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Soundings: Sound Business – good attempt but no cigar

By Michael Spencer.

As a musician, educationist and frequent contributor to business learning programmes internationally I feel that a note of caution should be sounded with regard to the recent book by Julian Treasure ‘Sound Business’.

Whilst written with the best of intent, as a factual resource it illustrates the danger of taking too myopic a view on a subject matter and expanding it into an over pixilated canvas. This is particularly concerning when it moves into suggestions of a methodology of implementation that might, to some, seem Orwellian.

To write a book about the impact sound has upon our daily lives is no bad thing. As Treasure cites, even the Mayor of London has a policy about noise reduction. However the credibility of his message is considerably diluted both by the imprecision of the factual information he uses throughout, and from the rather worrying conclusions he derives which go to inform the design of a system designed to inflict more noise on the public based on what would appear to be unproven and highly subjective hypotheses.

Firstly, his knowledge of the history of music appears limited. By way of specific example, his references to the liturgical (Church) modes being used ‘to create different emotional responses to plainsong, from happiness to tears, tenderness to anger’ are ill-founded. Modes were the building blocks of plainchant not a device by which responses could be made. The chant itself tended to be highly organised, conforming largely to predetermined structures. Whilst there was the all too human tendency to stray from the prescribed practice this was brought to an end by the Council of Trent (1543-1563) which decreed that sacred music ‘should be written in a dignified, serious style’. Tears, tenderness and anger played no part in the Mass…Tridentine or otherwise.

Treasure’s references to musical terminology are similarly inexact. For example the use of the word ‘pitch’ has a very specific meaning relating purely to the frequency of vibration of a single sound source. That is all. Grouping ‘power spectrum’ (whatever that might be), ‘harmonics’, ‘mode’, ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’ under this heading is like grouping a flock of birds under the word ‘feather’. All birds have them, but they are only part of the story. These types of indistinct observation are commonplace throughout the book.

His knowledge of physics too seems similarly wayward. When he divides sonic events into those that ’are vibrations’ (e.g. a violin string) and those which ‘create vibration’ (a hand clap) he misses the point. Both events are exactly the same in that they impact upon the air molecules and cause them to oscillate. It is just that one has periodicity, the other doesn’t. And as for his comments to the effect that ‘we make sound but don’t make light’ ….we do. Infra red. It is just in a different place on the electro-magnetic spectrum from visible light. Strange too that Pythagoras is omitted from references to the harmonic series, or rather harmonic ‘scale’ as the author would have it.

It is unclear too for whom this book is intended. The imprecise use of terminology makes it unsuitable for the professional, and at the same time somewhat bemusing for a non specialist. Mention of ‘tonic’ and ‘dominant’ in the context of contrasting Western music with that of Ornette Coleman will leave the cognoscenti shaking their heads whilst the uninitiated remain suitably bemused.

This book has a laudable premise; that the world we live in is becoming increasingly noisy by the profusion of non-natural sounds, and something needs to be done. However books of this nature would benefit from much more robust research amongst the academic work on the subject rather than relying upon the more meagre sources to be found in the book’s bibliography. During such research the author may well find too that his personal assumptions are not quite what he first thought before going to press.

Incidentally the annoying little Nokia Tune is taken from the Gran Vals by Tarrega not, as stated in his book, from the Gran Vales by Farrega.

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