“Life without music, would be an error” said Franz Welser-Möst, the director of the Wiener Philharmoniker during his short speech at the 2023 new year’s concert.
The new year’s concert of the Wiener Philharmoniker is a tradition that is rooted in (Western) culture. As a tradition it is predictable and reliable. In this article I investigate the deeper roots, the mechanism of predictability and reliability in design of ‘things and concepts’ from my perspective as a designer and maker of musical instruments.
If you use an elastic material for a musical instrument - say steel for a string, then the spring’s properties will automatically give you a regular and predictable vibrational pattern.
Like with pendulums of a clock, each full swing cycle of a vibrating string takes the same amount of time, and surprisingly: it doesn’t matter if you pluck the string hard or lightly; each full swing cycle will still take the same amount of time. The amount of swing cycles per second (pitch, frequency) is constant over the time it takes for the string vibration or pendulum swing to fade out.
This seems counterintuitive if you think about it, because you would expect that if the swing cycle is much wider, one complete swing cycle would also take congruently more time. But it doesn’t.
Predictability and reliability are both terms that refer to an underlying order.
The main principle underlying predictability and reliability is one of the most important principles in physics, mathematics, in the whole universe: symmetry. We usually take this for granted, while when you think about it, it is rather remarkable that the laws of physics are (assumed?) the same anywhere and anytime – symmetric. It doesn’t matter if your bass is in the living room, in a recording studio, upside down, at the other side of the earth, of the universe; your bass will sound the same (or the sound is at least predictable).
The laws of nature are not only symmetric in space, but also symmetric in time. The regular frequency at which a string vibrates actually relies on this symmetry over time; the string vibrates many times per second, too fast for the eye to see, but all these single cycles of vibration are equal - symmetric - in duration. The steady pitch, the vibration frequency of the string, is so to say an expression of symmetry.
This touches one of the ancient ideas in philosophy; Plato (427-347 BC) already spoke about a world of pure ideas that is separate from our own mortal earthly existence. Although philosophy has made some progress since Plato, and most mystical and esoteric stuff like this is dismissed, I think Plato’s supposed ‘guidance’ via immortal ideas is still very appealing as a metaphor. I think it is safe to state that at least a subset of Plato’s world of pure ideas is what we would now call the laws of nature and the axioms of mathematics.
Symmetry is an example of such an idea, but there are others. The number pi (3,14…) for instance, that you get when you divide the circumference of a circle by its diameter, is a universal ‘given’. It is an unchangeable building block that we know of as an idea, but we do not really have access to it other than as an idea, meaning we know the number pi to a huge number of decimal digits, but we can never know it fully because it is infinitely long (and that is a problem for us, mortals).
Also in our physical reality, there exists no material circle that is perfectly round and smooth; as you zoom into molecular level, you will find the edges are jagged, because they are made from atoms. A circle is an idea.
A rather recent trend in theoretical physics is so called Constructor Theory, that also – in a way – gets back to Plato’s world of immortal ideas and asks “what is allowed”. So instead of observing a vibrating string and look for a theory that describes the behaviour and then test the hypothesis to statistically confirm ‘top down’, in Constructor Theory the idea is to first carefully define what is allowed and then start building (construct) from there.
As a designer of musical instruments with an engineering background, I like to view this ‘Platonic space of perfect ideas’ as a toolbox. In a way these Platonic ideas are ‘attractors’; the material objects in our physical world tend to gravitate towards these universal unchangeable ideas, like water seeking the lowest point.
A soap bubble gravitates towards ‘the idea of a spherical shape’; a pendulum will automatically give you a regular swinging motion; strings on a bass will resonate in predictable patterns. It is as if there are converging funnel traps that contingently limit the possible configurations matter ‘is allowed’ to evolve into. What would medical doctors do without the self healing capacities after injury…
You often do not need to engage and micromanage to get order out of randomness; you don’t need to actively arrange the molecules of the soap skin to form the spherical shape, chances are that if you interfere, you will disturb the formation of the bubble.
