So, my husband and I just moved from North Carolina to Georgia. In fact, that’s why I didn’t update the site last week; I was up to my eyeballs in boxes. Truth be told, I still am, but it’s getting better.
One of the debates we’ve been having as we set up our new home is what to do with our CD rack. See, I’ve always seen my music collection as a point of pride – something to show off to guests. Likewise, when I visit the home of a friend, I often find myself fascinated by what music populates their collections. I’ve always felt that you can learn a lot about someone based on what music they choose to own. But the visual aspect of that window into someone’s personality is changing, and hubby seems more comfortable with that than I guess I am.
Yesterday was the first day of my first semester at the University of West Georgia, and my first class of the day was a 96-seat Survey and Jazz, Rock, and Pop. We were talking about the kinds of music my students enjoy, and I was thrilled to see so much diversity of styles among the students. Not only do they like lots of different things, few of them seem content to limit themselves to one or two musical styles. So, as this discussion went on, I started talking about this debate hubby and I are having at home, and I asked the class if they can relate to my position. Several people said yes. So then I asked, “But how do you share your musical collections?” The dominant answer was “On my phone.” Then I asked, “How many of you purchase music in a tangible, physical format?” Roughly 30 hands shot up. Knowing how many of these students were freshmen, I then asked, “So, how many moved CDs into your dorms?” The answer was 3. Just 3.
I have to admit, I was kind of surprised, but there are a number of possibilities at work here. A handful of my new students were rocking that distinctively hipster look, so perhaps when I asked if they purchased physical copies of music, they were thinking about LPs. So when I asked about CDs, they blew my question off with a shrug. Of course for new freshmen, being able to store one’s entire music collection on a small portable object is certainly a valuable option when moving and cramming possessions into a tiny dorm room, so opting to leave the CDs at home may have simply been a question of logistics and space-saving. And, naturally, there may also be a number of students who still live at home or in off-campus housing. If you don't live in a dorm, the question simply doesn’t apply.
But let’s just assume for a moment that only about 3% of my students value their physical copies of music enough to bring them along when they leave for college. What does that say about their perception of the musical object? Does music need a physical presence to be truly owned? How does the act of holding a CD or other music medium in your hands impact the experience of music? Does one need cover art and liner notes in order to fully appreciate musical sound?
Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. In many ways, music has maintained a distance from the visual for a long time- at least during the period between the invention of recorded sound and the birth of music videos. But then, one could argue that the visually stunning album art of the late 1960s added a visual dimension to the listening experience. We might even consider the films of Elvis Presley from the 1950s as a tool to align aural and visual stimuli. So perhaps removing the images the accompanying popular music is a way of returning it to its roots from the 1910s to the 1950s and providing listeners with a purer musical experience that isn’t complicated by visual elements. While I suppose I should see this is a move toward more critical listening and rejoice in the shift, I know better.
I think where my unease with society’s move away from tangible musical objects might be summed up in this quote from W.H. Auden: “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.” Music without a physical remnant is far more likely to be lost to the ocean tides of popular consciousness. The song that is “one’s jam” one summer can easily be forgotten by the next, especially without a physical reminder of its existence sitting on a shelf.
One might question whether modern music warrants being preserved for historical reference. Is some music made to be disposable, and does the digital download encourage that mentality? How does that translate to music with more creditability? Works that haven’t disappeared over time? Is something lost when we listen to, say Dark Side of the Moon, from a digital download, or does the listener need the paraphernalia to fully appreciate the work?
In the interest of reuniting people with the tangible, concrete nature of musical media, rather than recommending a specific album, I would suggest that you revisit something you own on LP, cassette, 8-track, CD, whatever, something physical that you can hold in your hands. Look at the art work, read the lyric sheet printed inside. Does having that object alter how you experience the music? Do you find yourself having a more cohesive aesthetic experience when you hear the music with the images and words put together?
Richard Wagner sought to create in his operas what he called the “Gesamtkunstwerk” (complete work of art) by combining the musical with the dramatic and the visual. Does listening to an album with all of its accouterments make the process more “gesamt”?
This idea was inspired by a discussion board in on of my Music Appreciation classes that totally jumped the tracks. I had asked my class to examine similarities in their own lives with the social, cultural, and economic changes that impacted the lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. I use these composers and their careers in my gen-ed classes to show how non-musical factors impact the lives and output of composers.
A quick summary for those who aren’t up on their 18th century history… Haydn (1732-1809), Mozart (1756-1791), and Beethoven (1770-1827) were about a generation apart, and through their lives, the social order in Western Europe was undergoing massive changes. The aristocracy that had ruled most of the continent for centuries was beginning to give way to the demands of the uprising middle class and the emergence of democracy. We see this reflected in the lives of these composers. Haydn spent the vast majority of his professional life working under the patronage of a wealthy, aristocratic Hungarian family, and by all accounts, he seemed more or less content to do so. Mozart, having spent his childhood fawned over as a child prodigy, was less inclined to subjugate himself to a patron, and at the age of 25, he left his position (though not entirely voluntarily) and began work as an independent composer in Vienna. By the time Beethoven struck out on his own, there were very few patrons who could afford to house, feed, and clothe a composer, and as such, Beethoven’s career was significantly more independent than his predecessors. We can see the impact of these societal changes by looking at the amount of music each of these composers created and what techniques they utilized to bring those works to life.
