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”

 

Metaphors, music, and learning from the absurd

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It finally happened. I think every graduate student gets one, and I got mine: a reading assigned for class that is completely blowing my mind. Steve Larson’s Musical Forces is provocative, funny, and controversial. Larson argues that, like the physical world, music has forces that govern (or, in the case of music, “influence” might be appropriate) its motion through time. Music has forces that are similar to the physical forces because of the one thing common to every human: the experience of having a body and existing in the physical world. And we base all of our knowledge in metaphor for the physical world. (Note: “base,” “in,” etc.)

 

Larson even says he can quantify the musical forces. You’ll have to read it yourself to see if you agree. I have yet to make up my mind.

Anyway, time to pivot:

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… says the pawn shop, without a hint of irony.

I’m finally starting to gain some perspective on what truly interests me and the conceptual continuity that connects all of my expression. From a personal perspective, I see little distinction between my identities as a scientist and a creative. Research, to me, is a fundamentally creative endeavor and despite the stereotypes about creative types, I think scientists and creatives face very similar problems:

 

  • What hasn’t been done yet?
  • How can I synthesize things that have been done to produce new things?
  • How do I know if it’s good?
  • When is it done?
  • What do I do with it when it’s done?
  • What value does this create?
  • What else could I have been doing if this fails?

The threads that I see more and more connecting these aspects of my life are all about levels of abstraction. Cast in another light, it might be described as metaphor in the same way that Hofstadter and Larson mean it: cross-domain mapping. (As well as allegory, which is intra-domain mapping). Now, before you recoil in horror at that jargon, let me clarify this idea a bit while also making it more opaque.

Cross-domain mapping is about making an association between two unrelated things. First of all, think of domains as categories. The classic example is “the legs of a chair.” Chairs don’t have legs. Not really. Animals have legs, and a chair is not an animal. We call those sturdy vertical protuberances on the bottom of a chair “legs” because their function and form are evocative of actual legs. An example of intra-domain mapping is something like saying “[song a] starts the same way as [song b].” They don’t literally start the same way, but we choose to relate them. Surely the notes played, arrangement, tempo, etc. might be highly, highly similar but they aren’t literally identical. Larson calls this kind of comparison “hearing as.” Going back to the legs of a chair, that would be an example of “seeing as.”

Right about now, if you’re still with me, you might be thinking “oh, well this isn’t so hard.” But there’s that sense of something lurking in the depths, isn’t there? A sense of unease. An ugly question rears its head: what exactly qualifies as a domain? The short answer is that there is no answer. There are big, obvious domains that would be hard to argue as being part of the same domain like cars vs dogs, South Indian cuisine vs Southern Indiana cuisine, blogs vs good sources of information, and so on. Got it? Good.

For your consideration, what is this pictured below?

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Depending on your individual knowledge, possible answers range from “that Star Wars thing” to “the Enterprise NCC-1701-A, a refit Constitution class cruiser, under command of Admiral James T. Kirk.” Now, given the disparity between those descriptions, and not even considering everything in between, can you see how it would be hard to define universal, concrete domains? Let’s go further. Is the ship below the same or different from the one above?

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Very quickly, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that “it depends – it’s complicated.” You’d be right. Domain mapping gets complicated quickly because domains are highly context driven as well as individualized.

There’s good news, though. Metaphors and allegories can organize nicely into hierarchies depending on your level of analysis: human vs animal -> animal kingdom vs plant kingdom -> multicellular life vs single cellular life -> … Whatever the context or individualized knowledge you possess, we all have hierarchies of abstraction.

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Inevitably, you end up with this trope.

And at least right now, that’s the thing that interests me: how do we, as humans, manipulate these hierarchies of abstraction to communicate effectively? Music, to me, is a primary example of this. I could orate, paint, or even write all I want to try and have you understand a piece of music and it wouldn’t matter one bit if you haven’t actually heard it. The music-ness of the abstraction of thought is part of communication itself, and it can’t be expressed in any other way. At least, I don’t think so.

Furthermore; when creating music, how do we manipulate levels of abstraction to communicate something? What does it mean to strum a guitar? When I’m working with my bandmates on a new song, what do we talk about and why? How does it influence what we play? And when assembling a song for dissemination as a piece of media, what does it mean to put the guitar in the mix one way or another?

Brian Eno talks at length about some absurdities he uses when working with other musicians to provoke and evoke certain moods, vibes, or styles of play. One of my favorites is Oblique Strategies, which was originally a deck of cards meant to be a guide through abstract ideas and commands when stuck on some sort of creative task. Follow that link, check out a few cards.

You draw a card and read it, then put it back down in a huff. What the hell does “Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency” mean? Well, it’s up to you whether or not that prompt relates something meaningful to you. It’s a pointedly absurd way to provoke someone into thinking about different levels of abstraction, but none the less it’s a tool that people (myself included) swear by.

I don’t think there’s any one answer to any of the questions I’ve raised about manipulating levels of abstraction. I do think if I constrain myself to one type of communication (recorded music) there’s probably commonalities to what it means to experienced listeners and what it means to them on some basic level, since we have so much more in common than different because we’re all grounded in the same physical reality.

Beauty and the Beast: is there any difference between listening to MP3 vs CD quality?

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TL;DR: yes. But come on! There’s a bunch of graphs and some lame jokes if you actually read the post.

Preface

As I sit here at my desk, I am surrounded by audio equipment and CDs. Spotify is open right now (streaming quality set to “Extreme,” thank you very much). My favorite pair of headphones are within arm’s reach. My studio monitors are effortlessly reproducing a lovely Terry Riley piece. Clearly, I am spoiled. But wait, let’s rewind a moment: I’ve got a stack of CD’s next to me, but I’m streaming compressed audio when I could be enjoying clean, uncompressed audio from my CDs? Why would I do that? (I also have a record player and a few choice vinyls, but it’s an obviously inferior format to CD so it’s not part of the comparison.)

I do it because it’s convenient. And there’s a massive amount of diversity on Spotify that simply isn’t legally accessible to me given my grad student budget. And I’m not alone: a whole heck of a lot of people in the US use streaming services. But all of them, save one, stream in what’s called lossy formats. In fact, other than listening to a CD or vinyl, the music you listen to is probably in a lossy format. It means the previously uncompressed and pristine digital audio of a CD is reduced not just in file size, but in information it contains.WAVs, by comparison, are lossless. It’s kind of bonkers to think, but MP3s and other lossy formats throw away a LOT of sound. That’s partially why they’re so small. The goal, of course, is to only throw away things you can’t hear.

It might sound kind of like science fiction (or the fantasy of scared parents of metal fans): unheard sounds in recordings? It’s true, though. In fact, our cognitive systems are really excellent at filtering out unwanted noise. It’s called the cocktail party effect. So why not automate the process and only save the parts that we hear anyway? It might not be that simple. I, along with a classmate and our advisor, decided to test if there was a difference in the subjective enjoyment of music listening between WAVs and MP3s.

