un(focused)

For me noise possesses a really annoying duality.  I can get so easily distracted by a sound, but I also must be immersed in music in order to focus on almost anything.  I am rarely found without earphones in, especially when I do homework.  However, for me, auditory cues are often many times more distracting than visual cues.  Whenever I hear a sound, especially one of unknown origin, my mind seems to fixate on the discovery of “what is making that noise?”  As we discussed in class, I now have a name for this distraction: causal listening.

Auditory cues are much more distracting because when we see something distracting we immediately know its origin.  There is not much more explanation, you see someone walk by in your peripheral vision and that is that.  On the other hand, you hear a noise off to your left and suddenly you MUST know what it is coming from.  This constant curiosity and causal listening I experience is why I have to listen to music while I study.  With earphones in, I know exactly where the sounds I am hearing are originating, my music library.  This helps me to focus in on whatever I am working on because I am not constantly curious of the other various sounds going on around me.  Music also blocks all those out for the most part anyways.

My favorite music to listen to is definitely music that I already know. This helps me from being distracted by the new lyrics of a song that I have never heard. I can easily tune out the words of songs I’ve heard hundreds of times and just use it as an outside sound blocker. Another kind of music that helps me focus is anything without lyrics. This can be electronic music, classical, and sometimes jazz. This kind of music is most helpful when I’m writing something. I often find myself subconsciously writing or typing out the lyrics of the song that I am listening to, so while doing continuous writing I usually listen to instrumental songs. My favorite piece of music to study to is called The Lark Ascending originally composed by Vaughan Williams, which is a musical adaptation of a poem by the same name. I find it to be the most relaxing piece of music that I have ever heard, and I am posting the link so that next time you need 16 minutes of relaxation you can listen. This piece has all the properties of perfect study music. It relaxes me (so I stop thinking about the stressfulness of the work and can complete it), focuses me onto the work at hand and puts me into such a state that I completely ignore all of my surroundings. I have listened to it on repeat for hours because of these traits.

Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending

All in all, to me noise can be both highly distracting while in the form of random sounds, but can also be a great aid to my own personal focus when in the form of certain music. If I could find someway to stop myself from the constant causal listening that I experience maybe all sounds could become music to my ears, but until that is the case I will keep my earphones in and enjoy my focus.

 

All This Bad Blood

Music is more meaningful if it evokes a feeling or memory from the listener. Someone can decompose the structure of a song and analyze each measure without understanding the song as a whole. In contrast, a listener has a better understanding of a song if personal emotions or memories are attached to the song, even if the listener’s understanding of the song is not congruent with the musician’s interpretation of the song. In my experience, this view of music has always held true. Because of this, music acts as a conduit for the listener’s emotions and memories.

Country music will always be linked to the nostalgia of the summer before college started: Brantley Gilbert’s “Bottom’s Up” blasting through my speakers as I drove home on the last day of school, Eric Church’s “Springsteen” set on repeat while spending time with my friend, or speeding down the highway while listening to Keith Urban’s “Cop Car”. The songs that I listened to last summer are permanently linked to the freedom of being an 18 year old, newly freed from the shackles of homework, and with a car. Life was simple and carefree.

My mild obsession with Bastille is also associated with the emotions and memories that their music evoke.

It was the morning of the big move. Everything was neatly stuffed into the van. At 7am, we set off on the daunting 10 hour drive ahead of us. After hearing “Pompeii” nonstop on the radio all summer, I decided to bring along Bastille’s CD, “All This Bad Blood”, to see what the big deal was. Both of my parents were asleep as I cruised on the highway, alone with my thoughts. I had lived in the same city for 11 years. The longest I had ever been away from home was two weeks. During the first hour of the drive, I felt an almost overwhelming sense of homesickness. I knew I would be leaving everything I had ever known behind. Nothing would be the same again. I distinctly remember “Things We Lost in The Fire” playing as I reminisced on memories of what I would be leaving behind. The homesickness soon gave way to a nervous excitement. This would be my first opportunity to live with the freedoms and responsibilities of adulthood that I had wanted so badly while in high school. I most vividly remember “Laura Palmer” and the conversation I had with my parents as it played in the background. They told me how proud they were that I had made it to this point in my life. We talked about my future and how they would support me regardless of my career path. “Laura Palmer” will always bring to mind the conversation I had with my parents. “Things We Lost in The Fire” will always remind me of the homesickness I felt as I first set off for college. “Oblivion” will always be remembered as the song that played as we pulled out of the driveway.

