A Quality of Life

Technology can perfectly recreate many aspects of humanity, except for the most beautiful – and human – aspect of all… our imperfections.

Dear reader, I stand before you today bearing a confession. No doubt my penitential utterances will generate waves of consternation and chagrin across the entire expanse of the world-wide-inter-web-net, but so be it. I must “come clean” as they say in American gangster films.

I’m a sucker for a good harmony.

A ghastly divulgence to be sure. And yet… I can still sleep at night. The mind reels.

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 occurs when voices are joined together in a composition. The right combination of human voices can bring even the most cantankerous curmudgeon to blubbering tears of emotion. So I’m told.

Of course, as with everything in our modern society, some propellor-headed bright spark has dreamed up an artificial solution.

Digression Alert: After years of pondering this subject I am now convinced that while the primary goal of engineering is to solve problems, there exists a sizable flock (herd? swarm?) 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 but sadly misguided 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 extraordinary example of engineering? Humanize.

It would appear that engineering, like politics, is an irony-free zone, n’est-ce pas?

Anyway, artificial voices are similar to lifelike robots and human-like artificial intelligence. No matter how realistic or “perfect” they look or behave, there is always a subconscious feeling, a “sense” that something is not quite right. 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 assiduous 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.

That ineffable quintessence, that quality of life, can never truly be duplicated – and that’s what makes it so precious.

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