The Experiment

We selected eight songs: four recorded before MP3s were even a glimmer in the Fraunhofer Institute’s eye, and four very recent songs. We did this because there’s an idea floating around in audio engineering and audiophile circles that, for example, the Beatles sound better on vinyl than CD because the albums were recorded for the idiosyncrasies of vinyl in mind. The easiest way to control for this was to have two “early” songs and two “recent” songs as MP3 and another set of two and two as WAVs.

The Song List

  • Aretha Franklin – RESPECT
  • Michael Jackson – Thriller *
  • The Eagles – Hotel California
  • The Beatles – Help! *
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe
  • Sia – Chandelier *
  • Rihanna – We Found Love
  • Daft Punk – Get Lucky *

* = MP3, 128k, LAME encoder

Note: the oldest available CD mastering was used for the pre-MP3 songs to eliminate / reduce the chance that some modern mastering techniques would be used to make it more MP3 friendly. For example, “Hotel California” was sourced from the original CD release in 1989.

We had people come in, put on headphones we provide them with, and listen to all 8 songs presented to each person in a random order. After each song, they would rate how positive it made them feel, how negative it made them feel, and how much they enjoyed it. The reason we asked positive and negative separately is because we conceptualize those feelings as representing activations of appetitive or aversive systems, respectively. They can activate separately or they can activate together.

Keep in mind, we told the participants nothing about the sound quality, MP3s or WAVs. As far as they knew, they just had to listen to 8 songs and respond to those 3 questions for each.

Results

I instigated this experiment because I didn’t think there would be a difference. We ended up hypothesizing that there would be a difference between the formats, such that people would like WAVs more. But to be honest I was skeptical, even if I had a theory-driven rationalization as to why I thought it would come out this way. (More on that later.) I thought people might even prefer MP3s since our participants are young and have probably been listening to MP3s their whole lives, give or take.

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F(1, 17) = 2.162, p = 0.16

The graph above shows the mean positivity results by Format. It’s not statistically significant, but it is in the direction we predicted. Admittedly, this one result alone isn’t convincing. But wait — there’s more!

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F(1, 17) = 5.224, p < 0.05

And this is a prime example of why we split out positivity and negativity into two measurements: the negative scores are significant, and support our hypothesis that people would like MP3s less.

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F(1, 17) = 1.7, = 0.21

Again, not statistically significant findings here but the data are trending in the direction we predicted.

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F(1,17) = 5.285, p < 0.05

And here’s the kicker: people rated early era songs as MP3s more negatively than anything else. And this finding is statistically significant.

Discussion

So what gives? Well, it could be as simple as our participants just hated “Thriller” and “Help!” as songs. But more than they hated The Eagles‘ “Hotel California?” I sincerely doubt it. But it is possible, I’ll admit that openly.

Here’s what I think went on, though: remember how I said that MP3s strip out a lot of information, most of which you can’t hear anyway? I bet that process is flawed. It clearly works very well, but I bet that it is imperfect and listening to MP3s is actually MORE work for your brain than uncompressed audio (like WAVs). Our minds are very lazy and, under most circumstances, seek the path of least resistance when hit with a task. If MP3s tax the cognitive systems more than WAVs because we need to actively fill in some of the missing gaps or work harder to do our usual filtering, then it seems logical that we would rate the experience more negatively.

Moving Forward

This study isn’t perfect. I would prefer to have run it with a counterbalanced design where some participants heard Song A as MP3 and others heard Song A as a WAV. That would help remove unwanted effects of the song itself. That, and while I have some ideas as to why these results came about, this experiment doesn’t prove or even directly support my ideas. I need more information before I can put that claim forward more strongly.

The good news is that we have a lot more research in the pipeline regarding audio compression and how it impacts the listening experience.

Huron, Pinker, and Western Lenses on Evolution of Music

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Music psychology is a tricky field to work in. While human cultures the world ’round have what western musicologists would refer to as music, there’s a fair amount of variation in what music “means” to each culture. This has lead many astray to the endless void of relativism: if the meaning and role of music is at least somewhat different from culture to culture, then it’s impossible to identify universals in music or even suggest that music is an evolved ability. Not only is this an intellectual dead-end, it lacks any explanatory power. (Isn’t the notion that cultures are relative an inherently Western view in and of itself? The mind doth boggle.)

As relativists attempt to peck away at music, so do some empiricists. Steven Pinker gained quite a bit of notoriety when he remarked that music was were “evolutionary cheesecake.” Huron puts this a bit nicer and suggests that music might be a function of NAPS, or NonAdaptive Pleasure Seeking. Roughly speaking, the idea is that music is not an evolved trait, per se, but it emerges from other abilities and stimulates existing pleasure systems. Huron cites heroin and alcohol as other examples of NAPS. Goodness! I’m not convinced music is in the same category, but I think I get the idea.

Both Pinker and Huron point out that music doesn’t seem to directly aid in physical survival activities such as eating, sex, or seeking seeking shelter. I think there’s plenty of logical arguments to counter such a claim, but the point is that they’re just that: logical arguments. Post hoc reasoning, at that. There is a lot of face validity to saying music aids in mate selection or food gathering activities, but these arguments are not falsifiable in any reasonable way. I will gladly concede this point to them: I’ve never sang a sandwich into existence.

But now I’d like to go back to the relativists that I was kicking around at the beginning of this post. Pinker and Huron seem to be thinking about survival in physical terms only, and this is a very Western view. Humans have physical and emotional needs, and those emotional needs shouldn’t be discounted so quickly.

Here’s a simple example: music can help treat depression. And people that suffer from depression are much more likely to die than people without it. This doesn’t require the logical juggling of other arguments about mate selection or food gathering. Music directly benefits emotional and mental health, and that helps keep people alive. It’s just harder to see it when we use our Western lenses, which devalues mental and emotional health.

Obviously, this is the briefest of overviews, but I hope it illustrates the point that just because music may/not help in basic physical survival needs, it can help keep people alive. And to me, that’s a strong case for music having evolutionary value.

Who recorded the first power ballad?

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This summer I had the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in Japan for a conference and vacation. While there, I met up with my uncle who is presently living in Korea. My uncle is a pretty cool dude: an avid cyclist, musician, and long time veteran of the music industry.

Over some mind-bogglingly good sushi, my uncle posed this question to me: “Who recorded the first power ballad?”