So, I use this notion to ask how the world has changed in the last few generations for the families of my students. I usually get responses about how the internet changes the way people work and communicate and the influence of other technologies on people’s lives. At least, that’s what I expect to get…
During my last summer term, my students seemed to think that they had to relate their responses to this question to music in a way far greater than the question required. Students wrote about how technological advances have changed the way generations listen to music and the types of music they enjoy. It wasn’t exactly what I had expected, but it was interesting.
One student took this idea and wrote about how, as her family moved to various parts of the country, their tastes in music changed. This got me thinking about how one’s environment impacts their listening habits. I found myself wondering how much of this is a geographical influence and how much is social. Do our musical tastes change when we move? If so, how much of this is because of where we are, and how much is because of who we associate with?
Growing up, I had a really good friend. I always thought she had the coolest taste in music, and whenever she would discover a new band or artist, I would immediately seek them out. I still really enjoy a lot of the music that my friend introduced me to, but I do wonder if I’d like it as much if I’d discovered it on my own. Do I like [insert band name here] because my friend did, and I wanted to be like her, or does that band just make really cool music? If I’d lived somewhere else and had different friends, would my youthful tastes have been completely different?
I suspect this kind of musical discovery through social channels is far more common among young people. People introduce me to music all the time (it’s an occupational hazard), but rarely do I find myself getting really fanatical about something someone plays for me. I suppose I am not as interested in assimilating my tastes as a tool for making friends, and I am secure enough in my own adult personality to simply point out an interesting feature or two and move on without gushing over something I don’t care for just to make someone else feel better about their own tastes. So, maybe the influence of other people has an age component.
That said, there are definitely certain definite geographic factors at work in the formation of taste. When I lived in Nashville, there was an amazing radio station that I loved (sadly, it is not there anymore). I discovered countless artists and songs from this radio station, that had I lived anywhere else, I likely would not know. In high school, my husband lived in a small town where the overwhelming majority of the music played on the radio was (and still is) classic rock. Let’s just say his taste progression got a bit stunted for a while.
Of course, modern technology has vastly changed this. The limitations of one’s local radio offerings no longer hold anyone back. But, there is still the question of how one knows what to listen to. In our modern society it is almost as if infinite choices isn’t that much different from having no choices. Deciding what iTunes radio station to turn on still has to come from somewhere, which brings us back to the influence or where we are and who we associate with.
What do you think? Has your taste in music been influenced more by where you live or by who your friends are? Have you noticed any changes in your musical tastes after moving to another part of the country (or the world)?
Since this is the last post I will write while living in North Carolina, it seems appropriate to honor that with some local music. And this is an album by my favorite local band.
The Old Ceremony (Live): The Old Ceremony (2011)
Normally I don’t get too excited about live albums, but this was a different situation. The Old Ceremony formed in Chapel Hill, NC in 2004. They have released five studio albums, but for a reason I have not fully determined, the sound quality on their studio releases for the most part has been pretty awful (though, I must admit, I have not yet heard their newest release, which came out just a few weeks ago). Great music, horribly recorded. As such, a live album was a good way to get many of the songs that I like without having to worry too much about the sound.
The band is headed by songwriter Django Haskins and includes four other members who play a crazy variety of instruments, including violin, organ, and vibraphone. Their sound ranges from fun and bouncy pop to Eastern European folk music. It’s a bit of a mind bend, but in a really fun way.
I’d be hard pressed to say that this album was terribly indicative of “the North Carolina sound,” which I suppose is best represented by Ben Folds and groups like Superchunk, but I like it, and perhaps you will, too.
So, upon doing some looking, it turns out the Live album doesn’t seem to be available for streaming, and the band doesn’t even sell it on their website, so if you want a taste, here are some of my favorite songs:
“Papers in Order”
“Get to Love”
“Wither on the Vine, part 2”
On the first day of my general education music classes, I typically ask students, “What is music?” Without fail, the vast majority of the responses that I hear have something to do with emotion. Given the function that music serves in most people’s daily lives, this is not surprising. We use music to reinforce a certain mood or to change how we are feeling all the time. If we’re getting amped up for a party, Chopin etudes are not going to keep that energy going. Instead, we turn to something lively and happy to keep the mood flowing. Similarly, many people turn to sad music after a breakup or during times of emotional crisis. While musically wallowing in negative emotions for extended periods of time may not be the healthiest thing we can do, I suspect this impulse is based on our basic need to feel like we are not alone in our moments of sadness.
