Home » Philosophy » What defines “good” design in the composition of music and the tuning of musical instruments?

What defines “good” design in the composition of music and the tuning of musical instruments?

“Bad design” is one of the most formidable arguments against intelligent design. I’ve responded to this by saying that what constitutes “good design” depends on the goals of the designer. If fuel efficiency is the criteria of good design, then a motorcycle is a better design than an SUV. But some will argue the SUV is a better design for snowy and icy conditions when transporting babies, thus an SUV is a better design. The problem is what constitutes “good design”, and who decides the criteria for good?

[Knowing Elizabeth Liddle, in addition to being a scientist, is a teacher of music theory and an accomplished musician, I thought I'd frame one aspect of the ID discussion in terms of musical ideas and philosophy at TSZ. This essay is a cross post of an discussion originally featured at TSZ.. I thought the discussion there was unusually good relative to the sorts of discussions that usually occur between the UD and TSZ.]

We also have the paradoxical situation where good drama needs a bit of “bad” designed into it. If a great novel told a story with no problems, will it be a good drama?

“Once upon a time there were no problems…there were never any problems or difficulties….they lived happily ever after”.

And for some of those familiar with music, I argue the importance of incorporating “bad notes” in making beautiful designs seems plausible.

Here is a table of musical intervals. The list contains intervals that are called “perfect”. The label of perfect implies the other intervals are considered less than perfect, even the extreme opposite, such as the tritone interval “musica diabolica (the devils’ music)“.

The “musica diabolica” interval is featured in the first two notes of the melody known as “Maria” by Leonard Bernstein. When the word “Ma-ri-a” is sung to Bernstein’s music, the “musica diabolica” interval can be heard in the “Ma-ri” part. But then Berstein transforms the two harsh sounding notes of “Ma-ri” into a 3 beautiful notes of “Ma-ri-a”. We have two imperfect dissonant intervals (“Musica diabloica” combined with a minor-2nd) to make something beautiful. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts in the final effect. Bernstein figured out how to incorporate two imperfect parts into a heavenly design that would not have been otherwise possible using only perfect parts.

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By way of contrast, if musical culture enforced the convention of Gregorian chants using harmonies only with “perfect” intervals, we’d be stuck singing Gregorian chants rather than richly harmonized Christmas carols at Christmas. The resulting music would be sterile and lacking variety and contrast, much like a novel with no drama (where all the characters are perfect and the plot free of drama from start to finish).

Thus a little “bad design” may allow us to experience a greater good that would otherwise not be possible, it just takes a greater level of intelligent design to make that possible.

PS
Here is a nerdy treatment of the topic of “good” design in relation to tuning of musical instruments and personal tastes. It may be insufferably boring to most readers here, so I leave it as a post script.

Greeks found the notion of irrational numbers shocking, and this is reflected by the cultural myth that Hippasus drowned for divulging the secret of irrational numbers, a secret which came from the gods.

The Greeks loved whole numbers. In quantum mechanics and harmonics we see whole numbers to describe certain things. For example, we have quantum numbers that are whole numbers or integers. So what the Greeks perceived in their philosophy is echoed even a the atomic level.

The notion of sounds with small whole number ratios in pitch was very satisfying to the Greeks. Hence, a lot of the way instruments were tuned in the past relied heavily on small whole number ratios (like 2-to-1 and 3-to-2) .

The Ancient Greeks probably would have had a fit if they lived to see how musical tuning evolved in western culture toward “equal temperament”. Equal temperament is based on the 12th root of 2 which is an irrational number. So which design is bad or good for tuning of musical instruments? It seems the question of “good” or “bad” is somewhat in the ear of the beholder.

I like the “irrational” tuning of equal temperament better. It is where western music has evolved. What defines perfection in tuning in my book? A little irrationality…

Unfortunately, videos available on the topic aren’t so good. I link to the best I could find. In the video below, the piano on the left was tuned in meantone temperament. It sounded awful to my ears except when pieces were played in C major.

The piano in the middle I presume was tuned in well temperament (“new” temperament). It wasn’t so bad. No wonder Bach liked it. It approaches equal temperament, but isn’t exactly equal temperament.

The piano on the right is tuned in the “irrational” equal temperament. It was the one I liked, but he only played a few notes on it. Irrational equal temperament is how most western music is tuned.

