On Our Din And Roar II: How Noise Is Not Always Bad And Quiet Not Always Good

On my last blog post, I may have inadvertently given readers the impression that I wear earplugs wherever I go, so intent I am in the pursuit of some kind of urban quiet. (One worried family member even weighed in: “When you wear the earplugs, do you miss any cautionary sounds–like the sound of an oncoming car?”) Not so! In fact, as I sat in a Uruguayan bakery this morning, it occurred to me that I often flee silence in a deliberate pursuit of noise. And like I said about choosing to be a percussionist–it’s complicated!

But not that complicated. I go to this bakery regularly not because the hot beverages are relatively cheap (though they are, as are the pastries) but because the space offers a level of noise that’s conducive to writing. (Kind of like the subway, where I’m typing these words on a phone.) At the bakery there’s always ambient noise in the form of espresso machines, patrons talking among themselves (in Spanish) and several large screen TVs showing music videos and football matches (also in Spanish). For some reason–including the fact that I don’t speak Spanish, for one thing–all of this ambient sound adds up to just the right degree of din that I can easily tune out. In other words, being surrounded by a mix of different noises helps me concentrate on something else entirely.

And this is what was perhaps misleading about the ear plugs post. Plugging one’s ears means shutting out the sounding world around you. And I do this sometimes–though the shutting out is really just reducing the world by about 33 decibels (if we’re to believe Heroes Earplugs’ health claims). But what’s even more interesting to me is how we shut out or filter the sounds of the noisy world around us simply by concentrating–entering a state of focus that itself benefits from that same noisy world. It’s as if the noises let one part of you know that you’re ensconced in conviviality (noise indexing the lively embrace of social life), which then frees another part of you to relegate the sounds to a background hum and just coast on them.

On Our Din And Roar: Thinking About Loud Sounds

I’ve been a wearer of earplugs for about fifteen years now. The reason? I work regularly in a loud orchestra pit and live in a loud city and ironically enough, I have never really liked loud sounds. (Which is perversely a big part of the reason I became a percussionist: either to become a victim of my musical interests or to attempt to have at least some control of my dislikes. It’s complicated!) I wear earplugs getting to work, at work, and anywhere else that feels too loud.

I thought about my earplug habit recently when I came across not one but two newspaper articles on noise over the span of two days. The first, William Broad’s  “Whales, Somehow, Are Coping With Humans’ Din”, explores the impact of human-generated noise on hearing loss among deep-sea mammals. According to Broad, scientists are now working on ways to warn the whales before the onset of loud sounds to trigger in them an intuitive response that, remarkably, they already have: basically a whale version of plugging one’s ears to reduce a loud sound’s ability to inflict harm.

Sea mammals–like whales, dolphins, seals, and walruses–have incredible hearing acuity, evolved in part in response to the low visibility underwater, and in response to the fact that sound travels much faster and more efficiently there than it does through air. The problem with human sonic encroachment on whales is not simply a matter of damaging their acute hearing though; exposure to loud sounds, says Broad, has been shown to be linked “to reductions in mammalian vocalization, which suggests declines in foraging and breeding.” In other words, our pollution of the natural world is not just about toxic chemicals and fumes anymore. Our toxically loud noises also threaten to knock other creatures into submission and perhaps eventual extinction too.

The second article, Cara Buckley’s “Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated Roar”, looks at the dangerously high sound levels in New York City retail stores, restaurants, and fitness clubs. Not surprisingly, loud music makes people buy more stuff, eat faster, and work out harder. For businesses, these are good kinds of behavior modifications (in fact, precisely the kind of modifications intended by “sound consultants” who advise businesses on such matters). But physically speaking, loud sound is pretty bad for us:  it’s been linked to stress, hypertension and heart disease, and is a direct cause of hearing loss. Loud sound, whether in the form of music blasting or subways screeching, is a big problem that continues to hum beneath our health radars.  And of course, we’re the primary cause of it all.


Now, think about it: we wear sunscreen to protect our skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays, and we wear sunglasses to shield our eyes from its glare. So why don’t more of us protect our ears from those shards of harmfully loud sounds? Is there maybe a stigma attached to finding a sound just too darn loud and raising one’s hands up to plug the ears–the bodily gesture that screams “I just can’t take this anymore!”?