We both agreed that Elton John (and Bernie Taupin) wrote a prime example of the power ballad: Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me. It has all the qualities we decided to be crucial to the power ballad:

  • slow tempo
  • sincerity
  • a sense of yearning
  • it’s personal
  • a highly sing-able melody
  • a big chorus that pulls the listener in
  • easy to remember
  • a quiet sort of rage that threatens to become unhinged
  • it needs to be at least somewhat popular
    • What good is a sing-along when there’s no one to sing it?
  • only duple meters
    • For example, if it’s in 3/4 then it’s a waltz

The power ballad isn’t a happy song. It’s about loss or lack. It’s sincere and brutally emotionally honest without being overly intellectualized.  There’s a sense of anger, but it’s buried under the sing-song melody. In short: it’s a highly relatable song that invites everyone to sing along and feel with and through it. That’s the definition we put together for the power ballad.

It turns out a scholar by the name of Charles Aaron has a slightly different take on it. From wikipedia (I know, I know, but I don’t want to link to a paywall):

According to Charles Aaron, power ballads came into existence in the early 1970s, when rock stars attempted to convey profound messages to audiences.[14]

Aaron argues that the power ballad broke into the mainstream of American consciousness in 1976 as FM radio gave a new lease of life to earlier songs such as Led Zeppelin‘s “Stairway to Heaven” (1971), Aerosmith‘s “Dream On” (1973), and Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Free Bird” (1974).[14]

A journalist named Pierre Peronne has argued that The Carpenters’ created the power ballad with “Goodbye To Love,” which was released in 1972.

It’s hard to believe that the power ballad began in 1972. (I’m not buying it that Stairway is a power ballad – it’s a 3rd person-perspective story, and it’s awfully goofy.) Even then, the Carpenters don’t exactly push it hard enough to have that driven sound. It might be a little too pretty. That’s hardly a crime, but it might disqualify it from being a power ballad.

So where does that leave us? What examples are there of popular western music pre-1974 that fit the requirements laid out above? Let’s explore a few options.

 

1970: The Velvet Underground – Oh! Sweet Nuthin’

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People often forget that they’re an early example of women in rock bands. Maureen Tucker is a highly influential drummer with a unique style.

This is a B-side off of the Velvet Underground’s album Loaded. It’s got the tempo, the longing, the sincerity, the sing-along chorus… nearly everything! Is that it? Do we have a winner? No, of course not. That would be anti-climactic. Aside from the fact that you can guess that this list is longer than one entry, the biggest problem facing this song is that it wasn’t popular. Loaded never charted.

During their existence, the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many albums or attain much commercial success of any kind. I mean, I guess they are one of the founding voices in alt rock, punk, and so much more… but not popular. C’est la vie. At least everyone that bought an album started a band.

1969: David Bowie – Space Oddity

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Smoking in a helmet seems like a bad idea, Major Tom.

I’ve made no secret about my Bowie fandom, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s on this list. Not only is Space Oddity an earlier example than the Velvet Underground’s entry on this list, it was even popular! But again, there are problems. Despite the fact that this is an emotive and compelling song that invites the listener to sing along, and speaks to fundamental human emotions such as loneliness and disconnect; it is still a bit abstract and intellectualized. That and it’s missing a big structural feature of the power ballad: the sing-along chorus.

1969: Frank Sinatra – My Way

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“There’s no way anyone will ever make these hats uncool.”

Sinatra is certainly outside of the rock tradition, but his popularity speaks for itself. And this song has it all: the big chorus, the emotion, the drive, the passion, the quiet rage… I can’t find a single flaw with it. “My Way” is undeniably a power ballad, even if the instrumentation is a bit different than other entries on this list. But is it the first?

1968: Claude François – Comme d’habitude

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François flipped out when he first saw Dumb & Dumber, claiming they copped his style.

Well, if “My Way” is a power ballad, would the French song it’s based on be a power ballad also? François doesn’t quite have the same gravitas to his voice as Sinatra, but it’s all still there. In fact, this version pushes even harder than Sinatra’s version to get the power. I’d be willing to say yes, yes it is a power ballad. It’s got it all!

 

1967: Hervé Vilard – Comme d’habitude

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“Ouch, shoulder pain got you down?” Vilard seen here in his failed Icy Hot ad campaign.

Turns out François wasn’t the first person to record this song. In fact, François recorded his own version after being displeased with the original recording by Vilard. So does Vilard’s version stand up to scrutiny? Well, it’s hard to say. I can’t find a copy of it. Vilard did release a recording of the song, but not until 1984. Given the criterion, there’s no need to speculate the qualities of the 1967 version since it wasn’t popular (or even released?).

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Zoolander: best movie ever, or bestest movie ever?

 

1966: Beach Boys – God Only Knows

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Look at these nice young men. So clean cut, and a good influence on our youth!

This is a pretty close call with “God Only Knows.” It has the sing-able melody. It’s sincere and profound. It’s beautiful. It even pushes towards a build at the end! I think there’s a problem, though. The ending never quite reaches that quiet rage, and the ending is a round as opposed to the big chorus. Like the Carpenters before them, The Beach Boys might be too pretty for a power ballad.

1966: Them – How Long Baby

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Them showing off some early wireless / amp-less music tech.

This track is from Them’s second album, blandly titled Them Again. While not a runaway success, the album did chart – peaking at #138 in the US – and it has all the key features. It’s a hell of a song with a powerful and frank vocal take. That’s it, close up shop and go home. We have a winner! Except wait, there’s a problem: it’s in 6/8, a compound duple meter. It’s still a duple, but inside the duple is the triple feeling. And in this song, the triple is very prominent.

 

 

1965: Nina Simone – I Put A Spell On You

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“I’m sure if someone makes a movie of my life after I die, it’ll be with taste and restraint, as well as full cooperation of my estate. Anything else would be massively disrespectful of my contributions to popular music and society as a whole.”

Coincidentally, there’s another song on Them Again that would be a good fit for a power ballad. Except Nina Simone did it first and much more famously. However, I am not sure Nina’s version qualifies as a power ballad. It is an incredible, slinky vocal performance. The arrangement skulks along with her. It’s brooding and imposing, but it never lets go and just blows the doors down. The good news is that this, too, is a cover. And it’s hard to write a list like this without invoking some of the earliest and most influential voices in the formulation of rock music.

1956: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell On You

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“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over my suit.”

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins originally released the song a long while before Nina Simone made it a huge hit. It’s also in 6/8 metre, though the triple feel is less pronounced. Because 6/8 is a compound duple metre, there’s wiggle room. I’m going to give this one a pass because the triple-aspect of it isn’t as emphasized like in “How Long Baby.” Jay brings the power, but his bellicose performance takes away from the sing-along possibilities. Despite his over-the-top vocal take (in all its glory), the song still begs to be sung. Singing along with the recording is mandatory, however. So this doesn’t quite fit, but it’s awfully close!

Thanks to the state of race relations in the US in the mid 1950s, the song never charted despite its respectable sales. The sales alone speak to its popularity, however. All in all, I think this is the proto-power ballad. It doesn’t fit the mold quite right, but it fits the spirit perfectly. The granddaddy of them all. This is the holy grail!

 

So where does this leave us? 

