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Reflections on experiencing music

Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits is for me a song that typifies the layers of meaning and identity that music has for the listener. Each person will have their own example, and different music will mean different things for different people, but this is one of the richest examples for me personally of the different ways that music can be experienced. Thinking about this, I have observed the following

Music gives pleasure:

Each individual will have a different example here, but there is seems to be a universal truth that music, in general, gives pleasure. The audience in this concert are clearly enjoying, getting pleasure, from this performance of this piece of music.

Music is made by musicians

Musicians are artists who can tell a story through the medium of music, with or without words. They can craft an artefact, a process which may be complex and detailed. The better the reproduction of the music, the closer the listener can get to the craft of the musician. A cavalier approach to preservation and reproduction of music is perhaps an insult to the musician, the artist, and at the very least diminishes the richness of the story being told.

Music tells stories

Music can seem to represent or invoke ideas about reality. Beethoven’s 6th Symphony is known as the Pastoral Symphony, and it does indeed seem to invoke pastoral scenes.

When combined with words, music takes on additional power as a storytelling medium that can exceed the power of the words alone.

The story in this song is self-explanatory. A mercenary or guerrilla fighter is about to die, in the mountains, far from his home in a farm in a valley. As these will be the last words that he will be saying to his comrades that he has been fighting with, they are the most important things that he can think of to say to them. He looks back on the war that he has been fighting that has been brutal and painful, claiming the life of many. It has not been glorious but instead, on reflection, it has been lonely, sad and bitter. It has been fought with, but also against people of his own race and family. He recognises that we all see the world differently, that we see different value and we hold different things dear. But ultimately the war has been futile and foolish. The brothers that have borne arms together have been fighting against the ones that they should have been holding close in a tight embrace, as brothers in arms.

This is powerful and clever poetry. The wordcraft here is admirable, the clever use of allusions to higher authorities beyond the small horizons that we know as humans. We can admire the craft of story telling in the blending of words and music. The immersion of the words within the music is sublime. The music stands on its own as beautiful. The overlay of words onto the music, and the shaping of the music to fit the message of the words is so well crafted. The fact that the words are difficult to hear makes the storytelling even more powerful because the listener has to fully immerse themselves in the song, concentrate fully on it in order to be rewarded with the story.

The musician has a story to tell

The song was written at the time of the Falklands war between the UK and Argentina in 1982. Mark Knopfler, having been born in Glasgow, was able to draw on his thoughts about how it must have felt for those fighting in the various Clan Wars in Scotland to imagine fighting in the similarly rugged and inhospitable mountains of the Falklands. He was able to craft profound and moving poetry to express how deeply he was moved by the futility and foolishness of people fighting people that they individually and personally have no fight with but do so because they are told they should,

Music is appropriated by the listener

Part of the mystery of music is the way it takes on a new meaning for the listener. The listener associates music to events within their own life story, making an emotional bond that causes the events to be relived when triggered by the music. Whatever motivated Mark Knopfler to tell the story in the song, listeners may have their own interpretation or their appropriation of the song.

On my first visit to Colombia in 2004, I was invited to visit the Church on Monserrate, one of the mountains overlooking Bogota. From there, looking to the east, the vast city of 9 million people laid out below us, it all looked so peaceful and serene and ordered. Looking to the west, I was struck by the tropical alpine beauty of the jungle. My instinct, based on my experience of exploring countryside, and particularly forests, in the UK, was that I would like to visit this place. My host laughed at my suggestion and asked if I was completely mad. Apart from the dangers of wild animals and insects, at that time guerrillas lived in that forest, coming into Bogota at night to recruit young people to fight on one side or other of the civil conflict. This conversation made me feel intently sad. Colombia is a country of infinite bio-diversity and great natural beauty. A country that its people are fiercely proud of. But a country that people can’t know the way we in the UK can know our country, where we are generally free to wander safely through common land and parks, and beyond if we do so responsibly and carefully. I felt sad that the people of Colombia can’t know their own beautiful country the way I could know mine.

This feeling of sadness was heightened as I flew back to the UK a few days later. For the first hour of the journey I watched mountains, forests, canyons, desert spaces, vast rivers, and plantations pass below me until we reached the coast and I left the country behind. As I did so, Brothers in Arms came on my iPod, and I found such a strong connection with what I had recently experienced that just started to weep, as I appropriated the words to describe the sadness that I felt for the people of Colombia. It was not my conflict, but my observation was that the conflict had divided families and communities and had made it impossible for the people to know their own land.

Because of this experience, I had appropriated the song and added a layer of meaning that made it part of the sound track of my life.

Music is a badge of identity

Storytelling is both a means of cementing social relationships and a vehicle of education [Schank 1995]. Because of this, engagement with stories changes us and identifies us with a social community. Whether it it is a song about the exploits of or an anthem for our sports team, our social group, our school or even our nation, when we repeat or appropriate music we are identifying with the community that that music represents. In this case we may not enjoy the music as music but we “have to” like it because it is the music of our community.

Summary

Our experience of music happen at many levels and can be or or less superficial or intense. The potential for engagement is certainly enhanced when the full set of elements that have been used to craft the music are capture and reproduced, so the engineering of user experience should recognise this, and understand compromises as they inevitably must be made.

References

Schank, Roger C., and Chip Cleary. Engines for Education. Engines for Education. Hillsdale, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1995.

What Hi-Fi User Experience is being Engineered?

This is an important question.

Is it the absolutely faithful reproduction of the initial audio, with no degradation or distortion? That is certainly interesting and important, although it is effectively unrealistic as an engineering exercise as there is as yet no perfect technology capable of achieving that, and any attempt to copy and reproduce a real world phenomenon is unlikely to be able to capture every detail of that phenomenon without some loss.

