thinking through music, sound and culture

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article about CD baby. “It might not be ideal for somebody like Bruno Mars, but I can gauge what I want to do and you get to control everything, which is cool. You’re giving yourself a chance when you put your stuff up and pay that fee, because you never know who will hear it.”

2. An interview with sound recordist Chris Watson. “We’re all damaged by noise pollution psychologically as much as anything, and we’re just not aware of it. You ring your bank and they play music at you down the phone, it’s so invasive. Because of that we waste so much energy in shutting things out, we don’t get the chance to listen. I do find it really quite annoying and disturbing. I’m saddened that people have to battle through this or seem to ignore it. It’s a stressful thing to deal with it, that you spend most of your time and energy shutting things out rather than listening.”

3. An article about music and exercise. “Research has shown that music can be most effective when played at the point when workers reach a plateau in work output. When devising your own music playlist for training, it is important to take into consideration the type of mindset you want to achieve for a particular workout.”

Notes On Elizabeth Margulis’s “On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind”


I began reading this book like a runner hitting a downhill, rushing forward with exhilaration and abandon, carried along by the gravitational pull of my interest in its subject. My initial read-through was quick, and I’ll certainly be returning to its pages, walking back up the uphills to take in the details. To say the least, I’ve been waiting for a book like this for a long time!

Elizabeth Margulis’s On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind is an expansive and scholarly investigation of repetition in musical experience. Drawing on the literature and approaches of music psychology, neuroscience, musicology, and linguistics, Margulis explores what it means that repetition is so deeply a part of music and our musical lives. “Why is it that we accept, even enjoy, degrees of repetition in music” the author wonders, “that would be repugnant in almost any other domain?” (4) This fascinating question guides On Repeat to unravel how repetition both works within music and works on us through music.

There are two kinds of repetition in our experience of music. The first exists within pieces of music themselves. On the micro-level, sound is vibration, and vibration is repetitive oscillation. On a more macro-level, there is repetition within all kinds of musical patterns (e.g. a drum beat, a guitar riff, a piano vamp) and among sections of music, such as theme and variations, recapitulations, verse-chorus refrains, and so on. A second type of repetition resides in the fact that “we tend voluntarily to re-expose ourselves to familiar pieces, again and again and again” (4). Here and elsewhere in the book, Margulis cites some of her own research that shows how when we listen to a piece of music repeatedly, that repetition triggers “an attentional shift from more local to more global levels of musical organization…so that the music doesn’t seem to be coming at the listener in small bits, but rather laying out broader spans for consideration” (9). In other words, we return to favorite pieces of music to understand them better through “a heightened sense of orientation and involvement” (ibid).

Among the many insights of this book, I was intrigued to learn that repetition is one of the things that suggests how communication cannot be music’s primary function (13). “Imagine” says Margulis, “hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony once, and being done. Or hearing a five minute summary” (ibid). The repetitive aspect of music then, is not to convey information, but rather seems bound up with the aesthetic function of non-linguistic sound (14). Or put another way: the pleasure we find in musical repetition “might stem less from increasing knowledge about the piece than from a growing sense of inhabiting the music: a transportive, even transcendent kind of experience” (15). Listening to a piece over and over again affords “a changed sort of orientation toward the work” (15). And the fascinating thing about great music is how it seems to afford endless re-listenings.

On Repeat is full of insights like this as Margulis explains layer after layer of repetition’s power. In another of her case studies, we learn how repetition added to any piece of music elevates “people’s enjoyment, interest, and judgements of artistry” (16). Something about repetition’s intrinsic declamatory quality reassures us that a piece with repetition is more forceful and effective–as if the music has something to say. “As musical phrases repeat, listeners gain access to more nuanced, communicative aspects of the sound” (21). Maybe as we return to favorite pieces of music, we gain (an illusory?) sense that we understand what it’s trying to say to us. Such is one of the charms of music’s ambiguous relationship to meaning. Margulis also considers the relationship between musical repetition and memory. As bits within a piece repeat, or as we repeatedly listen to musical bits, repetition serves as “a kind re-presenting, a kind of prosthetic memory, whereby past events are put once more before the ears” (21). Repetition then, helps us recall what just happened in a piece, or in the case of musical “earworms”, is the presence of a piece that simply won’t leave our minds.