The goal was to find the first power ballad, and we’ve done that: Claude François wins with “Comme d’habitude” in 1968. But stopping there does a disservice to the antecedents of the power ballad. By relaxing the requirements just a little bit, it’s easy to see that the power ballad is a much older song form that is at least as old as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” from 1956. It’s all too easy to forget that contributions earlier artists make to music, and doubly so when there’s complex issues at play like race relations.

Reflecting back on the two songs, the connections become more apparent: the raw emotion, the yearning, the anger, and the build of power. I’m not sure anyone has connected Claude François to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins before, but there you have it.

 

What does it mean to be interdisciplinary?

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This semester, I took a class where we spent a lot of time talking about what it means to be an interdisciplinary scholar. The class was kind of a mess. We talked about being interdisciplinary all semester, but never got anywhere. In fact, on the last day of class we collectively realized that we still did not have a working definition of interdisciplinary research, let alone a definition of science or the humanities.

So, in an effort to construct some value from this class, I’m going to write my thoughts down – with definitions – and go from there.

As I’ve made clear in the past, I am a scientist. Depending on the day or my mood, if pressed harder I’d tell you I’m either a psychologist or a cognitive scientist. Frankly the distinction is pretty vague from my vantage point. But what does it mean to do science or to be a scientist? What are the underlying assumptions? What do I even do?

One thing I was surprised to learn early in grad school is there is no clear definition of science. As an outsider, I was confounded. All I really knew about science leading up to that point was The Scientific Method, skepticism, and an attempt to explain reality through observation. When you don’t think about it too hard, that seems to paint a pretty clear picture science. Closer inspection, however, shows that this definition is incomplete. More than incomplete, there is disagreement about what science is! So, I’ll share with you where I’m coming from.

There are three primary texts from which I draw my current understanding of science: Susan Haack’s Defending Science – within reason, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Alfred Crosby’s The Measure of Reality. (I have Annie Lang to thank for introducing me to all three.)

My main take-away from Crosby is that societal constructs that work under the surface can greatly impact our understanding of the world. Crosby calls this our mentalité. Mentalité is so insidiously subtle that attempting to define your own mentalités are exceedingly difficult. So, I’ll use one of Crosby’s examples to illustrate something seemingly bizarre by our standards: time.

In Ye Olde Days, prior to the prevalence of clocks, people viewed time as fluid and vague. Think about it. Information could only travel distances as fast as the fastest horse. News from far away would be difficult to collect and analyze in a specific order for people living now. But for people living then, it wasn’t really a concern because that’s just how things worked. Time was inconsistent and relative.

I can’t wrap my brain around that. I can read about it, I can think about it, but I can’t empathize with it. I can’t try it on and think like that. Crosby argues that I can’t do it because the people in this example have a different mentalité about time. Mentalités are not hard wired from birth, but they’re learned implicitly and are constantly reinforced. Undoing that kind of statistical learning would take immense work.

What all of this says to me personally is that humans are incapable of being objective, and also incapable of being aware of their blind spots caused by mentalités. Mentalités even help dictate what kinds of questions are asked and how they are answered. Powerful stuff.

Kuhn’s work on the history of science is profound and highly contentious, even some 55 years after it was first published. Kuhn says, in short, that everything you learned about the history of science was wrong. In grade school, I was taught the history of atomic theory. The story starts in Greece (and India!) in philosophy. Then Dalton with the first measures of atomic weights in the 18th century. Later there was Avogadro and Bohr and so forth.

Kuhn says that’s all crap. Bohr has nothing to do with Ancient Greece. Kuhn argues that scientific knowledge isn’t cumulative. Instead, it is destructive. Kuhn talks about paradigms as a way to describe eras of scientific knowledge. Ancient Greece and India may have been talking about similar things to Bohr, but Bohr’s knowledge does not come from them. Let me use another example: Newtonian physics.

Physics is a staple of the high school curriculum. I remember my Physics teacher, Mr. Pettit, explaining early in the class that we would be learning Newtonian physics but we should keep in mind that Newtonian physics is wrong. (Of course, it’s still useful in day-to-day life and that’s why it’s taught!) Einstein didn’t build on Newton: he blew it up. Einsteinian physics is fundamentally incompatible with Newtonian physics. Countless minds kept poking at Newtonian physics and finding flaws. Efforts were made to patch these flaws, but it was clear this was a sinking ship long before Einstein. The problem was, no one had a better answer until then.

This old notion of cumulative knowledge of science commonly uses a metaphor of building a house, but Kuhn says this is flawed. If Newton built the foundation with round pegs and round holes, Einstein’s first floor using square pegs and square holes won’t work. Also, this metaphor of house building suggests that there is a clear goal. But is that reasonable? If so, what is that goal? Is the goal to know everything? I doubt even the most hard-nosed objectivist would ever assert that humans as a species could ever actually know everything. If, instead, the goal is to better explain reality than previously possible, there is a direction, but there isn’t a goal.

And remember Crosby? As mentalités shift, so do the kinds of questions we ask. Mentalités provide implicit structure to science, and paradigms are the next layer. They’re much more explicit, but they too provide structure. Anyone could go out and study alchemy, but the field isn’t exactly thriving anymore. The prevailing paradigm does not include Alchemy.

Finally, my favorite: Haack. I want to someday give Haack the full attention she deserves, so I’ll be brief here. Haack attempts to contextualize science in society. She synthesizes Crosby and Kuhn, and puts them into the current social and political landscape. In short, Haack says that science can do a lot of things, but because we are imperfect human beings, we need to stay skeptical. Science is not fact. Science does not “prove” anything. But science is the best we’ve got and it’s incredibly powerful. Good science acknowledges and limits subjectivity, but it never claims to eliminate it.

Whew! So there you have it: a primer on my epistemology and ontology. And I basically co-opt Haack’s definition of science wholly.

Don’t worry. My definition of the humanities will be much more brief (and probably cringe-inducing to those that know better than I do). All I know about the humanities is conjecture. I spent some time as a member of a digital humanities scholar group – how I got in is unclear to me – and I am learning from my humanities classmates in the new Media School at IU.

Subjectivity and interpretation seem to be at the core of the humanities scholarship I’ve been exposed to. There is no attempt to answer questions directly but instead craft compelling arguments. I have to assume this means the humanities assume there is no objective reality and everything is relative. The story or argument is the answer itself.

And so now the question: what does it mean to be interdisciplinary?

My view of science argues that there is an objective reality and we can interact with and measure it. We probably get it wrong some/most/all of the time, but through empirical evidence and rigor, we can at least demonstrate our findings and produce things that reliably work. I am typing this on a computer, after all. Clearly, scientific knowledge can at least be functional.

My understanding of humanities says that there is no objective reality and everything is relative. Answers are not interesting, but the arguments that precede them are. I think humanities scholars may disagree with this, but if everything is relative then I don’t see how answers actually matter.

