From idea to acoustics and back again: the creation and analysis of information in music

Keywords: information, music, composition, cognition, coding


The information in musical signals – including recordings, written music, mechanical or electronic storage files and the signal in the auditory nerve – are compared as we trace the information chain that links the minds of composer, performer and listener. The (uncompressed) information content of music increases during stages such as theme, development, orchestration and performance. The analysis of performed music by the ear and brain of a listener may reverse the process: several stages of processing simplify or analyse the content in steps that resemble, in reverse, those used to produce the music. Musical signals have a low algorithmic entropy, and are thus readily compressed. For instance, pitch implies periodicity, which implies redundancy. Physiological analyses of these signals use these and other structures to produce relatively compact codings. At another level, the algorithms whereby themes are developed, harmonised and orchestrated by composers resemble, in reverse, the means whereby complete scores may be coded more compactly and thus understood and remembered. Features used to convey information in music (transients, spectra, pitch and timing) are also used to convey information in speech, which is unsurprising, given the shared hard- and soft-ware used in production and analysis. The coding, however, is different, which may give insight into the way music is understood and appreciated.

Author Biography

Joe Wolfe, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2052, Australia

Joe Wolfe is a professor of physics at UNSW Sydney, where he leads a lab researching the basic physics of the voice, of musical instruments, and the instrument-player interaction. He has received national and international awards for research and teaching. Outside of physics, plays and writes orchestral and chamber music. His trumpet concerto has been performed several times and his quartet has had concert performances on all continents except Antarctica.

How to Cite
Wolfe, J. (2018). From idea to acoustics and back again: the creation and analysis of information in music. Substantia, 2(1), 77-91.
Research Articles