The Science of Dubstep: James Humberstone at TEDxOxford (Full Transcript)

The human brain loves patterns. We love to find them in the natural world around us; we love to make them, to create them, to put them even under our feet.

I’m lucky enough to work in sound – another art form and science that is full of patterns – here at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, right next to Sydney Harbour. It’s a tough job, but I get to do it and you can’t. And of course, sound is full of patterns from its very most basic essence, not just organised sound, music, but something as simple as a sine wave. (Sine wave sound) So, the sine wave is an interesting sound – it looks very beautiful, it’s a perfect parabola, it’s a lovey pattern for our brains – but it’s not particularly interesting. A more interesting sound might be a sampled flute. (Flute sound)

Now, the flute sound looks a lot more random and crazy, doesn’t it? But if I freeze it, you can actually see that it is a regular repeating pattern. It’s very beautiful. The reason it’s very beautiful is because there is a lot more going on than just a single note. If I flip over to this spectrograph, you can actually see that big, thick orange line in the middle. That’s the fundamental pitch.

If I said to you to sing that note back to me – and you were a confident enough person to sing it back to me and in tune – that’s the note you would sing, that big, thick line. But what about all of those other little lines above? They are overtones. They’re sparkling away above that pitch. You can actually hear them, but you’re perceiving a single note. Now, you might be thinking, ‘James, that’s nonsense. I can only hear one note, and you are referring to it as a note, so stop trying to persuade me.’

I’m going to do a reverse-engineering trick a friend of mine, Adam Maggs, taught me. I will go back to that sine wave – so I can generate that – and I’m going to add a couple of pitches over. You will hear these as a chord (Sine wave sound with overtones). But now if I play a melody, (Melody starts) you will hear a more flute-like sound. And it’s a single tone, not a chord (Melody ends).

And so our brain loves patterns, and patterns in sound are incredibly complex and sophisticated. Let me do it again if you like that I don’t know, I found this amazing and, sort of, a little bit magical. So I will do it one more time.

This time, I will add lots of overtones over the top of that, which will give me more of a string-like sound. So again, the original tone, and I will add lots of overtones. You will hear a big chord (Sine wave sound with overtones) (Melody starts). And now you hear that string-like timbre (Melody ends).

Now of course, humans have been aware that there is all of this amazing stuff going on when we hear pitched sound, for thousand of years, ever since Pythagoras suggested that the ratios in sound might actually unlock the mathematical secrets of the universe.

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So, even if we just look at the simplest ratio, if I take a single frequency and I double it, I get the note an octave above (Sine wave sound). And if I halve it, I get the note an octave below (Sine wave sound). And if we look at all of those magical sparkling overtones in a beautiful sound like the sound of a sampled flute, (Flute sound) all of those overtones that are shimmering and giving us that timbre, they are at specific ratios: the octave, the octave and a fifth, two octaves, two octaves and a major third. It’s all going on there. Now, knowing this, today, we can actually play with this as a compositional device.

So what I can do is, if I take something like my violin tone – that I made before that stringy tone – and I drop it down a couple of octaves – I will do that (Sine wave sound dropping). So it’s like a nice bassy sound, now. And if I filter out those higher overtones and bring them back in, I can play that like an expression (Pulsing sine wave sound) (Rhythm starts) (Sine wave sound and rhythm end). And of course, that is some of the science of dubstep.

Now, I want to suggest to you that music itself is extremely important, not just because an individual sound is so incredibly interesting, but because in a piece of music, where we organize lots of sounds together, we are actually thinking completely abstractly.

Unlike other arts, we can’t see things, there aren’t concrete things for us to hold onto, it’s sound passing through time. So if we’re going to find X, then what we need to do is learn to think abstractly. If we’re going to literally think outside the box, we need to be able to do things like connect ideas that came before to ideas that come afterwards, to take individual sounds and put them together. And I honestly do believe that music is a truly magical thing. So I decided to try and prove this in my TED Talk by doing something a little bit risky: some audience participation.

It’s a TED first, and I decided that you would be the first ever TED audience to compose a piece of music – naturally it’s going to be dubstep, given my title – and – ‘oh no’, said some – and not only that, but I would set myself a compositional challenge to make that as difficult for you as possible, and then I’m going to premiere it on stage, and I’m giving myself about 4 minutes to do this, so I got to move fairly quickly. I’m just going to switch the monitor over to my laptop over here, and I have got a computer program set up to record the music that you all are going to help me design, and I have created this little slide.

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