Although the memories and feelings formed with the album were purely coincidental, Bastille’s music now has become much more meaningful to me. Their songs are no longer just songs. Whenever I listen to Bastille’s album, I am reminded of the drive to Davidson and the various feelings I experienced.

Self Defining Music

I think silence has a sound. Although you can argue until you have had your fill on the technicalities of there never really being complete silence, I see silence differently. When you are alone, and there aren’t sounds that can be deemed important or distinct, silence is that buzzing in your ear where noise should be. An irritating, relentless drone that bores into your skull and seems to absorb even your thoughts. As a kid, I was not a fan. Lying awake in bed with no noise to sate my nerves, I was left to the mercy of my own imagination. There was a lengthy period in my childhood where I would have to envelop my body in blankets and hide away from unseen creatures that filled my room. I couldn’t take it, and each night I would wage a war with which I had no chance of coming out the victor. As difficult as it was for me, it was probably tougher on my mother. Each night I would make the careful exodus down the hallway on my hands and knees and gently open my parents door. With quiet precision, I would maneuver around my sleeping father, and force my mom to save me. For both of them, this daunting process got very old very quickly. Child gates were erected at my door which barricaded me inside my silent box. It was maddening.

A solution suddenly came to my parents: the radio. From then on, we would leave a radio station on each night all night while I slept. This quick-fix method was short lived. Although it got the job done for a short while, I couldn’t take some of the aggressive, female-pop yelling 2am tracks. I would get slightly neurotic and scamper to shut off the radio and welcome back the silence. Then the process would begin all over again. I needed another solution. My mom bought CDs that contained white noise and produced a calming effect on brain activity. These worked like a charm. Waves, rain storms, I was all about it. This became my stocking stuffer for the next few years ranging from Japanese flute music to gentle thunder.

My nighttime woes, however, were not resolved just yet. After some time, each night I went to bed, the temperature was way too hot. I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t sleep. I kept fidgeting with blankets, my body heat would fluctuate, so sleep was still a delayed process as well as an uncomfortable one. This issue clearly had an easier fix than the last: a fan. A fan that I could constantly readjust and leave blasting cool air all night. This solved the heat issue, but offered a separate type of solace. I found my music. The noise of the fan was addictive. It couldn’t just be on at night, whenever I was in my room, I needed the steady, consistent drone of the fan. Unlike the boring, relentless monotony of silence, the hum of the fan was peaceful. It put me at ease. Eventually I stopped going tandem with the white noise and the fan (not as long ago as you might think), and only needed the fan. A fan was the number one priority for college. It keeps me sane, it helps me sleep, and it serves as a link connecting me as a child to who I am today. The fan is not so pertinent that without one I still cannot sleep, I just strongly prefer it. It marks a sort of progression in my life. It’s probably a bit too cheesy and potentially abstract to pinpoint turning on a fan as a transitional phase from childhood to teenage years, but there is definitely something there. If anything, my own perception of my fan demonstrates how music is in the eye of the beholder. I modified the cliche but the sentiment is there. The steady murmur of the fan is my music, regardless of the how others hear it, I enjoy my one machine symphony on repeat.

