2.1 PHYSIOLOGY: sound and vision

Human beings are primarily physical beings for whom touch is the ultimate confirmation of reality. For objects beyond the range or perception of touch, sight is the next most important experiencer; seeing being believing. The role of sound in our hierarchy of perception is much more confused. Because of its inferior spatial focus our sense of hearing is less trustworthy than sight as an animal defence against danger, only pushed into prominence when sight is denied or blocked. The physicality of sound waves, especially the blood pulse, and the resonance of voice throughout the body however, confuses the issue. Not so useful as sight on a basic level of survival it is nonetheless in some ways more deeply tied to our psyches through its tangible physicality, its more direct links with the signs of life. This confusion has made the world of sound a deeper, more affecting, yet more mysterious one than that of light.

To further complicate matters the development of language made sound the more accurate expresser of human consciousness, while drawing skills were still limited. Language has remained slippery however, ambiguous and inaccurate, it is better for abstract representations. Accurate pictures became worth more than a thousand words in describing objects in the world. The development of writing confused the relationship further. A visual form of language, it had a power over distance and time that was not available to sound until the telegraph and the phonograph.

Music as language

Music, rhythm and song, born out of this haze, retains its essential confusion. The heartbeat of rhythm and the cry of song are a deep and fundamental part of human experience. Tied to language it becomes a way of relating experience, real or fictive, on a level of intensely basic almost unconscious emotions. Music has the power to charm snakes and lead rats[^1] and yet it remains for humanity somehow secondary to the visual world, influencing it as if from below. Music becomes the backgrounder to the foreground information of sight, which serves in turn to give context to the narrative of language.

The sight of music

Music as primary experience has always had a visual element. As part of religious ritual, dance, or story-telling music has been ever tied to a visual event to give it meaning. Even when used in shamanistic ritual as a device to attain the trance state it is designed to open the gate to an internal psychedelic visual experience.

Throughout its history dance has ritualised and contained the physical rhythm of life and sex. It structures and controls, using movement as a language to convey ideas. This formalising has made the music of dance into a visually meaningful event, both for the spectator and the participant, independent of the music’s production. In the twentieth century, despite the continual upsurge of 'dance crazes', dance has undergone a process of increasing de-formalisation. In the club / rave culture of recent times, dance has become a totally personal event that largely denies the visual. Attempts have been made, in the wake of this movement, to increasingly make up for the lack of internal with strobes, spots, and laser light shows. The installation in many clubs of video walls has in some ways gone too far. The music videos, by their need for totally external focus implicitly deny the internal focus needed for modern personal dance. The connection between sound and vision is restored, but the dance is lost on the periphery. More sensible has been the dance-videos. Videos like “Fame” and MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” act as a kind of educational tool, demonstrating new dance moves, to be learnt at home and then practiced on the dance floor.

With the development of music as a separate art form in recent centuries it has in another way severed its links with the visual, this time much more intentionally. Even in this case however, it must constantly struggle for separation. Orchestras and bands wear fancy uniforms, performers and conductors are encouraged to be flamboyant and visually entertaining if they want to be appreciated by the wider populace (eg. Nigel Kennedy). Concerts are increasingly dominated by special effects and giant video screens as the mass audiences, forced farther and farther from the central visual performance of the artist, demand visual compensation, even when the music is quite clearly audible. Although we continually struggle to take music on its own terms, it seems we are always fighting equally hard in the opposite direction, struggling to make it comprehensible by overlaying it with a visual language with which we are more comfortable.

The development of film and television can in many ways be seen as a direct response to the human need for both sound and vision in communication, that was denied with the invention of equipment to broadcast and record sound but not pictures. Ever since Marconi invented radio and Edison first invented recorded sound, and people were able to experience an almost purely aural event, there have been continual attempts to relink it with the visual. Similarly, when moving pictures were first produced, without sound, many different attempts were made to create sound for it.

The music video was born out of a long line of technological attempts at re-establishing the connection between sound and vision severed by earlier technology, the search for artistic purity, and the complicated and constantly evolving audio-visual needs of dance.

  1. [^1]Both untrue actually. The snakes, which are deaf, are responding to the movement of the flute. The rats that followed the piper were apparently doing so under the influence of a particular herb he had in his pockets (according to the Palmer’s Garden Show).