The Tympanic Membrane: An Intelligent Design or Evidence of Evolution?
If we strip away all dogma and the influence of our family and friends, what do we believe? Music, like spirituality, is so emotionally charged that it’s difficult to define what and why something moves us. Why do we like what we like? Just as scientists hypothesize physical reasons for religious phenomena, there are some scientific explanations for why certain tones move us. Jason Dunaway, a damn fine bassist I’ve worked with in the past, happens to be a top electrical engineer who has helped design some of the gear most of us have used at one time or another. I asked Jason to weigh in for a scientific explanation of why we devote ourselves to certain tones.
“Our ears/brains are really amazing,” he says. “We can divine an incredible amount of information very quickly by listening. Is it a real cry or are they just messing around? Is that my wife? Sarcasm, deceit, serious, playful, angry.” In short, our hearing has an amazingly difficult job of picking up the tiniest nuance and processing the information. Roughly 100 million years of evolution was involved in developing these abilities—our ancestors’ hearing had to be good to ensure survival of the species. So how does this relate to our choice in guitar tone? It goes back to survival. “Generally, when we are stressed or excited and want to verbally express it, we go up in volume and drive our vocal apparatus harder than normal,” Jason continues. “Things get nonlinear and our normally smooth voices have more highfrequency content and volume than normal. Over time, we have come to perceive this changed harmonic content and increased volume as something that needs to have our attention. It may be danger, it may be an opportunity...but whatever it is, it excites us. It also says ‘Listen to me!...ignore all that other stuff that’s going on.’
“We find even-order distortion fairly pleasing,” Jason explains. “That’s essentially the addition of stacked octaves on top of the fundamental tone, and it is a result of asymmetrical distortion [one side of a waveform being clipped more than the other]. Odd-order distortion gives us odd multiples of the fundamental, which is not very musically pleasing. Where does every guitar, saxophone, vocal solo, or evangelical preacher go to bring the crowd to their feet? Loud, high, and way nonlinear. A scream has much more high frequency content than a normal speaking voice, regardless of volume.”
And there you have it, folks. The reason the hair stands up on your arms when you hear a PRS ripping through a warm, fat tube amp is because your body has evolved over millions of years to respond to those nonlinear waves. Our bodies tell us that these sounds are important and we feel physically excited when we hear them. Conversely, these tones don’t fit very well in an everyday context, as Jason learned from personal experience. “Tones that are used for everyday signaling, like a doorbell, are pretty simple. They don’t alarm us too much. I once had a door chime that was the actual recording of Zeppelin “Black Dog”— for one day. Every time someone rang the doorbell, it scared the shit out of me!”