 

Owl Calls and Old-Time Love Songs

Both of my parents are biologists. My father is a professor of biology at Southern Oregon University, and my mother is a biologist for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When I was a little kid, my mother’s big project was to protect the California Spotted Owl. This meant two things for me. The first was that there were a lot of owl calls imitated at the dinner table when we all ate together as a family, and I learned silly ways to identify owls without being able to see them (for instance, the Great Horned Owl’s call sounds like it’s saying, “Who’s awake? Me too”). The second was that my mother spent a lot of evenings out in the field and wouldn’t get home until way after my sister and I went to bed. On those nights, my sister and I would climb into our parents’ bed, and our dad would pull out his old guitar and play songs by John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Steve Goodman, and even sometimes the Grateful Dead. There was one song he used to sing to us, “Tecumseh Valley” by Townes Van Zandt, which tells the story of a girl who leaves home to get a job for the winter because her father can’t afford to buy enough coal to keep the both of them warm. I thought that it was a happy song until I was fourteen or fifteen, when I heard an actual recording of it, and realized that my dad had only been singing the first three verses. Here’s a recording of that song:

 

 

My father bought his guitar for fifteen dollars when he was sixteen years old, and learned how to play by listening to his favorite songs over and over and over again until he had figured them out. That same guitar was the first musical instrument I ever “played” — sitting on the floor of the living room when I was four years old picking out “Hot Cross Buns” on this instrument that was bigger than I was. I started learning to play the guitar in earnest when I was in seventh grade, with a lot of help from my dad. He has never been able to fingerpick because he smashed one of the fingers on his right hand with a hammer when he was younger, and doesn’t have any feeling in it. So instead, he has figured out a way to mimic fingerpicking using a flat pick. While he would help me figure out chords and strumming patterns, he would never teach me to pick the way he does, no matter how much I pestered him, because, as he says, “You have five perfectly functional fingers, and should learn how to fingerpick like a normal person.” So now I “fingerpick like a normal person,” and still haven’t figured out how my dad does what he does.

I started singing in earnest probably in fifth or sixth grade, when my dad, my sister, and I bought the CD “Joan Baez’s Greatest Hits” for my mother for Christmas. One of the songs on that CD is a live recording of Joan singing Amazing Grace with her audience, and at one point she sings harmony while everyone else sings melody. My sister and I spent hours one Sunday afternoon in front of the CD player figuring out how to fit harmony with melody, and then switching off singing each part between verses. After discovering that we could sing together, Katie and I came up with simple harmonies to classic songs like “Oh Shenandoah” and “Down in the Valley.” It was only a matter of time before we both started adding guitar, fiddle, and even mandolin to the songs we figured out together. Eventually, we started singing and playing with our dad, now singing harmonies to the songs that we had listened to so many times as little kids as we waited for our mother to come home from work. Sometimes, Mum even joins us in our “jam sessions” singing melody to old Grateful Dead tunes (my mother was a die-hard Dead Head in her youth, believe it or not).

Now, one of the things that I most look forward to when I go home is sitting around the coffee table in the living room, with my parents and my sister, and playing these old songs that nobody listens to anymore.  Somehow through them, I have gained a better understanding of my family, and even a better understanding of myself.

Raquetball acoustics

My sister and I have always shared a similar appreciation for music. We were raised in a house that never held a quiet note. Settling down for bedtime when we were kids quickly turned into howling jam sessions for the Knapp family singers, as the bedtime songs got quicker in beat, leading up to the old folk song and number one crowd pleaser, “The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night.”

As we grew older, both my sister and I took on many new hobbies, but continued to share our love for singing. We performed individually and together in choirs, acoustic concerts, and various other venues. However, my sister, who got a bigger portion of the strong singing genes, decided early on that vocal performance was what she wanted to pursue as a career. After hearing how she had developed her voice and worked hard to establish a unique tone, I made a connection between her and her singing tone because her voice has a special connection to me and is such a big part of who she is.

One night over winter break, once my sister had come back from college, we went to the YMCA in our town to have a lacrosse catch in the racquetball room. However, instead of playing lacrosse, we sat down and took advantage of the echoing acoustics of the completely enclosed room. As we sit harmonizing with each other the automatic lights turned off and we were left singing in the pitch black. I can no longer see my sister smiling back at me, but I hear her voice. I can tell she hasn’t moved based off of the degree to which I can hear the her pure sound and not just the echoing melody. After a while, I simply ask her to sing me a song while I lay back and just listen to her voice sounds off the walls surrounding me. She began singing the first verse to the song “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney classic movie, Pocahontas. As I hear her voice, I feel the emotions that I’ve associated with her. Because I have an emotional connection to my sister the song that she is singing becomes so much more powerful to me. I’m completely blinded to the visual performance, but my soundscape is completely transformed by the echoing and all encompassing environment. Any fluctuation of voice and any shift in movement is detected and magnified. From plain sight it is a completely black room, but the disconnection of one of my primary senses heightens my others and allows my imagination to complete the experience of listening to the song. The emotions that this originally trivial song evoked was drawn from the emotional connection I have to the voice that conveyed the message.

