A positive review of an introductory text on psychoacoustics, a subject which should be of interest to anyone seeking answers to why instruments sound the way they do. This article originally appeared in American Lutherie.
Last updated: September 11, 2018
edited by Perry R. Cook
The MIT Press ISBN 0-262-03256-2
reviewed by R.M. Mottola
Copyright (C) 2001 by R.M. Mottola
[Originally published in American Lutherie #67, Fall 2001]
Wisdom, like beauty, is where you find it, and a beautiful bit of wisdom is tucked into page 10 of American Lutherie #42. Here is found a thought, presented in a letter by Pamela Stanley-Rees. On the topic of the frequency response of instruments, Ms. Stanley-Rees opines that it is wise to always consider the response characteristics of the human ear and auditory system when evaluating the response characteristics of an instrument. She states:
Without the man in the loop, all of our instruments are just trees that have had a bad day.
This thought as presented by Ms. Stanley-Rees is axiomatic, to me at least, and I try to let it inform my own design work. There is little sense in putting effort into working on aspects of the tone of an instrument that, although measurable and therefore present, cannot be perceived by human beings listening to that instrument. The problem this presents to the designers of musical instruments of course is that in addition to what we know and learn about instrument design, we must also learn something about how the human auditory system perceives musical sound.
Psychoacoustics is the name of the field of study of how human beings perceive sound. Possessing a hodge podge of bits of information on this subject, I have promised myself for a long time that I would find a good introductory text on psychoacoustics and read it through, to start at least a more complete understanding of the field. Having plowed through Cook’s book recently I can state that this work is indeed a worthy introduction to this topic. Intended as a textbook for a second year introductory college course on psychoacoustics, this book is comprehensive as well as accessible to anyone with the rudiments of music theory and a bit of high school physics under his or her belt. It is surprisingly free of math- by my reckoning there appears only one real formula in the entire book, that for Fourier transforms, which can be skipped over to no ill effect on one’s understanding of the subject as presented.
Chapters are written by subject matter experts and include explanations of ear physiology, brain processing of sound, perception and differentiation of pitch, loudness and timbre, musical memory, and a number of other relevant topics. It concludes with a succinct and very clearly written chapter on the design of experiments in psychoacoustics and scientific experimentation in general. The entire book is well annotated with references to authoritative texts and the research literature.
There are a number of illustrative examples which even outside of their descriptive utility fall into the category of interesting and fun facts. Here is just one:
There are very few people who have perfect (absolute) pitch, which is estimated as occurring in 1 out of every 10,000. Even relative pitch is pretty rare in the general population. But in a study performed in 1994, college students were asked impromptu to sing their favorite song, and 67% of the subjects came within two semitones of the correct pitch of the initial note.
There are numerous other such fascinating tidbits throughout the book.
There were really only two shortcomings I could find with this work. Although perfectly clear and descriptive, the drawings throughout were all done with some low resolution computer based drawing program which gives them a very hokey look. This is a minor point indeed, but I at least could hope that a book selling for the price that this one sells for could have drawings made with the same care as was taken with the rest of the production. And speaking of the price, that is itself the second shortcoming of the book. Sixty-some-odd dollars is not at all out of line for a college textbook, but casual readers may find the price falls outside of their range for discretionary book purchases.
Does the book contain anything that is immediately and directly useful to the task of building stringed instruments? The answer is probably not. But for me at least a basic understanding of how we hear, what we hear, and perhaps more important, what we don’t hear, will be useful in the design and evaluation of my own instruments and in the evaluation and comparison of instruments in general. I am glad to have read it, have already pursued some of the referenced papers, and expect to refer to it often in the future.