Show your students awful movies

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I would rate Tommy Wiseau’s The Room on par with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I mean that seriously. Obviously, I need to qualify that a bit: The Room is one of the worst movies ever made and 2001 is one of the best. But not only do I rank my personal enjoyment of them equal, I think they are equally great opportunities for students to learn about visual storytelling.

Of course, in every classroom there is a finite amount of time. You can’t show them everything, so how do you pick? Before the rise of streaming services and the ready availability of media, I might have answered this question differently. However, the question is easy to answer now: show them bad movies. Show them the worst movies you can find.

Before Netflix, it was much less likely that students had a chance to see great movies. They’d probably heard of them, but getting to watch them was a different story. Selling the family on renting a complex, old movie versus the new Adam Sandler film on a Friday night was unlikely. But now there’s no real cost to watching whatever you want. Even if they haven’t seen Citizen Kane yet, they will. Why? Because now that they’re in college, they’re hanging around with other cinephiles and have access to all the greats. So let them do it on their own.

What they might not do on their own is explore the worst cinema has to offer: the strange, poorly conceived, horribly executed, and clumsy films that are lost to the annals of time. I mean, come on, they’re in school to learn how to make great visual storytelling media. They aren’t going to watch any Joe Don Baker film (other than, possibly, Walking Tall). And that’s a missed opportunity.

I want to make my classroom a place where students not only learn, but feel inspired and empowered. I’m sure it’s the same for any educator. My concern of showing my students great examples of cinema history is that they’ll be intimidated. Showing students Dr. Caligari implies that is the benchmark that they need to achieve in my classroom to be worth anything. Besides, they already have insecurity in spades.

A bad movies not only communicates what not to do clearly and repeatedly, but as they’re watching it they’ll inevitably think “I can do better than Plan 9 From Outer Space!” And yes, yes they can. And if Plan 9 was made, then they have a shot too.

The Resilient Human Hypothesis

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“Isolation” by xkcd

Are we trapped in our technology? Does media change what it means to be human? Is some new trend in media going to alter who we are? Do you ever yearn for the days when people could talk instead of [insert use of media here]? These are common concerns that have echoed throughout the world since (at least) Socrates. Before I go any further, I don’t mean to infer that these concerns are unfounded or totally incorrect. Clearly, media does change how we communicate: go back slightly more than two decades and you wouldn’t even be able to be bored by my blog because the World Wide Web wasn’t invented yet.

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Randolph Scott went one step further and peaced out the day I was born.

The point being, I don’t think I need to convince anyone that media changes our society. What I am arguing, however, is that media doesn’t change what it means to be human.

There’s a fair amount of disagreement on what exactly humans need in our lives to be healthy and happy, but social contact with other humans is generally accepted as a fundamental part of our lives. So what gives? How can everything be different, yet nothing changed?

Here’s an aside that illuminates the idea a bit: remember how good movies used to be in the days before Michael Bay and the junk we have now? I do too. But we’re wrong. It’s just that, over time, the junk gets forgotten and the good stuff is kept. Well, they are forgotten unless you’re a masochist and love bad movies. (Hmm, that might make for a good blog post…)

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I do make her watch cheesy movies, the worst I can find. (La la la!)

Right, so bad movies are forgotten. But so are failed attempts to redefine how we communicate. This brings us to the first formal statement of the Resilient Human Hypothesis:

Communication technologies and mediums that fulfill human needs for communication are the ones that permeate society and last a long time.

This is hard to demonstrate thoroughly since it’s a negative and not a whole lot of people are willing to share their utter failures with the world. But here’s an example: the chat room.

Yes, my friends, there was a time in the early days of the internet that strangers would join a shared text space and type words at each other in a real time dialog. They were popular for a while, but mostly they’re relegated to a niche. What do we have instead? Chat rooms with people we know or are accessible to our social circle. These are typically called group messages now instead of chat rooms. People in group messages are more real to us than strangers.

