Anatomy of the Ear
oulseeking is a regular column at Stylus that hopefully does a bit of what the title suggests, in order to better understand what it is we fell in love with, and, if need be, go a little way towards getting that feeling back.
No one can argue with the ability of the nose to call up memories previously shelved in the mind’s dusty corners. Scents and, for that matter, tastes, are fairly straightforward, and you could say one-dimensional. Yet they are famous for conjuring an entire tapestry in our heads. A sound, on the other hand, is a tapestry, and for most of us calls up a small, clouded yet piercing notion; a sentiment; an emotional atmosphere.
We can usually slot the effect of a sound (or song) neatly somewhere in the chronology of our life: The entirety of OK Computer, for instance, has for me the resonance of an entire person. But how to dissect the “body” that such an album came to represent? How to distill the immensity of our affection into its essence—the biological, chemical association our brain made upon hearing the symphonic power of a track—the first time and each subsequent time?
Music is an excellent psychotherapist—a practitioner who cares far more about listening than prescribing a fix-all. Through mere obsessive playback, music conditions us to simply understand, whether it’s the predicament of the singer, a general ‘other,’ or ourselves. Like any discipline, music will constantly evolve into evermore genres and theories, but it will always remain a simple, readily accessible hero to anyone who experiences it. Today, music, like so many privileged pastimes of yore, is extraordinary diffuse, to the point that our unspoiled elders worry for us—take a look at the Sept 4th cover of the New Yorker in which “Video iPod” is illustrated as occupying a large chunk of a child’s head, along with “Jessica Alba” and other such frivolities, including the most dominant, MySpace.
The iPod is a status symbol today the way Koosh balls were a status symbol in 1988, leaving us members of Generation Y with arms folded and eyebrows raised at the precocious brats in possession of them. We wish they had the simplicity of a Walkman; that the art of the mix tape was not lost on them; that they had the capacity to die with anticipation waiting for a certain release to physically make it to their small town. Every generation is permitted some bitter envy, but we should know better: the iPod is the musical equivalent of a two-million-volume library of books, dispensing infinite knowledge to eleven-year-olds, to varying degrees of sophistication (it’s all a matter of taste.) There is something deeply romantic about radios, record players, jukeboxes, and general poverty, but music by any other name would smell as sweet. In an alienating virtual world, the effect of music is dependable and timeless. It’s one of the few forms of media that is not quashing human understanding. It’s still fostering it.
Music will do what it does with increasing speed, bit rate, frequency, and volume as time goes on. But what is it doing? Whatever it is, the effect is so powerful that it has hundreds of millions of its possessors in a stranglehold, headphones glued to ears ad infinitum. The brain, of course, is immensely capable, but try to describe the effect of your own personal OK Computer (which may actually be OK Computer) to another person, to a video camera, or to a piece of paper. Nearly impossible: the sensations lose their power as soon as they exit our brain. So it’s quite easy to imagine that the realms of the brain where dreams take place are also the realms in which sound lodges its memories—to fluid, imprecise, and downright lovely effect.
Entire artistic vocations are founded upon this fleeting, ineluctable quest to name, to define, to map out a memory or its associated feeling(s). There is an underlying sense that it will never be accomplished, coupled with a vain, zealous, lifelong desire to keep trying. But not every music listener is—not even half of all music listeners are—artists on a quest. They’re scientists, social workers, ladies of leisure, exterminators. So in determining the essence that ours ears first fell for, we can hopefully also determine the essence that unites disparate “types” in silent, open-eared transfixion.
In general, most will cite music as therapeutic, as soothing, as a welcome escape from traffic, babies crying, dogs barking, spouses talking. We might name that category of music fan the “passive listener.” That’s not to say Radiohead or whomever can’t seize those listeners in their grasp and etch songs onto their brain. Our brains are fundamentally the same; it’s only that certain people are more avidly nostalgic and Proustian than others. (Could they also be—dare I say it—artist types?)
Whether we’re in touch with music’s great power, or just quietly courteous towards it, music has the potential to be the mistake and the lesson and the cause and the effect for everyone. Our five senses are universal, and universally subject to impression. Music can swaddle us in isolation and command us to socialize. Music also begets music. Much as I was startled into undying loyalty to Radiohead by the virtuosic OK, it was also perhaps the first (respectable) musical awakening in my life—the start of a renaissance, and the opening of a door that led to dozens of doors beyond the first. It was therapy for music’s sake as well as my own, a kind of diplomacy that nudged me into exploration and passion, not simply because I respected the band or what they had done, but because of the feelings associated with the album. Happily solipsistic, I wanted more of those feelings. I never wanted my life to be without those feelings. And the album imparted wisdom in much the way my favorite teachers did—or rather, the effect of both was the same: a general and overwhelming thrill to be exactly who and where I was: a young, displaced expatriate in cynical, rainy, Blair-era England, so intensely proud of my naivety, in the sense that I didn’t in the least mind it being corrupted.
The anatomy is now a little clearer: we begin with the ear, and we gradually add layer upon layer of sense, thought, and interpretation upon that initial event of music-hearing. The sound begets a color, which begets a shape, which begets a texture, which begets a smell, which begets an emotion, which begets a story. It’s a chain-linked, ever-evolving, but often instantaneous process—dreams seem to last hours but often only take thirty seconds because our minds can interpret a slew information with shocking precision. It’s only language that holds us back. But ironically, it’s music that allows for better expression. An entire painting, album, novel, or life could be sketched from one song. Latter phases in the interpretation many not depend on the song, but could not exist without the song. The music is the seed, is the foundation, is the soul of memory.
Critics (and members of Generation Z) may turn an unbecoming shade of jade a little quicker than the rest of the population but, much like a treasured ex-lover who remains untarnished and angelic in our memory, there will always be an OK Computer in our lives that forces each of us to surrender our tired, deaf-going ears to a memory. But because we can’t always be going back, we must look forward, searching for new sounds to color silent experiences.
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