thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: musical memory

On The Beastie Boys And The Hip Hop Enculturation Of 1980s Suburbia

With the news last week that Beastie Boy member Adam Yauch (aka MCA) had died, I thought about the seismic impact hip hop had when it first burst the bubble of kids living in suburbia all over North America and beyond during the 1980s. As the producer Rick Rubin noted in a recent interview, “The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs. As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”

Indeed, when I was in high school in Canada in the late 1980s, there was a definite, turning point moment when hip hop music ignited the collective mind of our mostly white suburban school. As I remember it, there was a pre-hip hop era, and then a post-hip hop era. In the pre-hip hop era, most kids listened to a lot of white bands and idioms–like rock and UK synth pop–partly, I think, because these were just the sounds that were around us, accessible and marketed to us, and considered cool. (I added Glenn Gould, New Age music, and jazz fusion to the listening mix, but then again, I wasn’t cool!) Then, as if out of nowhere, the soundscape was changing with the sounds of Public Enemy, Run DMC, LL Cool J, KRS-1 and Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, and the Beasties too. I remember this post-hip hop era well because I made mix tapes (yes, cassettes) of a friend’s record collection (yes, vinyl LPs), soaking up all these new sounds from far away urban milieus. It struck me that while rock and synth pop were about constructing certain kinds emotion and a sense of what even back then I thought was an overly self-indulgent moodiness, hip hop worked by way of a different mechanism. I felt different listening to this music but wouldn’t have been able to describe to you what exactly the feeling was. All I knew was that the sounds were hard-hitting, but unlike rock music, also infectious, syncopated, and poly–with lots of different rhythms going on at the same time. In a phrase: hip hop was cooly energized music. And even if the lyrics didn’t necessarily speak to our immediate experiences in the suburban northern latitudes the music and the beats made you feel like a cool insider just for listening to them.

The Beastie Boys were part of this wave of hip hop culture that hit our school. They were, of course, three middle-class white guys from Brooklyn who had appropriated the hip hop habitus, sound, and fashion sense, but they put their own spin on everything in an honest way, recording for Rubin’s Def Jam record label, gaining the respect of their musical peers (Chuck D. of Public Enemy once said that the Beasties “had the best beats”), and selling millions of records too. Of the three Beasties, Yauch had the most raspy and grainy voice that set it apart from his band mates’ more whiny-sounding vocal timbres. His was a breathy, soulful voice.


One of the Beastie Boys’ releases that made an impression on me was their 1989 album, Paul’s Boutique. Produced in collaboration with a pair of sound-hound producers from California who go by the name the Dust Brothers, Paul’s Boutique features over a hundred samples from other songs (which cost the Beasties around a quarter of a million dollars in licensing fees, this just before all the big lawsuits that would considerably drive up the cost of sampling others) to make an intricately layered and funky sound. My favorite track was the irresistibly funky “Hey Ladies” on which you can hear among numerous other samples, the voice of James Brown chuckle-intoning “Ain’t it funky now?” every now and then. I re-listened to the song recently and it still sounds good.

On The (In)significance Of Musical Experience

Sometimes when I’m in the middle of listening to a podcast interview with a writer talking about information theory, or art history and design aesthetics, or the philosophy of work, or the politics of technology, I find myself thinking about the purpose and relative (in)significance of music.  Musicologists have long studied the formal properties of music, mapping the relations among its parts; anthropologists have shown the social uses and meanings of music within communities of players and listeners, and cultural historians have located music within the circulation of music sound reproduction technologies, the technology of musical instruments, and discourses (real and imagined) about what it all means.

But there is an absence at the heart of music and sound that keeps them forever puzzling to us: there is no there there.  Music, that most vaporous of phenomena, seems to be, to borrow a phrase from G.W. Trow, a “context of no context”: music is about nothing and then spends its time chronicling that nothingness.  (Trow used the phrase to describe the conceptual space of television.) The relations among music’s parts can be mapped and described, but they don’t constitute a language with a stable set of meanings; in fact, on person’s “happy chord” could be a sad sound for someone else.  Furthermore, music’s sounds don’t really reflect real world things.  At the core of music seems to be an inherent insignificance–an agreed upon pseudo-discourse onto which we project elaborate systems of meaning and significance.  In this regard, it might be reasonable to say that music is an elaborate Rorschach Test in sound.

But this is not to say that music isn’t terribly important to our day-to-day lives, because it often is.  Could it be that music’s significance lies in its very insignificance?  This in itself tells us important things about what it means to be human: that we appreciate the contours, relations, and timbres of music for their own sake, and for how they combine in infinite ways to make us feel deeply.

