The Guitar as An Emergent System – An Interesting Perspective

by Ervin Somogyi

I get some interesting ideas and insights from books. Recently I read a thought-provoking one, The Social Animal, by New York Times writer David Brooks. It’s about the fantastic subtleties involved in growing up, learning, maturing, developing ourselves as individual and social personalities, and fitting into the world as social animals. It’s all complicated, really amazing and totally cool. In touching on the nature of such complicated systems, Brooks devotes a section of the book to emergent systems theory. I’d not heard about this before. But in reading Brooks’ description of this new way (for me, at least) of regarding how complex things work, I immediately thought of the guitar. For those of you who are interested, this information is contained in pages 107-112 of Brooks’ book; I will be liberally quoting and paraphrasing from the author’s remarks in this section.



Brooks introduces readers to emergent systems by describing how throughout most of human history, people have tried to understand their world through reductive reasoning. That is to say, they have been inclined to take things apart to see how they worked. Reductionism has been the driving force behind much of the nineteenth and twentieth century’s scientific research; the main idea here is that in order to comprehend nature, we must decipher its components; that once we understand the parts it will be easy to grasp the whole. It’s an intellectual Divide and Conquer mindset that applies to pretty much all formal areas of traditional study: biology, zoology, anatomy, botany, cytology, entomology, ichthyology, agronomy, herpetology, geology, mycology, ornithology, economics, and a whole series of other things. One can even go so far as to say that these are the intellectual equivalent of performing autopsies and inventories of things in order to understand them. (By the way, autopsies and inventories are, etymologically and essentially, quite similar. Autopsy comes from the Greek autoptes, meaning seeing with one’s own eyes. Inventory comes from the Latin in + venire, meaning to come upon — which root also gives us the word invent. To invent something was not to make, create, or originate it, as an “inventor” might; it literally meant for one to find, stumble upon, or discover something — with one’s own eyes, of course. We get the word inventory, from the same source: it is the action of finding something by one’s self. That’s not all that much different from checking something out with one’s own eyes.)

In illustrating his point about the prevalence of reductive reasoning, Brooks mentions that we have been trained to study atoms and superstrings in order to understand the universe; molecules to comprehend life; individual genes to understand complex behavior; prophets to see the origins of fads and religions; the helical structure of DNA to understand organic development; etc.. To repeat: we are encouraged to understand a problem by dissecting it into its various parts . . . and then subdividing these too, if we can. As a matter of fact, this idea gave us the word atom, which literally means “that which can’t be cut or split apart any further”. As far as personality is concerned, the scientific conceit is that we can understand a person if we just tease out and investigate his DNA and his environmental influences. Or, on a different level, it is believed that we can understand things like the violin and the guitar if we carefully examine the physical parameters of their various components. This deductive mode that we’ve all been encouraged to use is the hallmark of conscious cognition: it informs the sort of comprehension that is linear and logical. Science and engineering meet in the place where we see and grasp the world through its constituents, one step and link at a time. It is, in fact, the essential feature of the Western search for ultimate knowledge.

However, Brooks points out that the reductionist approach falls down in one important regard: it can’t explain dynamic complexity — which is the essential feature of a human being, a biological or ecological system, a culture, a society, a business community (such as the electronics or film industry), and even such things as political and military campaigns. Put in different words: autopsies are a great way to examine and comprehend static physical structure — such as the neuron or the brain; but they don’t work very well to grasp dynamic, interactive systems such as the mind — or even , as I suggested above, even a violin or a guitar. And it is not at all false to say that people who have been interested in these instruments as music-producers have studied them by essentially performing autopsies on them. Well, O.K.: I’ll grant you that it is easier to study a bird on the dissecting table than it is in flight. But doesn’t it occur to people that in doing so they might be missing something? In this discussion we are presently at a crossroads, and looking in the direction of the non-Western ways of attaining knowledge of the world.



