Exploring 3-D Sound with Adam Gopnik

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In his latest story for the New Yorker, staff writer Adam Gopnik explores the science behind the human experience of music. It all started when Gopnik realized a profound difference in the way he and his teenage children listen to music. While Gopnik and his peers grew up solemnly listening to long-form LPs on superb stereo systems, his kids "snatch at" smaller bits of music via earbuds and laptops. As he told Soundcheck's John Schaefer: "I would say, 'I can't listen to this on that lousy speaker on your computer!'"

A desire to understand this generational gap led Gopnik on a journey that spans rocket science, psychology and sociology, which he documents in his New Yorker piece, "Music To Your Ears: The Quest For 3-D Recording and Other Mysteries of Sound."

Gopnik describes visiting the lab of Edgar Choueiri, a rocket scientist determined to create a method of listening to sound in three dimensions. Choueiri allowed Gopnik to test out his “magic box” with a song of Gopnik’s choice: the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” The experience, says Gopnik, was thrilling.

“[He] plugged it in,” he recounts, “And suddenly, there it was, Keith Richards is stabbing away with a cigar in his mouth you could practically hear on my right, and Ronnie Wood was plucking away in that kind of syncopated way he does…. Mick Jagger was somewhere right in front of me, and Charlie Watts passively was keeping time right behind my head. I had been inserted into the center of the Stones. It was a startling, uncanny experience.” 

That was just the beginning of Gopnik’s research. From there, he sought to understand why we experience such powerful feelings when we listen to music. He tells us about speaking with cognitive psychologist (and frequent Soundcheck guest) Daniel Levitin and "sound studies" scholar Jonathan Sterne, two professors at Montreal's McGill University who have competing views about our attraction to music.

Listen to the interview above, and check out samples of 3-D sound clips below for both speakers and headphones.