However, once we are ready to change our mood and start feeling happy again, often we use music as a stimulus for brighter feelings. You can also see this type of thinking in action by paying attention to music in film and television. Much of the tension generated during a scary film comes from musical sound, just like film composers use sonic cues to inform the audience that the handsome man who just confessed his undying love to the naïve, young girl is lying through his teeth.
So, how do musical sounds reflect feelings? That’s a complicated question. Part of it is answered by neurobiology, while some of it is learned behavior, enforced by the culture in which we grow up. While all human cultures have some kind of music (and it is believed that music has been part of humanity as long as we have been hanging around on the planet), a piece of music that sounds happy or sad to a typical Western listener may not necessarily sound that way to someone from another part of the world. So, for our purposes, let’s focus on Western musical traditions.
Grossly simplifying the matter, music in a major key sounds happy, while music in a minor key sounds sad. Similarly, music with a fast tempo gives us energy, while slow music helps us relax. In vocal music, lyrics also play a huge factor in how a song makes us feel when we hear it. Unless the idea is to be ironic, the text to a song such as Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” would not work to a musical background such as that from The Carpenters’ “Top of the World” or vice versa (though, now that I think about it, I’d kind of like to hear that…). Again, these are not universal constants in all musical cultures, but they generally hold true for the vast majority of music a typical American listener will encounter. If these conventions were not generally consistent in our culture, film music, like a just described a moment ago, would not have the effect that it does on the viewer.
As for the brain, according to Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and musician, the brain processes music in a multi-phasic process. First the auditory cortex processes the sound. Then, those signals are sent to the frontal regions of the brain, which examines the structure of the musical sound and creates certain expectations, and the cerebellum and basal ganglia examine rhythm and meter. Finally, the mesolimbic system responds to the upsetting of those expectations by releasing dopamine, creating a sense of pleasure from the experience of hearing something we did not anticipate. Naturally, this all occurs very quickly, so that we are not consciously aware of the process. Instead, we suddenly find ourselves being drawn to what we hear, whether it is because it creates a continuity with the emotions we are feeling or offers a better alternative. When it comes to music, our brains are programmed to enjoy surprises.
Why am I suddenly thinking about all of this? Well, on one hand, I think about it a lot. Talking and writing about music and how people use it in their lives is kind of my job. But, also, there’s a more selfish motive at work. I’m getting ready to move. I’m starting a new job three states away. I have a seven-hour drive ahead of me, and I need to create a playlist. The move itself is causing a lot of conflicting emotions: excitement and anticipation, happiness about the opportunity, fear of the unknown, sadness at leaving my friends, nervousness about the new job, stress for all the planning that needs to be done… So, how do I use my knowledge of music in a logical, informed way to reinforce the good, recognize and support the sad, and chase away the fear? Honestly, I’m not yet sure. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears. In the immortal words of Flava Flav, “Hit me!”
Now, just as listening to music can direct and impact our emotions, making music has long been used as a tool for focusing one’s feelings in productive and creative ways. Music therapists allow teenagers struggling with emotional disorders to express themselves in sound. Once upon a time, I studied music therapy, and I completed two semesters of practicums, where I worked with Alzheimer’s patients at local retirement homes. Singing old songs helped these people recall their pasts and clear their minds. Composers and songwriters often speak of needing to get their feelings out by writing them down within the context of a song or work.
I’m guessing for my long drive, I’ll be doing a lot of both listening and “performing.” I am one of those people who can’t help but to sing along with music, especially while I’m driving. So, if you see a woman in a blue Civic headed down I-85, singing and bopping around like a maniac, wave hello! With any luck, by the time I reach my new home, I’ll have produced enough dopamine to be feeling happy and ready to start the newest chapter of my life!
One of the most incredible albums I know that served as an emotional catharsis for its writer and performer is Sand and Water by Beth Nielsen Chapman (1997). She wrote the songs for this album during and following her husband’s long illness and death from cancer in 1994. The raw emotions and honest lyrics confront the pain, anger, and bewilderment that I can only imagine would accompany such an experience.
The album Sand and Water first began to attract public notice after Elton John reported during an interview with Oprah Winfrey that Chapman’s music helped him to come to terms with the death of Princess Diana. John also performed songs from the album during his 1997-98 tour.
Chapman’s songs simultaneously celebrate the life of her husband, condemn the circumstances that led to his death, question her emotional responses to her circumstances, confront the realities of being left alone to care for their son, and trace her struggle to regain her sense of self. Listening to the album is a rare and beautiful experience, in which this gifted singer and songwriter opens her heart for all to hear.
Sand and Water is available in streaming formats through Spotify and Tidal. And, though it is out of print, it can be purchased on CD (and cassette!) on Amazon.
How does Beth Nielsen Chapman’s music make you feel? What other music do you use to change how you feel?
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.