Get rhythm

Musicality is the rhythm and timing that puts emotional meaning into the music. It's fundamental to the reason for owning – and judging - a Hi-Fi system: to play music. The Importance of Musicality What should we be listening for in a Hi-Fi system? Not just the sound quality, Russ suggests, but the musical quality...

The idea that we should judge the sound quality of a Hi-Fi system by playing music through it seems to be blindingly obvious. Leaving certain technical and measurable performance parameters aside, the purpose of a Hi-Fi system is for the subjective and aesthetic enjoyment of music to a high standard of sound quality. The use of 'test pieces' to put a system 'through its paces' is traditional. How does the system handle a full orchestra, piano, human voice, guitar and drums, etc? We've all done it. I used to do it. A very long time ago now, but I did it. And it didn't help at all!

Judging the sound – a lesson from live music

Judging a system (or component) by listening to the sound of the music played through it was simply too confusing. Every system and component sounded different. How can you tell which one is more faithful to the original sound? Knowing what a piano, for example, sounds like live only helps so far, because every recording of a piano sounds different.

At first, I thought my problem was my own listening ability, but I discounted that answer when I realised that I could easily make accurate judgements of real live sounds. I could recall the sound of every concert hall and listening space I had heard, rank their qualities and hold consistent preferences about which I most enjoyed listening to music in and which I avoided. I could do the same with musical instruments. I knew the difference between a concert grand piano and a pub joanna, a piece of Boosey and Hawkes brass from a tin trumpet and Frank Sinatra from my Dad singing 'My Way’.

This is not some ‘Golden Ear’ talent; we can, and do, all do it easily. I was left wondering why these universal abilities seemed to desert me when judging Hi-Fi components. The strong possibility occurred to me that they were all tin trumpets and pub joannas and not worthy of serious consideration. Or, as a Hi-Fi magazine editor once told me “It’s all crap”.

The existence of many fine and well-made components gave the lie to this idea but it wasn’t until the Linn LP12 came along and with it the concept of rhythm and timing that a shimmer of light and hope for a solution dawned: By listening first to rhythm and timing I realised that it wasn’t the sound of the music I should be concentrating on; it was the music itself, the inner meaning, the emotional message. The idea that the music exists independently of the sound of the music seems like a contradiction but just consider that a composer communicates his musical ideas to a performer / musician by writing it down in musical notation on manuscript paper to create a score. The musician then interprets the score mentally before performing the music by singing it or playing it on a musical instrument.

The notation contains all the musical meaning and message on the page, just as these words on this page convey my meaning to the reader. They don’t need to be read out loud to gain meaning. The words are made up from standard letters to form known constructions of specific meaning and form a language.

Music: An emotional language

Music is a language of emotional ideas and, like spoken language, exists in many forms and dialects. Some are simple and others much more difficult to understand. I think many of us would say that they struggle to ‘understand’ Classical music. Whereas popular music is very accessible and easily learned, Classical music takes time and tuition to learn and 'decode'. You can also enjoy the sound of a type of music without understanding the inner meanings just as you might enjoy the sound of a foreign language without being able to speak it.

So where is the meaning in the musical language? Is it in the notes themselves, the combinations of notes, the spaces between the notes, the stress on one note, not another? Well, it’s partly in all of these and much more. Specifically, musicality is in the performance of the work or song, the way the musician interprets it, puts together and delivers it to the listener. We can all tell jokes, but as Frank Carson used to say “It’s the way I tell 'em” that counts. He was saying that the real humour (the message!) in the joke was in the delivery. It’s the same as an actor’s delivery of lines in a play and the musician’s delivery of lines of notes (the musicality).

An unsettling thought

Now for the bombshell! A Hi-Fi system and all the infrastructure (cables, stands etc) and components are capable of degrading the delivery of the music. They all are able to degrade the musicality. Not by a little, but massively! Musicality is not to do with sound but with performance and emotional meaning. Have you ever listened to a piece of music and thought does it make musical sense? Is it boring? Does the music excite me, does it involve me?

Using musicality, I had a way of judging systems and components that was much more important than mere sound quality. It didn’t rely on a conscious value judgement of sound quality but on an instinctive, subconscious reaction to the amount of emotional reaction. The instant emotional reaction was available for conscious analysis and assessment. And that is what I taught myself to do. Listen and learn.

To my surprise, I found this new listening technique to be consistent, reliable and repeatable. That is because the emotional reaction is very fast, almost instantaneous and ‘known’. It doesn’t have to be thought about, doubted, confirmed and formally decided like the analysis of sound quality that can take hours of listening. In an A/B test, I found that I could take an instant ‘snap shot’ and know when the music was more (or less) musical than before. I could then consider what it was that was more (or less) musical. I could think about all those instantaneous clues we pick up subconsciously that tell us what we are listening to. Is the singer male or female? What social, ethnic and geographical background are they from? How old are they? What is their character?

In a live recording, we instantly get a ‘feel’ for the acoustic and the size of the venue and audience. Is the pianist playing a Steinway or Yamaha piano; is the instrument a clarinet or alto saxophone; is it a trumpet or flugelhorn? Are there two or three women in the chorus or is it two women and a man? The clues are endless. They just have to be brought up into the conscious mind and listened to.

Use the music to judge the performance

On its own, all this extra insight is very interesting, but where does it get us? What do we do with it? Well, the great news is that it turns out to be all you need to listen to, to make the right choices. If we put together a system of parts chosen on the same criteria that we use when listening to music, then the whole system becomes greater than the sum of those parts because the musicality is cumulative. The musical message speaks louder and louder. The really weird thing about it, though, is that the sound quality gets better and better too!

The problem with 'Hi-Fi'

How can that happen? In my experience, if you choose components on sound quality alone, the musicality gets worse and worse. I heard a great example of this at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Colorado. I stood in one room admiring the system, appreciating the smooth, clean delivery, the lack of treble sting, the tight controlled bass etc, when I started to have a vague feeling that I knew the music being played. I said to my wife “there’s something familiar about that”. Outside in the corridor I stopped and finally recognised what it had been. It was a track from Chet Baker Sings and Plays, one of my favourite jazz artists and probably the second album I ever bought. Totally recognizable but not in that room! How could a Hi-Fi system sound ‘good’ and yet get the music so totally wrong that it became almost unrecognisable?

In my view, it exemplified what is wrong with the whole Hi-Fi industry, not just individual systems. The hardware is designed on sound quality criteria, sold on sound quality, reviewed on sound quality, and bought on price and reviewer ratings. Sure, they all talk about the music, but only about how it sounds, not how musical it is. The whole industry ignores the way the ear/brain works at a fundamental level and focuses only on tonal qualities, frequency range and bass slam. For me, if a Hi-Fi system fails to convey the musical, emotional message, it is just noise. I don’t care how good its ‘sound quality’ is – it’s just high quality noise. If I want to listen to high quality noise I would choose to listen to the exhaust note of a Ferrari; there the emotional message is the noise!

I have applied this listening method since the 1970s and so it has been the basis of all my work on mains cables, mains filters, Torlyte supports and the assessment of Kimber Kable when I first listened to samples in 1985. All the products in our range are assessed and chosen on their musicality qualities. Product development is based on improving the musicality; the ability to let the musicality through. Since RFI is so destructive of musicality, reducing mains RFI is the most important step to take in our Upgrade Path, and the reason that the Path forms a virtuous cycle and results in Russ’s 'Law of Increasing Returns'.

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