Tuesday, October 04, 2005

I Just Don't GET Music

I have several friends who spend a non-trivial percentage of their timing listening to music, but I just can't fathom how or why. I can barely bring myself to listen to music at all, let alone care about any part of it outside of the listening experience. My exposure to music that is not accompanying some other, more enjoyable experience (TV, movies, video games, etc.) consists entirely of what I listen to in my car, and that's simply for lack of anything better to do in my car, and I often forget even that if I'm distracted by other thoughts when I first leave the house. My life would be essentially unchanged if music ceased to exist altogether, with the notable exception that many of my video games, with their oh so catchy tunes (the ones without licensed music-- I hate it when games use licensed music, and wish they would use the licensing money that they're wasting elsewhere), as well as movies and TV shows, would be less enjoyable, although still perfectly viable activities. I find that while music does definitely add flavour to those other things, I could still easily enjoy them without it.

That being said, if lyrics were to disappear altogether, I doubt I'd notice at all. Most of the non-licensed accompanying music that I listen to has no lyrics, and, when it comes to the licensed music that I do listen to, I tend to care more about the tune than the lyrics. This is because I generally find most lyrics incomprehensible. I've always had a problem parsing and interpreting speech properly (I often need my friends to repeat themselves when I completely and sometimes comically misunderstand what they've said), and this problem is compounded when I try to listen to music lyrics. Although I can usually piece together part of a song with some effort, I'm not interested in understanding only part of a song, so I usually abandon the effort altogether and content myself with tapping a finger to the tune. I think that this directly impacts my enjoyment of music, but, to be frank, that really doesn't feel like much of a loss to me.

What really blows my mind are those people who can listen to music as a leisure activity in and of itself. To my mind, music is something you do while you're doing something else. To just listen to music seems like such a terrible waste of time to me. However, even as accompaniment, it's usually unwelcome in my vicinity. I'd generally rather do whatever it is that I'm doing without the distraction, content to either focus more completely on my task or devote the time to thinking about something else rather than waste it listening to music. Music just seems to me to be a pointless and wasteful societal drain. I just don't GET it.


Blogger Requiem said...

While reading this I was reminded of an episode of Malcolm in the middle th at was done last season (i think). Where Malcolm has a music class that he thinks will be an easy credit because all he has to do is listen to music. After failing his first assignment he fragile mind is blown away. Ignoring all the crazy stuff that happens in the rest of the episode it is mostly him just being frustrated that he can't understand music and how his younger brother can. So umm yeah..

I may not understand the "deeper" meaning of the music i listen to. I listen to music to help me relax. I can't really explain how it does that it just does. It can be heavy metal or it could be a symphony playing, it all just causes me to relax and let me mind wonder. Maybe the old saying that goes "Music calms the savage beast" and if so i guess im a savage beast. I could probably go on and on but i wont. Maybe someone else can write something better.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005 1:36:00 PM  
Anonymous N. O. Scott said...

I've heard you hum (or even "sing", blech) some video game song or country song or another from time to time. Presuming this isn't just some reflex reaction from some neurons getting crossed somewhere, this indicates that you do indeed find whatever it is you are humming to be "catchy".

One key point is repetition: If you have a "catchy" bit, your brain likes to go back to it again and again. This is why your standard 3 minute pop song is so formulaic, verse-chorus-verse-chorus, etc. It's successful because it repeates the catchy bits in people's minds until it gets stuck and they end up throwing money down to get the CD or whatever.

Generally, I don't immediately fall in love with a song the first time I hear it, although nowadays I can usually tell right off the bat the general ballpark score a song would get from me. It's only after listening to something several times and learning the nuances that it becomes rather memorable to me. That's why, if you read any of my CD reviews, the most common flaw in anything is being "forgettable". If, after I've listened to a CD a dozen times, I can't immediately hum at least the chorus to a song, it wasn't that great.

So... I suggest the ONLY reason you like the VG/Country mix you do is... repetition. VG (especially vintage VG) songs are built around extremely simple melodies (because of the technologies) that are usually looped over and over again. And we all know how much time we spent having those simple, short, melodies *drilled* into our heads as we played those games late into the night trying to beat them. If indeed at all times driving you are listening to the same handful of country CDs, a similar effect is happening.

So my 25 cent bet would be that if you replaced your vehicle CDs with most any other CDs and listened to them sufficiently long enough, you'd start to like them as well.

Re: lyrics. I agree. Lyrics give the voice (which is a very unique and wonderful musical instrument) something more interesting to do than just hum along to a melody. Great lyrics improve a song just by virtue of being great (i.e. all other things being equal, the song with better lyrics is better than the one without) since they add another dimension (poetry) to the art. Reeeeeaaaally bad lyrics can ruin a song by crowding into your brainspace and thus taking away from the melodies and harmonies (think along the lines of if "Yesterday" by the Beatles had neo-nazi lyrics or something.) But apart from that, whatever.

