On noise

This is a riff on a chapter in Don Paterson’s masterly The Poem.

There’s a sweet spot where poems, music, and visuals feel alive.

If too predictable, we get bored.

If too chaotic, we get confused.

The sweet spot is where surprise meets predictability.  It is the boundary of chaos and order.

In nature, power laws underlie many of these sweet spots.  The power law says how often specific things occur.  The power law appears everywhere in nature.

Think about the distribution of earthquakes as a function of their size.  Very rarely, we get a massive earthquake.  But small tremors happen very frequently.

When we see or hear something that follows the power law, it feels alive to us.

In a music we rate as good, certain notes appear more often than others.  If you want to make musical soup, include all 12 notes equally.  Now, I don’t think Bach got out his calculator to check he was following a power law – I am sure the process was intuitive.

The law that underpins music is called the 1/f power law.  For example if we look at pitch, the most frequent note appears 100 times, the second most frequent note appears ½ of that (50 times) and the third most frequent note will appear 33 times.

Graphic designers likewise work with a limited set of colours, fonts and shapes. In a good design the use of these will broadly follow a power law.

The same principle applies to poetry.  In another chapter, Paterson says he can spot a bad poem from arm’s length because it uses all the letters and sounds available.  A good poem will focus on certain sound patterns (to use a musical metaphor – be in a specific key) rather than throwing in the kitchen sink.

White noise is a random signal where every frequency is equally distributed.

Pink noise is a random signal that follows a 1/f power law, and is therefore more akin to nature and music.  Try them both on Spotify and see which you prefer.

Power laws also underpin our music listening habits.  These follow a preferential attachment model, which means that the probability of listening to a given artist at a given time is proportional to the frequency to which the artist was listened to in the past.  Some people like to explore music more widely than others – but all follow the same power law.

One of the pitfalls in making a song/poem/visual is the temptation to throw too much information into it: too many notes, ideas, colours, vowel sounds, fonts.

Often the way forward lies in subtraction – without going too far and making the piece predictable.

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