6

The following part from chapter 84 of the Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fanfic describes a tune that appears to be designed to be unnerving.

The humming started as a simple children's lullaby, the one that in Muggle Britain begins, Lullaby, and goodnight...

This tune was hummed, without variation, over and over, for seven minutes, to establish the underlying pattern.

Then began the elaborations upon the theme. Phrases hummed too slow, with long pauses in between, so that the listener's mind helplessly waits and waits for the next note, the next phrase. And then, when that next phrase comes, it is so out of key, so unbelievably awfully out of key, not just out of key for the previous phrases but sung at a pitch which does not correspond to any key, that you would have to believe this person had spent hours deliberately practicing their humming just to acquire such perfect anti-pitch. <...>

And this horrible, horrible humming is impossible to ignore. It is similar to a known lullaby, but it departs from that pattern unpredictably. It sets up expectations and then violates them, never in any constant pattern that would permit the humming to fade into the background. The listener's brain cannot prevent itself from expecting the anti-musical phrases to complete, nor prevent itself from noticing the surprises.

The only possible explanation for how this mode of humming came to exist is that it was deliberately designed by some unspeakably cruel genius who woke up one day, feeling bored with ordinary torture, who decided to handicap himself and find out whether he could break someone's sanity just by humming at them.

Since most of the non-magical ideas in HP&MOR are supposed to be scientifically plausible, I think this kind of tune might actually be composable. So I wonder, has anyone ever tried to compose such a thing? Did they succeed, or has it proved to be very hard or impossible?

9
  • 1
    There are quite a few 'pop' songs which could easily be cited..! – Tim May 28 at 15:47
  • 2
    The keyboardist in one of my bands liked to play christmas songs in Lydian mode. This sounds astonishingly awful, because you get a nice bright context and expectations but then keep getting smashed about the head subdominants as diminished chords, and the dominant resolutions all go in completely the wrong direction. – leftaroundabout May 28 at 16:33
  • 1
    Les Dawson springs to mind ;) I once did a lullaby type piece where each iteration got slightly more odd, strange voice-leading, note clashes, major meets minor, in a kind of 'something's going to jump out & bite soon' kind of way, though everything is still technically just about 'in tune'. [I'll Soundcloud it if anyone's interested. It's only a demo, so 'keyboard strings' etc] I can't claim it's the 'best thing I ever did' so it never got published anywhere. – Tetsujin May 28 at 17:06
  • 1
    I was reading the quote and thinking is really not well written, and only then noticed it was fanfic, not Rowling herself. So many things here. First, this seems like an identification question and we don’t do that here. Second, there can’t really be a pitch that does not exist in any key at all, and what a “key” is can be fluid. Third, minimalism and atonality have definitely led to music that would be similar to what is sort of described here. Also setting up expectations and violating them is often exciting for listeners, not annoying. – Todd Wilcox May 28 at 17:12
  • 1
    @Tetsujin I'm interested in hearing it. – Ruslan May 28 at 20:00
4

Music is generally composed to sound good, or at least energetic or interesting or some other positive quality. There isn't much market for music deliberately designed to drive people crazy, so examples will probably be hard to come by.

I would call the premise semi-plausible, in that the things the author mentions can be jarring or annoying. Timbre should be on that list too, as in fingernails on chalkboard, which a study found "elicits an emotion similar to but distinct from disgust".