A kid on a swing will automatically assume ( ‘gravitate towards’) the natural swing frequency, and it will require an effort to prevent the appearance of natural order; say you wanted to halve the speed of the kid on the swing while keeping the swing length, you would need to micromanage, then you would need to add a lot of energy at every point of the swing’s cycle to achieve half the ‘natural’ speed of the swing. Not managing at all, but allowing things to evolve, can apparently be most efficient. That is a very powerful idea.
A cheap tool for creating orderly patterns, is to exploit so called emergent properties. The classic example of emergent order is a morphing flock of starlings, a murmuration. The individual starlings all follow a similar set of rules, and hundreds of these birds together will create patterns of a higher order, that cannot be derived from examining an individual starling.
The complex dynamic patterns the murmuration creates are said to be emergent, in the sense that they emerge when many starlings interact with each other and with unpredictable, chaotic environmental factors like insects to feed on, gusts of wind, predatory birds attacking the murmuration etc.
Standing waves in a string are also emergent. They cannot be made by a single wave, you need at least two waves that interact.
A single pebble thrown in a pond creating concentric waves that travel outwards creates a traveling wave. The ‘travel’ is emergent, a cork floating on the water will simply go up and down, which is a standing wave. The traveling wave is a chain of many infinitely thin slices of standing waves that pass on energy from one to the next.
A single traveling wave will always travel. However, once specific boundary conditions are introduced – edges that return the traveling wave, the initial wave can interact with its returning wave. The now emerging wave can make it appear as if the wave has stopped traveling, while it are actually traveling waves that interact with their reflection.
The string on a bass is somewhat similar to a cross section of the water surface. The string’s ends at the bridge and the top nut define the string’s length. Just like with the pebble in the pond, after plucking the string, waves travel between the endpoints that reflect them, so they interact with their ‘initial’ wave. The endpoints make the emergence of standing waves possible.
The behaviour of an individual bird in a murmuration is contingent on the interaction with the direct environment. Contingency is a rather common term in English language, but not in all languages. It deals with non-necessity of outcomes and means something like ‘dependent on the unpredictable and unfolded situation that has not materialized yet’. If the birds come to fly too close to each other, they will adjust to a safer distance. The actions of one particular bird are said to be contingent on what the others do.
From the many different scenarios that are allowed to unfold, just one – apparently the most likely one - will materialize. Contingency is what gives rise to unpedictability and unreliability.
A morphing cloud of starlings is also an example of a so called dynamic equilibrium; a dynamically stable state, meaning the flock tends to cohere, it doesn’t collapse or break down to chaos.
The flock is like a ‘black box’, that has an input of energy (food) and creates emergent and contingent patterns of higher order while consuming energy.
In the case of the starlings, there is no definite shape, there is no specific goal as it comes to the shape. For a definite shape, you need more boundary conditions.
The body of a bass is similar; a bowed tone is also a dynamic equilibrium. The bowing action feeds energy to the system and the instrument dissipates this energy, while resonating, while creating order (sound). As long as the bow feeds energy, this dynamic order, this balance at the lowest free energy state, is sustained. When a bassist bows a string that is connected to a soundbox, there is a back and forth exchange of energy between string and soundbox, and between soundbox and air via resonances. Next to these complex spring interactions, the musician can influence the tone; the tone is contingent on the playing style, the mood, the concentration etc of the player.
We humans – who provide the input energy for the bass while playing - are also dynamic equilibria, we are a lot of cells (or atoms) working together, even different DNA like the gut bacteria are literally incorporated. These intertwining chains of cause and effect where the output of one is the input for the other, go all the way back to the beginning of the universe.
Lots of people who see Chladni patterns emerge before their eyes for the first time (see video), assume some kind of intelligence at work. These patterns look biological, purposely made. With your daily experience as a reference, when you slam your fist on a tabletop with tea leaves randomly scattered all over it, you would assume the tea leaves to jump up a bit, and then reassume their random distribution over the table. In the formation of Chladni patterns however, the tea leaves seem to move like agents with a purpose, to dance with a goal, a goal that is dependent on the frequency.
The plate where the tea leaves bounce on to form these Chladni patterns, is actually a spring.