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Ah, the glory days of the internet…(?)

So why the rise and fall of chat rooms? I’m sure there is more than one cause, but I’d be willing to bet that talking with strangers via text doesn’t quite scratch the “needs to be social” itch. It was the closest thing you could do a long time ago since group messaging a bunch of friends wasn’t possible, and not everyone was on the internet yet or as much. So it lasted as long as those circumstances lasted and then left the mainstream consciousness. Sure, we still communicate quasi-anonymously through spaces like reddit or tumblr. But usernames become recognizable as individuals, and it isn’t a real time conversation like a chat room.

What does it all mean?

What I’m driving at is this: media works for us and not the other way around. We are too complex and too old of a species to be fundamentally changed by smartphones in just a few years. We have the same needs and desires as people from hundreds of years ago, so clearly the smartphone is serving us and not changing us on a fundamental level. And it isn’t just serving the individual, it’s serving the collection of individuals in our society.

Yes, the smartphone changes our environment in a litany of ways, but it is succeeding as a communication medium because it is scratching an itch to be social. We are still the same! And I would make an identical argument for any popular medium.

Let’s define music!

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Goodness, I have written lots of word about music, but I’m not sure if I have ever thoroughly defined what I mean by “music.” In this post you’ll find my definition, of course, but I want to clarify right up front that this may read to be slightly antagonistic. In a sense it is meant to be, but ultimately it is about how to define music in the context of communication. I’m trying to push boundaries, not hurt feelings.

I don’t claim all of these thoughts as my own, but this may be a unique synthesis of standing ideas. I’ve also touched on some of these ideas in previous posts, but I wanted to put them all together.

Music describes a way of thinking about sound.

Music is a bit like the infamous Supreme Court ruling on pornography: it’s hard to define but when you’re presented with an example, you recognize it immediately. Once you start leaving the very obvious examples, it gets kind of hard to find the boundary between music and regular sound. That’s because music describes a way of thinking about sound, not a specific kind of sound.

I think the most famous example of pushing the boundaries of music in the western world might be John Cage’s 4’33.” A pianist sits down, prepares to play, then does nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Is that music? Well, Cage would certainly say so but the audience in the music hall is split. Some say yes, some say no. Who is right?

I would argue that 4’33” in that example is definitively music, and here is why: the context. In his autobiography, Frank Zappa argued that context is key. He called it “putting a frame around it.” Let’s explore this a bit. The audience in my example above is at a music hall to hear music. A performer sits at an instrument, prepares to play, then plays silence for 4’33”. While it is certainly up to audience members to decide how much they enjoy the performance, they can’t really argue about whether or not music happened because the context clearly articulated that music happened.

Here’s another example: you’re walking in the woods alone, and you come to a clearing to find a pianist sitting at a piano. As you approach, she hops up and says “ah! I just finished my performance of 4’33”! What did you think?” Did you hear music for the last 4 minutes and 33 seconds? I don’t think so. There was no contextual clue to encourage you to think about sounds as music for the previous four and a half minutes. (Unless, of course, you just so happened to be doing it on your own free will, but the odds of that are remote.)

Another way to think about it is the old paradox: don’t think about an elephant. It’s impossible to not think about an elephant when you are given this prompt. Similarly, the people in the music hall are thinking about music and thinking about sound as music. Even if they’re thinking “ugh, this is stupid, this isn’t music,” they are still thinking about sound as music.

Music is communication.

When we hear sound as music, we are interpreting and processing it. Music is inherently more vague in its meaning than language, but there is still meaning. Music has emotional impacts, triggers memories, and causes physiological responses. Language does all of these things, too.

I think a lot of people get hung up on the idea of “music is communication” because music isn’t specific or declarative. I agree wholly that music is non-specific and non-declarative. I can’t play you a tune on a recorder to ask you to get me a beer (I would if I could, though!). And if you ask 10 people to listen to the same song, they’ll each tell you something different when asked what it means.