Given all this, Brooks points out that recently, in scientific and academic communities, there has come about a greater appreciation for the structures of emergent systems. Emergent Systems are complexes that sort of come about by, of, and through themselves; they occur when their different existing elements come together and produce something that is greater than the sum of their parts. Or, to put it differently, the pieces of a system interact and something new emerges out of their interaction. Some given examples are when benign things like air and water come together and sometimes, through a certain pattern of interaction, a hurricane emerges; life, feathers, wings, and air can combine to produce flight; a man and a woman marry and produce a relationship; sounds and syllables come together and produce a story that has an emotional power that is irreducible to its constituent parts. The ocean is an emergent system. So is an economy. And so are the previously mentioned examples of dynamic complexity.

According to Brooks, one characteristic of emergent systems is that they don’t rely upon a central controller; instead, once a pattern of interaction is established, it has a “downward influence” on the behaviors of all the components. Brooks gives an example of an ant colony that stumbles upon a new food source. No dictator ant has to tell the colony to reorganize itself to harvest that source; instead, one ant, in the course of his normal foraging, stumbles upon the food. Then a neighboring ant will notice that ant’s change in direction, and then a neighbor of that ant will notice the change, and pretty soon “local information can lead to global wisdom”. The entire colony will have a pheromone superhighway to harvest the new food source. A change has been quickly communicated through the system, and the whole colony mind has restructured itself to take advantage of this new circumstance — without any conscious decision to make the change having been made. Yet, a new set of arrangements has emerged and, once the custom has been set, future ants will automatically conform.

Biological and meteorological emergent systems are very good at passing down patterns of phenomena and activity across many generations. Mountains, rivers, tides, and the rotation of the earth have produced predictable weather patterns. If you put ants in a large earth-filled container or tray, they will build a colony. They will also build a cemetery for dead ants, and the cemetery will be as far as possible from the colony. They will also build a garbage dump, which will be as far as possible from both the colony and the cemetery. No individual ant will have worked out the geometry. In fact, each individual ant may be blind to the entire structure. Instead the individual ants followed local cues. Other ants adjusted to the cues of a few ants, and pretty soon the whole colony had established a precedent of behavior. Once this precedent has been established, thousands of generations can be born and the wisdom will endure. Once established, the precedents exert their own “downward force”.

There are emergent systems all around, as I hinted above. Brooks points out that besides ants and bee colonies, the brain is also an emergent system. An individual neuron in the brain does not contain an idea, say, of an apple; but out of the pattern of firing of millions of neurons, the idea of an apple emerges. Genetic transmission is an emergent system; out of the interaction of many different genes and many different environments, certain traits such as aggressiveness might emerge.



A marriage is an emergent system; when a couple comes in for marriage therapy, there are three patients in the room: the husband, the wife, and the marriage itself. The marriage is the living history of all the things that have happened between the husband and wife. Once the precedents are set, and have permeated both brains, the marriage itself begins to shape their individual behavior; it has an influence all its own though it exists in the space between them.

Cultures are emergent systems. There is no one person who embodies the traits of American or Mexican or Chinese culture. There is no dictator determining the patterns of behavior that make up the culture. But out of the actions of relationships of millions of individuals, certain regularities do emerge. Once those habits arise, then future members of those groups adopt them unconsciously.

This applies to all facets of a society, including things like the etiology of illness (i.e., how can you prove that smoking or living near a chemical plant actually cause cancer?), the character and behaviors of the middle class, and even poverty. For example, studies of poverty have shown that growing up in poverty can lead to a lower IQ. However, it has not been shown — through many studies — that there is any single thing in an impoverished environment that is responsible for the deleterious effects on poverty. Mr. Brooks cites the work of Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia, who spent years trying to find which parts of growing up with a poor background produced the most negative results. Turkheimer could easily show the total results of poverty, but when he tried to measure the impact of specific variables he found there was nothing there. He conducted a meta-analysis of dozens of studies that scrutinized which specific elements of a child’s background most powerfully shaped cognitive deficiencies. The studies failed to demonstrate the power of any specific variable, even though the total effect of all the variables put together were very clear.