Equal temperament allows melodies to express themselves in different keys effortlessly, whereas in mean tone temperament (closer to the Greek conception of good) the same melodies in another key would sound out of tune. Equal temperament also made it easier for a diverse number of instruments to participate in music production such as in symphony orchestras.

Even though the presenter in the video obviously loved the more “rational” Greek-like modes of tuning, it just didn’t sound right except for pieces played in certain keys. The Bach C# prelude sounded way out of tune on the piano on the left (mean tone temperament), so did the Chopin sonata. He liked it, I didn’t. Ugh!

The reason he liked these old tuning schemes is that music played in the old tuning schemes were possibly those used by the composers. Thus performances using such tunings are more authentic and thus (in his view) more beautiful — but that is subject to debate. Only goes to show, some notions of good and bad design are in the ear of the beholder.

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The tuner gives another lecture. The video was a bit confusing, but I’m sure it was clearer for those in the audience who saw the talk in context and with their handouts. He tries to clarify the fact that “equal temperament” in the 18th century isn’t what it means in the 20th century.

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NOTE:
As a total aside, I was surprised at the interest physicists had in the question of tuning.

I have heard it said that an A cappella choir will tend to sing in non-equal temperament modes because they have no (irrationally-tuned) musical instruments to reference their tuning with. This makes sense in that it is easier from a physics standpoint to sense frequencies with certain simple whole number relationships rather than the irrational relationships in equal temperament.

From wiki Perfect Fifth

The justly intoned pitch ratio of a perfect fifth is 3:2 (also known, in early music theory, as a hemiola[9][10]), meaning that the upper note makes three vibrations in the same amount of time that the lower note makes two. In the cent system of pitch measurement, the 3:2 ratio corresponds to approximately 702 cents, or 2% of a semitone wider than seven semitones. The just perfect fifth can be heard when a violin is tuned: if adjacent strings are adjusted to the exact ratio of 3:2, the result is a smooth and consonant sound, and the violin sounds in tune. Just perfect fifths are employed in just intonation. The 3:2 just perfect fifth arises in the C major scale between C and G.[11]

Kepler explored musical tuning in terms of integer ratios, and defined a “lower imperfect fifth” as a 40:27 pitch ratio, and a “greater imperfect fifth” as a 243:160 pitch ratio.[12] His lower perfect fifth ratio of 1.4815 (680 cents) is much more “imperfect” than the equal temperament tuning (700 cents) of 1.498 (relative to the ideal 1.50). Helmholtz uses the ratio 301:200 (708 cents) as an example of an imperfect fifth; he contrasts the ratio of a fifth in equal temperament (700 cents) with a “perfect fifth” (3:2), and discusses the audibility of the beats that result from such an “imperfect” tuning.[13]

In keyboard instruments such as the piano, a slightly different version of the perfect fifth is normally used: in accordance with the principle of equal temperament, the perfect fifth is slightly narrowed to exactly 700 cents (seven semitones). (The narrowing is necessary to enable the instrument to play in all keys.) Many people can hear the slight deviation from the idealized perfect fifth when they play the interval on a piano.

einstein violin

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16 Responses to What defines “good” design in the composition of music and the tuning of musical instruments?

  1. The question of bad design usually conflates what is “good” for the object, versus what is good for the designer.

    Self destructive design like the Monsanto terminator-traitor GMO seeds certainly don’t benefit the new man-made species of GMOs toward their perpetuity and propagation, the design benefits Monsanto. The species line effectively self-terminates by design.

    The fact that organisms in this world have features that may not ultimately benefit them, and may even cause their demise, is not the metric of bad design any more than the villains in great novels are necessarily bad designs in the ultimate sense because they are bad.

    Bad is in the eyes and ears of the beholder, and in the question of biological origins, presuming there is a designer, the designed objects notion of bad (our notion of bad) may not be the same as what the intelligent designer considers bad.

    The self-destructing Monsanto terminator-traitor species is an excellent example of GMO design that has no benefit to the organism. From an evolutionary standpoint, if we saw such a device, a biological entity that was designed to preclude reproduction in successive generations, it would be viewed as maximally unfit, and thus in the evolutionary mind, non-functional.

    But of course it was designed, its self-destruct feature was cleverly designed. So what if it looks like a bad design according to evolutionary specifications, it is still a design so that farmers have to keep coming back to Monsanto to buy more seeds.

