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.

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.

Normally, if any of you have learned a musical instrument, you will know that you’ve got to do these really wonderful things called scales and learned exciting things called key signatures. Normally, when we write a piece of music, we pick a scale or a mode, and we pick a key signature. So I’m going to break that to make it as hard for you as possible.

I have decided that we’ll use all twelve chromatic notes of the octave – just in case you’re wondering what that sounds like (Playing twelve notes). Okay? So that’s your musical material. But of course, I’m actually making a point. My point is going to be, by composing with all that music material, that our brains are going to find patterns in it, and they will be able to abstract that out, and you will be able to create a piece of music. So I better pick some people.

Where are Neil’s friends? Weren’t they in the front row? No, no one is admitting to be Neil’s friend, oh yeah? Okay, can I have a couple of numbers? Two Two and – sorry? Five Two and five, brilliant. Okay, so two and five. Is anyone else in the front row who wants to shout out a number?

(Audience: Seven)

Thank you very much. That was a very confident seven, wasn’t it? Alright, so two, five, and seven. It’s nice, it’s sort of suspended. Alright, so I’m going to play those notes. Fantastic. Alright, so I have got my first chord. We will come back to that later. Alright, second chord. Shall we see whether the top balcony can yell some numbers down? Ten Twelve. Ten, twelve And? I heard six first, sorry Okay, ten, twelve – somebody did shout eleven, and that would have been really, really nasty, wouldn’t it? That would have been like: (Playing). Alright, so twelve, ten and six, wasn’t it? Yeah. Ooh That’s sort of diminished and Wagnerian, well done top aisle. Right, we’ll see how that one fits, later. Okay, middle (Audience) Nine! One! Okay I love that you knew I was coming.

That’s brillian.t Nine Okay, I got nine and one and ? (Audience shout numbers) Nine, one, and definitely two people shouted three from two different parts of the balcony, like they’d practiced that. Nine, one, and three. Okay, so – (Playing) Ooh, that’s really horrible as well. Well done It’s like, ‘Hang on, this guy’s come all the way from Australia. Let’s prove him wrong!’

ALSO READ:   Undressing Disability: Emily Yates at TEDxYouth@StPeterPort (Transcript)

Brilliant. Okay, I know there is a load of you planning on shouting out again now, but look, I can just look at the three left, so four – Yes, thanks! So helpful! In case my eyes weren’t working. Oh, look at that! There is a major chord left. That’s really funny. In all my test runs, that never happened.

Okay, well done, TEDxOxford! That’s fantastic composing of four chords. So, now let’s have a listen. Now, remember I gave you impossible musical material, so it’s going to sound weird and odd and wrong, but as you listen to each repetition, your brain is going to go, ‘Ha! There’s a pattern’ – because it’s repeating. And you’re going to like it more, I promise you. Yeah? Not bad.

Now, what I’m going to do is just going to do a little bit production work on that. I’m not going to change your pitches, I promise. And my producer’s fee won’t take much off your royalty. So I’m just going to go and make a bass line because, you know, you can’t make dubstep without a bass line. So what I’m doing here is I have made a copy of your chords, and I’m deleting off some of the upper notes just to leave the lower notes, and I’m going to drop those down a couple of octaves.

So that sounds like this. It’s still your material. Happy with that? Okay, good. Clapping yourselves, it’s your work. I have just moved your chords into a more synthy sound because I want to make it a little bit more Rock ‘n’ Roll, and I’m going to add a few drums – it’s like a cooking show moment – that I prepared earlier.

Okay, this is the premiere of your work. Well done, you! It’s your song I mean, royalty per track divided by 1,800 people less my producer’s fee; you’re not going to get rich but created a whole hall of composers, which is great. I’m just going to back to my slide show. So, all of that from a sine wave, there it is It’s quite hard to bring it back to a serious point now, isn’t it? So why is this important? Why did I decide to come and talk about this? Well, fireworks go off in our mind when we listen to music, when we interact with music, when we compose, when we improvise, when we perform .We know, absolutely, the research has been in for decades, that’s incredibly good for our imaginations, for the growth of our brains, and also for children to develop their own cultural identities.