Brooks points out that such a thing obviously doesn’t mean you do nothing to alleviate the effects of poverty. It means that you don’t try to break down those effects into constituent parts and deal with them ad hoc. It’s the total emergent system that produces its effects. Therefore, for people dedicated to improvements in social, economic, and interpersonal human affairs, the most intelligent and useful way to go is to fixate on whole cultures, not specific pieces of them. No specific intervention (i.e., band-aid technique) is going to turn anything around. On the other hand, if the difficult thing about emergence is that it is very hard to find the “root cause’ of any problem in an emergent system, but if it is possible for negative cascades to produce bad outcomes, then it is equally possible to have positive cascades producing good ones.



In the same sense that a marriage can be seen as an emergent system, so can making a guitar — depending on whether the guitar is considered to be merely parts and woods that are the passive recipients of assembly procedures and string energies that the maker and player will serially impose their will on (as is the case in production work, or playing music note-by-note). This is not all that different from viewing a marriage as something in which one partner can rigidly expect the other to assume a certain role, to have only certain needs and obligations, and to not participate or take part in behavioral or emotional alternatives . . . or is instead seen as something that has a soul, significance, integrity, and freedom to grow of its own.

By the way, either of these positions might or might not be considered unintelligible foolishness by some readers. It is my opinion that these ways of looking at things are both “correct” and “legitimate”. But they are by no means equivalent; they represent fundamentally different approaches to how one understands and relates to the world. Discussing “reality” from these different vantage points is rather like a bird trying to talk to a fish. As an illustration, try to imagine a luthier such as myself having a chat regarding the right way to make a guitar with an industrialist like Bob Taylor. Or, perhaps, a “liberal” having a conversation about family values with a “conservative”.

Getting back to the guitar (and making a successful one, in the sense of it having a good sound): does all the above not remind us, first of all, of how we have all been taught to think about achieving that result? One’s quest focuses on the guitar’s various specific parts and elements — most notably the top (it’s called the soundboard for a reason), and on specific elements of the top. This includes the choice of wood, its worked thickness and tapering, the pattern and positioning of the bracing, brace sizes and profiling, the bridge, the size of the soundhole, the tapering and shaping of the plate, the size and proportions of length to width, the top’s various specific vibrating modes, its mass, structure of the plate in terms of grain count, the string load the system is under (i.e., string gauge and scale), torque, coupling and decoupling points, doming vs. flat construction, energy vectors, grain count and orientation, Young’s modulus and stiffness-to-weight-ratios, wood moisture content, wood age and stability and, finally, the finish.



None of these factors are unimportant. It’s just that one doesn’t get very far by obsessing about any single one of these.* Also, there’s a lot more to the guitar and its sound than these structural and measurable data.

[* And it only gets one so far to treat these by formula. For that matter the same applies, on all levels, to current events, military events, and the current political scene in every nation. Citizens are forever being urged to focus on one or two currently best “pivotal” variables or measures by which to deal with economic conditions; or the problems of illegal immigration or international trade imbalances; or the most significant failing(s) of the opposition political party or troubling neighbor nation, etc.. Well, you get the idea.]