Once I was no longer singing and the blinding circumstance removed any further distractions, there were no more obstacles interfering with the interactions between my mind and the audio performance. There was nothing standing in the way of the song sparking emotions and memories in my head, and opening my mind to take in every single word she was saying in that moment. 

The College Dropout

As a lifelong listener of music, one experience stands out in particular as having changed my perspective on music. Before listening to Kanye West’s The College Dropout with a critical ear, I had never actively sought meaning in what I was listening to. My experience with this album caused me to realize that the art of music is about more than aesthetic appeal. As with any form of art, it is the emotions that go into it and the responses it evokes that make music valuable.

Parents and students around the world adopt an ideology that there is one supreme blueprint for success in life. Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout turns this perception on its head. The album is, above all, a rationale for his informed decision to—surprise—drop out of college. Contrary to what some believe, it is not a bitter critique of higher education by an uneducated artist who basks in controversy. Rather, Kanye’s message is a positive one: don’t blindly do what society tells you to. Design and follow your own path to success. As The College Dropout puts it: “I ain’t [sic] play the hand I was dealt, I changed my cards; I prayed to the skies, and I changed my stars.” He does not tell his listeners to drop out of college like he did, but to do what they believe is best for them, regardless of what others will think.

Kanye is living evidence of the validity of his theory. Early on in his career, he was doubted by critics who viewed him as a producer rather than a rapper and record label executives who wanted someone more conventional in style and content. Kanye was and is anything but conventional, but as history has shown, without change there can be no progress. And as of now, 10 years later, no rap album since The College Dropout’s groundbreaking release has resisted its momentous influence.

My path projects to be more traditional than Kanye West’s, as I plan on graduating from college and believe that my education will be the foundation of my future success. Nevertheless, his music has opened my eyes to the importance of choosing that path because I believe in it, not for the approval of others.

This experience has caused me to reevaluate my taste in music. I stopped listening to artists like Tyga, who really has nothing to say but relies on superior production and successful marketing to rise to fame. I started listening artists like Immortal Technique, who refuses to sign a record deal out of fear that a label will force him to censor his music for the sake of sales. Don’t get me wrong—I can still bump to club-ready bangers, but hearing Kanye rap intelligently and creatively about real life issues has opened my eyes to a new way of looking at music, an infinitely more rewarding one.

Draft Assignment #1- Musical Chills

I consider myself very fortunate to have led a life in which I’ve always been encouraged to pursue my passions for music. I’ve had the privilege of taking part in the performance of some beautiful pieces as part of both the Davidson College Chorale and a community choir at home known as the Broad Street Chorale. Through this, I’ve gained first-hand knowledge of a peculiar power of music with which not all people are entirely familiar. Music, in certain situations, can bring about “chills,” or the release of dopamine in the striatum, though more research is in order regarding the potential reasons for this.

Some pieces that I can remember off the top of my head that have caused this sensation in me are Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, Eric Barnum’s Adoramus Te Christe, and Craig Courtney’s While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks. All of these contain certain chords that, when struck, give me a chill and simply leave me in awe of their beauty. The first time I performed the O Magnum Mysterium with a large chorus, I almost began to tear up. The other songs are likewise very emotional in nature, a fact that likely contributes to the effects that they have. Additionally, the chords in the above songs that really move me all happen to be major or minor ninth chords, and they also occur at dynamic high points in the pieces that are generally preceded by large crescendos. It hardly seems coincidental that these things hold true for all three pieces. The role of the crescendos seems rather obvious in building anticipation and it may be possible that the dissonances and consonances created by the ninth help to bring about the chills and goosebumps.