In any case, as Hi-Fi is essentially a domestic entertainment technology, it will be used in environments that are acoustically very different from the location where the music was performed or “constructed”. So even if the chain from storage of the encoded acoustic material is absolutely faithful, the moment the system produces a sound, the acoustics of the listening environment will alter that sound and give the listener a completely different experience.

This perhaps suggests an alternative aim. Perhaps the task of the system is to not only capture and deliver the music as it was performed, but also to reproduce it as if it were being experienced in the venue where it was being performed. That is certainly an interesting challenge, because not only should the music itself be captured, but also the acoustic signature of the performance venue. For the listener, the acoustics of the listening space will need to be overridden and replaced with those of the performance venue so that the experience for the user is of music being performed in a different place.

Whilst these goals are functionally laudable, and represent interesting and rewarding engineering challenges, I feel that this misses something of the essence of what music is. If music is form of artistic expression, a form of story telling produced by an artist, a storyteller, perhaps the goal is to experience as much as possible of the story that the artist is telling.

Let me illustrate this with a simple concrete example. In the song Someone saved my life tonight, sung by Elton John on the album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy there seems to be an anger, a crying out with emotion. This is evident, for example in the way that the voice and instruments work together in the lines it’s 4 o’clock in the morning, damm it, listen to me good … But when the song is played on a system that is able to convey the full spectrum of instruments and sounds, the bass notes being played on the piano add a level of ominous foreboding that can be felt as well as heard. It is simply missing when listened to on small speakers or on systems that have limited ability to convey and produce lower frequencies. The artist added that detail, and the song is a different song when when that it is missing, so it seems a different version of the story is being told. I can’t claim to know what the artist meant by constructing and singing the song in the way he did, but when the song is reproduced using a chain of technologies, elements can be removed or become unbalanced, changing how the song is presented and seemingly changing how it is received and understood. It is no longer the whole story as told by the artists.

So I would propose that the goal for user experience engineering of hi-fi music systems is preserving the story as told by the artists, and faithfully reproducing it so as much of the story as told by the artist is reproduced. It is a window into the story as told by the artist. We cant be transported to the story as lived by the artist, but we can be given a window through which we can hear the story.

The outcome is not simply therefore an engineering solution where the success can be measured by how close we can get to a set of measurable attributes. It is a solution that yields a human response through a human experience. If the technologies impede or dilute any aspect of the music as performed they risk reducing the human experience of the music, of hearing the whole story as presented by the artist. Where technical solutions involve compromises, those compromises can be understood and evaluated in terms of the impact they will have on the user’s ability to have a full experience.

To help explore whether Hi-Fi technologies enables this or intrudes in such a way as to evidently add artefacts or compromises to the channel between the artist and the listener, I have assembled a list of pieces of music that have an attribute that is remarkable or vulnerable to being lost by poor technologies.

A User Experience Engineering Exploration of Hi-Fidelity Audio

I am curious about what the money spent on hi-fi buys. In our digital technology age there has been a revival in the interest in older analogue technologies. Why? Are we getting something wrong that perhaps we got right in the past or is it nostalgia? This is what I intend to explore but taking my user experience engineering perspective. This will be an evolving story with many questions to be answered as I find them.

What User Experience is being Engineered?

This is an essential starting point. What functionally are we seeking to provide through Hi-Fidelity Audio systems. If we can propose an appropriate answer, the definition of Hi-Fidelity can be contextualised in functional terms rather than purely in terms of technical measurements.

What can users experience in terms of audio perception?

What can human’s hear? This will give some of the limits for the engineering of equipment that captures and reproduces music and sounds in order for them to be experienced by people.

What do users experience when experiencing music?

Being human means that we simply don’t just hear, what we hear communicates. There is something of a mystery quite how we engage with what we hear, how subjectively we experience sounds and music. Can this be influenced by the engineering of the sound and the music?

What Media engineering is involved?

Many different technologies have been tried in order to capture music and sound and a variety are in use today. These may be more or less competent to do that and to deliver the information so that people experience the original sounds or the art that has been created in sound.

What Service Interface is enabling the media to be accessed

Any choices that the user has when experiencing music through technology will be made available through a user interface, involving a representation of choices available and the means of selecting the choice. Systems or components that perform well in terms of their role in the chain of reproducing music may be more or less easy to use, or even to understand how they can be used.

What Service Functionality is delivering the audio from the media?

The purpose of the engineering is to provide users with an experience of music. The user may be given a variety of choices about how that is to be achieved, including selection of source material to be experienced, fitting the experience to the hearing capabilities of the users, the environment within which the users are experiencing the music or the occasion within which music is being experienced. The engineering of that functionality may alter the music from the storage source to the end user.

What role do Network & Interconnections have on the experience of users?

Because music reproduction inevitably involves the connection of various functional components, the interconnections themselves have an influence on the faithfulness of the process.

What Operating System is involved in ensuring that systems can set up to deliver the music that users are seeking to experience.

A chain of technology, a system, needs to be set up to ensure that it is in the state to perform the task for which it was designed. For mechanical systems it means ensuring that the mechanical components are maintained and optimised. For electronic, in particular in digital systems, various components may need to be configured to be in a useable state. This process and the engineering associated with it may interfere with the optimal audio and music handling functionality.

What hardware is involved in the delivery of music for users to experience?

There is invariably a chain of hardware (and software) involved in reading the encoded music from a physical storage, correcting any changes in the audio required to store the material and then amplifying and presenting the material so that it can be heard and experienced by users. Each element in the chain has the potential to corrupt the material before it is presented. The engineering of this chain will be explored for different forms of the stored signals.