Is the waveform the optimal visual cue symbolizing music?
That is the question to which Rob Walker, a friend and a contributing writer to The New York Times Sunday Magazine, replied at length in his designobserver.com blog earlier this month. (Disquiet.com doesn’t have a “belatedly” tag, and this post is a good reason to consider adding such a thing.)
In the course of pondering the rise of the waveform as a visual icon for music, he generously quoted me and referenced this site multiple times: on comparing the waveforms of winners and losers of a Steve Reich remix contest (one example shown up top), on “looking at” the sound of fireworks, in discussion (on Twitter) with Ken Ueno on his album cover, and other related subjects.
The DesignObserver piece, titled “Stealth Iconography: The Waveform,” is a fascinating treatment of the subject, tying together the logos of sites like Freesound.org and Soundcloud.com, both of which feature a waveform, to the waveform’s appearance in jewelry and contemporary art. As he says toward the opening, the rise of the waveform “can be gauaged by the fact that it has inspired some to de-digitize it into the physical world.” Here, for example, is a proposed “waveform labeling system” suggested by designer Joshua Distler. Each track on a Björk album is identified by its waveform, title, and numerical sequence:
Just to continue the discussion, a few thoughts:
¶ Music v. Sound: It’s great that Freesound.org is recognized in the article for having employed the waveform prior to Soundcloud.com’s launch. It’s important not only as a means to track the image’s trajectory, but also because it broadens the waveform’s meaning. I entirely agree with Rob that the waveform is a useful visual icon for music — and I think its application is fundamentally broader, applying to sound. Music being organized sound — thank you, Varèse — the waveform’s utility in serving as a marker for both “music” and “sound” emphasizes what they have in common, and that any perceived distinctions occur along a continuum.
¶ Data Visualization: The waveform-image propagation has something to do with the exploding interest in data visualization — what exactly, I am not sure; I’m still wrapping my head around it. To talk about the sound waveform right now is to back up and talk about the rise of data visualization. No doubt to Edward Tufte’s dismay, the enginneer-mediated society in which we now live is flooded with nifty vibrant charts of all sorts of data — from cloud formations of frequently used terms in political debates, to blinky-blinky grids of product consumption, etc. It’s like we’re all part of some grand quantitative sociological research project. The problem being: these charts don’t necessarily have any specific meaning intended. We’re at a “look what we can do” stage that reduces much data visualization to the practical utility of a laptop screensaver or T-shirt design: colorful visuals, signifying nothing, with the added deficit of being so impossibly beautiful that it takes you awhile to realize there isn’t much to take away from them. They provide the illusion of meaning. We know our culture is technologically mediated. We sense that we can know more about our world by crunching the data and looking at it in new ways, that data visualization will answer old questions in new ways. The waveform seems like a succinct, utilitarian realization of this concept.
¶ The Equalizer: The waveform’s strongest pop-cultural precedent goes back at least to the days of the high-fidelity home stereo system, specifically to the standalone graphic equalizer, which let you control aspects of your sound at a much more nuanced level than just dual treble and bass knobs, and which in some systems showed you what the music “looked like” in terms of where sound levels peaked at various points along the spectrum.
¶ Sketching Sound: This idea of “what sound looks like,” moving beyond the waveform, is part of the synaesthesia inherent in so-called “sound art.” The idea is the reason I started the “Sketches of Sound” series here back in April 2010, and why I was especially glad that, amid drawings of kazoos and synthesizers, artist Gustavo Alberto Garcia Vaca opted to present a sine wave.
Read the full piece by Rob Walker on waveforms at designobserver.com. (There are some interesting comments on the post, too, about the relation between the waveforms and the EKG readout, and about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s praise for Ernst Chladni.)