When I decided to look around the internet for information on this phenomenon, I came up with quite a few articles on the topic. One of them provided a fair bit of insight regarding potential reasons for the physiological response. Somber music can cause a fear response in the amygdala. The brain, however, quickly realizes that there is no reason for fear, calming it. As a result, the chilling sensation remains, but the sense of fear itself does not. The web page itself also mentions a scholarly article from a science journal regarding a study that linked intense emotional response to music to the release of dopamine. The study also demonstrated that that, in addition to the peak itself, the anticipation of the musical climax played a very large part in the perceived thrill. It may be possible that the brain’s reward center is activated when the brain correctly anticipates a certain musical cadence, as the ability to make predictions based on sounds is certainly a valuable one.

Also, according to another study performed by researchers at UNC Greensboro, it seems that people are much more likely to experience chills if they have what is described as an “open” personality – that is, they are people that are willing to try new things and entertain new ideas. This may not necessarily be a directly causal relationship, as those with open personality types generally tend to be more interested in music and the arts in general. Perhaps it is their interest in music rather than their personality itself that makes the reaction more likely to occur. In order to tell, a study would have to be conducted on open musicians and open non-musicians, but to my knowledge, no such study has yet been performed. Though it may seem somewhat intuitive, I find the effect of a chill to be far more pronounced when I am singing beautiful music than when I am simply listening to it. This leads me to believe that they may be at least partially tied to musical participation.

Though some studies have been undertaken to illuminate the darkness surrounding musically-induced chills, the exact mechanism through which they occur remains somewhat murky, making them somewhat of an enigma. Until they are more thoroughly investigated, they shall retain that captivating air of mystery.

Draft Assignment: Music: My Own World

I’ve always been fascinated by how music and memory are so intertwined. Countless times have I been sitting somewhere, a song begins to play and suddenly I am transported to a completely different place and time. Music takes me to the memories that I associate with such songs. Sometimes they are really odd associations, like whenever I hear the song “Whatcha Say” by Jason DeRulo I am immediately reminded of getting on a plane in 8th grade to go live in London, England for a year. Odd, right? But I listened to that song on repeat for almost seven hours while on that flight. Sure, it’s a poor song choice to flood my brain with for that amount of time but I get so happy when I hear it because that was such an exciting moment in my life.

I love how music has the power to take us to these moments but also to make us forget all the stress and problems in life. I listen to music constantly. I can be found anywhere around campus with my earphones in and lost in my music. Kind of like in the “Walkman” article, I am creating my own personal auditory experience. Music calms me down and takes me to places in my past. It also helps me to focus. One of my favorite deep focus songs is called “The Lark Ascending”, a classical piece that I often listen to while doing homework. Its melody is so calming that I am almost mesmerized into completing whatever work I have before me. It also takes me back to when I first heard the piece on a road trip with my dad, who is an avid lover of classical music. It is a song that I now associate with our fun times together and many adventures that we’ve had over the years.

My mom always asks me, “what is wrong with some silence every now and then?” But I would much rather my music and my calm and my memories.   I love surrounding myself with the sounds and melodies of music. I can escape from the banality of walking to class by being immersed in the unique sounds of music. I am not a lover of the sounds of campus, I don’t want to hear the footsteps on bricks and the bits and pieces of conversations I am not a part of. I want to hear memories of my life and enjoy the calming influence of any kind of music. Contrary to popular belief, I can focus to almost any kind of music. Lyrics, or instrumental, rap or classical, heavy metal or acoustic singer/songwriter; anything can remove me from distractions of life around me and put me into my own little auditory world. Music has the power to make memories and to create focus and content at any time in my life.

Draft 1: Music as a Shared Experience

I listen to music alone a lot. Whether while doing homework or browsing the web or at the gym, my headphones see a lot of use. A lot of people might love listening to music through headphones and the isolation it brings. It can take you away to your own little world, away from the clamor of those around. Crowded subway train? Headphones in. Noisy gym? Headphones in. Bored in your room? Headphones in. Listening to your own music by yourself is a great escape, and I thoroughly enjoy it myself.

