Music Is Autobiographically Salient
On what basis do fans of music make their choices? What gives music its human significance? Why? Really, I would like an answer – I am convinced by the Big Bang theory, fine, but I have yet to hear a convincing (or necessary) scientific explanation of exactly how and why this, this or this is awesome.
It is pretty much guaranteed that every single one of us, at some point in his or her life, will become a fan of a particular artist and genre, and rely on music for emotional wellbeing. It is almost certain that on our journey from newly born to, god willing, gravity ravaged, music will accompany us through every plot point of our unique narrative. Significant as music is to our identity and sense of self, it defies reasonable understanding and verbal explanation, up there with the other whys of existence. On your way to work, music player glued to you, or rubbing up against the equally unaware sweat-bearer next to you at a gig, it’s unlikely that you’ll be thinking about scientific theories of why we experience aural pleasure, or comprehending trajectories of the path from Brahms to Lana Del Rey via Weird Al Yankovic. Being a fan of music necessitates a huge amount of obsession; but for most a nebulous, impenetrable one of subjective experience, rather than via the dogmatism of formal education.
I know nothing and everything about the music I like. More so than other entertainment media, such as film, which is routinely pontificated and theorized against a backdrop of critical theory, music takes the physical sensory element (that film so sneakily relies on) and flings it roaring into the foreground. All senses are processed, created, necessitated by the brain, yet our experience of music is inextricable linked to our spiritual quarter, our sense of self, our emotional understanding of the experience of existing. It is as linked to mental processes as every other facet of life, but it is fundamentally something we feel. This is why our reaction is so often “WOOOOOOOOOOO!” and not, “Well, yes. Quite.”
For example, drum and bass took my soul under its wing in about 2006 and has kindly remained a close and loyal companion ever since, whether 8am on my way to work, or 4am on my way home from its designated subterranean hubs. I don’t know why this particular beat structure works for me, and certainly my appreciation within the genre varies, naturally, but something about it gets, and gets to, me. I don’t know why that happens, and I don’t suppose I really need to. I do, however, need it in my life. My body moves particularly comfortably between 160 and 180 break beats per minute, and my mind recognises, optimises and sorts itself to that pace. I genuinely crave the effect it produces in me. It works to improve my life, in a way that I presume acid house, Van Morrison, jazz, and Modest Mouse must work for other people.
Film theorists like to uncover attempts at manipulation and paradoxical subtexts that can be found in cinema, unearthed via fans’ hypotheses and impenetrable philosophers and lots of going round in circles; music wants us to know exactly what it reflects, and to sing along to often unashamedly literal lyrics and explicit manifestations of base desire. It’s a very frank, very personal expression from one person to millions of others, and yet still it transmits as a subjective experience for both artists and listeners.
Each track, song, movement can be used as a mirror. I have a friend who absolutely adores singer-songwriters that make evocative acoustic songs about love, life, relationships and death. I could not be more turned off by this music – to me, eerie, feathery vocals about love and the meaning of life in a minor key makes me want to cry and/or yell by the 30 second mark, tops. To her, the string-led crescendos and bittersweet tales of joy, pain and devotion keep her alive. This is drum and bass to her. I don’t get it. She doesn’t get drum and bass. We don’t need to.
Our personal audio works to both accompany and usher in personal and cultural eras. It is well known that, like scent, music is an autobiographically salient element for us, and that the brain makes connections between our emotional memory centre, the amygdala, and music. Whether we create this, or this is programmed for us by our experiences, genetics and exposure, is debatable – another incidence of the never-knowable nature vs nurture argument. The range of music that we hear and haven’t-yet-heard provides a pick and mix of emotions and connections with which to filter and highlight experience of the world. Music leads us to know and participate with the world in ways that we might not otherwise. It encourages connections that we may not have made, understanding that we might not have had access to, a transcendence of language. In this way, it is a bridge between the supposed disparity of the left and right brain – between the knowing and the feeling. It’s positively charged magic.
For someone who is a fan of both music and psychology, I intend to leave scientific explanations at the door. I do not need to know, but only to know what I feel, with regards to music and its meaning. A fan(atic) is described as ‘a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.’ I don’t agree that we’re ever entirely uncritical, but my musical zeal is certainly extreme.
“Without music, life would be a mistake.” – the only time I’ve agreed with Nietzsche.
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