Words on Sounds – What is Black & White in Sound?

What is Black & White in Sound?

Introduction

If the color spectrum of vision is analogous to the audible frequency spectrum of sound, what is the aural analog to black & white photography? In sound, we often say that timbre/texture is ‘sound color’ – reinforcing this analogy. Removing color from an image leaves the simple fact of intensity of light. Does ‘removing’ timbre from sound even make sense in this same way?

Black & White = Silence & Noise?

The first thought would hold that this equation is true. If black is the absence of color and white is the presence of all colors [1] then, at first glace, this idea makes sense. White noise is defined similarly to white light, but in the range of humanly audible sounds: all frequencies, equally strong [2]. And on the other hand, silence certainly seems analogous to the absence of color.

But on further thought, I’m not sure the analogy is all that accurate.

Does this image look white to you?  It doesn’t to me, either. It’s ‘white noise’ in a visual greyscale representation. Clearly, white noise is not white. It’s a mixture of a number of different frequencies/intensities. White noise in sound has a timbre, just as this visual white noise has texture.

We often describe rushing water, or ocean waves as nature’s sources of aural white noise. Would we say that this is nothing but intensities, with no timbre? Obviously not. It clearly has texture and timbre.

And as for black equating to silence, I have trouble with that one, too. I can see a black object, but I can’t hear a silent sound.

So much for that analogy…

So…

What is black & white in sound?

How do we remove timbre from sound, the way we can remove color from an image? How do we get an aural analog of black & white images?

Notes:

1. Color theory of light – see, for example: http://www.colormatters.com/color-and-design/are-black-and-white-colors
2. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_noise

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17 thoughts on “Words on Sounds – What is Black & White in Sound?

    • For me the question is not so much about subserviency or what’s first/second in a hierarchical sense, etc. – it’s about the imagination. If we can conceive of something in one realm, what might it be like in another? It’s more interesting, not less, if the analogy is ill-fitting in some important aspect.

      • I know where you are coming from and like the idea expressed in your last phrase. But analogy by its nature is about relating one (secondary) thing to another (primary) thing. This cannot be avoided. If imagination is analogic then it too is about hierarchies. So perhaps it is (only) language that works by analogy and imagination uses some other mechanism beyond language. I wonder.

        In any case, sound is expressed most potently outside of metaphors, whether they be of language or vision. Or such is my axiom. Striving towards this goal is what enables me as a sound artist.

      • To my understanding, it is not only language that works in analogy and metaphor. The basis of modern understandings of cognition posits that we learn something new by relating what we don’t (yet) know to what we already know. Refining the fit of that relation is the essence of learning. Knowledge, so this line of thinking goes, is about a web of relations between things we know – the deeper the web, the better we know. I take this to mean that we live in a world of analogy and metaphor. 😉

      • “sound is expressed most potently outside of metaphors” – agreed. Though what has ‘express’ to do with ‘understand’ or ‘experience’? As Cage once said about composing, performing, and listening, “what could one possibly have to do with the other?”

  1. “And as for black equating to silence, I have trouble with that one, too. I can see a black object, but I can’t hear a silent sound.”

    Technically, no, you cannot see a black object, assuming it is in fact perfectly black. You can see only that it occludes other objects. So in that sense (ahem) black is equivalent to silence.

    However, there is a difference in these sensory modalities that can be explained by recourse to the philosophy of perception. Let’s be quite particular and suppose that a black silent cube is on a table. Black is a quality of the cube, the fact that it does not reflect light. Silence is not a quality of the cube; it is not even a quality of sound. Silence is instead the (imaginary) absence of sound. (It might be worth reading Casey O’Callaghan’s book on this.)

    So it would perhaps be more correct to equate the silence of the cube to the absence of the cube. There is no cube on the table. And it is black.

    • Regardless of how you parse ‘see’, I still perceive the black cube. I’m aware of its existence. Can you say that you are similarly aware of the existence of the silent sound, i.e. the sound you can’t hear? Only by resorting to metaphysics, it seems to me.

      “However, there is a difference in these sensory modalities that can be explained by recourse to the philosophy of perception. Let’s be quite particular and suppose that a black silent cube is on a table. Black is a quality of the cube, the fact that it does not reflect light. Silence is not a quality of the cube; it is not even a quality of sound. Silence is instead the (imaginary) absence of sound.”

      This is exactly my point: Black is a quality of the percept, silence is the absence of the percept. Hence the ill-fit of the statement that black is analogous to silence. And yes, I’ve read O’Callaghan’s book. It’s interesting and thought provoking, though not the final word – by any means – on the subject.

      • “Regardless of how you parse ‘see’, I still perceive the black cube.”

        Since we are comparing different senses it’s vital for me to know how to parse “see”. I need to know if you are writing about vision or not. I took you at face value and assumed you were. Otherwise the statement becomes meaningless in the discussion of sight versus hearing. After all, I can sometimes perceive a cube through my sense of hearing… in which case your proposition becomes about comparing hearing to hearing. I made the assumption that a more straightforward reading was the correct one.

        “Can you say that you are similarly aware of the existence of the silent sound…”

        I made no such claim; in fact, the opposite, as the passage you immediately quote demonstrates.

        “This is exactly my point: Black is a quality of the percept, silence is the absence of the percept.”

