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Seeing sound

how to see soundSo how can we see sound? What do music patterns look like? At first, you might think, “Music notation, of course! It shows what notes look like. And it lets you see how patterns rise and fall as you move through a song.”

In a way, that’s right—but also wrong. If you’ve ever seen a page of sheet music, you probably noticed that it’s just a lot of black dots on a page of lines. It kind of shows you what music patterns “look” like. But to say that notation lets you see sound is like saying this stick figure looks like an actual person … it doesn’t.

In fact, standard music notation does a pretty bad job of showing patterns. It gives you the outline of a song, But how are you supposed to know which note is which? And what exactly are we supposed to be seeing? Because every note looks the same, notation looks more like a bunch of ants than any meaningful pattern.



No, when I say music is made of patterns, I mean real patterns. The kind that are so easy to see they jump off the page. I mean patterns that clearly tell you something. Patterns that are as easy to see as they are to hear.

And what’s cool is that music patterns are already right there. In fact, they’re staring us right in the face. Only until now, musicians have been wearing a blindfold. Or better said, we’ve been colorblind.

To see what I mean, check out the image below. In the black-and-white picture on the left, you can see 12 balls. Each one looks just like the others, so nothing is special. But when you look at the same picture on the right, everything seems to pop. With color, we suddenly see how the balls are arranged in a clear, organized pattern. In fact, the pattern is so obvious, it’s almost embarrassing.



 

“So,” you say, “we have the answer! We should use color to see music patterns. Then we’ll know what sound looks like—and we can easily play music.” But before we get ahead of ourselves, we have to stop and think.

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Invisible patterns

how to see soundI like patterns. There’s something mysterious about them—but also something natural and basic. Maybe that’s because we’re surrounded by patterns every day, all the time. Some of them we can see—like railroad tracks, trees lining the street, or the windows in a building.

And other patterns we can hear—like the tick of a clock, the ring of a telephone, or the beat of a drum.

One big reason music is so interesting is that it’s all a bunch of patterns. Regular, repeating rhythms drive a song forward, while musical notes form melodies, scales, and chords. If you’ve ever tapped your foot to the beat of a song or hummed along with a melody, then you know what I mean. Music is patterns.

In fact, musical patterns are so strong that it’s almost like you can see them. As the notes in a song move up and down, they clearly form a pattern. The only question is, “What does the pattern really look like?” Would the notes look like waves of light fading in and out—or would they look more like stars and planets spinning through space?

Or would they look totally different? People have tried to guess, of course. But they usually came back with the same, old answer. “Sound is invisible. So no matter what you do, or how hard you try, you will never see it.” In other words, it’s impossible, so we’re just out of luck.

Because we can’t see sound, playing music can be pretty weird. And, frankly, downright frustrating. With lots of practice, musicians must simply learn to move their hands around to play different notes on their instruments. One move will make one sound, while another move makes another sound … and another move makes another sound, and so on.

But learning music in this way takes a lot of time. And, honestly, way too much patience. In many ways, it’s like trying to play chess blindfolded. You can play the game by making different moves. But without ever seeing what you’re doing, it’s pretty hard to win.

So, then … is that all there is to it? Are we all just out of luck—or is there really a way to see sound? I mean, what about all those patterns? Musical patterns are definitely as real as the layout of a chessboard or any pattern in nature. So what if we could take off the blindfold … what would we see? The truth is, all of those patterns are just sitting there, waiting for us to uncover them. We just need to find out how. And, as it turns out, the answer is simple.

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Music is a blend of art and science

What do you like more … art or science? That is, are you more of a right-brained artist, or are you a left-brained scientist?

The truth is, there is no difference

In his book, “Leonardo: The First Scientist,” Michael White argues that there really isn’t any difference between artists and scientists. And that they shouldn’t be in two separate camps at all. White shows that Leonardo da Vinci—who was the very definition of a “Renaissance Man”—was an innovator in both the arts and sciences.

He wrote that “at the leading edge of science, the division between mathematics, art, and imagination becomes blurred.” And that’s a perfect description.

Color and music are also the same

In fact, this same concept applies equally well to music. Art (color) and science (music) are exactly the same. After all, they’re just different ways of looking at the very same patterns. Like two languages that tell the exact same story.

Of course, at first glance, these patterns may seem different. But you have to look a little closer … because the link between them just has a little twist.

Escher understood nature’s secret

A perfect way to think of these twisted—but very simple—patterns is to look at the art of M.C. Escher. Like this masterpiece depicting birds and fish,

Sky and Water 1 woodcut by MC Escher

Born in 1898, Escher was no fool. Just like da Vinci, he also understood nature’s secret. That is, Escher intuitively recognized the harmony between art and science. And he used that knowledge to the fullest—pushing the envelope in his works that are equal part graphics and math.

(As a side note, it boggles my mind that most of M. C. Escher’s work—including this one—was created as a woodcut. In other words, this isn’t some computer graphic, or even a painting … he actually carved this image into a piece of wood!)

So what does this all mean to you?

Of course, you may be thinking, “This picture looks awesome, but what does it have to do with music?” Well, it so happens that musical patterns really do look a lot like this image of birds and fish. Only you have to look at these patterns in just the right way.

No … musical notes aren’t animals that can swim or fly. But music patterns do suddenly spring to life when you can actually see them. And that’s what ColorMusic does—it lets you see things that you thought were impossible.

In fact, the mathematical works of da Vinci and the mind-bending symmetry of Escher are what led to the connection of ColorMusic … which proves that life really is a blend of both art and science.

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Where are all the real musicians?

Like Bob Dylan once said, “The times they are a-changin’.” In music, this is totally true. Today more than ever, it’s easier to find and listen to great music. Digital technology makes it possible to record and share tons of songs. And it seems like everybody has an iPod or some kind of MP3 player. In fact, the average teenager listens to music about two to four hours per day. Honestly, music has never been so cool … and it’s never been more accessible.

 So why is it still so hard to actually play music? I mean, with all our new technology, why can’t we just pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and actually make a song? Well, that’s because technology has done a better job of helping us listen to music … not actually play it.

Don’t get me wrong—technology is awesome. It’s given us things like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. But no matter how cool those games are, we’re still just faking it, right? I mean, it’s just a glorified air guitar. Which, honestly, ain’t that great. Real musicians know that actually playing an instrument is a lot more fun than just pretending like you can.

 But the truth is that “real” musicians are going extinct. Which is why, in the past few years, some people have gotten nervous. Music teachers are dropping like flies and schools across the country have been cutting their music classes. People still like the arts, of course. It’s just that they’re abandoning music for things like painting, theater, and dance. The arts in general haven’t suffered; just music.

Why is that? Well, if you’ve ever tried to play an instrument, the answer is sort of obvious. Music is hard to learn. And that’s because modern music education isn’t very modern at all. It’s totally outdated. In fact, it hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages. That’s right, we’re still stuck in medieval times when it comes to studying music. And, frankly, that’s just sad.

Unlike in many other subjects, music teachers are very resistant to change. Not everyone is … but most. And I suspect that’s because a lot of music teachers don’t exactly know what they’re doing. They’ve just memorized a lot of things, so they have a hard time passing on any useful information. And it looks like they’re not about to change. So more people today would rather learn about acting, dance, or graphic design. At least those subjects make a little more sense.

 Real musicians are becoming rare because the old way of learning just isn’t good enough anymore. Let’s face it, “modern” music education could improve. People today are more visual. And they’re more impatient. They expect results … and fast. If music is to survive, and (dare I say it?) get even better, then music education has to keep up with these changes. In other words, it is time for a revolution.

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