Posted: September 24, 2011 in Sounds
Tags: , ,

I read the other day that there’s still a relatively huge space in our brains that science has not been able to parse. (Warning: fuzzy science ahead. . .) Even though the brain consumes roughly 20% of the body’s energy and fuel, this dark area – which oddly reminds me of the so-called dark matter that makes up most of the known universe – performs presumably important functions, and we have no idea what those functions may be. It’s also kind of weird and Escheresque to me that we’re probably using parts of that unknown zone to try and figure out what it does. . . wow, man.

Many have posited that this unknown part or parts may account for paranormality. Others have long claimed that the area remains “untapped,” or dormant, and that we’re only using 20% (pick a number < 100) of the brain’s potential. Who knows – could be a combination of those things, or neither. Up until a few days ago most everyone believed that the speed limit of the universe was finite and known. If pressed I’d say we don’t know now, but that we’ll likely know more about the brain’s black hole as we continue to learn more about the world around us and the human condition, in particular, and that the more we learn about it, the more we’ll be able to learn about it.

One of my theories is that this dark patch in our heads provides the associative mechanism for all the other parts and thoughts sparking around in there. Things like empathy, intuitive understanding of deep or complex concepts, prodigies of all kinds, why smells can be so evocative of memories decades old – that sort of thing.

It may also be the source for why songs and sounds can do the same thing.

The first songs any of us remember, if we’re lucky, are those sung to us when we’re very small – sometimes before we can talk or sing back. I remember a few of those, some all the way through, but at that point I think it’s the sound more than the content that begins to imprint in the forming folds of our cue-ball-smooth brains. The voice or voices that do that imprinting don’t even have to know how to sing well (or at all) simply because, in that precommunicative state that we’re in, lilting, soothing sounds may be the only transport mechanism there is for warm, loving feelings. Why else would soft, sing-song tunes crooned by someone who loves us immediately calm and relax us at that point? (Unless it’s a reminder of the soft, muted warmth of the womb? Maybe everything sounds like a warm soft song when you’re inside your mama’s belly? Hm.)

Soon we’re copying those rhythms and rolls, mimicking the highs and lows, louds and softs, and usually giggling while doing it.

“Music is fun!” we think, and not for the last time.

By the time we’re talking and understanding what’s being said to us, music has become something more – who DIDN’T learn the ABCs using that sine-wave melody that still runs through your head if you’re trying to remember where a specific letter falls in relation to the others?

We learn all sorts of things by singing some sort of mnemonic device at that point in our development.

Pretty soon, tho, we find that music – usually loud, jangly and repetitive – is also fun to dance to. (We’ve actually known this for a long time at this point, having jiggled and jived to the tunes long before we could sing or speak; we just haven’t made the direct mental connection that dancing and moving that way is more fun when accompanied by fun music.)

By the time we’re old enough to recognize our favorite songs or snippets of songs, we’re already associating those sounds with the dopamine rush in our brains that floods our pleasure centers – we don’t know or care that all that’s going on, we just know that it feels good.

Obviously at this point nobody cares what’s cool, what everyone else is listening to, who’s better than who – any of the stuff that affects us as grown listeners and fans. These sorts of associations are kicking in at ever-younger ages, it seems (unless it’s like so much else and only seems that way because I’m getting older. . .)

So today’s pre-teens know, love and convince their parents to buy bubble-gum pop that’s really not that much different now than it was 30 or 40 years ago. (Sorry, young master Bieber.) Some of that is because its rhythms and repetitive beats remind them, on an unconscious level, of the pre-K days; some because it’s easy to remember and not too deep; some because the guy (or girl) is SUPER cute; but always because it makes them feel good. Imprints continue, folds deepen, memories are recalled and made anew.

Most of us become more conscious listeners, I think, when we hit our teens. It’s not always about what (or who) is the coolest – sometimes it’s the exact opposite. If it was cool when we liked it a few years back, or if our younger siblings love it, it simply can’t be cool to us as teenagers. QED.

