by Mitchell A. Cotter

 ©September 1984

Man's ability to communicate past experience and thought has brought us to our present day world. The vehicle of communication, that common union with the past, is man's various natural languages. These languages may be divided into two types, the utility languages of the spoken and written word and the arts. The important "oral tradition", which had been communicated from generation to generation, was apparently accompanied by "musical" qualities and other art forms, even in the earliest forms. Sumerian writings of the Fourth Millennium B.C. show "musical " notation in conjunction with hymns and poetic language; examples of musical instruments go back very much earlier. The word music, which comes from the Old Greek, originally referred to all the arts, the work of the nine Muses (chief among them Calliope, the one related to what we today call "music"). Thus the word "music" originally meant cultivation of the mental processes, as contrasted to the "Gymnastic", or, cultivation of the physical body or outside world. Art and utility languages, in the ancient world, were not as separated as they are today.

The use of written language encouraged the separation of music from the communication of spoken ideas. As written languages developed, some of the oral tradition and its musical aspects were lost (Old Hebrew and some other languages still include "musical" intonational and rhythmic scripts). The common languages eventually became the "utility" languages of the present; the arts developed as an expression of feelings and thoughts apart from the structure of spoken or written language.

The "oral tradition" of past human communities bears a close relationship to present poetry, song, and music in that it included elements of the arts mixed with and accompanying the spoken word in order to convey concepts, ideas, and experiences that cannot be conveyed by the spoken word alone. The arts carry many important feelings, thoughts, ideas that are different from those expressible in the normal structure of the utility languages. Even in literature, which is language as an art form, the challenge is to evoke feelings beyond mere spoken or written language. In poetry a somewhat musical form is used to further abstract and extend the expressive possibilities of the spoken or written word. The arts, though different from the utility languages, are also natural languages, and thus a most important part of man's heritage.

The "natural” aspect of human language is now recognized as deriving from basic inborn properties of man's mind and nature. Linguistic researches have shown many cognitive structural identities exist across languages of even highly differing roots. These developments have greatly aided in translating languages and in understanding both the similar and the differing human cultural character of various peoples. Classical Western music has been shown to evoke similar emotional responses in people of totally different culture and language who had no previous contact with Western language or music. Attractive as these basic ideas may be, very little study of music has been done using linguistic concepts. The origins of both ordinary language and music from the various natural properties of the human mind is an important area of study for an understanding of human civilization.

Like the spoken word, music developed an "aural tradition", that was communicated from generation to generation, performer to performer in a manner like oral tradition. Song and music-by-instruments eventually developed their own written languages. These languages, which cannot convey the musical expression or the manner of performance, are deficient as carriers of the musical arts and have long been supported by "aural tradition" in a long chain of direct contacts.

Since the late 19th Century, however, the development of sound recording and electrical transmission and reproduction of sound has profoundly influenced this tradition. Today people experience music most often through the media--records, radio, movies, and TV, all of which have serious flaws that distort, change, and coarsen the artistic content.

What effects has this produced? The question is all the more significant because the media are controlled by forces quite apart from and outside the world of art and artists...forces that compel art to conform to their needs, instead of conforming to the needs of art. The result is that many of the most important aspects of musical art have nearly been lost. Technique and mere note-playing virtuosity have often replaced the intense expressive communication of human values, which may not easily come through in the media, and especially not with most record playing systems. The music-loving audience has been subjected to such music-making for so long that it is losing its powers of discrimination and is no longer accustomed to or listening for the finer details. Some acousticians have imitated the poorly reproduced recorded sound in the design of new halls.

Music communicates so much both past and present of that human spirit which we need to better understand, that the loss of such ideas and the adulteration of such an important aspect of our minds and history cannot be tolerated. Is it possible that in overwhelmingly developing the physical "Gymnastic" we are in danger of distorting and destroying the mental realm of the Muses? The problem exists as an imperative concern today because of the many subtle forms in which technology is employed in our lives. Music in live performance as well as composition has been affected, yet few take much notice. We are losing both a fragile aural tradition and a limited written musical language to the vagaries of an immature technology of sound recording and reproduction.

It is clear to the author and to many other workers in the field that present processes of sound recording and reproduction seriously alter the musical ideas communicated by a performance. The results threaten our musical heritage and interfere with the natural language characteristics of music.