However, language suffers some of the same faults. Has anyone ever misunderstood you? Or have you ever said something that came out wrong? Of course you have. Language is specific, but the interpretation is difficult. I think music suffers a somewhat similar fate: a composer can intend to convey a scene or a feeling, but different audience members will have different responses.

Also, I’m blogging right now. (Duh.) But why? Well, blogging has a certain set of affordances that other kinds of communication lack. I could say this out loud, but only the other people near my desk would hear me. And once I’ve said it, it’s gone forever. I could write a book, but that means people need to buy it to read my thoughts. I could write a poem, but my prose is terrible. The point is that I’m writing this in blog form because it seems to be the best way for me to share these specific ideas in a way that I want to share them. Music is no different. I can express things that are difficult or impossible to express outside of music.

I think a more complete analysis of the affordances of music would be a swell thing to do, but here’s a short sketch: musical expression has no substitute mode of expression. I can’t accurately tell you about a piece of music, I can only approximate it in words. Information is lost when I talk about it compared to you experiencing it first hand. I think what is lost is the thrill and the emotion. Not only am I sharing words, but I’m sharing my interpretation of it. I’ve taken the experience out of it. It’s like baby food: the nutrition is there, but the experience of texture is lost in the processing.

Music is interesting.

Unlike language, music is inherently interesting. Language is designed to convey specific ideas. The goal is clarity and meeting expectations of normal patterns of communication. Sentences have at least a noun and a verb. Normal communication is utilitarian and functional. Musical communication is impressionistic and fanciful.

Part of the joy of listening to music is the blend of having your expectations met and defied in unexpected but carefully constructed ways. A piece of music establishes or implies a set of rules, but then defies those rules for your enjoyment. For example, a common thing to do in a pop song is to modulate up part of the way through the song. This defies expectations because the song has clearly established itself to exist in a given key, but then everything suddenly shifts upwards. The foundation the song was built on just got pushed upward a little bit. It’s startling, but it can be pleasant when done artfully. Another example is establishing a phrase (a pattern) by repeating the structure, but then unexpectedly stopping the pattern short. Again, this can be quite exhilarating and pleasant when done carefully. Imagine that happening in a conversation, though. Someone is talking to you and they just stop right in the

… Language doesn’t work that way, does it? Language is meant to inform and music is meant to challenge and entertain you, in a broad sense. Attempts to describe music in terms of musical forces (like physical forces) sometimes stumble because music does unexpected things. A thrown ball will always obey physical forces. In that sense, it is uninteresting. Music, however, will only sometimes obey musical forces and that’s part of the point.

Music is important.

Music is a means of expression for both performers and listeners. It is therapeutic. Music helps build identity both for individuals and groups. These are concrete, real psychological benefits. Music helps us survive, and it helps shape societies.

And now, I think a brief explanation of what music is not would be useful.

Sheet music is a lie.

Sheet music is not music nor is it an accurate representation of music. It is a shorthand expression and a necessary means to preserve musical ideas in the era before recording audio was possible. It is a useful guide for memorization and performance. Systems that explicitly or implicitly rely on sheet music as if it is real music are faulty.  Sheet music captures onsets and durations in an abstract and imperfect way, and make little to no attempt to capture feeling.

Schenkerian analysis is a way to analyze music, but it is not the way.

Schenkerian analysis is a useful tool to analyze music of a certain type when asking certain questions. However, since it is by far the dominant (heh) method of musical analysis, it is often applied to situations where it is not relevant or meaningful. Schenkerian analysis also presumes that sheet music is an accurate representation of music. Schenkerian analysis is performed on sheet music, not actual music. It is also produces a tautological result: each piece of music can be reduced to simpler and simpler versions, eventually ending in a descending pattern of notes. On the surface, this is a stunning revelation about how music works but the problem is that Schenkerian analysis demands this outcome.

When studying the psychological implications of music, it is important to ask questions about the music that most people actually experience.