    For example the chrysalis phase of monarch butterflies. It has dubious survival advantage, it looks horribly inefficient, but in terms of suggesting there is creator that likes to build Rube Goldberg machines that don’t conform to explanations via selection, it’s a great design. Like the self-destructing GMO species that Monsanto created, the design might be bad for the species, but great for the designer.

    From the standpoint of ID, one can still judge a “bad” design as a design, even if it conforms to what some might view as bad. Bad design is not an argument against intelligent design. This is like saying the Monsanto terminator-traitor self-destructing seeds aren’t designed because they are “bad” designs that self-destruct. That’s the wrong inference. They are “bad” for the organism, but good for the designers (as in they ensure farmers will keep buying seeds from Monsanto for planting).

    Bad design arguments aren’t a valid criticism of design theory. But the absence of having the goals and intentions of the designer are not a requisite for recognizing designs. We dig up many archaeological artifacts, and many times we have no idea their purpose. This is especially true of artifacts with engravings we don’t understand.

    As far as what an omniscient designer would do — would he make “perfect” biological organisms as perfect God? Is that logically even possible. Ergo, it would seem God, by definition would make imperfect designs (imperfect relative to Him, that is).

    NOTE:
    I discussed the philosophical implications of the Monsanto terminator traitor relative to the bad design arguments here:

    The reason for imperfect, self-destructing designs — Passover and Easter Thoughts

  2. I want to highlight this comment by Thornton at TSZ which highlight how differently things can be viewed:

    The argument against ID isn’t so much about bad design as it is about inefficient design. For a sooper dooper Intelligence supposedly capable of designing and manufacturing a whole universe and every living thing in it from scratch the Designer sure came up with some horribly inefficient ways of doing things. The classic example is the routing of the giraffe laryngeal nerve but there are many others. The methods humans have to employ to get their vitamin C is another example. Having some animals (insects, amphibians, mollusks) require metamorphosis to reach their adult stage is yet another.

    http://theskepticalzone.com/wp.....ment-34396

    Actually the metamorphosis stage in development is an example of EXTRAVAGANCE not inefficiency. It is a Rube Goldberg machine, which by definition, will not be efficient, that is not the point of the design.

    What Thronton highlights as an example of bad design in the Darwinian sense is actually an example of excellent designs in the extravagant sense. Extravagant designs are designs that resist Darwinian explanations because they are extravagant.

    Walter ReMine’s biotic message theory hypothesizes that the goals of the designer give higher priority to conveying the fact that biological life is designed more than mere replication. Walter said the designer went to great lengths to make this evident. Extravagance in biology is an example of the lengths the designer went to convey the message of design.

    I discussed this in:
    How darwinists confuse the extravagant with the essential.

    In this case, on top of that, Extravagant is confused with inessential in Thornton’s comments.

    Jerry Coyne, Darwin etc. resort to lots of bad design arguments.

    No surprise that an Darwinist will view the same object as an IDist and come away with a totally different interpretation.

  3. Atheists and Darwinists love to use religious arguments to support their mediocre theory only because their theory has weak scientific support. They invariably assume a perfect, all-knowing, omnipotent, Christian God in their arguments. This immediately tells us that their goal is not the pursuit of science but to belittle the other guy’s religion and replace it with their own. It’s pathetic, really.

    But the book of Genesis has a different take on the matter. The designers of Genesis (Elohim or lords) apparently stopped to assess their progress and declared that it was very good. The word “perfect” is nowhere to be found in that narration. This implies that previous creations were not all that good. It further implies that the Elohim were not satisfied with their previous creations and destroyed them, a hypothesis that is supported by the evidence of a number of mass extinctions in the distant past. The wording of several verses in Genesis strongly supports this view.

    Furthermore, the fact that Genesis mentions that more than one designer were involved in the creation of life on earth easily explains the amazingly varied artistic styles we see in nature. As scordova shows above, they took beauty, complexity and extravagance to an extreme. Those Elohim must have been party animals, that’s for sure. :-D

    PS. I do realize that this is not the orthodox Christian and Darwinist understanding of Genesis but that’s the way I see it.

  4. As usual, Gregory at TSZ bloviates about things he has no clue about. I responded to one of his false claims:

    http://theskepticalzone.com/wp.....ment-34427

    Gregory wrote:

    as if he doesn’t know that IDT is a THEORY. He also knows (or at least should), that there is *NO* IDT for human-made things such as music.