Finally: I would be interested to see a model which would categorize "music" as a social waste without throwing in just about any other sort of artwork along with it. I walk away from a song with no less than someone walks away from a movie, book or game, unless you want to assert some fundamental ordering between "experienced a musical composition" and "experienced a story" or whatever, which would be begging the question.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005 8:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Stefan Robak said...

I was about to respond to your article, but for the most part, Nathan said pretty much what I was planning to say, more or less. I like lyrics and agree with most of Nathan's views, but sometimes I like a song even if I have no idea of what the lyrics are or what they are trying to say (which happens quite a bit with Frank Black.) What lyrics mean and what they are alluding to might be lost on me for some songs, but I can still appreciate the beauty of something I don't entirely understand.
I also note that we're talking about lyrics but not the human voice. Are you saying that you wouldn't miss the human voice in music or simply lyrics?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005 11:28:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I would be interested to see a model which would categorize "music" as a social waste without throwing in just about any other sort of artwork along with it.

This thought occured to me shortly after posting, and you are quite right-- purely objectively, no one art form is instrinsicly more or less of a waste than any other. However, I am far from objective, and, as I said, I don't GET music, so to me, it is more wasteful than other forms of art that hold merit for me.

Are you saying that you wouldn't miss the human voice in music...?

Yes, this is what I am saying.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005 3:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Veronica said...

I wanted to do my undergrad thesis on something about music (psychologically speaking of course.) Sadly no profs here do anything like that :-(

I'm astounded that you just don't GET music. How can someone NOT get music? Music can be the most amazing thing. Not to say that it is all the time, because a lot of the time, I have what I think is very similar to your 'meh' feeling towards it. However, I won't study to it, or have it in the background, unless it's music I dislike, because otherwise, I can't focus on what I'm doing and just listen to the music instead.
I completely agree with the catchiness thing, that's why you repeat the music over and over again. But catchiness doesn't equal the same thing as really, really enjoying music. That...that really really sucks for you. Music has been quite simply the most enjoyable thing to me in my entire life, not as a general thing, because, as I've said, it's often annoying, or blah, but as listening to a song has been the most enjoyable experience to me, ever. If I had to choose between orgasm and amazing song, I would choose the amazing song. That said, an amzing song loses it's amazingness though. Once a song has reached it's maximum enjoyment for me, it'll never be the same again, even I haven't heard it for years.

Nathan: how can you, after listening to a CD a dozen times, even if the music is garbage, and is hardly cathcy at all, still not be able to sing a chorus? I don't think that would ever happen to me, unless the CD was say, white noise or some sort of random pitches strewn together with no underlying tempo.

Speaking more of the catchiness thing, I read a study done in the 1920's, where people listened to novel 'pop' music (jazz), versus novel classical music. They listened to each a certain number of times, and each time they rated their enjoyment of each song. I don't know how long the expt. lasted, or even how many times the listened to the song (around 200 maybe?) but the classical song started off at a low rating, and gradually went higher and higher in people's enjoyment of it. The scores never went down, only up. The jazz song started at a much higher enjoyment rating, climbed steeper than the other one over the number of times it was heard, but then peaked and went back down, never to climb again.

Lyrics are lyrics. They can be good or bad, but they never make a song.

Jordan: what about dancing? Do you get dancing?

Friday, October 07, 2005 5:50:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Do you get dancing?

Well now, that depends on what you mean. If you mean watching someone else dance, then no, definitely not. If you mean participating, then, well, um, no, definitely not. :-P I mean, I see the appeal of dancing as part of a couple, but that's not so much about the dancing.

Sunday, October 09, 2005 1:03:00 PM  
Anonymous N. O. Scott said...

Not being able to sing a chorus after 12 listens: It's not that the song is BAD but just... forgettable. I mean, once it starts playing I can usually call it to mind and hum along to it and maybe even some of the words will pop into my mouth. But if you were to order me to sing (having iTunes select a random example for me) "Interstate 8" by Modest Mouse, a band I consider among my favorites, I would stare at you blankly, unless maybe you started me along.

Catchiness/Repitition: By no means is this the whole of enjoying music. But I would say that it is the nucleus, the very kernel, the tiny center of the tootsie pop after you strip away all the other layers that are there to enjoy. Much like I think the core of, say, fiction, is a good story, even though it gets even better when you can drape it with themes and poetic language and such tomfoolery.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005 8:26:00 PM  

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