Remember, music is a phenomenon that exists in the mind. It then follows that it is important to study the kinds of music found in most minds. And I think it’s safe to say that Schubert isn’t it. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and dig into the music of the now.

Music perception and cognition research largely limits itself to SERIOUS CLASSICAL MUSIC and maybe jazz when feeling cheeky. This is a problem! And please don’t think I’m knocking serious classical music or jazz, or the study of this music. It’s very important and relevant and I am grateful that people do it because both of the forms of music profoundly influence our current popular music.

What I am advocating is that music be studied in such a way that is more related to how most people experience music. Artificiality is a challenge in any line of research, but this stumbling block seems easy enough to avoid. The barriers to studying popular music are institutional elitism, not practical issues.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this or at the very least found it provocative. I know it helped me a lot to codify all of these thoughts in one place, so I thank you for the indulgence.

The crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe: Mindfulness, Flow, and Dimensional Emotion Theory

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Here’s a question that’s been bouncing around in my head for some time now: are mindfulness and flow related?

At first glance, it’s hard to see any relationship. Mindfulness is almost like a meditation exercise where a person shifts their attention to being in the moment and avoiding distractions. It’s an extremely heightened sense of self. Flow is when you get lost in a task completely, and your sense of self dissolves. Mindfulness is explicitly actively sought, flow is explicitly an emergent property.

And yet I can’t shake this idea that they’re very, very similar. Here’s why:

There are several ways to conceptualize emotions, but the two main camps are “discrete emotions” and “dimensional emotion.”  Discrete emotions theory argues that we have some finite set of emotions that are unique from each other. Dimensional emotion theory argues that we label emotions, but in reality all emotions are related and can be described as existing in some kind of dimensional space.

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Valence, arousal, and dominance represented by SAM. Also useful for a hyper-niche Halloween costume.

I fall into the dimensional emotion camp, and typically conceptualize emotions as existing on three dimensions: valence, arousal, and dominance. In most cases, dominance is ignored since valence and arousal have such profound explanatory power. This is a bit abstract so let me give some examples:

  • joy would be high valence, high arousal
  • rage would be low valence, high arousal
  • depression would be low valence, low arousal
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Not to be confused with a high valance.

With these examples, I think you can see how we move around this dimensional space. “Negative” emotions are given a low valence score, “positive” emotions are given a high valence score. Emotions that are evocative of feeling energetic are given high arousal scores, and emotions that are evocative of a lack of energy are given low arousal scores.

While this is mere conjecture, I would suggest that flow and mindfulness could both be placed similarly on the dimensional space: above-neutral valance, below-neutral arousal. First off, this is an odd space to be in to begin with: it’s hard to think of words for emotions that would be high valance but low arousal. In fact, a famous database of rigorously tested images used to induce reliable emotional responses (IAPS) doesn’t have anything in that category. Secondly, why would the same or similar emotional space be used to describe such subjectively different emotional experiences?

And thus we reach the crux of the biscuit: the apostrophe. The important part is the part that’s missing: dominance.

Dominance is a way to express who is in control: you or the emotion. Panic is low dominance because the emotion is controlling you, but anger is high dominance because you are cognitively engaged with the object d’frustration. (These are clumsy definitions, but they’ll suit the purposes of this post. Just know that there’s plenty more to read on the topic.)

Again, conjecture, but it seems to me that a possible key difference between flow and mindfulness is to be found on the dominance dimension. In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that mindfulness might be the most salient example of a highly dominant emotional experience, given that it’s the active manipulation and engagement with emotion. Flow, on the other hand, might be low on the dominance dimension because of the profound and signature loss of sense of self.

I’d love to test these hypotheses, but I haven’t quite figured out a way to do it yet (or at least, in a way that benefits me as a doctoral student studying media). I’ll keep thinking. If you have any thoughts, please let me know.

If psychology were easy, people wouldn’t write music about it.

“Well I’m not so well acquainted
With the topography of your mind
I need a detailed description
A representation of some kind”