        OK, so actually we agree. I must have missed a rhetorical gambit in your original post. So, what is the question, then? 🙂

      • When I say ‘see’ I am meaning visually perceive, or perception and cognition via the visual sensory modality – nothing metaphysical or synesthetic implied. And yes, I didn’t assert that you made the the claim (Can you say…), I was asking the question. 🙂

        The question is still – is there anything analogous in sound to black & white images? To me, this is an interesting question of the sort that, as a sound artist and composer, I find myself inspired to imagine a response.

  2. “Though what has ‘express’ to do with ‘understand’ or ‘experience’? ”

    I am now lost, I think, since I didn’t use either of those last two quoted words in the passage you excerpted. Neither did you, in the passage I responded to!

    And yes, this lack of a Reply on some messages is odd.

    • This comment of mine was in response to the fact that we have been discussing the perception of things – sights and sounds – but your statement dealt instead with how to ‘express’ sound. I was trying to make sure that we’re not mixing our intentions.

  3. Wow, this conversation is covering a lot of territory! Would be good to have some other voices. But anyway, thanks for engaging. Meanwhile..

    “To my understanding, it is not only language that works in analogy and metaphor. The basis of modern understandings of cognition posits that we learn something new by relating what we don’t (yet) know to what we already know.”

    This is not my area of expertise, but it is my understanding that the ‘‘conceptual metaphor’’ (CM) theory is not without its problems. A search turned up a paper by Matthew S. McGlone, “What is the explanatory value of a conceptual metaphor?”, in which he demonstrates how both the strong and weak formulations of CM fail. The argument made sense to me.

    But besides this, not all relationships are metaphors and analogies; most are relationships of some other type. (Otherwise we wouldn’t need the words “analogy” and “metaphor” as special cases!) Yet we can still learn these not-metaphorical and non-analogic relationships. And we store these by forming physical relationships in our brain that are certainly not metaphors and analogies, since they are electro-chemical.

    “I take this to mean that we live in a world of analogy and metaphor.”

    I am sure we do not. Yes, we live in a world of relationships. Some of these, primarily those that are linguistic, might also be analogy or metaphor. Any stronger statement is suspect.

    We could get this discussion back to sound by discussing source-bonding. This relationship of sound to implied source might be analogous to how analogies themselves function in language. 😉

    • Thanks for your input & responses, too – much appreciated!

      Yes, all theories have their limits. I tend to subscribe to those that both explain some phenomenon to some degree of rigor as well as intuitively make sense to me as a living, experiencing human, where applicable. Since we’re discussing theories of perception and cognition, I need to be able to personally verify something as relevant to my everyday experience and understanding as well as understand and agree intellectually. Hence my disinterest (at least for this discussion) in metaphysical approaches.

      A couple of notes:

      The physical electrochemical connections/relationships are embodiments (literally) of the externally sensed relationship(s), so not equivalent to them; in fact one could say that they are indeed analogical to them.

      In order to learn new things, if we do not relate them to things we know, how do we fit them into the world of knowns? How do we come to know them? We can directly sense them and appreciate them for what they are (or at least appear to be) but that’s not the same as knowing them, is it?

      • I trust that nothing I was suggesting was metaphysical. I too am most interested in experience, either as a starting point for theory or a test of it. In fact I have gone so far as to argue (elsewhere) against the acousmatic ideology that holds as its ideal that sounds should be heard as separate from their sources in the acoustic world. I find it ethically questionable and politically dangerous, since it encourages abstraction and the elision of individual and cultural specificity.

        “The physical electrochemical connections/relationships are embodiments (literally) of the externally sensed relationship(s), so not equivalent to them; in fact one could say that they are indeed analogical to them.”

        There is no similarity between the electrochemical impulses and the sensory data they encode. They do not meet the requirement for being analogous in any useful sense of the word. You seem to be claiming that because they are related (specifically, one encodes the other) they are necessarily analogous. This implies that the word “analogy” is a pure synonym for “relationship”. We will have to differ on this semantic point.

        In fact, in language at least, analogy *cannot* be a simple statement of a relationship. Take: “My love is like a rock.” If my love actually was in some substantive sense like a piece of stone (e.g. both dense, both made of minerals) then this statement would no longer be an analogy; it would only be a statement of fact about how two things relate.

      • I was careful to phrase it as “physical electrochemical connections/relationships are embodiments (literally) of the externally sensed relationship(s)” and as analogical to them, not to the sense data itself. The electrochemical impulses of our brain-ear system have many similarities to the externally sensed phenomena: increased neural activity relates to amplitude, and rate of firing is related to frequency – though they are by no means linear relationships. This similarity is in fact in some ways analogical.

        But my point was that discussing the electrochemical connections in place of the relationships themselves, in order to establish whether or not we learn by metaphor/analogy is, pardon the cliche, mixing apples and oranges.

        “My love is like a rock” is not an analogy at all, it is metaphor. Analogy would display some form of similarity between the things themselves – metaphor transfers some understanding of your experience of one thing onto another that is otherwise unlike it. See, for example: http://www.reference.com/motif/society/metaphor-vs-analogy

        At any rate, it seems we largely agree on the main points, no?

  4. Worse yet, I misquoted REO Speedwagon! That will teach me to post at 4am.

    Nonetheless similes and metaphors are more similar than different, and my point stands despite my (bad) example.

    Yes, we agree on the main points but I wanted to tease out some of the details. Hopefully others can join in since I wouldn’t want to belabour the issue further. I look forward to any further posts.

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