This grave situation urgently requires further study. Among the symptoms is the increasing reliance of musicians upon recordings and reproduction equipment to carry the aural tradition as complement to the teacher and the written music score. The errors in this process have already had a strong influence on the present interpretation and performance of music. Indeed, in "popular " music some sound reproducing equipment is used to create the "live" performance! "P.A." systems abound in music halls and theatres; "instruments" have been modified to develop the sound of the distortions of reproducing equipment. A "live" performance with such an instrument is at least still directed and controlled by the musician-performer. In recordings of both popular and to a lesser extent classical music the multichannel recording medium has been used to produce a result that is manipulated later, after the "performances”. A record of a "performance" is produced that was not created by the "performers" and indeed did not exist until the "mixdown" result was created by someone often not even identified. Further, this result was created with some playback studio equipment (also often not identified) of doubtful similarity to the varied equipments used by the public to listen to recordings. What are we hearing? What music? What musical ideas? And by whom?

The negative effects arise (1) from the various "editing' processes applied along the chain in producing what we finally hear, and (2) from technical imperfections in the sound recording, transmission and, particularly, sound reproducing processes and equipment. Such imperfections seriously alter the musical ideas. The direct impact of all this upon both performer and audience that receive their music largely through the media is enough cause to lose no time in making an effort to improve the accuracy in all these processes both for future recordings as well as to retrieve (i.e., restore) the content of existing recordings.

We thus have a need for a kind of art restoration for the playback process. Oddly, such restoration is even necessary with currently recorded material--but the vast library of recorded music makes this need even greater and more necessary. Our store of recorded music includes among other sources about one million different commercially recorded performances. Not even the courts of all the kings and princes of the past could equal the scope of such a sonic treasury. These recordings, though made during the last hundred years, represent virtually the entire range or performance styles and periods in music known to us which were handed down by means of the aural tradition. The performances of important deceased artists who carried the musical ideas of the past through direct contacts are still accessible in their recordings. Can this library give a true picture of the musical heritage? Potentially through "restoration" there is far more to be heard than has been possible before.

Some efforts to understand the effects of these technologies and to uncover the "natural" language of music as preserved through the aural tradition have begun in limited measure. The Anstendig Institute in San Francisco has for some years been able to demonstrate revealing important musical differences in partially restored recordings of a number of well-known classical artists. Due to limitations in their resources, they have concentrated on developing only a few of the techniques of restoration, notably "equalization" techniques. Composer Virgil Thomson has enthusiastically welcomed their restoration of older recordings of his works, as well as those of the works of colleagues, and has assisted in locating and acquiring the necessary records and also gave personal recommendations and introductions to further their effort. Other efforts of this kind have been undertaken by several music connoisseurs. David Richardson of Los Angeles recently completed a music playback room and system designed by the author that many have judged to be the finest such facility. These efforts at art restoration for recorded music have pointed the way to realizing that vast potential of the existing recorded music library. Those efforts have shown the value and significant impact that further work can have on the future of music and our understanding of ourselves.

Though we are beginning to understand the "natural" cognitive structure of human utility languages and thereby of our minds, efforts to likewise develop such understanding of the arts and the human mind have not begun as well. Commercial pressures exerted through powerful technologies have in a quickened pace already affected our lives and perceptions with little reflection upon man's history and nature, with many possible negative consequences. There is therefore great need and urgency to begin developing our understanding and to preserve our fragile musical heritage for that effort and for the future.

At least the following projects should be launched to correct this long neglect:

(1) The first step is the preservation and restoration of what already exists. The efforts of researchers such as those at The Anstendig Institute to recover and preserve the musical values of existing recordings needs to be expanded. A center for the development of such musical art restoration should be undertaken. This center should be equipped to study all the technical and musical aspects and have a fully funded permanent research staff.

(2) Auditoria need to be built especially suited to the various musical needs of musicians, musicologists, and the public. These music halls will function as "reading rooms" or "museums" of results achieved by research and restoration works.

(3) Further research on music recording, reproduction, and transmission needs to be done and the product of such work widely disseminated via reports, books, and teaching efforts which will train other researchers; information and teaching efforts should be especially directed at music industry personnel to help educate them in these findings and hopefully to improve the quality of their media; the public must be reached with the results of these efforts through public performances in auditoria like those referred to and by teaching efforts directed at universities and music schools.