I don’t know the answer to this last question. But here’s an idea: an “intelligent” foam–a “soundscreen” if you will–that we could inject into our ears before we head out for a loud evening on the town. When we encounter loud sounds, the foam would expand swiftly and intelligently to filter the sounds (reducing their decibel levels while preserving their frequency characteristics), and then shrink down again as the sounds diminished. I’m not sure exactly how this technology would work, not to mention how we would get it out of ears, but it’s an idea. You could also just wear those blue foam earplugs I guess.

Or we could all just agree to get quieter.


Ha. You’re right, quiet is not going to happen. And one of the reasons–besides the fact that can’t really tell others to “keep it down”–is that we humans are sensual sensory creatures. It’s not that we’re not bothered by the prospect of damaging our hearing. It’s that we’re more taken by the pleasures of experiencing loud sound–at concerts, clubs, at the gym, or in our headphones. I’m no exception either. When I’m working on a piece and reach a critical juncture–recording a part say, or listening to a rhythm real close–I will crank up the speaker volume for a few moments just to feel the music as much as hear it. Feeling versus hearing. I suspect that’s the visceral appeal of loud music for a lot of people: the volume alone–marking what Julian Henriques in his book Sonic Bodies memorably refers to as “sonic dominance”–seems to communicate on an entirely different plane than the music. It literally shakes and vibrates us. While it might not be good for us, it just feels good.

On that note, crank up your speakers/headphones to listen to these whale sounds!

On Philosophy’s Western Bias: Thinking Through “Non-Western” Music

The concept of “non-Western” music has long been both a cornerstone and a sticky issue for the field of ethnomusicology. Formed in the mid-1950s, the Society For Ethnomusicology was from its inception interested in the study of musical traditions from outside the Western classical music canon. Early on, its approach was musicological–studying music as an object rather than as a part of cultural field. Also, it was primarily non-Western art music traditions of from Japan, China, the Middle East, and India that were studied, perhaps in part because these traditions had surface similarities to Western European art music (e.g. like Western European art music they are the domain of highly trained specialists, their repertoire is built around mostly fixed musical scales, and their histories are preserved through various kinds of musical notation) that lent them a kind of perceived cultural prestige. In other words, they were similar the kinds of traditions that traditional musicologists might study. But as ethnomusicology was shaped by the field of anthropology in the 1960s and 70s and evolved as a discipline, the notion of its defining itself primarily through an interest in those musical practices that weren’t western eventually came to seem increasingly odd and untenable. First, what makes the West the default or central vantage point in our world, relegating all other geographies “non-western”? Second, why limit the ethnomusicological focus to geography anyway? Music, after all, is fluid because its social worlds were (and still are) constantly changing, with peoples moving about and what were once fairly distinct musical cultures becoming more and more interconnected, their stylistic lines blurred. Over time, ethnomusicology expanded to include the cultural study of any and all music traditions, an interpretive stance the field maintains today.

A few months ago I came across an interesting piece in the New York Times by the philosopher Justin E.H. Smith. The article not about music per se but about philosophy–specifically, the place of non-Western philosophy in Western philosophy curricula. In my reading, I found that many of Smith’s observations resonate in the world of teaching non-western music appreciation classes.

One of Smith’s main points concerns the strange treatment of non-western philosophy in western philosophy departments:

“…non-Western philosophy, when it does appear in curricula, is treated in a methodologically and philosophically unsound way: it is crudely supposed to be wholly indigenous to the cultures that produce it and to be fundamentally different than Western philosophy in areas like its valuation of reason or its dependence on myth and religion. In this way, non-Western philosophy remains fundamentally ‘other.'”

One way out of this Othering quandary, says Smith, is “to stop describing it as ‘non-Western’ but instead to be explicit about which geographical region, or which tradition, we’re discussing.” Ethnomusicologists have been doing this for a long time now, of course, framing their classroom discussions of various traditions with careful explanations of the musics’ social and cultural milieus, and by using the indigenous terms musicians use to talk about their instruments and their soundworlds.

Smith also advocates opening up his discipline by treating “both Western and non-Western philosophy as the regional inflections of a global phenomenon.” But Smith points out that one of the barriers to the “rigorous and serious approach to the teaching and study of non-Western philosophy” is that some “philosophers remain attached to the article of faith that philosophy is something independent of culture.”