Before I can attempt to reconcile these two fields, I need to first define what it means to be interdisciplinary. In the class I was talking about at the beginning of this post, we read a profoundly awful book about interdisciplinary research. It was Really Egregiously and Profoundly Knavish and Oafish. I won’t name it, but maybe you can figure out what I’m talking about. The book didn’t really put in the effort to define interdisciplinary research. So I’ll try.

“Inter” is a prefix that means between. So interdisciplinary research can first and foremost be thought of “between disciplines.” So what is a discipline? I’ll use some shorthand and say that the classic institutional departments more or less align with disciplines: English, Physics, Psychology, etc.

Interdisciplinary research is when a scholar or scholars produce a work that synthesizes two or more disciplines into one example of research in such a way that elements from the two disciplines are intertwined and impossible to separate without rendering the research fundamentally broken.

In other words, a large report on the impacts of shortages on rainfall that has sections dedicated to ecology, sociology, and chemistry is not interdisciplinary. It is multidisciplinary. The section of sociology could be dropped without fundamentally breaking the other sections. Of course, the scope of the research would be narrower, but it would still “work.”

To me, interdisciplinary research is rare and often game-changing. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid comes to mind. Hofstadter brought together comparative literature, cognitive psychology, philosophy, and mathematics in such a way that they could not be disentangled. I don’t think it is incidental that this book is also one of the founding texts of Cognitive Science. Interdisciplinary research makes something fundamentally new from old parts.

I do think there are varying levels of analysis, though. For example, the Media School at IU is interdisciplinary. It combines vastly different scholars that all study media in radically different ways. The Media School wouldn’t be the Media School if one kind of scholar was removed from the mix. It would be fundamentally changed.

However, as a scholar in the Media School, I do not see myself as interdisciplinary. Sure, I seek sources of outside inspiration like any other inquisitive mind but at the end of the day, I’m doing Psychology. I might borrow from Music, but I twist it around and mold it to fit into Psychology.

It would also be possible for me to contribute psychology research to a larger work that another scholar synthesizes with another discipline in such a way that it becomes an interdisciplinary work. But I still didn’t do the heavy lifting.

To purposefully understate it: interdisciplinary work is very hard and very rare. Let it come to you. Don’t force it.

In the preface to GEB, Hofstadter talks about feeling like he had a question that couldn’t be answered within any one discipline. So he set aside all of those boundaries and struck out on his own. I can’t fathom the risk he took. I would be willing to bet that for every GEB, there’s thousands of malformed monstrosities and failed experiments out there.

There is a lot of pressure  to be (and in turn, evaluative sentiments about) interdisciplinary, as if it’s a desirable goal. And sure! I’d love to achieve a truly interdisciplinary work. But I don’t feel like I have an itching urge like Hofstadter. At least not yet. I also don’t feel like I know enough about my own discipline to feel constrained. This is probably because I exist in two interdisciplines: Media and Cognitive Science. The disciplines are defined by their object of study and not much else. There is little, if anything, that is out of bounds. To be interdisciplinary, I think you need to fight your way out of your box. I haven’t found the walls of my boxes yet, and I’m not sure I ever will.

So what does this all mean? Attempting to be interdisciplinary is a waste of time and effort. It’s also disingenuous scholarship. Instead, seek to answer questions you have in whatever way you think best serves the question.

Thanks for reading.

The life and times of Major Tom

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Something fascinating about David Bowie’s career was his use of characters as a means of expression. A character would be used, almost spent, and then cast aside for the next character. In fact, sometimes Bowie was explicit in this change of characters. The album cover of Lodger (Bowie, 1979) shows the Thin White Duke from Station to Station (Bowie, 1976) badly beaten and being literally and violently cast aside. The Thin White Duke is shown midair and at an angle that is hard to imagine the Duke landing gracefully. It seems that the Thin White Duke had overstayed his welcome.

Note the particularly broken nose.

Another visual example of this is on the cover of hours… (Bowie, 1999), Earthling-era Bowie (1997) has died in the arms of the new unnamed character for hours…

Note the pseudo-UPC in the top right. Here, Bowie is attempting to embrace the new millennium: hours… was the first major album released on the Internet.

A character of particular interest is Major Tom. Major Tom is unique to the cannon of Bowie’s work because it is the one character that Bowie returned to for the duration of his career. In fact, his career began and ended with Major Tom. The first song that made the public aware of David Bowie (1969) was undoubtedly “Space Oddity.” His final album, Blackstar (Bowie, 2016), features the deification of Major Tom in the title track. There are two other concrete instances of Major Tom returning. The character is the protagonist of “Ashes to Ashes” (Bowie, 1980) and the object of question in “Hallo, Spaceboy” (Bowie, 1996, 1997). To fully understand Major Tom, it is necessary to explore each song individually, but also contextualized within the album and contemporary events. A complex narrative of Major Tom emerges that twists and distorts with each successive release. If permitted to do so, each subsequent release changes the interpretation of previous release(s). On the surface, narrative analysis may seem like a strange mode of research to use for pop music lyrics but as David Nichols (2007) points out “narrativity is theoretically a feature common to all activities involving representations of events in time” (p. 297). While not all pop music describes events in time, here the argument is made that the recurring character of Major Tom has his own story, spanning several songs, albums, and decades.

The origin of Major Tom in “Space Oddity”

“Space Oddity” (Bowie, 2010) began as a demo produced by Deram Records when they were trying to get rid of Bowie after his first album was a total flop. The demo version has the same lyrics, and much of the same melody of the first commercial release of the song. It is annoyingly chipper with a faster tempo, and a poppy-yet-conservative little groove. Of course, the version that is imminently familiar is the re-recorded dirge-like space rock masterpiece. More on this later. One lyric that requires specific attention is “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.” The performance and subsequent interpretation of this lyric vary greatly across different recordings of the song, and that line alone can cause radical reinterpretations of the meaning of the whole song.

The importance of “she knows”

The story of “Space Oddity” (Bowie, 1969) is one of loneliness, defeat, and retreat. Major Tom is a lone astronaut blasting off on a mission. The song ends with Major Tom drifting away from the Earth, powerless to effect his situation. However, how and why this happens seems to vary between versions of the song. It seems reasonable to assert that the climactic moment of the song occurs when Major Tom is out on a spacewalk, observing the stillness of space and extolling trust in his spacecraft to take him where he needs to go. “Tell my wife I love her very much,” insists Major Tom. This line is followed by a possibly ambiguous voice saying, “She knows.” However, depending on who is saying that, the understanding of the tragedy of Major Tom changes substantially.

Let’s go back to the Deram Records demo version of “Space Oddity” (Bowie, 2010).

As the climactic moment approaches, the vocal harmonies drop out and Major Tom gets more and more diminutive sounding, nearly whispering “Tell my wife I love her very much – she knows.” Following that line, the vocals are double tracked and the timbre of the performance shifts to a shouting, panicked Ground Control trying to reestablish communication with Major Tom. In this version of the song, the tragedy of Major Tom is self-made. Major Tom is cutting himself off from society, wishing instead to drift among the cosmos forever and leave his life – and wife – behind.

