Sunday, June 12, 2005

Stimulus Progression

One of the more inspired (or insidious) concepts to emerge from modern psychology was the idea of Stimulus Progression, the study and application of stimulus patterns to influence behavior. The most successful use of this idea was made by the Muzak subscription background music system. The gist of it was that changes in music tempo, orchestration and timbres could be programmed to elicit a desired subconscious response in the targeted group: shoppers, restaurant patrons, crowds in public places, etc… It worked fairly well, at least the Muzak promotional material said it did. Its bowdlerized classical and pop music tended to drive people with musical training crazy. It was used with cows and was said to improve milk production.

The other main use of this idea worked on a different level and that use was for the manipulation of crowd response during musical performances. I was guilty myself of this on many occasions in my career as a sound man although my intent was to enhance the experience, not to exploit a human weakness. In a simplified way it worked like this:

Playing in a small or medium sized club, special surround speakers were placed in the room, to augment the main speakers and the performers’ instruments. Most of the night these surround speakers were silent, or only had a light reverb effect to liven up a dead room. As the night progressed, and toward the end of a set, parts of the musical signal would be routed to the surrounds, either straight, delayed (echo) or otherwise altered. Done with restraint and tact, these effects would cause the perception of the music to change from being “up there” on the bandstand to its being all around the listener, or even going directly in the head of the listener. I was a lot of fun, and if the crowd was into it at all, it could be quite cathartic. Toward the end of my career, I became somewhat disillusioned with these manipulations, especially when the music was not deserving of the response it got.

Now, most concert DVDs are in surround sound—some better than others. Television has a ways to go to reproduce the live experience; it is really expensive (and somewhat impractical) to have a full-range (both frequency and dynamic) sound system. What is kind of sad is that so few bands (and clubs) are even aware of the possibilities inherent in this approach. The one thing that is possible in smaller venues is the creation of acoustic intimacy that is nearly impossible to achieve in a large room.

Of course, many people that go to clubs are there for a different kind of stimulus, and that has its own progression.

By Professor Batty


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