But I don’t think that through headphones is the best way to experience music. I don’t think being isolated from the world gives one the full experience. I think that listening to music in a group and experiencing it with those around you gives you an unmatched musical experience. There’s something special about enjoying a song with those around you that just can’t compare with the experience of listening alone. It’s an entirely new experience, and there’s no better way to undergo this experience than at a live performance.

I can vividly remember the first concert I ever went to; I was 9, I was with my dad, and it was a free Staind concert at government center in Boston. We found a spot up against the fence surrounding the soundboard, and my 9 year old self with my short attention span was often distracted by the activity around it. But I kept finding myself looking back up at the crowd sprawling out in front of us, particularly amazed by the crowdsurfers, wishing I was down there in the thick of things. Afterwards, sitting in a random Burger King with my dad was the first time I can remember experiencing my ears ringing as a result of the noise that assaulted me. It was the first of many concert experiences to come.

Three years later, my musical tastes had taken an interesting turn and I found myself at my first ever festival: the Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival, a rock and metal concert that brought together several of my favorite bands. It was the first time I had ever been to a metal show as well as a festival, and the energy of the crowd amazed me just as much as the sheer size of it. I saw my first mosh pit, I got the closest I’d ever been to a stage, and I experienced firsthand the adrenaline rush of being a part of the crowd. I can remember feeling the bass drum in my stomach, feeling the crowd shift around me, feeling the excitement building as a breakdown approached. It was an unforgettable experience. I would go on to go to many more metal concerts and concerts of many different genres as my musical tastes continued to expand, and while some may have been better than others, there was always that feeling of exhilaration when the music kicked in.

The best part about going to all those concerts wasn’t the quality of the music. It wasn’t seeing the artists I’d listened to countless times through my headphones in real life. The best part about those concerts was the energy of the crowd and the shared experience of the music. We were all there for the same reason, and the connected-ness of the crowd was a palpable feeling. The shared music experience, whether among thousands at a festival or just a group of your friends, is to me far more enjoyable than a session with yourself and your headphones.

Music As Background Noise

I think it is safe to say that musicians make music with the intent that it will be actively listened to. Most songs have a message that the artist is trying to convey to their listeners. It seems that this is what music is all about, artists expressing themselves and the listeners finding a meaning in the song that they can relate to their own lives. Many people would agree that this is where the joy in music lies. Without actively listening to the music, there doesn’t really seem to be a point to listening at all. However, there are many instances where music is used as a sort of background noise. Music has the ability to enhance whatever environment one is in, even if the music isn’t being actively listened to and is serving as a background noise. Music is obviously not created with this purpose, but it seems to intrinsically be an excellent background noise.

Whenever I sit down to work on homework, I always put on headphones and play music. It is a habit that I’ve had for a long time. Without music I tend to quickly lose interest in whatever work I am supposed to be doing. With music, the homework somehow becomes more bearable. The same kind of thing happens when I am at football practice. Every Thursday the coaches play music over the PA system, not surprisingly, Thursday practices are my favorite. The music makes the practice noticeably more enjoyable than normal.

While doing either homework or football, I’m usually too focused on them to actually pay attention to the songs playing. While typing this paper I’ve listened to multiple songs and the only one I can recall listening to is the one playing right now. During practice, I’m busy worrying about listening to the play call or to the coaches, I’m not paying attention to the music. Even so I don’t actively listen to the songs, I’m able to subconsciously find pleasure in them. It is almost an unexplainable phenomenon. When faced with the choice to study either with or without music, I’ll almost always choose with. Logically, however, it seems like I should be indifferent as to whether I study with or without music playing. If I choose to have music, I will end up being oblivious to it and not paying it any attention, practically the same thing as not playing any music at all.

Trying to figure out why this desire for background music exists is not an easy task. It could be safe to say that people in general don’t like having a silent soundscape. The background music is a way to relieve some of the pressure one feels when doing something like homework or a sports practice. In silent soundscapes people are left with nothing but their thoughts, which in high stress situations, can cause them to over think and “drive themselves crazy”. This could be a good explanation as to why music is still enjoyed even when it isn’t being actively listened to.