Obviously, this demo recording is largely unknown. Despite it predating the popular version of the song, it would be hard to assert that it is in any way definitive. When people think of “Space Oddity,” they are undoubtedly thinking of the recording released on David Bowie’s self-titled album (also sometimes titled Space Oddity; Bowie, 1969).

This version turns the twee lilting of the demo version into a sincere dirge with scraping Mellotron strings and Stylophones juxtaposed against lush live strings and Mick Ronson’s surprisingly clean (for Ronno, anyway) guitar tones. The tension of the narrative plays out in the production of the recording as the mechanical and electronic elements fight against the organic and human elements. As Major Tom reports on his space walk experience, he again gets diminutive and vocal harmonies drop away as he croons, “Tell my wife I love her very much.” A harsher, shouting voice responds with “She knows!” Is this Ground Control or Major Tom?

There are clues that suggest an open interpretation. In the structure of the narrative, characters typically hail each other before beginning to speak (“Ground Control to Major Tom…”). Obviously, this does not happen here. Yet the shift in vocal register, timbre, and affect suggests that Bowie is putting those words in the mouth of another character. When Ground Control hails Major Tom in the next line of dialogue, the vocal performance is more similar to “She knows!” than Major Tom’s crooning. If we entertain the idea that Ground Control, in a moment of candor and excitement, responds to Major Tom with “She knows!” before hailing properly, then the narrative is fundamentally changed.

This may feel pedantic to ruminate on a single line, but it is not. If Major Tom’s last transmission is “Tell my wife I love her very much – she knows,” then he made a choice. If Major Tom’s last transmission is “Tell my wife I love her very much,” then he had a chance to express his love one last time before some sort of accident occurred on the mission, rendering him adrift in space with no way to contact Earth. In fact, the following monologue includes the lines “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.” This helplessness could suggest Major Tom is not willingly adrift in space. Taken another way, he is reflecting on the permanence of his choice. There is no going back, now.

If a tally was made of the different known recordings of “Space Oddity” over Bowie’s career using the same heuristic applied above, there would be several entries in the “willful” and “accident” categories. There is no clear pattern that may suggest that Bowie made a choice at on a preferred reading. One final version that necessitates discussion is the 1979 re-recording of “Space Oddity” (Bowie, 1980).

This version is jarringly stark with its stripped down arrangement of acoustic guitar, bass, piano, and a single vocal take. There are a few electric guitar notes wafting through the arrangement at poignant moments as well. The long fade in intro is replaced by a mechanical and aggressive strumming guitar. Bowie’s vocals come in immediately strident and forceful. Ground Control is much more commanding here. The wonder and excitement are gone from their voices. (Could this be a reflection of Bowie tiring of performing this song?)

As the intro concludes with Ground Control offering a perfunctory “And may God’s love be with you,” the music falls entirely silent. No cacophony of rising action as the rocket launches, just… nothingness. It is shocking enough to make the listener wonder if something went wrong with their equipment. Suddenly, the drums and piano explode in as Ground Control hails Major Tom.

Again, the performances are mechanistic: the drums play a square and simple pattern. The piano largely just plays whole note chords on the downbeat of the measure. An overwhelming sense of loneliness permeates this recording with the sparse arrangement. And with the climactic moment, when Major Tom announces “Tell my wife I love her very much – she knows,” there is no sadness in his voice. Instead it is matter-of-fact, with a rising and falling inflection on “she knows.” The performance here is more obviously emotive than any other moment in the song. It almost sounds triumphant, as if Major Tom is announcing that his wife knows he is miserable in the face of such a cold and cruel world, and he is finally breaking free.

Given that Bowie divorced his first wife, Angie, prior to or during the recording of this version of “Space Oddity,” it gives credence to the idea that Major Tom has become somewhat of an avatar for Bowie himself and his struggles with his marriage ending. Furthermore, this recording coincides with the recording sessions for Bowie’s 1980 album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Bowie’s recent divorce is a major topic of the album, as well as the first return of Major Tom in Bowie’s canon of work.

Major Tom an Bowie’s avatar in “Ashes to Ashes”

“Ashes to Ashes” (Bowie, 1980) represents a pointed shift in the Major Tom narrative. He’s now adrift in space, wishing he could come back home. The previously largely literal story of an astronaut forever adrift in space now becomes a metaphor for drug abuse. Bowie starts off asking if anyone even remembers Major Tom and even goes so far as to acknowledge that Major Tom is a character in a song. Bowie is no stranger to self reference, but specifically pointing out this character “in such an early song,” is unique because it breaks the fourth wall. Bowie then goes on to say that Ground Control received a new transmission from Major Tom. He’s broken his radio silence after all these years to explain where he’s been and what he’s been doing. By and large, the explanation is self-loathing and drugs. His loneliness is profound at this point (“the shrieking of nothing is killing [me]”). Droning voices that are mostly imperceptible chant in the background, casting judgements on Tom, as he explains his current state in excruciating detail: he’s broke, he’s pulled out his hair, he’s obsessing over and fetishizing women, and he wishes he had the courage to kill himself. “I’m hoping to kick but the planet is glowing,” he muses. Perhaps the glow of the distant Earth is just enough to keep him attached to reality.

The chorus then enters with of a small group of voices, sounding more plain and detached. This is likely Ground Control commenting:

“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky

We know Major Tom’s a junkie

Strung out in Heaven’s high,

Hitting an all-time low”

They have been following his condition and they are coldly joking about it by mocking him by paraphrasing an Anglican burial prayer. In the musical interlude, Major Tom wails in psychotic agony as the detuned piano melody line wavers around him, taunting him. Fortunately the agony subsides or is pushed down and Major Tom regains control.

Tom becomes more candid with his condition: “Time and again, I tell myself I’ll stay clean tonight” but he’s “stuck with a valuable friend” – whatever expensive drugs he’s been taking. But he insists he’s happy! It’s ok, he will be better soon. And in light of that blatantly false statement, he tears apart at the seams and pleads with anyone who will listen “I want an axe to break the ice! I wanna come down right now!” The metaphor of that statement sits barefaced: Major Tom wants to come back to Earth, and Bowie wants to sober up. Who is talking in this song? Is Bowie portraying Major Tom, or is Major Tom now Bowie?

“My mother said, ‘To get things done, you’d better not mess with Major Tom.”

This is the line that closes the song, repeated over and over as the vocals fade out. There’s a neat musical trick here, too. The vocal melody phrase is shorter than the chord progression phrase, so they are out of sync with each other. This is a bit funky, but also a bit unsettling. The motherly advice rings true, too: don’t do drugs.