A spring is in general an elastic solid material that has some set of properties like shape, elasticity, internal damping etc. These properties of the spring contain information; a spring is in a sense a re-accessible memory. The boundary conditions, the properties, like the dimensions, mass and stiffness of the spring-plate, determine the spring behaviour. Here, in the example of the Chladni plate, the spring-plate that vibrates in equal cycles after you tap it only once, acts like a copy-machine; the equal swing cycles – due to time symmetry - form a sustained frequency; a regular pattern; order. The resulting frequency, the resulting tone, is an (auditory) expression of the spring’s properties. This spring mechanism is robust, predictable and reliable.
The tea leaves that interact with this spring-memory-plate, will inherit information from the spring’s memory, without altering the spring. They inherit knowledge on the properties of the spring plate. While the tone is an expression of the spring-plate’s memory you can hear, the Chladni-patterns are an expression of the spring-plate’s memory you can see.
As seen in the murmuration of starlings, the individual animals have a set of rules ‘built in’ that gives rise to emergent patterns when many starlings interact. The starlings have intrinsic, ‘built-in’ knowledge.
Unlike the starlings, the individual tea leaves that form the Chladni patterns do not have knowledge, they do not have an intrinsic set of rules steering them. The pattern that the tea leaves form, are derived from the emergent properties of the standing waves in the elastic plate.
When tea leaves are sprinkled randomly, there is no simple pattern in the tea leaves, the level of order, of symmetry is low. As the pattern emerges, the arrangement of tea leaves changes, the arrangement inherits knowledge on the properties of the plate. The knowledge can only be derived from the arrangement of tea leaves.
The ordered Chladni patterns can become rather complex, but are still – just like with the string or pendulum, an expression of time symmetry. It is just a dimension higher; the pendulum is a line, the plate is a surface.
As a designer I do not care about the position of individual tea leaves or of individual atoms for that matter. Another way to look at it is that for a designer to gain control over quality while achieving maximum efficiency, it is best to design a process where the process ‘gravitates towards a set goal’, towards the outcome, and where the process is so to say ‘forgiving’; having a production process where a rather random input will result in practically the same outcome, is desirable.
The random sprinkling of tea leaves gives the individual tea leaves a random position on the plate; a random input. If you repeat the experiment of creating Chladni patterns a thousand times, while each time having a different random initial distribution of tea leaves, you will still create a thousand very similar looking patterns.
Translated to a practical application for designers; pouring a self hardening liquid resin into a mould is forgiving, fast and highly accurate, compared to hand carving the same shape out of a solid piece of hardened resin. So, in general, avoiding micromanagement is a good idea…
…Although, ‘avoiding’ micromanagement? This should be formulated more carefully, because it is easy to get wrong. The properties of the plate like the elasticity, shape and mass, define where and when standing waves with their nodes and bellies (antinodes) will occur. Every swing cycle of the plate, an individual tea leave is pushed perpendicularly from the plate. If the plate is curved because of the standing wave belly-shape, the bouncing tea leave inherits a non-random direction; it is steered. And that sequence of nudges at a particular frequency with which the tea leave is gradually directed towards the nodal line, is… micromanagement!
Like with water seeking the lowest point, these nodes and bellies form the path of least impedance for the tea leaves. The laid out path of least impedance limits the statistical likelihood of totally random outcomes. And underlying that, there are also limits to what is allowed.
The individual tea leaves bouncing on the wave-bellies of a resonating plate surface, have no knowledge of the larger pattern and they don’t need to have that. The tea leaves simply follow the path of least impedance, the order becomes apparent on an emergent level.
The role of a product designer is not just to design a product, but also to simultaneously think of the production process. The better the design and management, the less managers are necessary. So, in general, integrating micromanagement is a good idea.
You could actually see the Chladni-pattern formation as a feedback loop process. The uniform symmetric vibration cycles of the spring-plate provides a fine gridded sequential series of nudges, and each cycle of vibration the curvature of the plate determines the direction the individual tea leave will jump to. And because the plate is a spring where every cycle is the same, the chain of nudges will keep moving the tea leave in a specific direction until it reaches a nodal line. The shape is already there, the tea leaves are not.
