Reading Response #4

to Artful Design • Chapter 4: “Programmability and Sound Design”


Jack Xiao


MUSIC 256A / CS 476A, Stanford University



Reading Response: (Interesting) Sound is Motion (Over Time)


This response focuses on:

- Principle 4.2: (Interesting) Sound is Motion (Over Time)

By nature, sound inherently requires motion, and motion inherently requires the passage of time. After all, technically speaking, all sound is just waves and movement in the air particles that we interpret with our ears. And, as many of us may have learned in physics, pretty much every equation for motion/kinematics uses the variable t for time. But I think what this principle is really getting at is the idea that change of some sort is necessary in order to engage a listener. Of course, perhaps there are some people who would be content with listening to a perfect, even, computer generated sine wave but we can safely assume that the vast majority of people prefer listening to sound that contains diversity to some degree. 

I think that the computer’s ability (perhaps better considered as a limitation) to produce “perfect,” even sounds of pure tones by generating an exact sine wave for a given frequency is both a power and a curse. All naturally occurring sounds, regardless of source (and even the ones that are relatively constant and static), possess some sort of movement and change (part of its unique timbre and texture) that not only define the sounds and make them identifiable, but also interesting. Whether its a Rachmaninoff Concerto being performed at Disney Concert Hall, the loud, ear-wracking booming and screeching of a subway arriving at a New York subway station or a bee buzzing around some the apple tree in my backyard, the sounds all contain unique elements that make them instantly recognizable. These elements are a direct result of “imperfections” in the wave. Various peaks and troughs in the waveform and the spectrum that make the sound what it is. Far more interesting than the “perfect” sound wave in its purest, most fundamental form. 

And yet, all this complexity and interest, when decomposed into its building blocks, are none other than perfectly regular sine waves. In fact, Fourier’s ideas that any periodic signal can be represented as a sum of sinusoids exactly embodies Principle 4.3: Build Complexity as the Sum of Simple Parts. These 2 principles go hand in hand: that interesting sound requires change and that we should aim to build complexity as a sum of simple parts. This is the soul of computer music. Computers are great at repetition, regularity, and clearly defined tasks. And yet, much of the interest in art and design is a direct result of its messy, chaotic, and thought-provoking characteristics. So, computer music and electronic sounds bridge that gap. Using the predictability of machines as simple building blocks for complex and engaging sounds that we’ve never heard before.



Miscellaneous Thoughts and Comments:

Having taken MUSIC 220B, this chapter seems very familiar! From the THX sound to the Homebrew assignment to the Design Etude of making a sound logo, this chapter was a welcome reminder of why I enjoy computer music so much. Even through the struggles of programming and the pain that designing and debugging code can cause, creating a novel result is always a rewarding experience. Principle 4.10: Programmability is Both Blessing and Curse describes it best; just because it is possible to program something doesn’t mean that we should. With all the ambitious programming projects that I’ve abandoned and the many situations where I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, it’s definitely always a good idea to include practicality, interest, and most importantly, TIME when it comes to working on any programming-related project.