Note: The following essay can be found in my new book “Of Cabbages and Kings: Musings of a Beautifully Disordered Mind,” available now in my store. (Yes, I realize it’s a shameless plug. I’m an author… it’s what we do.)
I admit dear reader, I’m a sucker for a good harmony. I don’t care what genre of music it is – genres of course being nothing more than meaningless designations created to organize and circumscribe; true musica amators make no such draconian distinctions – give me a group vocalizing in harmony and I am in auditory Arcadia. Like so many areas of music however, the harmony is fast becoming a lost art.
In case you were curious – and if not then I must beg forgiveness while I wonder at how any carbon based lifeform as perspicacious as yourself could lead such an empty life – harmony is simply defined as the sounding of two or more musical notes at the same time in a way that is pleasant or desired. Humans have long understood this, and many of the primary concepts of music have been built on this idea.
While musical instruments can certainly be “in harmony” when tuned correctly and played by skilled performers, the real magic of the harmony occurs when voices are joined together in a composition. The right combination of human voices can bring even the most hard-hearted curmudgeon to blubbering tears of emotion. So I’m told.
Of course, as with everything in our modern society, some propellor-headed git has tried to dreamed up an artificial solution.
Digression Alert: After years of pondering the subject I am now convinced that while the primary goal of engineering is to solve problems, there is a massive group of engineers out there dedicated to solving problems that don’t, in actuality, exist. This would certainly explain Spray-on Hair. End of Digression Alert.
It seems that some well-meaning yahoo has created software that can harmonize the sound of your own voice, using advanced controls to adjust each nuance of each of these “voices” to create the perfect harmony you desire. One of the vocal processing software applications I researched called [name-withheld-out-of-kindness] has functions that provide selectable amounts of variation to each harmonic voice for “realistic, natural sounding results.” The name of this astounding piece of engineering? Humanize.
Sometimes irony can be really ironic, n’est-ce pas?
Artificial voices are similar to lifelike robots and humanlike artificial intelligence. No matter how realistic or “perfect” they look or behave, there is always a subconscious feeling, a “sense” that something is wrong. The essence of life will always be absent. In extreme cases, this can cause feelings of uneasiness or revulsion – the infamous Uncanny Valley effect. I know I must sound dreadfully old fashioned, and I realize there is probably a use-case for such software, but claiming to be able to create “perfect” harmonies is not the end goal. What you end up with is a usable, but obviously artificial creation, one that simply cannot have the same emotional effect as that produced by people.
But what about those who claim that the human ear can’t tell the difference? It’s true that some of this software is good enough to fool the auditory abilities of all but the most talented of audiophiles. However, when you try to reproduce such performances live, the sight of a singer sharing the stage with a laptop or worse, nothing else, and somehow sounding like an entire choir, the lie is revealed, the magic broken.
Harmonies constructed from a group of human voices are not perfect, and that’s the point. There are small, almost imperceptible irregularities, unique aberrations in the voice that cannot be recreated artificially. You can recreate the notes themselves, and they can even sound beautiful, but without those small imprecisions, without the essence of life, it will never move people the same way. Human harmonies are perfectly imperfect, just like humans themselves.
Life, as they say, speaks to life.