A discussion of the sound alone (i.e., the guitar’s voice, in the abstract) could take up a whole book, but I’m going to limit myself to a few of its qualities and characteristics a bit further on. A fuller discussion of that sound must also include who is playing the instrument, and what is his or her technique for pulling, picking, driving, strumming, hammering, tickling, stroking, or exciting the strings. Add to that, there’s the environment in which and conditions under which the guitar is being played: the size of the room, its acoustics, its temperature and humidity, the strings’ and the guitar’s own proper intonation, the guitar’s setup (i.e., its comfortable or uncomfortable mechanical playability), just exactly what is being played and what demands that music makes of the guitar — and even the age of the strings. The demands that the music and the strings make of the guitar will represent some constellation of dynamics, tonal balance (from bass to treble), head room (the ability of the guitar to play louder and louder without hitting an early limit), projection, warmth, volume, the proper amounts of sustain and midrange, overtones, clarity, separation, evenness of response from string to string and also up and down the neck, sweetness, color, brilliance, tambour, and the guitar’s “warming up” time. In addition, there’s the vigor of the player’s attack, the subtlety of his/her touch, and his/her general level of playing skill. Finally, from a Zen-ish point of view, there’s also the potential effect on the instrument of the player’s “vibe” and “spiritual mindset”. Add to all this the realm of psychoacoustics — that we hear things in part as a function of how we feel at the moment, and also how we have been trained to hear, and also our anatomical receptor equipment. And then there’s the entire body of scientific presentation of “the facts” through graphs, charts, Chladni patterns, holographic interferometric photography, oscilloscope representations of tonal peaks and valleys . . . and how this is all processed and understood. The bottom line is that there’s a lot of information present, enacted, and processed in every act of playing a guitar. And with all these factors being present whenever you hear guitar music, doesn’t it begin to seem that this qualifies as an Emergent System?



As far as the guitar being an emergent system goes, it seems to me that there are two main phenomena going on. First, there’s the “skull barrier” side of coming to grips with the guitar. The “skull barrier” is Brooks’ phrase for the barrier between the conscious mind that is trying to juggle multiple factors simultaneously, and the mind that can handle those factors easily and without worrying about them. This applies to anyone who is trying to do any complicated work; it’s the barrier that has, on a different level, been called the Learning Curve. Brooks gives the example of learning to drive. At first one is almost paralyzed with keeping all the rules and requirements in mind: drive on the right side of the street, speed, traffic, braking and acceleration, timing, distance, pedestrians, stop signs and signal lights, right-of-way, listening to the radio, blind spots and obstructions in the field of vision, dashboard information, the rear-view and side mirrors, turn signals, bicyclists, road construction and detours, etc. etc. etc. Eventually, one does all of this without even thinking about it. While thinking about other things, actually. That’s the skull barrier. Brooks might just as easily have used the example of learning to use a typewriter, or — with an even greater skull barrier — learning a new language. The skull barrier certainly applies to guitar making; it can, in fact, be thought of as a very complicated somatic/cognitive/ intuitive language all its own.

Second: In addition to all the factors I’ve already listed, there’s a factor on the emergent systems side that I haven’t mentioned here yet — although I make reference to it in The Responsive Guitar. This is that the guitar actually functions as an emergent system, in that it interacts with itself, and also with the player. It’s just that few guitar makers have the vocabulary to talk about this and not come off sounding like used car salesmen or mystical nut jobs.

However, the truth is that, when they’re active, the guitar’s parts modulate one another. The modulation is contained in the innate elasticity of the vibrating plates (and other parts) that allows them to not just function as fixed acoustical-mechanical devices, but to adjust and accommodate in their behaviors to one another. In effect, to interact with and modify themselves, like dancers who respond to one another. Guitars can absolutely do this; they “warm up” and sound better after ten to thirty minutes of playing. How, exactly, do they do this?; no one really knows. They respond to the player’s touch as well; the better guitars even invite the player’s attuned touch so that the experience of playing is virtually interactive; it’s part of the magic. And this modulating phenomenon is only partly in the control of the maker: a lot of it is in the guitar itself. If this weren’t the case, then a guitar would always sound the same regardless of who played it, or when, or how; it would be an inorganic clone — which a well-made guitar is most certainly not. The luthier can acknowledge that this emergent phenomenon happens, or not; or he can either work to prevent it (overbuild) or to encourage it (get the balances “right”). But at bottom, the connections between the ability of the guitar’s vibrating plates to respond to each other and to the player, on the one hand, and the maker’s own specific work and interventions on the other, are mysterious.