Waxen Beats and earworms

§ One of the hazards of listening to somewhat obscure electronica, or really any non-mainstream instrumental music, is that you can’t search for lyrics to identify something stuck in your head. For many, including myself, that’s the go-to search method to identify a song in the wild: note a novel phrase in the lyrics and search the web when you get the chance. Chances are very good that the lyrics are online somewhere—with the title and artist.

You can’t do that if there aren’t lyrics in the part you remember, though. I went for literally several years hearing the sound at ~2:36 in “Waxen Beats” by Vesna without remembering where it was from. I tried to find it (hmm, sounds like that one DJ Shadow track on The Private Press … listening … listening … no, that’s not it. Argh!) and then quite accidentally heard it during a listen to Vesna’s album. It was like hearing angels singing the lost chord.

Since 2008 I’ve heard the three snare hits at ~0:41 in Brothomstates’ Qtio echoing in my head. I kept thinking it was Techno Animal, but, no. Well, you might note that this track samples The Pharcyde’s classic “Passin’ Me By”. One magic day quite recently I put them on. I think YouTube suggested Qtio next, which I hadn’t heard in years–not since I bought it on vinyl, and then gave my turntables to a friend. So feeling sentimental I gave it a listen … and felt God break like a tidal beat in my ears.

This problem compounds when you are musically illiterate—as I am. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to hum some theme or other for a classical musician because it was stuck in my head and I had no way to search for it online. Even though we’re in the 2010s and search tools exist that can handle music note queries, I wouldn’t be able to use it without an off-putting amount of effort. And that’s assuming the particular theme is in the given tool’s database. Other tools exist that search by audio signature. Something catchy is playing over a café PA? Record a few seconds by smartphone and get track information. That’s just amazing. Sadly, it doesn’t help if the music is playing only in my head.

I was clubbing after a wedding reception and a fantastic dance anthem came on. I still hear it, and I heard it again at the reception for another wedding. The song itself was just the interchangeable grooves of a moment in pop culture, quickly forgotten by society, and quickly passed through in each DJ’s mix, but I remember the grooves vividly in my fingers and feet. But the words? I couldn’t remember a phrase meaningful enough to search for in the lyrics—most dance anthems’ lyrics are roughly the same—and I just lived with twitchy fingers until luck led me to listen to and recognize it again.

In dreams many hear (or at least remember) audible speech without the actual meaning. It’s like we dream about the idea of speech rather than the ideas in the speech. How does someone find the words they don’t remember? Do you find them at all? Or do you let go of the unimportant details and focus on the fact that speech occurred—or, for that matter, that the music was good?

Music as experience and information

§ Some people have the stars. Some people have tarot. Some people have the yijing. I have the music I listen to.

Looking back, it is uncanny the correlation I can detect between what I listen to and what comes up in my life. For instance, when my work is enjoyable and getting me up early in the morning, I’m usually listening to piano jazz from the 50s. Why? I probably happened to be listening to jazz a lot during early phases in my career, and made an association. Or, sometimes I’m listening to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” on repeat. That happens when some phase in my life is ending. It makes sense that song would resonate with me in a time like that—that’s exactly what the song is about: a flighty, mercurial person perpetually in transition.

And that’s exactly what the mechanism is: resonance of ideas and/or of memories. It isn’t that music is a divinatory medium like the signs in astrology, but rather that it tells me what’s going on in my heart, mind, and environment.

It’s obvious in the abstract, of course, but in practice it’s hard to pick up on. Unless someone else is listening to all the music I choose to listen to and paying attention to what’s going on in my life and emotions, no one can make the connections except me. Meanwhile, I’m too busy listening to the music to think about whether the song means I feel a certain way or am in a certain groove in life.

However, becoming aware of music (or something else) for its indicative properties provides an excellent path to greater self-awareness. The last time I listened to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” over and over and over, I noticed it, and knew it meant something important to me was about to end. I wasn’t quite sure what (although I could guess), but I sure knew the ending was coming. It wasn’t so much that it predicted the future as it indicated high-level situational information that I wasn’t picking up consciously—except for noticing the song and knowing that there’s only one reason I listen to it. That’s useful information.

§ Perhaps even farther down this path is greater self-direction. I didn’t figure out what was wrong in time to change course in the previous example, but I definitely think harder about what my music choices mean and about what’s going on around me. It’s definitely a source of information, and a medium through which to practice self-contemplation.

I wonder too if it’s possible to change my internal state through choosing music more deliberately. Sometimes when I’ve been unhappy, I’ll try to listen to music that I’ve listened to when I’ve been happier. So far that’s met with mixed success, mostly because I’m not strong enough, and change the song a few seconds later. Other times, I might itch to listen to those ballads about memory and romantic focus (think “Vanilla Twilight” or “Got My Mind Set On You”) that I’ve listened to in the past during foolish, misguided obsessions—and catch myself, and repress that urge to listen, knowing it will only reinforce unhealthy ideas, and ruin relationships.

It’s a road, at least. Some people navigate with the stars. Some people navigate with maps. Some people have supposedly navigated using music (think “Follow the Drinking Gourd” or songlines) so maybe it’s viable for me. On the other hand, it does change what music means for me. Every piece enters my mind now on two levels: what I experience in the moment and what my listening signifies as information. Music remains an aesthetic experience, and now it’s also an encounter with objectivity.

That’s complicated.