    Bill Dembski’s No Free Lunch has a section that uses music as an illustration of detecting specifications. He specifically mentions Arthur Rubinstein in relation to generating specified complexity on pages 93-96, and 120. He also mentions Franz Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsody in relation to specified complexity and Turing machines.

    In other words, you recognized Rubinstein’s performance exhibited specified complexity.

    No Free Lunch
    page 96

    Bill Dembski, like some at UD and TSZ is also an accomplished musician. If anything, it is surprising these sort of discussion about music and ID haven’t come up more often.

  5. Sal

    I’m restrained by Lizzie’s rules by expressing by opinion of you at TSZ in posting ad hominem attacks here where Gregory can’t respond.

    No such restraints appear to apply at UD so let’s just let Gregory speak for himself.

    stcordova is just being silly, masquerading as ‘scientifique’. People are arguing against IDT as a ‘strictly natural scientific’ proof or inference of uppercase ‘Intelligent Design’…’in nature’ (shrinking God into Nature).

    The guy doesn’t even know what he’s arguing for and wouldn’t change his grammar if a train ran over him. This has been demonstrated at UD by his all but convincing (in the unsure moments) personal rejection of YECism, while still insisting to self-label himself a ‘creationist’ (weak chest-thump), cuz his local USAmerican RWCE church congregants would otherwise ostracise him.

    A very muddled and incompetent financial services employee is stcordova when it comes to IDT. But hey, he’s participated in ‘designing/making/building’ weapons for the U.S. Military, so, wink, IDT must therefore be *REAL* as a worldview too.

    Before ‘bad design/Design’ & ‘good design/Design,’ comes the question: ‘which design/Design’ and ‘whose design/Design’? stcordova will continue to ignore this b/c, well, he’s an IDist.

    “the goals of the designers.” – stcordova

    So, that has obviously *NOTHING* to do with IDT.

    link

  6. TSZ is a smarter-than-thou, elitist forum. Why would anybody waste their time arguing with elitists?

  7. Alan,

    Thank you for moderating that comment over at TSZ, but in a strange sort of way, thank you for posting it here at UD.

    It illustrates Gregory’s shrill rhetoric and the creepy obsession he has regarding me. He made highly personal attacks against me that had nothing to do with the topic.

    You might have a different view of things if you were the object of such vitriol from an individual who boasts of showing up at locations where ID proponents are. So I hope you look at it from that perspective.

    That said, maybe I should stop being on the net so much since I encounter such creepers with too much regularity.

    Anyway, thanks for helping me out at TSZ. I hope you and I can stay on cordial terms.

    Sal

  8. Anyway, thanks for helping me out at TSZ. I hope you and I can stay on cordial terms.

    I’m trying to be fair to all. In my view, honesty is the truest cordiality. Freedom of thought and expression is paramount. Views, held passionately, can sometimes be expressed intemperately and may result in the essential truth being ignored just due to the forceful expression. Of course, listening to an opposing opinion is not a skill that is easily acquired, either.

  9. Isn’t Gregory a lecturer in some pseudo science?

  10. [banned troll]

  11. 11

    Regarding extravagant creation, I am saddened by the poverty of intellect that afflicts those who look only to “efficiency” as evidence of design. Other than willful blindness, perhaps this is a result of a lack of education in the liberal arts among many who pursue a career in science.

    Think of some classic marvels of human design. The first that occurred to me was the Chrysler Building — then the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, the great pyramids. Consider the extravagant inefficiency of these wonders. The Taj Mahal, for example, is only a tomb — for one body! Obviously it could have achieved its function with much greater efficiency and been built at a lower cost.

    But no, efficiency is not the object. These things were not intended to achieve a utilitarian purpose at the lowest possible cost. They are expressions of the heart and soul of the creators; they reflect the genius of those who imagined and then built them.

    That is how I see creation — not a sterile, mechanical expression of “efficiency” but a superabundant outpouring of the love and genius of the Creator.

  12. “Bad design” is one of the most formidable arguments against intelligent design.

    I never quite agreed with that idea. It may seem so, but the argument of “bad design” completely fails at the premise.

    The atheist argument goes:

    -If there is a source of all good, there is a designer.
    -If the designer is the source of the good, there would be no imperfections.
    -There are imperfections, therefore there is no source of pure good and no designer.

    This argument completely fails as it presumes human understanding is analogous to that of the designer. This is completely fallacious as a designer, by definition, would need to be far beyond human, and even universal, understanding with regards to the mind.

