Charles Wuorinen once pointed
out that sound waves are essen- tially one-dimensional. I hadn’t thought about this, but it turns
out that physicists agree. When
we perceive sound, our ear drums move back and forth, not up and down and not side to side. They say that vibrating objects that produce sound might send sound waves into all three dimensions, but it is also possible for sound to travel in just one dimension, and it seems that when we listen to the vibra- tions we are listening in only one dimension.
If a character in a novel is rather flat and their personality is undevel- oped, we say that they are “two- dimensional.” It’s kind of an insult. Now, to be told that sound is not even two-dimensional, but one-di- mensional seems doubly insulting and very odd. It’s odd to have such a simple explanation for something that appears so complex to us!
When I listen to music, I often form pictures in my mind about what is going on. Sometimes these pic- tures are literal, like giant footsteps or a yard full of chickens pecking away at the ground. Other times it’s more abstract, like strands of
ribbon representing voices in a fugue. Either way, my pictures are definitely not one-dimensional. That’s because I’m perceiving all kinds of details about the music. Is there one instrument or two,
or more? How many notes am I hearing, and how are those notes connected to one another? Am I listening to melody and accompa- niment or several melodies at once (or neither)? What is the timbre? What is the volume? How do the many different things I hear inter- act with each other?
In short, we perceive sound as a multi-dimensional thing. What a wonder it is that we can derive all of this meaning from something that is physically one-dimensional! How amazing that our brains are so finely attuned to the slightest movements of the air that we can use them to put together complex pictures in our minds!
An opportunity to experience this miraculous transformation of the one-dimensional into the three (or more)-dimensional, is an event like our annual Pipescreams concert, which dares to express all kinds of crazy dimensions. Read about our most recent concert in these pages.
For music in digital form, put our upcoming workshop on your calendar. It takes place on Saturday, November 16, and will be ably
led by Peter Niedmann, who is an exceptionally talented composer and arranger. Half of the workshop will focus on making arrangements and the other half will be a tutorial in music notation software. Come to one half or the other, or both!