July 6, 2022–Why are we moved by the blues?

Or a bird trill in nature?

Or the lilt of a violin?

Why is there renewed interest in vinyl records?

In “This Is The Voice,” author John Colapinto presents research conducted in the 1920s that shows humans are attracted to imprecision. Counterintuitively, that imprecision is what makes music–and all art–more alluring.

Psychology Professor Carl Seashore used a then-revolutionary technology of rendering sound as an image, similar to an oscilloscope. For the first time we could “see” pitch.

Psychologists embraced this technology to measure the effect of emotion on speech, but Seashore used it to study an especially emotional style of singing–“negro folk songs,” or, “the blues.”

His team isolated what gives that style of music its emotional power. The surprising finding was that, while to the naked ear the melodies sounded on pitch and in rhythm, they were not anywhere close. Pitches slid above and below the note; the voice attack fell before and after the beat. In other words, the most powerful, emotional blues music was off-beat and off-pitch–imperfect. Imprecise, to be more precise.

This might be expected, given the crude recording techniques and unsophisticated instrumentation of the times. But what was more stunning to researchers was when they recorded opera singers, the exact same phenomena occurred. Even highly-trained castrati exhibited the same sliding pitches and and alterations of the beat.

The researchers referred to the goosebump-raising effect as “modulated imprecision.”

Every instrumentalist knows it as “vibrato.” That fluttering in pitch–as much as a semi-tone in each direction–is the basis for all emotional expression in the voice or music. The technique is employed in every genre, from the rock guitar god bending his strings to the jazz trombonist fluttering the slide.

They’ve even measured the optimal rate to be five to seven oscillations per second. Any faster and it sounds irritating; slower and it turns maudlin.

Interestingly, our brains don’t hear this music as being off pitch. Rather, we interpret it as a single tone.

If you are skeptical, consider music that does not give you goosebumps. A short list might include disco, world music, techno-pop, and any highly-produced product, including much contemporary country and rock. Most of the commercial music produced these days uses software to auto-correct any pitch variation and to quantize, or move every instrument to land perfectly on the beat.

You can test the theory yourself by listening to early Beatles music. When I pulled out old recordings, I was surprised at the lack of production values we’ve come to expect. Not all the instruments landed exactly on the beat, sometimes there are missing chords, and the vocals are unmanipulated. Yet the songs retain their freshness over half a century later, more-so than many that came after.

What’s going on?

Theorists believe our preference for imperfection is based in nature, where the same vibrato is heard in every creature from the canary’s warble to the whale’s whine, to mother’s cooing baby talk.

“Modulated imprecision” manifests in art and science as well.

When I visited the National Gallery of Art, I was unprepared for the rough topography of works by the great masters. Nothing I had studied on glossy, coated, uniformly-sized stock in art textbooks reflected the raw reality of piles of paint and irregularity of lines visible at a close-up study of a masterpiece.

Similarly, over in the science building (coincidentally located next to Seashore Hall, named after the University of Iowa professor), I learned that measuring minute amounts of mass on a triple-beam balance requires keeping the pointer oscillating evenly on either side of zero. If the pan becomes perfectly still, the measurement is imperfect.

Somehow, this revelation gives me comfort. How much energy do we expend in life striving for perfection? According to this “new” way of perceiving reality, all of us have already achieved and surpassed “perfection.” We have achieved imprecision.

You are not perfect. You never will be. You never needed to be.

Isn’t that perfect?