Also, the rebellion genes are kicking in big time at this point, so any time someone (parent or other) says, “Turn that ____ down! It’s just noise! I can’t believe you’re listening to that garbage!” etc, we know we’re on the right track, and we go deeper down the rabbit hole.

Some of us also start to explore, more consciously, music that’s structured specifically differently than what we’re used to, or what we used to like. Arythmic or polyrhythmic stuff, clanging and banging, shouting yelling screaming cussing, ANYTHING that makes us feel more alive and aware and ahead. Oddly enough, we’re really just trying to recreate those first feelings of wonder and abandonment (the good kind. . .) that first assaulted us when we had no way of articulating that happiness – we just knew it when we felt it.

How all of these experiences are layered, and how long we spend in each phase, largely determines our relationship with music for the rest of our lives.

That’s not to say that people who don’t have music imprinted early and often, either because of their environment or their caregivers, won’t ever appreciate music in the same way as those who have experienced the full arc from birth (or before) onward – sometimes those stages can all be experienced in a much more collapsed timeline, and newly rabid fans emerge from the chrysalis of indifference in which they’ve been wrapped for most of their formative years.

Some people never do, and that’s ok, but it’s a shame, too.

Many or most people have a passing enjoyment of music. They know their favorites, and they listen to them when they can or when they think about it or when they work out or ride the subway or their bikes or each other, and once that set or those subsets of favorite sounds is cataloged and understood, that’s where they stay. Nothing wrong with that.

For me, though, that aural catalog of favorites is ever shifting, a rolling collection of things dropping in, things dropping out, old favorites rearing their heads after long absences – sometimes with mixed results, and those old faves fall into the abyss, to be replaced with new ones. I imagine the folds of my brain pulling taut every so often like a giant bed sheet, tossing everything into the air (and yes, I’m envisioning Elizabeth Swann in the first Pirates movie here, too,) some stuff flying up and out, some falling back into new grooves, some into the older, deeper ones that will always reform in that chasm inside our heads.

For me it’s not, as I once surmised, a constant and sometimes desperate search for The New, no matter whether it’s good or not, but a never-ending quest for music (and books, and Art, and people, and experiences, ad infinitum,) that we have not experienced before that keeps those peaks and valleys from becoming so ingrained and so rigid that we all turn into assholes, shunning what we don’t know or understand, fearing anything alien or unusual.

Actively searching for new rushes to add to the current collection, without allowing those existing, familiar relationships to wither completely, is as good a definition of an active life as I can imagine.

Super long intro, I know, but here’s the thought that drew me to the keys today:

Music, like certain distinct smells, can pull memories from the depths of us the same way Dumbledore pulled memories from his temple and dropped them in the pensieve. They don’t always have to be good memories, either – one of the first to rise after having that initial thought was that “Freebird” was playing loudly during a serious car accident when I was young. (Not the only reason I don’t listen to “Freebird” any more, but I still can’t hear much of that song without remembering that day. Thanks, dark areas of the brain!)

But greater by far are the memories dredged to the surface that are happy, sometimes joyous ones.

Seeing my eldest daughter’s feet kick in time with Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” while she’s sitting in the car seat in the way-back of the van.

Seeing my youngest singing “Over the Rainbow” in full Dorothy regalia in 5th grade.

Seeing both girls dance and sing to countless shows in the living room to everything from In Sync to Sonny & Cher.

Seeing us play simple but fast and jangly bluegrass like “Uncle Pen” and slower, darker turns like “Long Black Veil” with my Dad and his friends when I was 12.

Remembering songs that were played at weddings, (even one I helped write as part of our present to the happy couple,) and birthday parties, and regular parties.

Remembering the soundtracks to first times with those we loved, early and often.

(Odd how many of these magical sounds manifest as “seeing” when they come back to consciousness.)

Songs that have played while spending time with people who first showed me that love can bloom and grow outside of my family.

Way too many bands and songs to list or ever count, but each one, when it rises, brings with it a memory, and with that memory comes a new association, a new fold, and maybe a light into that dark spot at the center of our heads, where joining happens.



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