Music as dirt

Written: July 15, 2004

Entropy is defined as the probability that a random rearrangement of the elements in a system will not produce a perceptible macro-level change. A pile of dirt has high entropy; if you toss it up in the air and let it fall, it will still be pretty much a pile of dirt. The pages in a book are in a state of low entropy; if you tear them out and rebind them in a random order, the result will be, presumably, incomprehensible.

Apologies for pedantry.

Why does this matter?

Some time ago, I attended a concert with a friend, and we agreed that a real pitfall of writing atonal music is that it’s very hard not to make it sound homogenous. If it sounds as if it doesn’t matter in what order the notes fall, the result means that it become perceived, essentially, as a pile of dirt.

Dirt is boring.

Music (and all art) exists in the space between order and chaos. If it lands too far towards either end, it sounds all the same, and we disengage. Too much predictability is boring. Too much unpredictability ends up feeling predictable, in a way. A series of events that are all different is as dull as a series of events that are all the same.

(Of course, such art can succeed and be compelling on a meta-level, but I’m going to ignore that for now.)

(It’s also important to note that I consider the simplicity/complexity scale mildly separate from the order/chaos scale. There’s some relation between the two, but it’s not always clear-cut. [Also, the order/chaos scale, as regards music, is separable into sub-scales for each element of music that can operate relatively {but not completely} independently of one another. {That is to say, pitch may not vary at all, while rhythm might be all over the place.}]) </David Foster Wallace>

It’s my understanding that patterns are critical to our apprehension of any series of events. Patterns allow us to fit events into some sort of context that allows us to predict future events.

(To brag, pattern recognition is one of my strengths. When I was nine, I took a pattern-recognition test as part of an intelligence assessment and scored 55 out of 60. The average 24-year old scores 45. Word.)

Good music finds a balance of giving us just enough order to form a hypothesis (if you will) about the context of a piece; then does something that is both entirely unexpected and fits perfectly within that context. Something that simultaneously follows logically from a given set of conditions, yet could not have been anticipated.

Or, maybe, to examine it differently, good music starts off showing us a little of its guiding principles, enough to let us think we can tell what’s going on. Then it both affirms and subverts that framework, expanding and changing our understanding of it.