With that, let’s return to music.

In music departments it is common practice for Western classical music–the great music by composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms–to be studied as texts for harmonic decoding. In my university music theory classes some twenty years ago, we talked about the relationships between the notes and chords and rhythms of a piece, but never about what the music might mean–either culturally or emotionally. (It would have been cool if the teacher had taken a moment to ask us: “How does this chord make you feel?” I wonder what discussion might have ensued? And I wonder if I would have had anything to say?) In this way, the assumption of the class was that “serious” Western music was a set of artifacts independent of culture and fully graspable on its own formal terms. Western music, as Smith would put it, was “the unmarked category.” The late 19- century critic Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) had a label for this view of music supposedly separate from its messy social milieu: autonomous music. Building on this idea, Hanslick believed that the “meaning” of music is its form and nothing more. Today, that view of music is disputed. At the very least, the meanings of music are generated in a variety of ways–some of them sonic, some of them social.

Anyhow, non-Western music isn’t usually inserted into the pedagogical mix of Bach and the other Western composing greats. Case in point: in our music theory classes, my classmates and I didn’t analyze transcriptions of Indonesian gamelan pieces or Indian tabla drum solos (though elsewhere we did gain wonderful experience learning to play the music of some of these traditions). The musics of the rest of the non-Western world were relegated to an introductory semester of world music/ethnomusicology/music as culture inserted into an otherwise 100 percent Western music history curriculum. During these few months we learned indigenous music terms like mbira and qin, listened to what at the time I thought were difficult to grasp sounds, and–curiously enough–used western analytical terms like timbre and polyrhythm to make sense of it all. The class text, for those of you who are wondering, was the first edition of Jeff Titon’s fine Worlds Of Music.

Finally, Smith says that the value of the Western philosophical tradition “has always been a result of its place as a node in a global network through which ideas and things are always flowing.” So with philosophy, so too with music, I think. For it’s in Western classical and pop styles, after all, that ideas and sounds (and sometimes even instruments) from other traditions flow and assert their presence. (Remember the Beatles’ sitar? Lou Harrison’s American gamelans? Steve Reich’s West African drumming-inspired percussion works?) Thus, a class on non-Western music taught today would benefit from considering the considerable resonances of non-Western music on Western composers, bands, DJs, and so on–from John Cage, Steve Reich, and the Beatles through to Bjork, Diplo, and beyond.


This is a clip of the Beatles’ George Harrison taking a sitar lesson with Ravi Shankar:

This is a clip of Bjork performing with kora master Toumani Diabate:

Three (Fictional) Grooves On (Real) Advice

It takes as long as it takes.

That was her advice to me.
Take your time–meaning:
don’t go slow per se,
but move at just the right cadence and clip,
claim the time, make it yours,
grasp its contours, bring it with you,
take it somewhere, play with it
and examine its parts,
unravel and lay it flat
to plot its geographies,
stretch and fold it over itself,
wrapping experiences to keep them fresh.

“That’s a fine bit of advice”
so says my inner voice,
“but I think you’re running out of time.
Best get going now, get on track,
get with the flow,
as long as you feel the current,
nothing like right now
for that’s why they call it the present.
“That’s a fine bit of advice”–
my inner worrier speaks
a truth as seen from the outside, and yet
are not looming deadlines and such
about as real as those heat waves up ahead
that disappear
in the time it takes to reach them?

Student: “Teacher, how long
until I can produce a sound like yours?”
Teacher: “It takes as long as it takes.”
Student: “And why do you move
your hands like so
after you hit the drum,
for surely the sound
has already sounded?”
Teacher: “It takes the sound
on a journey off of the drum
and outwards to hearts and ears.”
Student: “And tell me,
do you keep time
with your body or your mind?”
Teacher: “I keep it with both.
And my counting is a way to notice
the many things passing
through the time of the music.”
Student: “But I need more moments to take this all in!”
Teacher: “You have all the time
that you need.”

It takes as long as it takes.

