed. When the sheets were loaded back into the piano, it could look at the holes and play back the same combination of keys!

This way, people could pick up music, trapped inside a sheet of paper, and carry it around with them. They could listen to their favourite pianist play, on-demand.

Well, almost. But not quite.

As any pianist will tell you, piano-playing isn’t just about pressing keys in the right order. It’s also about how hard or fast or slow you press them. It’s about how long you keep them down. And it’s also about the pedals at the bottom, which control how long a note stays vibrating, or stop it instantly.

So music played by a player-piano would sound a bit, well, flat.

In the beginning, player-pianos weren’t made for automatic music. They were meant to help people who were learning to play the piano, but weren’t skilled enough to play all the complicated notes. The piano would do the key-pressing, and the player would handle the pedals.

Later, people found ways to encode more details into hole-punched sheets. They made pianos that could play back music exactly as a real, live pianist had played it.

But those devices didn’t last long, because people had invented another way to trap and store music: the phonograph.

While the player-piano replaced the piano-player, the phonograph went a step further. Instead of copying the thing that made the sound, it went and copied the sound itself.

Sounds happen because when things move, they also move things around them. It’s a bit like stirring vegetable soup: the ladle can move things without touching them, because it pushes the soup which in turn bumps into the vegetables. Here, the same thing happens, but with air instead of gravy.

Your ear is so sensitive, it can detect the bumping of air even if it’s very slight. And that’s what you hear in your head as “sound”.

What the phonograph does is to trace a groove according to how the air bumps it. If it bumps hard, the groove goes high. If it bumps gently, the groove goes low. Usually sound isn’t one bump, it comes in ripples. So a typical groove would look something like this:

How close together the bumps are decides how high-pitched the sounds are in your ear.

And where were the grooves marked? On large round disks known as “records”. These disks held the music, in the same way punched paper did for player-pianos. People still use them nowadays, when they want good-quality music, even though CDs and pendrives are much more portable and convenient.

That’s because, although CDs look a lot like records, the way these digital devices store music is quite different.

CDs can’t have a sound-tracing line in the same way phonograph records do. That’s because they’re meant for computers. And computers are digital: they work with ones and zeroes (or “on” and “off” switches, which is quite the same thing). Everything they save needs to be some kind of number.

A long, curved line of music is not so easy to convert to numbers.

The best you can do is mark how high the line is every centimetre, or millimetre, or micrometre. You can get as close as you want, but in the end, what you get is still a series of dots. It only looks like a line.

This kind of dot-recording is called “sampling”, because you take a sample of what the sound is like at certain points, and guess the rest. When you connect the dots together you get a curve very much like the original, but not quite. It only looks the same.

The trouble with sampling is, you have to take many samples to get a high-quality piece of music. Take your samples too far apart, and you’ll get the audio equivalent of a low-resolution picture. Pack in more samples, and you’ll get a file too big to easily copy around.

That’s why, these days, digital music is often compressed.

Sampling for music is a bit like writing for words. You don’t have to note down every exact sound that a person makes. Just note down the main features of the sound — the alphabets for the words he or she uses! Then, someone else can read the alphabets later. You’ll get a sound that has the same meaning, although it may be with a different voice and accent.

Writing may be the first way people started holding sounds. In fact, they do the same thing for music too. Even before the player-piano, after all, there was sheet-music.

But what about compressing words? That can be done, too. While sending SMSes or chatting, people often drop letters and compress words to save on typing. They use shortcuts like “gr8” instead of “great”, “omg” instead of “Oh, my God!” and “gtg” instead of “Uh oh, looks like I gotta be going now.”

Don’t think it’s just SMS, though. The first known use of “OMG” was in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1917. Abbreviations were common in telegrams too: since they were billed per word, people often used creative ways to shorten their messages.

So much for compressing words. What about compressing sounds?

Some scientists think that’s what mumbling is. You leave out some words, or don’t bother to say them clearly, because the other person will know what you mean anyway.

When you say “This phone connection is really bad”, you only need to articulate the key words — “connection” and “bad” in this case — for the person to figure out what you meant. (Actually, it’s better not to mumble on the phone, because the phone line will make it sound like a mumble anyway).

The thing about mumbling is, if you do it right, you can still carry on a normal conversation and nobody will notice. Something similar happens when you listen to music from an MP3 file.

Fireflies are beautiful. Especially the way they twinkle around the grass and bushes at night. But if a firefly blinked its light just after a blazing flash of lightning, your eyes wouldn’t notice it at all.

In a similar way, some sounds don’t get picked up by the ear, when they come just before or after certain other sounds.

Then, there are the many sounds that are different but seem similar to your ears, as well as the sounds your ears don’t pick up at all. All these sounds are picked out and discarded by MP3 encoders, to give you something that’s pretty high quality but doesn’t take up much space.

The MP3 file format is not a random thing. It was designed specially for the human ear. While making the MP3 standard, scientists did lots of experiments on how humans hear — and, more importantly, what they don’t hear. They tried and tested and added and removed, until they ended up with a file format that sounds nearly the same as high-quality digital audio — with a filesize that’s ten times smaller.

This, then, is one of the most scientific ways to mumble.

MP3 revolutionised the way people listened to music. They could copy lots of songs on tiny, hand-held devices, and carry it with them wherever they went. That wasn’t good news for music-sellers, though, because MP3 was also easy to pirate. Its small filesize made it easy to download music illegally without paying.

But things are changing again.

Nowadays, it’s not just music compression that’s advanced. Internet speeds have become higher too. That means, people can listen to music without downloading a file at all. It can go straight from Internet server to speakers, without being saved on the way.

This way of listening to music is called “streaming”.

Nowadays, music streaming services like Spotify are getting very popular. There’s Internet everywhere, so people don’t have to worry about saving music files before travelling: they can just stream it when they get there. Spotify makes its money by charging monthly subscription fees (although, admittedly, they haven’t started making profits yet).

That’s why fewer people today save music into something you can hold in your hand. They don’t use LPs and CDs, or even pendrives and hard-disks. They just stream it over WiFi instead.

Music, once trapped in physical objects, is now moving freely through the air again.

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