The eulogy for Major Tom: “Hallo Spaceboy”

“Hallo Spaceboy” (Bowie, 1996, 1997) is featured on the album 1. Outside, but the then-popular Petshop Boys remixed it and added in a verse. This is the version that Bowie decided to make into a single and the above music video. Adding this version is somewhat contentious because the original version does (probably) allude to Major Tom, but the remixed version with the added lyrics by the Petshop Boys specifically mentions Major Tom. These are not Bowie’s lyrics, but given that he endorsed it so strongly and through official releases, it seems ultimately reasonable to add to this essay.

Again, Major Tom acts as an avatar for Bowie himself. Major Tom is drifting through the heavens still, getting sleepy as his life support finally begins fail and reflects on his sexuality. “Do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days.” None of it matters, though, as the inevitability of death looms ever closer. He ironically croons, “This chaos is killing me.”

Major Tom yearns for freedom, but freedom from what? The struggle to determine his sexual identity? The sweet release of death? It’s hard to say. The song is particularly vague, even by Bowie’s standards. This might be because of the context of the time that it was released: 1995 was not the most sexually accepting atmosphere to openly discuss sexual confusion.

Given that Bowie is harkening back to Major Tom, it seems reasonable to suggest that Bowie himself was harking back to his younger years. And doubly reasonable given that “Ashes to Ashes” (Bowie, 1980) establishes Major Tom as representative of Bowie himself. Bowie has famously stated that for many years, he was a closeted heterosexual. “Yeah, bye bye love,” decries Bowie. In letting Major Tom drift away, he is letting his sexual confusion drift away too.

The deification of Major Tom as Blackstar

Major Tom is the subject of one last song in David Bowie’s career: “Blackstar” (Bowie, 2016). A black star is a theoretical object arising from classical physics that is an alternative to a black hole (Visser, Barceló, Liberati, & Sonego, 2009). A black star is somewhere between a collapsing star and a singularity. Instead of the endless and inescapable hunger of a black hole, a black star instead fundamentally transforms anything passing near it despite being virtually impossible to see (Visser et al., 2009).

The music video for “Blackstar” (Bowie, 2016) opens with shots of a ragged space suit resting on some distant moon and covered in dust(!). The suit has been mended time and again, and even has goofy smiley face iron-on patches. An alien approaches the suit to reveal that the person inside has decomposed into a blackened skeleton, but it is covered in ornate jewelry that suggests that the skeleton may be an object of worship.

The lyrics of this song never mention Major Tom by name, but the allusions to him are hard to interpret differently. As the second section of the song breaks, Bowie (as the Blind Prophet / Lazarus) declares, “Something happened on the day he died, [His] spirit rose a metre and stepped aside.” Given the use of past tense and the visuals of the dead and jewel-adorned Major Tom, the Blind Prophet is recounting that which had already happened: in death, Major Tom became something more than he was in life.

The story of Major Tom came to a fitting close. In death, Bowie himself becomes a blackstar. Major Tom began as a character in an innocently sad song, but he grew into meaning so much more. Bowie began to twist and contort Major Tom, or perhaps the other way around, as time passed and more layers were added to the character. All stories must end, and both Bowie and Major Tom took a pointed bow before the curtain closed.

 

 

References

Bowie, David. (1969). Space Oddity. On David Bowie [LP]. USA: Mercury Records.

Bowie, David. (1976). Station to Station [LP]. New York, New York: RCA Records.

Bowie, David. (1979). Lodger [LP]. New York, New York: RCA Records.

Bowie, David. (1980a). Ashes to Ashes. On Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) [LP]. New York, New York: RCA Records.

Bowie, David. (1980b). Space Oddity. On Alabama Song [45rpm]. New York, New York: RCA Records.

Bowie, David. (1996). Hallo Spaceboy (Petshop Boys Remix). On Hallo Spaceboy [CD]. New York, New York: BMG.

Bowie, David. (1997). Hallo Spaceboy. On Earthling [CD]. Hollywood, California: Virgin Records America.

Bowie, David. (1999). Hours… [CD]. London, England: Virgin Records.

Bowie, David. (2010). Space Oddity (Original Version). On David Bowie [CD]. Santa Monica, California: Universal Music Group. (Recorded in 1967).

Bowie, David. (2016). Blackstar. On Blackstar [CD]. New York, New York: ISO Records.

Nicholls, D. (2007). Narrative theory as an analytical tool in the study of popular music texts. Music and Letters, 88(2), 297-315.

Visser, M., Barceló, C., Liberati, S., & Sonego, S. (2009). Small, dark, and heavy: But is it a black hole? arXiv preprint arXiv:0902.0346.

 

Training Yourself to Forget

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David Byrne in True Stories

“I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.” – David Byrne as Narrator in True Stories

True Stories, the movie quoted above, was released in 1986. It was during the peak of The Talking Heads’ popularity, and Warner Brothers decided to let Byrne make a movie. It ended up as a critically-acclaimed flop, making less than $2.5 million in the box office. As a Talking Heads fan, I had to see it. The movie is as bizarre and disjointed as you may expect, but it’s thoughtful and sweet too. Also, the endlessly likable John Goodman is in it. So yeah, give it a watch.

Anyway, the quote I opened with about forgetting has ironically been burned into my memory ever since seeing the movie. Initially, I had applied to my creative endeavors: a large portion of being an audio engineer is being able to listen attentively but dispassionately. The engineer needs to forget that this is a song, or a beloved musician, or an instrument they dislike and just hear it for what it is. At times, an audio engineer needs to listen to a mix and not hear a song, but hear a series of puzzle pieces. If an engineer allows themselves to get swept up in the emotions of the music, then they aren’t able to objectively identify problems in the mix. Of course, an engineer that only listens attentively and dispassionately may make a technically superb mix, but it could be completely devoid of emotion. Whoops. Now, the reason I advocate focusing on forgetting is not because I prefer sterile mixes, but it’s because if I don’t focus on forgetting, I never get past the emotional components of music, and I can’t mix well.

But now I see relevance in this quote beyond my creative endeavors. There’s a benefit to forgetting when doing research, too. I don’t mean “forget to email your IRB paperwork to your adviser” kind of forgetting, but instead allowing yourself to reanalyze a situation/idea/problem for the first time again. By setting aside everything you think you know, or everything you thought you saw/heard/read, you just might find a crucial detail that was previously glossed over.

Funnily enough, I find that some of the same techniques I use to forget what I (think I) know also help me as an audio engineer and musician can also help me as a researcher. They just might work for you too.