To see the feedback loop here, you could imagine it as a conditional program. Like logic gates that sit inside the vibrating plate that micro-control the movement of individual tea leaves. Something like:
(program pattern formation)
1 DO nudge displacement towards closest nodal line
2 IF = nodal line GOTO line 4
3 ELSE: GOTO line 1
4 STOP (stops nudge displacement, but it may still bounce)
The output of this program would be a Chladni pattern, the lowest free energy state, the (dynamic) equilibrium of the tea leaves that are gathered in the nodal valleys.
This feedback process is convergent; each swing cycle the micromanagement feedback loop compares the current state to the end-state. The begin state and the steps, the paths towards the pattern are allowed to be rather random. Funnel and attractor; the nudging process is the funnel, the nodal valley lines in the plate are the attractor.
Notice that after the pattern has formed, the displacement of tea leaves stops, while the vibration of the plate itself doesn’t have to. Or phrased differently: the pattern does not evolve anymore, while the bouncing motion of individual leaves remains; resolution.
The movement of the tea leaves towards the position where together they form a pattern, can be interpreted as agency driven, as purposeful, as if there is a goal, and so you enter the realm - or as many might say ‘slippery slopes’ - of teleology.
I suspect many biological processes (e.g. embryology, intelligence) harness these ‘agency-driven’ programs, where the goal-shape is regulated via simple mechanical or electrical spring properties that can function as logic gates, as conditional programs to stop growth at a certain shape, while the input conditions stay the same (this might even be a more powerful idea, because of its implications).
Sometimes these programs are damaged. Cancer tumours have no intrinsic limit on size, the boundary conditions of a goal state are missing. They are like the emergent murmuration of starlings, a dynamically stable state without a goal state, with no intrinsic limit on shape or size.
Just like the tea leaves on the plate follow the path of least impedance, improvising jazz musicians experience that they ‘automatically’ find a route towards resolution of a musical phrase. In real-time. They have an intrinsic knowledge, a library of subroutines they can experiment with, with which they can travel the path of choice towards resolution.
I think the ‘fun’ of improvising arises when you feel the randomness, the freedom, is manageable, but not too manageable. You can surprise yourself. You feel safe, comfortable, but the randomness keeps you alert. You also see this in sports where the rules are clear, but all games are different because of the ‘built in’ randomness; manageable, but not too manageable.
This suggests that for managers, politicians, or whoever, it is a good idea to invest in education and training. They generate intrinsic knowledge and skills that provide the freedom to cope with randomness, which will /might raise intrinsic motivation.
An important insight for designers (or managers, or politicians, or whoever), is that the micromanagement is integrated in the structure, in this case in the structure of the bass. This means the knowledge that gets inherited by the energy while it dissipates through the bass, is intrinsic to the bass. You only need to tune the knowledge into the bass once, and after that it is accessible many times.
You do not have to alter the bass to access a different pattern, you only have to change the input by playing and the corresponding pattern, the corresponding subroutine, will emerge ‘automatically’. There is no extra knowledge needed, it is all there.
The system of the bass or plate with tea leaves or a business or a society, can be generalized to a black box that processes some input and generates some output. The input will inherit properties of the black box. The black box + input may be my workplace where I transform materials into basses, the world population + a virus, a plant seed + nutrition and sunlight etc.
A seemingly very simple rectangular plate turns out to be a rather complex ordering mechanism. And it is predictable and reliable
So, this is one way of looking at it; an acoustic musical instrument is (usually?) some kind of solid shape device, that harnesses spring properties to ‘tune’ rather random energy input into a predictable, regular vibration, a sound.
You can rely on the instrument to react the same if you play it the same way again. Playing the instrument is done by changing the spring properties, like shortening a string or closing a valve on a trumpet. Other instruments have dedicated springs for each note, so the player channels the energy through this particular single note system; think of a piano, xylophone, Pan flute, harp, drum kit etc.
Notice you don’t need a living creature nor intelligence, you don’t need a designer to get a musical instrument. Wind blowing over a mountain cave is already a flute.
The deeper idea here is that you cannot have matter without inheritable properties, it does not exist, or better; we cannot know of it to exist, because no knowledge can be gained /inherited about it. It would be an idea at most.
Seen from that perspective, and because (all?) materials have a degree of elasticity, the generation of order is inevitable.