But only semi-plausible:

  • Lots of perfectly ordinary music can get on people's nerves if it's repeated often enough. Just ask anyone who has worked in retail during the holiday season where the same Christmas Carols CD plays on repeat from mid-November until Christmas.
  • "too slow, with long pauses in between" applies to basically any beginner practicing an instrument. It can be pretty annoying when they repeatedly play through the part they know at full speed only to falter right before the resolution.
  • "at a pitch which does not correspond to any key" happens to any beginner on an instrument with continuous pitch, like violin. The assumption is of course that they start playing in something resembling 12-tone equal temperament with A=440 Hz (like a piano), but accidentally plays a note that isn't on the piano, and a violin can indeed produce some very ugly sounds in the hands of a beginner (although I think the ugliness comes in part from timbre, not just pitch). In the hands of an expert doing his damnedest to put people's teeth on edge it could probably be more consistenly bad, but nothing I know of indicates that "peak ugliness" could be significantly worse.
  • Pitches outside the ones found on a piano aren't inherently bad. E.g. quartertones in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish music are not on a piano, and they differ from each other, so-called microtonal variation. Listening with a Western ear it may sound odd or out of tune, but it doesn't take long to adapt to a different scale and tuning so it sounds natural.
  • The world's ugliest music was claimed by a TED talk. The idea was that beauty lies in repetition, and this music was computer-designed to avoid any repeated rhythms or intervals as far as possible. To my ears it doesn't sound like music, but neither is it objectionable, more like avant-garde or random plonking on the piano.

I doubt that it's possible to make music that literally drives people insane, at least any more than you can achieve by locking people in a basement and putting "Jingle bells" on repeat for a month.

After all, plenty of people learn to play an instrument and will produce many elements of what the author describes (I expect that's how he/she came up with the idea), and although annoyed family members aren't uncommon, there aren't many reports of insanity. You could crank it up multiple notches if you deliberately set out to annoy people, but I doubt it would be enough to "break someone's sanity".

If it could be done it would probably hinge on psychology as much as sound design, and affect different people differently.

2
  • I've read reports that governments and militaries occasionally play loud, obnoxious rock or metal to scare loiterers off - I can surely believe that locking people in a basement and putting "Jingle bells" on repeat for a month can drive them literally insane. – Dekkadeci May 29 at 14:30
  • @Dekkadeci I expect that it could - if not in a month, then eventually. But that's not due to some mystical property of Jingle bells. I expect that a lot of other repetitive stimuli that you can't escape can do the same, but that's beyond the scope of music. It was meant more as a baseline - if "normal" music can drive you crazy in a month, the question has to be whether there can be "evil" musical compositions that can do the same dramatically faster than than both Jingle bells and alternatives like a loop of the worst parts of a beginner violinist's practice session. I think not. – j-g-faustus May 29 at 15:26
3

The passage means regular tempo and rhythm, and being in key, is musicality, and no one would really argue with that on a basic level. To keep things simple we can call that style tonal music.

So, is there music that deliberately uses irregular tempo, rhythm, and pitch-wise isn't in a key?

Yes.

Look at avant-garde styles serial music and aleatory music. The composers who worked in those styles deliberately eschewed regular, metrical rhythm, and especially avoided being in a key to find new modes of expression. In particular there is a strong link between harmony and rhythm in tonal music, and avant-garde composers wanted to break that link for more rhythmic freedom.

The Harry Potter passage is obviously supposed to be a joke, but the "anti" part of it could be thought of as "anti-tonal", and in fact serial music is called atonal, which of course means anti-tonal. A lot of people don't like atonal music. Their reactions are often in line with the sentiment of the Harry Potter passage. On the other hand, others say those critics are close-minded who don't want to appreciate new, unfamiliar types of music. One person's noise is another person's music.

Another example of anti-music is Mozart's Musical Joke. Apparently he wrote it as an example of bad composition to be funny. Some of the gaffes are composer's inside jokes, other are more obvious to a general listener.

0

This is a great question. Yes I believe this has been attempted. John Cage's Organ2/ASLSP changes notes As Slow As Possible (ASLSP) which is based on the same idea, albeit inverted, as that given in the Harry Potter. Charles Ives' Three Places in New England if I remember contains simultaneous performing of essentially separate pieces of music. This creates a terrible aural conflict which the Harry Potter describes well. Note, this is very different from dissonant music which although is dissonant is still structurally organized. In the Ives case the work is true cacophony.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.