  • Always listen in different environments. Listen in the studio. Listen in the car. Listen on headphones. These environmental changes will shine a light into different corners of the mix. Sometimes a high hat will sound great in the studio, but will be The High Hat That Ate New York! in headphones.
  • Don’t get caught up in your perceived value of the playback. My studio monitors are subjectively and objectively a superior playback system to my car, especially in terms of stereo separation (c’mon, Kia!) so it’s easy to assume that there’s no reason to try out other playback systems. But that’s not right. Those imperfections in the car stereo can turn my argument for how the mix should sound on its side and force me to reevaluate my choices. Good advice can come from anywhere.
  • Love what you do, but sometimes put yourself in taxi-cab mode. Taxi-cab mode is a concept I learned from one of my mentors while pursuing my undergrad. His angle was this: Some days you get your “A” rate, other days you earn your “C” rate. In other words, you don’t always get to do what you love. So just imagine yourself as a cab driver. Are you having fun? No, but the meter is running and you’re getting paid. We’ve all been there, but I’ve also found value in putting myself in taxi-cab mode. When I set aside my enjoyment of the work, even for a few moments, I have clearer vision.
  • Put it on the shelf for a week. I’ve definitely gotten stuck in a mix before where I know where I want to go, but I can’t figure out how to get there. Nothing is working. I’m learning to stop myself sooner, before I get frustrated, and walking away for a week or so. Then, problems that seemed insurmountable are suddenly clearly solved.
  • Fear ear fatigue. Don’t work too many hours at a time – your ears get tired and you make bad choices.
  • Use lateral thinking. Sometimes when I feel like I’m in a rut and I need a fresh perspective, I turn to some lateral thinking exercises. Lateral thinking embraces that while the shortest distance between two points may be a straight line (let’s keep it Euclidean, folks); it isn’t necessarily the best path. By purposefully going off course, you might be able to circumvent the problem entirely. From wikipedia:

    Critical thinking is primarily concerned with judging the true value of statements and seeking errors. Lateral thinking is more concerned with the “movement value” of statements and ideas. A person uses lateral thinking to move from one known idea to creating new ideas. Edward de Bono defines four types of thinking tools:

    1. idea-generating tools intended to break current thinking patterns—routine patterns, the status quo
    2. focus tools intended to broaden where to search for new ideas
    3. harvest tools intended to ensure more value is received from idea generating output
    4. treatment tools that promote consideration of real-world constraints, resources, and support

So there you have it. Those are some of my tools that I use to forget myself and what I think I know so that I can approach a problem/situation/challenge with a fresh perspective. Hopefully they can be helpful to you too.

As a parting thought, here’s a song about remembering too much. The protagonist is haunted by what he’s seen – or are they hallucinations? This is the 2008 ‘remix’ of Bowie’s 1987 single “Time Will Crawl.” Large portions of the instruments have been rerecorded for this version to showcase the song. The original arrangement was… uninspired, but still a strong song lived on underneath it. Maybe, in time, people will forget the 1987 version all together.

Eppur si muove: Empiricism in Music and other grumblings

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Galileo might have said “Eppur si muove!” Maybe. Probably not. But it’s a good quote either way. It’s Italian, and translates to “And yet it moves!” Galileo (might have) uttered it at his trial where the Church forced him to recant his support for Copernicus’s heliocentric for the universe. Like I said, either way it’s a good quote.

Music is soul-crushingly profound. It is a language that has no specific meaning attached to it. Eppur si muove! In other words, we commonly attach metaphysical associations and connotations to the experience of music. Even assessing music is a difficult task.

Individually, we all form opinions about what we like and what we don’t. We do it almost without conscious thought. Some even argue that we either like or dislike everything we hear. (Sorry, thats behind a pay wall but you should be able to read the abstract at least.) There’s no room for mere indifference! I’m not sure I agree, but the argument exists.

However, trying to speak more objectively about music is difficult. The study of art evaluation is called aesthetics. Typically, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy. And while some aesthetic paradigms make my eyes roll or my skin crawl, it’s all fine and well because these arguments are not meant to be absolute. They’re tools that have varying value depending on what your goal is, not unlike a real toolbox full of tools. People that want to argue about what is and isn’t art, or the value of a work of art are welcome to chase this unsolvable puzzles. Sometimes unsolvable puzzles are the best kind. But all too often, these arguments come from people that don’t seem to acknowledge that music exists outside of serious orchestral music or maybe jazz. Can we not talk about the kind of music that most people listen to?

As a musician myself, I’m firmly in the “intent” camp: if someone calls it art, then it’s art in my book. Now it’s just up to me to determine if I like it. Easy. Clean. Simple. Moving on…

But there’s a more sinister creature creeping in the shadows: it’s the empiricist! The empiricist thinks things can be measured and repeated and solved. And I’m one of them. And I understand the appeal of empirical study of aesthetics. How cool would it be to actually, truly define art? In fact, if someone were to take a very broad definition of aesthetics, you accuse me of being an empirical aesthetician because I study music empirically and make statements about people’s preferences. Typically aesthetics is about the ‘ideal’ form of art, not the interpreted. So don’t call me an empirical aesthetician. I’m not sure I’d take it well. Please.

#rekt

#rekt

But why am I opposed to empirical aesthetics? Well, because eppur si muove! I feel confident that it’s possible to understand the underlying psychophysiological mechanisms and processes that happen when we experience music. And generally, I think the emotions experienced when we enjoy art of any kind are “real” emotions. The very same ones we experience in everyday life. They might be in novel combinations, but they’re the same overall. But I don’t think there’s a practical way to understand such a complex process as an aesthetic evaluation and resultant emotions, let alone what makes art optimal. I typically shun the metaphysical stuff, but art is something special.

There’s a model, called BRECVEM(A) that identifies the component parts that go into forming an individual aesthetic judgement. It’s massively complex with several overlapping layers. It seems logical, but mostly untestable as a whole. And that just about sums up how I feel about going “too deep” in empirical music work. There’s a practical limit to what is possible in the here and now. I look forward to new methodologies and new models, but for now I feel we’re stuck.

So how do I rationalize the empirical study of an art form when I don’t think the subject can even be described on empirical terms? Carefully. I focus on the communication aspects of mediated music, for one. I’m more interested in the function of music within a medium than the slippery obvious-but-impossible-to-define music. I want to know how people respond to mediated music. Yes, those results could inform how people design and create their mediated music, but don’t confuse the functional aspects with the aesthetic aspects.

Anyway, that’s enough apologizing for studying music in a mass communications setting.

Here’s a song from a particularly thoughtful band: Yellow Magic Orchestra. They’re Japanese, and started in 1977. The name is provocative: it’s a comment on the West’s tokenization of Asian cultures. A fun twist on YMO is that they felt like Japan was becoming infatuated with technology and the West and in turn, losing its cultural identity. So they decided to share this criticism by using brand new musical technology – sequencers and digital synthesizers – and write very Western-friendly pop music. A fair balance of it is in English, even. They certainly carved a unique niche out for themselves. Maybe, in some small way, I can do the same.

They are superb musicians and songwriters. Here’s an incredible instrumental from their 1981 album, Technodelic called “Light In Darkness.” Enjoy that bass solo. It’s old and wildly out of social context… and yet it moves.