But consider another perspective.  Perhaps our ability to extract feelings from music has something to do with how it draws on the particular faculties of our minds, specifically our memories and our ability to project past experiences onto the future.  In a talk on the Zocalo Public Square podcast (which I highly recommend), the neuroscientist Antonio DAmasio discusses the nature of human memory:

“We live every moment, every second of our life, poised between the lived past and the anticipated future.  The anticipated future exists as a set of plans that we have formulated.  And those plans have been committed to memory.  So what you have is something particularly bizarre, which is to have memories of the future…”

Memories of the future.  So maybe some of the pleasures of music arise out of our projecting what we think might happen next based on our previous listening experiences?  The nature of this interaction between our past experiences and our present exposure to a music is surely incredibly complex, since we all have vastly different (and idiosyncratic) listening histories.  No wonder music can seem perpetually new, since, as Damasio says later in his talk, we are ourselves continually changing, “moving in time, relentlessly, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”  The best we can do is take snapshots with the help of this moving Rorschach Test in sound.  At the very least, listening to music makes us aware of our fleeting “here and now moments.”

Memory Palaces and Music


“A memory consists in the awareness, first, of the diminished intensity of an impression, second, of its increased ease, and third, of the connections it entertains with other impressions” – Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, p.31.

In the New York Times Magazine this past weekend there was a fascinating article by Joshua Foer on “memory athletes” — a strange breed of person who is capable of (and interested in) quickly memorizing huge quantities of information.  In the article, Foer learns how to train his own memory and ends up competing in (and winning!) a national memory competition.

One of the key techniques used by memory athletes is a trick that dates back to Simonides of Ceos, a poet of ancient Greece.  The technique is called “method of loci” or the “memory palace.”  The idea is to visualize a mental walk through a place you know well–like a room in your house–which you can fill with objects (or people), each of which represents one of the items you’re trying to memorize (a number, say).  Once you’ve made the associations, remembering your items is then a matter of re-visualizing the space–playing it back in your mind’s eye– and observing its contents.  Foer elaborates on how modern-day memory athletes use the memory palace technique:

“Memory palaces don’t have to be palatial — or even actual buildings.  They can be routes through a town or signs of the zodiac or even mythical creatures.  They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as they are intimately familiar.  The four-time U.S. memory champion Scott Hagwood uses luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest to store his memories. Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, the effervescent Malaysian memory champ, used his own body parts to help him memorize the entire 57,000-word Oxford English-Chinese dictionary.  In the 15th century, an Italian jurist named Peter of Ravenna is said to have used thousands of memory palaces to store quotations on every important subject, classified alphabetically. When he wished to expound on a given topic, he simply reached into the relevant chamber and pulled out the source.”

This idea of remembering one thing by using a spatial mnemonic technique that places it somewhere else has me thinking about how musicians memorize vast quantities of music. One way you do it is through sheer repetition of practice: playing a phrase over and over again until you can “chunk” all of its notes into one block in your memory.  Musicians who play traditional instruments also have some spatial experience built into the very experience of playing.  For instance, a pianist, a drum set player, or a violinist all have to negotiate their instruments in terms of particular “pathways” to make sure their fingers travel the right routes to make the required sounds.  In the case of the drummers, they need to trace a pattern in space around a collection of instruments as well as between their four limbs to produce the required rhythm.  Finally, instrumentalists who play melodic instruments have melody itself as a guide to help them remember a sequence of notes.  (I bet melodies help us remember words too…)

I don’t have extensive experience memorizing music, but during college I did spend many hours memorizing marimba pieces, in part because I couldn’t read the marimba scores fluidly enough to not impede my playing.  Reading Foer’s article reminded me of how important muscle memory was to my musical memory.  A marimba, for those of you unfamiliar with the percussion world, is like a giant xylophone, with a keyboard layout just like a piano.  One usually plays with marimba with four mallets, and it takes some dexterity to manipulate what are essentially four giant mallet appendages jutting out of one’s hands at awkward angles.  Learning marimba pieces often involved breaking them down into small sections, each section in turn comprising a sequence of hand movements over the terrain of the marimba.  This memorization work had to be done methodically and at very slow tempos to commit the note sequences to memory.  While I didn’t use memory palaces in terms of visualizing specific spaces in which to store the notes I wanted to memorize, I did visualize sections of music in vague bodily terms.  Entire sections could be “cued” in memory just by a sticking pattern or the shape of my hands at a particular register of the instrument.  It seemed to be mostly a matter of body knowledge–knowing by feel–and to this day I’m not entirely sure how it works, only that, in music at least, remembering involves some kind of interaction between listening, muscle memory, and anticipating or “pre-hearing” in ones’ mind’s ear what hasn’t even happened yet.  This last point is perhaps the most interesting part about music, for it is, as musicologist David Burrows once put it, a curious perceptual phenomenon: music is time-bound and thus continually exists in a liminal space of the Now, on the leading edge of its own absence.  In other words, as soon as you hear a note, it is gone and you’re onto the next one.

So my goal in memorizing music was always the same: to be able to play the piece fluidly at speed without needing to “think” about it.  Memorization was key because in performance there was little to no time to think about where one was going next.  Musical experience is all about the Now, and so the notes had to come automatically to me so as to not derail the flow.

Joshua’s Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything comes out next month.

The Kittler epigraph to this blog post comes courtesy of Erin Mizrahi’s interesting blog post on memory palaces.


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