So as you can imagine, music is absolutely front and centre in all worldwide modern education curriculums. Absolutely front and centre – no, it isn’t. In fact, increasingly, music and the arts are marginalized, and they are marginalized because governments, who direct curriculums despite the fact that they’re not experts in teaching and learning, increasingly pushes towards doing well in standardized testing, first on local levels with individual state by state or country by country standardized testing and then international levels such as PISA. This is considered very important. And of course, the things that those tests check for are important.

Employers tell us, when we do the research, that yes, they want people who can read and write and present themselves and do grammar, and there’s even a little bit of science in those tests nowadays. Apparently, that might be good for the future. Of course, it is It’s ridiculous. But they also want people who can think creatively; they want people who can show initiative; they want resourcefulness.

And we know, from the research I just mentioned, that that comes from arts driven education, and music is the art that can provide a real key to abstract thought. Now, teachers, of course, do get some teacher training. But increasingly, in government-run schools in lots of countries – I’m not just talking about the UK, and I’m not just talking about Australia – there are fewer and fewer specialist music teachers. In my country, in government schools, sometimes as low as 20%, in some states, actually have a specialist music teacher. And the hours that we spend teaching classroom teachers for primary school are going down and down, averaging on 10 to 20 hours out of a whole degree of classroom primary education

So it’s becoming a smaller and smaller part of that preparation to be teachers, and, of course, it follows these national government trends. There are a few countries that are exceptions to this; for instance, Finland, they had to give over 100 hours of training to their primary teachers, in music, before they go and become teachers, and in South Korea, it’s over 200. Funnily enough, those are two countries that actually do quite well in the PISA rankings without actually just having to teach drilling and skilling. So there is some evidence out there that that governments are busy shooting themselves in the feet In high school education – again, I’m talking broadly over the whole world – we have a different kind of problem, we have created a cycle.

I have wonderful amazing students, two of my recent graduates are here today as Andy mentioned, and – one of them is on the screen there – and – I think about 5 to 7% of our high school kids, despite the fact that a 100% of them say they love music, only about 5 to 7% get through to the end of high school. So what we end up with at the end of that is a particular kind of success rate. And that success rate is based on Western art music, and it’s based on learning theoretical music in the way that you would get if you taught at a music conservatorium, as I do And that’s fantastic It’s really brilliant.

But what it means is that when a smaller percentage of them become music teachers, they’re going to probably teach in their own kind of traditions, their own model for success in music education. So we create a cycle of always training kids towards Western art music. And of course, that’s a problem because it’s suggesting that new musical genres, such as dubstep, which you’re now all experts in, are not really legitimate representations of musical culture, and we’re actually devaluing our children’s musical cultures. So I’ve just spent nine months filming a free online course, which I’m going to launch any day now, which looks at all these issues more broadly, not just in music education, but in arts education and 21st-century education, more broadly. And the thing that came out – I went into schools; I went into universities; I looked at research; I met people who are actually electronic music producers themselves; I went to studios – and what came out, of course, is all the obvious stuff that lots of people have been harping on for 100 years, so I’m still not quite sure why no one listens.

Education really must not be this treadmill towards high-stakes standardized testing. And people love learning experientially hands-on. The constructivist music movement has been around for over 100 years. But what we did see in all of these schools where music and the arts were central to the curriculum and the research that we saw was that kids have got fantastic skills of self-expression, and they really could do amazing things – amazing things. Because they could think abstractly, they had found X.

So, my 18 minutes is nearly up I have, hopefully, created a whole room of Beethovens. I have, hopefully, enlightened you a little bit on the science of dubstep. But more importantly, my closing message is that for people like me in education, like you, maybe, around education or just generally around learning communities like schools and colleges, that we really focus on the idea that we must not apologetically advocate for the arts in education. I think the arts, and music especially, can lead all education into the 21st century.