Knowledge tends to get inherited during interaction, mostly by the less resilient actor; like with the wind blowing over an opening of a natural mountain cave causing a Helmholtz-resonance. Wind is comparable to ‘white noise’, an ffffff-sound which caries no specific tonal information, the air inherits properties of the cave and more important, order appears from the interaction. On the other hand, seen from a geological timescale, the cave inherits properties via wind erosion. Seen from our human perspective, the cave is a predictable and reliable musical instrument.
As an instrument maker who is inspired by the Actor Network Theory (ANT) that was popularised by (among others) the late philosopher Bruno Latour (1947-2022), I tend to see our universe as a network of interactions.
Ever since the birth of the universe, matter, information and energy have been spreading out in an ever ongoing chain of cause and effect. Interacting, arranging and rearranging into different compositions. The network is the collection of all paths in this cause and effect chain. A major queste of our time is how the network processes information.
Resonances play an important role in this network, because resonances are paths of least impedance that create local order, even from random input. They process information while passing /merging knowledge. Our biological sensory system relies on resonances. And so does the bass I designed and well, lots of things do; nature, culture etc.
The job of an instrument maker is to shape the energy/information-channelling ‘memory-function’. This actually boils down to defining boundary conditions that are in essence not very different from the principle of shortening the string’s length when playing the bass, only more permanent, meaning, as an instrument maker I shave off wood to alter the resonant properties which is permanent; a bass player shortens the string while playing, which is not permanent.
This article is about predictability and reliability in design. Another important association to make here is routines. Routines, like brushing your teeth or playing the bass. Routines can be seen as modules, a ‘task’ that you unwind until resolution. The goal – like brushing teeth until clean - is clear, and if you are not a robot, the exact procedure and outcome may (will) vary.
It makes sense for musicians to converge to certain standardizations. There is this set of skills you learn to play the bass; there is the memory of physical gestures, of ergonomics. This allows building a repertoire of knowledge and skill, and - in a broader sense, of a cultural phenomenon that anchors in society. You can for instance study the bass at a conservatory of music. The word conservatory literally refers to a place dedicated to conservation. A memory.
The bass is an established instrument. This cultural consensus, this convention, this hybrid set of concepts and routines, this reliable understanding of what a bass is, makes that learning to play the bass becomes a relatively attractive investment. In other words, the impedance to learn to play the bass is apparently low enough for people to learn to play the bass. Resonance occurs where impedance is minimal (per definition). The bass resonates with society.
A bassist can generally pick up any bass and play it, because basses are standardized, they are all copies with more or less the same basic properties. Basses nowadays have standardized repertoire, standardized string lengths like 3/4 or 4/4. All this matches the routines from your memory; a resilient network of concepts and routines offers predictability and reliability.
The standardization itself probably was just a natural process; bassists play the models that survived the tests of evolution.
Evolution in a hyper-materialistic worldview like ANT, treats life as part of the network of cause and effect, where evolution - biological and non-biological – can be seen as the apparent path of least impedance. Inheritance of order, of knowledge, plays a big role in evolution. Apparently the chain of cause and effect we have, was the most likely to occur (else it would have evolved differently).
The bass I designed may look different. The boundary conditions for an electric upright bass are different from an acoustic.
When stripping redundant requirements like the large body surface to set air in motion, you get a wider set of possibilities; like the murmuration of starlings that have no definite shape. The job of the designer is to define and implement boundary conditions that converge it to an electric upright bass. The key boundary condition that is removed is the large body surface that resonates with air. It couples with piezo-pickups that convert the vibrational information /energy into an electric signal that can be amplified by an amplifier and speaker.
As it comes to the conventions like string length, thickness of the neck, D-stop, ergonomic posture, operation of tuning strings, nothing really changed. It is of course a lot lighter and more compact; the goal defines the path.
As illustrated above with the Chladni-patterns, there is a (local) evolution from randomness to order; you can give an instrument like a bass a rather random input by plucking a string, and the instrument with its designed boundary conditions, will funnel this energy to a single ordered note consisting of the base frequency and its lively timbre of overtones. These musical notes travel through air, you hear them, they resonate through your brain and excite emotional routines, recall and create memories, trigger your motor cortex, you start to dance …
Life without music, would be an error