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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 12, No. 4, 2013
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

the root natty root of



Without music, life would be a mistake.

It is music’s lofty mission
to shed light
on the depths of the human heart.
Robert Schumann


Why do so many of us listen less to music as we get older? How is it that music that once moved the earth under our feet suddenly not move us at all?

When we were younger, in our teens, necessarily confused and hurting, we turned to, sought out, chased after music as if our very lives depended on it. The music we loved was the balm that rescued us from all sorts of both real and imagined calamities, and of course the myriad implications of self-consciousness – a mostly debilitating condition that has single-handedly grown the pharmaceutical industry and turned prohibition (1919-1933) into a fourteen year long joke-hangover. Music was the perfect friend that magically gapped the many absences and incompletions young lives are rife with.

Fast forward 20 years, settled, smug and secure, where most days are copies of the day before and after, and we’re at a loss to explain how music that once answered to our deepest longings is no longer necessary, and that it happened right under our ears.

Directly out of the womb and into the world, like the air we breathe, we are always in the midst of music, some of which penetrates with such force and fulfillingness that we can’t get enough of it, which is why we obsessively listen to a favourite song over and over again and then again in our heads when we’re away from it.

After the first couple of listenings, the song, which is usually structurally uncomplicated, holds no surprises, and that’s the way we want it: our brain craves, the music supplies. But over time, the sequence CC EE CC wears thin until we tire of it completely and move on to something else: CC FF CC, and then CC GG CC. Over time, we may encounter CC EE CC in a variety of novel combinations in terms of note length, pitch and rhythm, but I propose there comes a defining moment when we will have had enough 'for life' of CC EE CC, which is why we move on to AA CC AA, and then AA DD GG, until we will have exhausted the entire range of sounds and modulations which constitute the genre of music we are attracted to. It’s almost as if there is a quota, or max out point, at which point, after X number of listenings, we are surfeited for the rest of our lives with CC EE CC; and if we haven’t cultivated an appreciation of another music form, we may discover that we are suddenly no longer listening to music.

Yes, an exceptionally inventive remake of the CC to EE sequence might cajole us into rekindling the relationship, but in general, once put to bed, it’s for life.

We must also grant that pleasant past experiences beg to be repeated, and we may from time to time revisit a time worn sequence, but more often than not, nostalgia is not a substitute for the excitement required to inspire repeated listening. I would have never predicted the day would come when I would never again want to hear Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” or Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” It was said of Stevie Wonder that he never again wants to perform “Ma Cherie Amour,” a song vastly more sophisticated than the 3-chord Cohen ditty that has sunk beneath my forbearance like a stone.

No less a valid consideration than particular sequences of notes is the notion of sound fatigue and the genres and subgenres with which a distinct sound is indelibly associated: acid rock, heavy metal, disco, electric groove, reggae, new wave. As our life circumstance changes, we may find ourselves irrevocably turned off to a particular sound – for life.

X is angry at the world that isn’t letting him in and heavy metal is the medium through which he rages against the world – until he meets his future wife with whom he has four kids. After a satisfying meal that has been washed down with wine instead of a joint, followed by a postprandial digestive, he retires to the living room, puts on his favourite harp music and shortly thereafter nods off. What his bewildered and insulted children fail to grasp is that he requires no more than a few seconds to identify sounds and sequences of music he never wants to hear again forever. He doesn't mean to be dismissive of music his kids inhabit like a second skin, but its exasperating predictability dictates the categorical rejection – one they will catch up with in due time.

Honouring the exception to every rule caveat, children and teens, who have been encouraged from their earliest years to develop an appreciation of classical music, are for the most part immune to the ravages of music fatigue. If variety is the best and most enduring antidote to tedium and monotony, the lover of classical music will discover in a single Mozart concerto more changes and modulations than entire genres (you name them) deliver: the very structure of classical music obviates listening fatigue, which in part explains why music written centuries ago continues to resonate in the present.