Reading On Repeat as a practicing musician I was particularly struck by passages that point towards some of the deeper perceptual effects of repetition. Repetition is a kind of engine that reveals hidden qualities in music, “driving attention to otherwise perceptually inaccessible qualities of the sonic surface” (80). This is interesting, right? Drawing on examples ranging from Brahms to sampling in hip hop, Margulis shows how repetition has the power to transform our experience of music’s very fabric. As we repeat any musical segment what was once perceptual background becomes foreground. To take an example from speech, repeated hearings of the same nonsense word has the effect of making the word’s nonsense “replaced by a sort of super-salience of the component parts”–as if “speech had magically been transformed into music” (17). Likewise, music repeated can become almost speech-like in its capacity to conjure felt meaning. In this regard, repetition is sly and subtle: by revealing new aspects of music’s sonic surface, it can create “some impression that registers as an expressive quality, rather than as explicit recognition of repetitiveness” (35).

There’s much theoretical and empirical richness and subtlety in On Repeat that will reward repeated readings, and Margulis has amassed a giant corpus of scholarly work with which to cast her inquisitive net. Music is the canonical domain of repetition (4), and On Repeat explores the myriad reasons why this should be.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet


1. An article about the role of innate talent in achieving musical expertise.
“The idea that anyone can become an expert at most anything isn’t scientifically defensible, and pretending otherwise is harmful to society and individuals…”

2. An article about an obsessive Brazilian vinyl collector.
“I’ve gone to therapy for 40 years to try to explain this to myself…”

3. An article by Daniel Levitan about the benefits of rest–including music listening–for resetting the mind.
“Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.”

“Music…turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.”


Two Reviews Of Books On Electronic Music Making And Remixology

My reviews of DJ Culture in the Mix (Bloomsbury 2013) and Remixology (Reaktion Books 2014) are available here and here.


Notes On Marsen Jules’ “Beautyfear”

Have you listened to the music of Marsen Jules? Jules is a German electronic musician whose music I first came across some ten years ago. His sound is a kind of abstract yet atmospheric minimal wash of slow-moving and multi-layered ambient chords played using analog synthetic string timbres.

Having recently found Jules latest recording, Beautyfear, on Spotify, I was delighted to find that the musician is still holding forth on his musical terrain. My favorite track is “Beautyfear IV.” It’s a deceptively simple construction, sounding like a major scale, mi-re-do descent happening over and over again. But other tonal layers and ambiance add depth and ambiguity to the music. Does this piece have a key? Does it go anywhere? Somehow its repetition keeps putting the answers to these questions on hold. Here’s the track:

You can read more about Jules here.

Notes On Toggling Between (Disparate?) Musics

Lately I’ve been thinking about toggling.

I think about it as I switch among various go-to apps on my phone–email, news, Twitter, blog, music player, Wikipedia, calendar,–back and forth, quickly, seamlessly, without thinking much about it. The process, made possible by the technology of my phone, feels like the essence of thinking itself: continuous zigzagging among ideas, always weighing and assessing, always seeking connections, always toggling from one bit to another.

And there’s toggling within these individual activities too. Take music listening, for example. I often toggle back and forth between stylistically different musics just to remind myself of their essential (and maybe shared yet overlooked) qualities and also to see how they affect me in tandem. A while back, I toggled between American composer John Adams’ “String Quartet” and UK electronic musician Darren J. Cunningham’s (aka Actress) “Ivy May Gilpin.” Even though these musics may not have much in common, I kept toggling!

Here is the Adams piece:

Here is the Cunningham/Actress piece:

Toggling between the two pieces of music I also thought about what the musics may say about their respective creators. And then came this (perhaps unfair) musing: Based on their music, which composer would you most like to hang out with?

