This piece of audio changed the way I experience the world.
“Using Toys to Make Music” was produced by Heather Roberts and Mike Mellenthin in a sophomore-level class at Stanford in 2008. Just so you know: It runs a little on the long side; the audio quality is not fantastic; it was made by college students. Somehow, though, this piece made me notice the difference between noise and music, and as soon as I started noticing it, I could not un-notice it.
Like many great radio documentaries, this story introduced me to an "audiotastic" subculture that I had not really known about. In this case, it’s people who dis-assemble mechanical toys to make strange music. Some of the music is crazy; some of the people are crazy. But rather than taking you into the
culture and saying “Look at how crazy all of this is!” the piece asks a simple, pertinent question: Where is the line between “music” and “noise,” and how does that line move so far toward “noise” for this subculture?
The answer is elegant: [spoiler alert!] Everyone prefers music that can strike a balance between predictability and novelty - for little kids, very simple songs do this well, but adults’ brains require more complexity, in order for music to stay interesting. Once a person gets a taste for complexity, there’s no limit to how weird it can get... insert here: hyper-glitchy noise music.
When you listen to this piece, you’ll learn something about your tastes in music, but also about the nature of preferences. It reaches beyond the subject-at-hand into the realm of absolute truths. It applies to everything: Too foreign = overwhelming. Too predictable = boring. This is the Goldilocks formula for good experiences.
This piece might sound like complete noise when you start listening, but eventually it strikes the perfect balance. You spend your whole life looking for that balance, whether you know it or not.
“Using Toys to Make Music
Piece 3 from SSP's No Work and All Play
Produced in 2008 by Heather Roberts and Mike Mellenthin for Stanford Storytelling Project
photo via flickr