Until now, we have been considering music fatigue from the point of view of the average ear. The music lover, however, represents a different category of listener because there is no stopping the music that, often without consent, is playing continuously inside his head. It might be music that he once loved but now can’t stand, or simply the last melody heard on the radio that clings to the brain and repeats like a stuck stylus, or tap drip on a feckless forehead.

Music lovers form an unacknowledged fraternity of earworm sufferers. An earworm is a sequence of music that repeats endlessly inside someone’s head, such that the music junkie gets his fix whether he wants it or not. Holding up a blow torch to his own worm infested cerebellum, the painter Roberto Rotondo believes an earworm is a form of “self-inflicted punishment for shunning silence.”

Earworm sufferers, some of whom must deal with worms that are decades old, as an act of self-preservation against the near madness an endlessly repeating sequence of notes can arouse, are the most likely candidates for cultivating an interest in music genres with which they are not acquainted. Desperate to make a clean break from music they never want to hear again, they eagerly begin to experiment with new genres of music but sadly, most will fail to connect because they are not willing to put in the time required to learn the new language the new music represents. They believe they simply don’t like the new music when in point of fact, like a foreign language that has to be learned to be understood, they have failed to relate to and identify the emotional underpinnings that cause the new music to come into being. The same holds for the average listener who is no longer listening to music because he believes he doesn’t like what he simply doesn’t understand.

Coming to the aid of the earworm-riddled, discouraged music lover, who is unable to develop an appreciation of new sounds and genres, is fusion music. Fusion is typically comprised of both very familiar and very unfamiliar music. As the initiate struggles to make sense of the new, he is being rewarded by the old, all the while repeatedly exposing himself to what is strange and unsettling, until over time he discovers that he no longer requires the crutch of his old genre. So a rocker may one day find himself listening to fusion jazz and then jazz only.

* * * * * * * *

However, for the majority of listeners who, as they mature, are listening less to music, this is a natural development that should be cherished as an indicator of the real gains made in the lifelong quest to find meaning and balance in life. The melody, the song was good for as long as it provided, and now that the listener has found what is essential in life -- love, family, community – it is no longer necessary. In other words, it wasn’t so much the passing notes that mattered but their mysterious ability to transform and heal -- to lift the listener out of the deep and allow him to feel good about himself -- for a time.

“This music always rescues me, there's a melody for every malady." the composer Stew notes in the much under appreciated rock musical Passing Strange.

And for those whose fate it is to be still looking for that fugitive place under the sun, for whom the heart remains a lonely hunter, music will continue to be the most available and ubiquitous and uplifting drug on the planet.


WORK THE WOUND by Stew & Heidi Rodewald (from Passing Strange)

Everyday I build a mask
Up to the task
Another song, you see
I live behind the rhyme and verse
I lift my voice 'til I lift the curse
It's all rehearsed, you see
This music always rescues me
There's a melody for every malady:
Prescription song, you see
And should the mask begin to fall
My chorus comes in like a twelve foot wall
So you can't see me
And I'm blessed to entertain
The crowd laughs and swoons
It's loud guitars and champagne
And I sleep well past noon
But I've got a lot to explain
To myself, not to you
Like, who lost track of her pain
While working their wound?
So I finally found a home
Between the clicks of a metronome
And the song, you see
Then I went out on a limb
Oh, but the tree disappeared
And the sky went dim
Then, the song changed key
But then you told me my pain entertained
I heard the applause, thanking God you're sane
But what about me?
'Cause I'm cursed to entertain
The crowd laughs too soon
And all I have is my pain
Sharp and way out of tune
Oh, but you know I feel a bit ashamed
Since I'm still here marooned
And you lose track of her pain
When you're working your wound
And you lose track of her pain
When you're working your wound
And you lose track of her pain
When you're working your wound
And you lose track of her love
And you lose track of her pain
I just hop back on my train
And keep working
I keep working
I keep working
I keep working
I keep working
I keep working
I keep working
And that's how the song goes
That's how the song goes
Hey, that's how the song goes
But the problem is it never stops.


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