Notes On Oval’s Voa

One of the most interesting aspects of Oval’s recent recording, Voa (2013), a collaboration between German electronic musician Markus Popp and a series of singers from South America, is that its instrumental parts don’t necessarily do the things you might expect them to do. In a recent interview Popp explains his interest in acoustic instruments: “I like acoustic instruments, I like this kind of micro dynamics, I like the nuance and details…” On Voa, all of the tracks feature what sounds like sampled electric jazz guitar playing, as well as bits of drumset and bass. But the parts and bits move in unexpectedly delightful ways. Popp says that his musical goal is to “come up with a new style that is kind of reminiscent of something…I wanted to do something else, more like songs. It’s just that these songs were composed from very unlikely parts, the building blocks I was using for this music were very irregular.” It’s the unlikely-ness and irregularity of Popp’s materials and their arrangements that makes the music what it is.

Here is Popp’s piece “Emocor”:

A probing interview with the musician can be found here.

On Endless Beginnings


Some twenty years ago the professor for my Psych 101 class once said “Never be afraid to be a beginner. Because you’re going to be a beginner over and over, all your life.” It was good advice, and it came to mind recently as I was browsing through old music files on my computer. In a series of vaguely titled folders (“chords and beats”, “ambient” etc.) I found a series of what one might call endless beginnings–ideas for pieces of music that someday might become something or (probably, most likely) not. “Ideas” might be giving too much credit. Some of the pieces are just a series of rhythms, a few chords, or an interesting sound. All of the files sit quietly, with their workaday titles (day, month, and year), waiting for my further direction and refinement. The music varies in quality, yet all the files share a sense of being unafraid of, well, being beginners. Sitting on the computer hard drive, they wait for someone–me–to revisit them and re-listen to hear if they might have anything worth saying. I keep putting off this re-listening, but here’s one that caught my attention enough to write this post:

For more on beginnings, go here.

Krista Tippett On Listening


Listening to a podcast, my ears perked up when I heard the day’s guest, Krista Tippett, talk about what it means to listen. Tippett wasn’t referring to music listening per se, yet her words had me thinking anew about what listening in a musical context might entail. Here are some quotes, along with elaborations on them:

Listening is a spiritual technology.
We don’t often hear those two words together. Yet listening is a way to tap into what many people believe music indexes: some parallel affective realm in which patterns of sound give rise to patterns of feeling. Combined together, sound and feeling can feel pretty deep.

Listening is an ordinary, everyday virtue.
We hear and make sense of things all time–ambient noise, conversations–and so each of us has a finely tuned apparatus ready to take on music. It’s a virtue to be able to listen because listening has built-in moral component: at minimum, by listening we engage with others.

Listening is an essential way that we can reach across the mystery of the Other.
This is a fundamental principle of the academic discipline of ethnomusicology: that informed and open listening is a way to understand the cultural value of all the world’s musics–no matter how different they may seem from what is familiar and local to us. Listening literally connects us to other ways of hearing and making sound.

There aren’t many things that we do in our lives that are more important than listening.
Making music with others can’t exist without close listening. In fact, effective/affective music is defined by how closely its makers interact with, and respond to, one another. It’s the interaction among musicians and their sounds that makes the music compelling. In this, listening is the most important thing.

Listening is an essential tool that we need to cultivate in a noisy, busy world.
Listening, inside or outside of musical practice, is a way to focus and block out distractions.

Listening is about presence.
When we listen we accrue a special kind of presence as listeners. Our best selves rise up as our senses hone in on the importance of sound.

Listening is about being open to being surprised and amazed. Listening is about being vulnerable.
Brought about by listening, our best selves are open to the world, ready to be guided into unfamiliar territory. There is risk involved because we’re not entirely sure where we’re going. But we listen anyway, wondering what will come next.

Notes On Fredrik Sjoberg’s “The Fly Trap”


“Know that then everything flies, absolutely everything. A thousand commentaries. An entire apparatus of footnotes.”
– Fredrik Sjoberg

Fredrik Sjoberg’s delightful The Fly Trap is two books in one: a story of the author’s experiences catching flies–specifically, hoverflies–on a remote island in Sweden, and a life history of the expeditions and writings of entomologist, naturalist, explorer, and art collector Rene Malaise, inventor of the fly-catching “Malaise” net. Deftly moving back and forth between the two narrative threads so that they hum as one, Sjoberg’s writing is plain and personal, clear and direct, without need of references to the scholarly literature of entomology. Sjoberg has caught so many interesting ideas in his net that our reading pleasure is just accompanying him on the many tales, memories, and experiences he recounts in the book’s eighteen brief chapters.