    One cannot base an argument of objectivity on one’s own subjective assertion of what the designer should be.

  13. Wow, this is really provocative . . . in a good way!

    First off, I’m not a musicologist by any stretch of the imagination. For the sake of credibility, I should mention that I performed with a symphony orchestra on one occasion, a jazz band on many, Mexican, experimental music (which I didn’t like), baroque ensembles (which I did), etc.

    What sounds great to one “set of ears” sounds dull or confusing in another.

    In college, I briefly studied African music, Ganda music to be precise.

    - European music uses a 12-tone scale in an 8-note octave with typically a four-beat pattern (yes, I know there’s 6/8, 3/4, odd meter such as used by Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton, etc.) Among other things, we hear tension-release, chord progressions, theme and variation, and of course melody.

    - Ganda music uses a 18-tone scale in a 6-note octave (roughly speaking, F# and Gb are different tones, spaced equally between F and G) with rhythmic patterns of up to about 150 beats. Ganda music weaves a tapestry of complex repetitive tone and pattern that’s hard for us to understand (Ganda musicians think we’re retarded).

    So, what do we all like about music? And more perplexingly, why?

    In my opinion, our consciousness craves patterns, variation, and complexity resulting from *intelligent and emotional design*. We seem to be wired for this experience, both as creators and appreciators.

    In contrast, back in the late 1980′s, I got to experience early experiments with “cyberspace” (with helmet and data glove). I found the dozen or so 3D geometric objects suspended in nothing to elicit feelings of deep sadness and loneliness. Some people even became queasy from the experience.

    I’ve heard lame speculations about the evolutionary development of music, including group bonding by coordinated breathing, but considering the role of language in which we don’t sit around breathing together, I’m really sceptical.

    -Q

  14. Mapou @ 3 noticed:

    They invariably assume a perfect, all-knowing, omnipotent, Christian God in their arguments. This immediately tells us that their goal is not the pursuit of science but to belittle the other guy’s religion and replace it with their own. It’s pathetic, really.

    Nicely stated. It demonstrates ideological contamination—an easy pitfall for any of us. For example, consider Marxist support for punctuated equilibrium due to the philosophical affinity with their world view.

    The designers of Genesis (Elohim or lords) apparently stopped to assess their progress and declared that it was very good. The word “perfect” is nowhere to be found in that narration.

    Yes, I agree. Engineering is always a compromise. Ducks and geese are amazing in flight, competent in water, and rather silly on land.

    The word Elohim comes from a Levantine word for God. It’s debatable whether this is simply a plural of honor (royalty refer to themselves in the plural, we) as believed in Judaism, or a hint of the Trinity as believed by many Christians. However, notice that in the Shema in Judaism, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God is one,” the last word indicates unity (echad) rather than singularity (yachid). In the first part of Genesis, we see a reference to the Spirit of God (Ruach HaKodesh) hovering over the water. This certainly did not mean that Jews believe in two Gods.

    This implies that previous creations were not all that good. It further implies that the Elohim were not satisfied with their previous creations and destroyed them, a hypothesis that is supported by the evidence of a number of mass extinctions in the distant past. The wording of several verses in Genesis strongly supports this view.

    I disagree with this view and suggest another explanation. God evaluated what he ordered to happen by his Word (“Let there be”). When we say “Alexander the Great conquered the known world,” we don’t mean that he did so by himself. He did have help. :-)

    I’ve heard that Genesis 1:2 could be interpreted as the Earth “became voided” to indicate a past judgement and annihilation, but then this puts some pressure on the phrase, “In the beginning,” and the creation of the sun, moon, and stars. I’m not ready to say that this is demonstrably false, but I’d categorize it as highly speculative. Not to say that I don’t do the same in some cases, but I clearly acknowledge it as such.

    -Q

  15. TSErik @ 12

    Nicely stated!

    Concluding that something is a bad design when one doesn’t understand the design is a tad presumptuous—on the scale of “junk” DNA and “vestigial” organs. The assertion that the retina is “inverted” in vertebrates also falls into this category, once again demonstrating that incomplete knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    From http://www.aip.org/history/einstein/ae63.htm

    Einstein liked inventing phrases such as “God does not play dice,” “The Lord is subtle but not malicious.” On one occasion Bohr answered, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.”

    -Q

  16. [banned]

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