The Complexity of Music

by Teresa Lynch

Music is complex.  Or, so says Ted Jamison-Koenig.  Ted has a bachelor’s degree in recording arts from the Jacobs School of Music at IU and has been a performer for most of his life.  In fact, his love of performing and listening to metal have been highlighted here on the grad blog in the past.  Now, Ted’s beginning to move beyond enjoying music – of course, he is still listening, playing, and creating in all of his spare time – to studying it.  He is interested in exploring music within media and how we process it.  And that’s where Ted is beginning to feel a bit like a pioneer.

Like many other budding researchers, he is learning to explain complex ideas in simple ways.  His particular challenge is to explain musical concepts in terms everyone can understand.  In part, the difficulty stems from the way music has been studied in the existing communications literature. According to Ted, communications literature has largely treated music in simplistic ways.  For instance, music is often referred to as “happy” or “sad,” “fast” or “slow.” While the problem here in part is that many media scholars don’t have formal training in music theory or acoustical science, the more likely reason is that music just hasn’t been the focus of much of the study in our field.

But, Ted is looking to change that.

As a part of his master’s coursework, Ted sought out classes that draw on empirical research on music.  Currently he is taking a class that examines psychological research on music.  Interestingly, he’s found that many of the topics discussed in that field parallel our own.  Researchers in psychology are also using physiological measures to gauge arousal and determine predictors of genre preference.  Additionally, they are using theoretical frameworks much akin to ours. For instance, one of the topics recently discussed in this psychology class was flow. Still, Ted has found that there’s a disconnect between the fields, which he’s hoping to bridge.

Communications researchers have primarily studied music in the context of audio cues, voice differences, and sound effects, as opposed to studying whole pieces of music.  For Ted, the discrete view of music (breaking music only into genres such as R&B, rock, or classical) takes away from the subtlety of music and invites terminology that is too broad or vague.  He instead is interested in looking at music in a different way.  Ted seeks to study what he dubs “musical complexity,”  which for him is a combination of tempo and melodic contour.  This approach could lead to development of measures for entire pieces of music and that would allow researchers to study music much more dynamically.

In general Ted is hoping to use more scientific measures of music.  According to him, the current working definitions are difficult to quantify and somewhat confusing. As he says, “even volume literally means ‘the physical space a sound occupies …’ but, what does that mean?” In its place, he’s hoping to use existing measures from acoustical science such as the Fletcher-Munson curve to study musical experience.

In the end, it’s not that Ted sees the current work on music as inadequate.  Quite the contrary.  It’s what inspired him to delve deeper into understanding music.  He says the current discrete categorical system, terminology, and way of describing music in lay or emotional terms still have enormous use in study of media when the particular focus isn’t the music.  But, for him, it’s just not quite enough.  For his part, Ted’s love of metal sometimes ostracized him a bit from the musicians with whom he played euphonium in high school.  They didn’t understand what he heard in metal genres such as grindcore.  What he’s hoping to accomplish scientifically will perhaps help him bridge all sorts of gaps – both professionally and personally.

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