For Sjoberg, hunting for flies has poetic dimensions, including “anticipation, repose and slowness” (31), and the activity also satisfies the author’s need for seizing a terrain of specialization. “Everything fell into place with the flies” he says. “In exercising control over something, however insignificant and apparently meaningless, there is a peaceful euphoria” (49). Sjoberg is an expert, and we learn that over the years he’s discovered numerous hoverfly species on the island. He wears his expertise lightly though: “You never know in advance what knowledge may be good for, however useless it may seem” (65).


The most interesting aspect of The Fly Trap is Sjoberg’s claim that the book’s deeper theme concerns a single idea: limitation. “The hoverflies are only props” he says. “Here and there, my story is about something else…Some days I tell myself that my mission is to say something about the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation” (12). Indeed, Sjoberg is somewhat obsessed with limitation, finding in it the reason why he doesn’t care much for travel and chooses instead to do all of his research on a tiny land mass he calls home. Limitation focuses his energies: “Nothing promotes concentration like a known limitation of time, sometimes of space as well. If you don’t know where the limit lies, then it’s chatter as usual” (111). Ironically, as he teaches us about Malaise’s far-flung travels and exceptional adventures, Sjoberg simultaneously keeps returning to his own little patch of terra firma where he does his work. The contrast is intentional and makes for good reading. Maybe the point here is that there are many ways to be worldly.

Asked by summer visitors to the island why he collects flies, Sjoberg tells them that “my fly collecting was a method of exercising slowness” (188). It sounds fitting, and Sjoberg explains how over time he began elaborating upon his slowness theme for the benefit of his island’s seasonal guests. Yet a few pages later Sjoberg concedes that he doesn’t entirely buy his own grand theory of why he does what he does. In fact, just to be contrary, he makes a case for speed: “If you think the torrent–of pictures, messages, people, whatever–goes too fast, then in nine cases out of ten you can turn it off or just close your eyes and breathe your own air for a while” (190).

The point is that Sjoberg is open to complexity. On the next page he keeps theorizing but now we’re not sure what to believe. “Next summer I think I will say that my fly collecting is a way of exercising concentration. A focus so intense that I forget myself” (191). Even after some eighty pages after we first heard about Sjoberg’s interest in limitation, we’re still not sure where lies the core of his concern. Part of the issue here is Sjoberg’s patience with following the trail of his (and Malaise’s) thoughts–writing like he has all the time in the world. Maybe the idea of limitation just informs his book in a general kind of way? Only on the last page of the chapter does Sjoberg admit the deeper truth about his interest in limitation: that maybe he does what he does because of “a genetic inability to deal with choice.” In the end, fly collecting is not about concentration or slowness–even though each these on their own do give the collector peace of mind. No, fly collecting embodies the art and experience of limitation:

“All that’s required is the courage to see your own mastery in actual life size. Some people see only flies, or certain flies, in a certain place, for a certain time. It’s only a starting point, or a fixed point, but it is a point. That’s all it is” (198).

It’s as if Sjoberg is saying that fly-catching keeps him grounded. And that’s in fact what he loves about it. Collecting flies is a way get to know nature: “I go collecting with my net in the here and now and read my landscape in the present tense” (218). In other words, by chasing flies Sjoberg seeks a nature literacy: “let us consider the ability to read the landscape as if it were a language, to understand nature almost as if were literature, experience it the same way that we experience art or music” (219).

There is a lot to learn from The Fly Trap. It has a singular voice, humor, it weaves together two sets of stories from There/Then to the Here/Now, and it engages in Big Ideas like the idea of limitation. Most interestingly, the book isn’t a definitive statement on the state of fly-catching, but does say everything about the nuanced experiences of one fly catcher on a small island in Sweden. In the end, The Fly Trap soars probingly and patiently through its own incompleteness.


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