The Doors for dogs

Sun 24 Sep 2006 01:43 PM

I am teaching Peirce's "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" in a course on American philosophy. In one passage, Peirce draws an analogy between music and belief. In the course of the analogy, he notes that you can play a song in a higher or lower octave. When you do it is still the same song.

There are some physical reasons why a musical work's identity is preserved if you shift it by a whole octave but not if you shift it by a fraction of an octave. Nevertheless, the fact that it remains the same work-- rather than just a perceptually similar work-- is clearly a contingent fact about the Western musical tradition. We can easily imagine a musical work that is constituted by absolute pitches.

Imagine a musical piece that is about memories of a specific train and in which the opening note is at exactly the same pitch as train's whistle. It is plausible to think that the exact pitch is constitutive of that piece, as an homage to that train. Once the first note is fixed, then the relative positions of the rest of the notes make it impossible to shift the song up or down an octave. Of course, you could begin an octave higher, but it seems plausible that you'd be playing a different work: a derivative work, mind you, but not the original train homage.

Most musical works are not like the imagined train homage, and Peirce is right about an ordinary tune written in the Western tradition. Note also that there are whole-octave transformations that you cannot perform without making a new work. For example, you would get a different work if you shifted every other note up one octave while leaving the notes in between the same.

I asked the class about this case: Suppose I took Ray Manzarek's keyboard solo from The Doors' Light my Fire and transposed it into the first octave above the range of human hearing, so that dogs could hear it but people could not. Would it still be Light my Fire? or would it be a different (admittedly derivative) musical work?

Most of my students chose the former option: same piece.

However, I think my students are wrong. The conventions of Western music do allow us to transpose a musical work up or down an octave. They do not allow us to transpose it outside the range of audible sound entirely.

When I was discussing the example with Cristyn, she pointed the obvious consequence that the resulting ultrasonic ditty would be a different piece. Since I came up with the idea, the new piece was composed by me-- much in the same way that John Cage composed a piece comprised of all of the Beethoven symphonies played simultaneously.

So I wrote a new musical work.

A work that only dogs can hear.


from: Derek

Sun 24 Sep 2006 07:54 PM

I'd say it's still the same song. It would be isomorphic to the original, in that you could apply a trivial frequency conversion to get the original.

Similar question: is Light My Fire translated to the Aztec language, the same song?

from: P.D.

Tue 26 Sep 2006 12:36 PM

I am not certain what to say about translations. Suppose we translate 'Light My Fire' into German. We would not call the resulting song 'Light My Fire', but rather 'Beleuchten Mein Feuer' (or somesuch). The fact that it has a different name at least suggests that it is a different (although related) song. (The A side of the Beatles Rarities album features 'Sie Liebt Dich', a distinct track from the more widely published 'She Loves You.')

If the song is translated into a dead language like Aztec, then there is a further consideration. There may be some conceptual motivation for translating this song into that language; perhaps it becomes a song about human sacrifice. If so, the new song has different content and so, a fortiori, is a different song than the original. (The fact that this new song about human sacrifice is derivative does not preclude its being a different song. Recall Duchamp!)

Returning to my example, a similar argument could be made. Transposing the melody out of the range of human hearing is a work of conceptual art, and so is a different work than the original. Let's set that aside for a moment.

Returning to the crux of the matter, the identity conditions for a work of music are determined by conventions and tradition. The fact that there is some simple isomorphism between what Manzarek played and some other sounds or gestures is not sufficient. Plenty of simple isomorphisms would fail to produce an instance of 'Light My Fire.' (For example, flipping the staff upside down so that the highest note becomes the lowest note is a simple isomorphism-- but it does not produce a score for 'Light my Fire.') Convention typically allows us to transpose the tune up or down an octave within the range of human hearing. The tradition does not make allowance for transposition outside the range of human hearing.

So it seems to me at least plausible that this thing I proposed is a distinct musical work.

from: Derek

Wed 27 Sep 2006 09:40 PM

Question: is the following paragraph a unique and novel creation of mine:

V nz grnpuvat Crvepr'f "Ubj gb Znxr Bhe Vqrnf Pyrne" va n pbhefr ba Nzrevpna cuvybfbcul. Va bar cnffntr, Crvepr qenjf na nanybtl orgjrra zhfvp naq oryvrs. Va gur pbhefr bs gur nanybtl, ur abgrf gung lbh pna cynl n fbat va n uvture be ybjre bpgnir. Jura lbh qb vg vf fgvyy gur fnzr fbat."


I think the main problem is to define what is meant by something being "the same."

from: Derek

Thu 28 Sep 2006 08:51 AM

"Same" is ambiguous.

Say you have two rocks sitting on a table. They are both spherical, one inch in diameter, green, and otherwise featureless. They both have similar weights.

You ask a philosophy student, "are the rocks the same?"

The student replies, "of course, just look at them."

You ask a geologist, "are the rocks the same?"

She scrutinizes the rocks carefully, then looks up and says, "they are not the same; this one is olivine, and this one is aragonite.

Hence, sameness is in the eye of the beholder.

from: P.D.

Thu 28 Sep 2006 12:01 PM

Of course, any two things are similar in indefinitely many respects and different in indefinitely many respects. As such, mere 'sameness' is underspecified. We can ask whether the two rocks are visually distinguishable to someone with no background in geology. We can ask whether the two rocks are made up of the same minerals. Either of these specific questions is perfectly sensible.

In asking whether two things would be instances of the same musical work, I was specifying what sense of sameness I was after: sameness of musical work.

The identity conditions for a musical work depend on conventions. Importantly, ROT13 text was originally developed as a way of obscuring a message. As such, the message sent in cypher is the same as the message in plaintext. This is a fact about the identity conditions for messages or bits of prose.

Finally, even if the thing I have proposed is a new musical work, it is surely not a "unique and novel creation." It is a derivative work, in both an aesthetic and legal sense.

from: Derek

Thu 28 Sep 2006 04:15 PM

Is the problem of "sameness" related to Watanabe's "Ugly Duckling Theorem?"

Also, I have another problem with the non-audible version of Light My Fire: how do deaf people interpret the music? If a version is different because it's non-audible, then logical inconsistencies can arise. Does a deaf person consider two identical copies of the same song to be different because they can't hear them? Or will they consider Light My Fire, and God Save The Queen to be the same, because the perceptual experience, namely silence, is identical?

from: Keith

Thu 28 Sep 2006 06:12 PM

Hello PD,

Being as i was in the class when you asked the question I feel i should give some reason for my choice. When the question was asked i conceptualized it as playing "Light My Fire" on a computer then through use of some software turning up the octaves of the work. By making the song inaudible to humans i feel that we have merely adjusted the song just as the above text was coded in ROT13. I suppose it would still be the same song when and if the octaves were returned to their origional level. If you were to recompose the song in this higher octave then i suppose that it would be a relative but different song. When someone does a cover of "Light My Fire", they are maintaining the essence of the song but it is admittedly a different song. Yet in a sense "The Song Remains the Same" ( A little Led Zepplin for ya)

from: Mitchell

Mon 16 Oct 2006 08:34 PM

Moot point !

Is it music if you can't hear it ?

Doeas that "cool tune" sound the same as you get older and lose your high frequency hearing ???