Violin-making: Older and richer

Violin-making is flourishing, but the 450-year-old ones are still the best

Violin-making: Older and richer | The Economist.


Violins are no longer annoying!

My Turntable: SME Model 10

For many years I have avoided listening to recorded chamber music, especially string quartets, despite being a classical music lover. As much as I would enjoy Beethoven’s symphonic works, I almost had to force myself to become more acquainted with his chamber music. This aversion was completely (and mysteriously) blown away, once I invested in a nice turntable and an all-tube phono preamplifier and started listening to vinyl records. Pieces that used to cause me unexplainable “listening fatigue” when played from CD are now somehow a great source of pleasure when played from LPs. String instruments made this difference blatantly obvious to me.

However, I’m still unable to precisely articulate the specific differences in terms of sound characteristics between vinyl and digital. Somehow the former strikes an emotional chord with me, which the latter doesn’t. Good recordings on vinyl somehow manage to convey the “living presence” of an instrument, especially the violin. I own a wonderful LP reissue of Jascha Heifetz playing Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata. This recording is perhaps 50 years old, which would generally suggest a number of technical imperfections and there is indeed a small amount of tape hiss noticeable. However,¬† the illusion of Jascha Heifetz playing in my listening room is near-perfect. Every time is listen to this record, I literally get goosebumps. My own rather inexplicable¬† response made me wonder what the science is behind this “vinyl phenomenon”.

A great deal has been written about the differences in characteristics of analog and digital recordings. Many publications advocating vinyl playback were often explaining records in almost meta-physical terms whereas digital supporters firmly believed that vinyl is an old and technically inferior format and that analog lovers are all “audiophiliacs”, rather than “audiophiles”. There still appears little common ground between these two camps and for a while I wasn’t sure as to what to believe. Had it not been for my own experience, I would probably still be inclined to believe in the CD’s proclaimed “perfect sound forever”.

So, I started my quest for “evidence” by googling all possible angles of this topic. James Boyk’s article, There’s life above 20Kilohertz!, turned out to the first promising step. Boyk asserts that many instruments have harmonics that extend well above the 20kHz limit, in the case of the violin going above 50kHz. Now, why would this this even be relevant, as humans can only hear – in the best case – sounds up to 20kHz? Oohashi at al. claims in his seminal paper, Inaudible High-Frequency Sounds Affect Brain Activity: Hypersonic Effect (published in The Journal of Neurophysiology Vol. 83 No. 6 June 2000, pp. 3548-3558), that ultrasonic sounds have an impact on humans after all:

“Despite the fact that nonstationary HFCs [high-frequency components] were not perceived as sounds by themselves, we demonstrated that the presentation of sounds that contained a considerable amount of nonstationary HFCs (i.e., FRS) significantly enhanced the power of the spontaneous EEG activity of alpha range when compared with the same sound lacking HFCs (i.e., HCS). In parallel experiments employing exactly the same stimulus and methods, PET rCBF measurement revealed that FRS activated the deep-lying brain structures, including the brain stem and thalamus, compared with HCS. In addition, subjective evaluation by questionnaire revealed that FRS intensified the subjects’ pleasure to a significantly greater extent than HCS did. We conclude, therefore, that inaudible high-frequency sounds with a nonstationary structure may cause non-negligible effects on the human brain when coexisting with audible low-frequency sounds. We term this phenomenon the “hypersonic effect” and the sounds introducing this effect the “hypersonic sound.” We do not think that the hypersonic effect is specific to the sound material used in the present study because we previously confirmed, by EEG analysis, that the same effect can be introduced by different sound sources containing a significant amount of nonstationary HFCs (e.g., Oohashi et al. 1994)”

This finding would suggest that frequency content above 20kHz could very well contribute to a perception of sound quality in any audio recording. Given that, I believe it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that the 22kHz frequency limit of the Redbook CD may very well be an inherent limitation of the format and perhaps contribute to its “unnatural” sound. On the other hand, vinyl records can contain frequencies well beyond that (for an illustration see the Acousence website)¬† and modern moving-coil phono cartridges can easily reproduce frequencies exceeding 35kHz.

Is this the conclusive evidence then that vinyl is ultimately superior to CD? I think this is not my point. My takeaway is that vinyl playback systems indeed have unique properties, which may be relevant to the way we perceive music. That gives me hope that there is perhaps a very rational explanation for why I find violins so annoying on CD and love their sound so much on LPs.

A New Definition of “Marketing”?

For some time now, I’ve been struggling to find a more concise way of defining “marketing”. There is a great number of mostly casual or circumscriptive definitions, similar to “everything you do to place your product or service in the hands of potential customers”. The American Marketing Association Board of Directors has approved the following definition: “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” However, I feel none of these get to the essence of marketing.

Looking at marketing from a decision-theoretic perspective, I’d like to propose the following: “Marketing is the application of normative decision theory (e.g. as a corporation) in conjunction with descriptive decision theory relating to the customer.”

I welcome further thoughts on this topic. Chances are that somebody else has already phrased this definition in a more precise way and I simply haven’t found it yet.

Marsilio Ficino on the Meaning of Music

I found this excerpt from a letter by the Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino in the booklet accompanying the complete recordings of works for lute by John Dowland. Ficino speaks of the role of virtuosity in Renaissance music-making:

“The soul receives the sweetest harmonies and numbers through the ears, and by these echoes is reminded and aroused to the divine music which may be heard by the more subtle and penetrating sense of mind. According to the followers of Plato, divine music is twofold. One kind, they say, exists entirely in the eternal mind of God. The second is in the motions and order of the heavens, by which the heavenly spheres and their orbits make a marvelous harmony. In both of these our soul took part before it was imprisoned in our bodies. But it uses the ears as messengers, as though they were chinks in this darkness. By the ears, as I have already said, the soul receives the echoes of that incomparable music, by which it is led back to the deep and silent memory of the harmony which it previously enjoyed. The whole soul then kindles with desire to fly back to its rightful home, so that it may enjoy that true music again”.

Somehow this struck a chord with me and I felt it was worth sharing this 500-year-old thought on the meaning of music.

“You can no longer run your old thought programs”

I just came across this interesting epilogue from Ronald A. Howard’s article “The Foundations of Decision Analysis Revisited” in Advances in Decision Analysis: “To me, incorporating the principles and philosophy of decision analysis is not just learning the subject, but more like installing a new operating system in your brain. You can no longer run your old thought programs.” That’s just how I feel as I’m slowly progressing down the Bayesian path. I think I’ve already gone past the point of no return.

Yudkowsky – Bayes’ Theorem


Eliezer S. Yudkowsky provides a rather entertaining (but highly illuminating) explanation of Bayes’ Theorem and its application: Yudkowsky – Bayes’ Theorem.

The exact circumstances of its development in the late 1700s remain unknown, but this long-forgotten theorem of Reverend Thomas Bayes is finally becoming mainstream in analytics applications today.

Will consumer spending really stay down? The New Yorker

James Surowiecki challenges the widely-held belief that consumer behavior has fundamentally changed as a result of the recession.

Will consumer spending really stay down? : The New Yorker.