On Finding Cross-Sensory Inspiration: The Spell Of Michel Bras

The Michelin-starred, self-taught French chef Michel Bras may as well be a music composer, such is his multi-sensory approach to his culinary craft. In the ambient and thoughtful documentary Inventing Cuisine: Michel Bras (2008), directed by Paul Lacoste, we see Bras at work on the kitchen–poaching fish, peeling veggies, brooding over his (fascinating) sketchbooks, and generally just looking concerned, lost in thought, and worried about the state of things in his kitchen. But we also see Bras outside in the blowing wind, under overcast skies, finding inspiration in the shifting play of light, wind, rocks, grassy hills, and whatever else he notices in the rugged environment near his restaurant in Laguiole, a remote area in southern France.

In one scene from the documentary (which begins at 4:57 in the YouTube clip below), we find Bras outside observing the sky and landscape through a piece of glass he’s set up on an easel. Like a painter, he’s trying to literally “frame” a piece of his environment by tracing what he sees directly onto what is essentially a translucent canvas. Later, Bras will use his glass tracing as the basis for designing the layout of a new dish on a dinner plate (which we actually saw Bras assembling just before this scene; so much for proper film chronology). “Everyone has their own reading and rewriting [of nature]” says Bras. “The plate is the most difficult part. It’s a sky on a stormy night. The backlit cloud bank captivates me, so maybe I’ll paint it on a plate.”

This scene reminded me of composers finding inspiration (or the idea/ideal that composers find inspiration) in their environments by turning their ears towards say, the rhythmic sound of city traffic and hearing music as with Steve Reich’s City Life (1995)

or maybe noticing the enchanted aura of an old cathedral and imagining out from there as with Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie (1910, performed here by the composer himself in 1913!)

or otherwise paying attention to something else that they want to translate from one medium into another.

And back to cooking, this is what is so fascinating about Bras in this scene: the cross-sensory nature of his creative process. As is the case with someone who experiences synesthesia (experiencing one sensory domain in terms of another–like hearing a chord and seeing the color purple, etc.), Bras is taking in something visual but funneling it through olfactory means: a sight becoming a taste (not to mention a texture, a set of relations and contrasts). It’s all about one of my favorite processes: transformation. And not only does Bras work cross-sensorially to transform elements from one sphere to another, he also gets deeply into the materials of his craft:

“For years, I’ve been interested in the abstract side of things. I get into them, I identify with them. In cooking, I often identify with the ingredient. I try to understand it, become one with it in order to recreate it.”

Finally, like a composer who knows how different rhythms and harmonies will interact to make an enchanting sum greater than its humdrum parts, so too does Bras knows his edible materials well. For instance, he attributes his interest in pastry to the fact that they have a structure that can be altered in a predictable way: “You put in flour, add sugar, you know the outcome.” Bras, then, is a materialist, but like good artists in other fields, he’s a materialist fueled by imagination and the sense(s) to change one kind of matter into another:

“I have a physio-chemical approach to food that helps me enormously. Because I learned on my own it was a real struggle. Today I can sense and predict the transformation process.”

On The Sound Of Epic Achievement And Luxury: A Rolex Soundtrack

While overdosing on Wimbledon 2012 TV coverage over the past few weeks, I noticed a recurring ad for Rolex watches that features Roger Federer. In the 30-second spot the narrator begins by asking “When is greatness achieved?” as we see a montage of Federer’s milestone wins throughout his career interspersed with still shots of him staring into the camera. As one viewer of the ad on YouTube puts it, it’s a pretty epic piece–a great tennis champion plus a great watch. A perfect endorsement too, though in some ways it’s not entirely clear who is endorsing who.

What really makes this Rolex ad epic though, is its music, assembled by Beetroot Music, an English music production company. As music goes, the core of the piece is quite simple, consisting of just three chords over eight measures in the key of f minor, with each chord held for four beats (or one measure of 4/4 time). Here are the chords:

f minor (i chord in f minor)
D-flat major (VI chord, 1st inversion)
C major (V chord, 1st inversion)
f minor (i chord)
D-flat major (VI chord)
C major (v chord, 1st inversion)
f minor (i chord)
f minor (i chord)

The chords are arpeggiated on piano and joined by a pulsating string section. (In older versions of the ad, there is also a booming backbeat–ah, nothing so subtle as classical music with a backbeat!) But as compelling as the spare instrumental arrangement for this 30-second spot is, the ad’s epic quality is primarily signified and suggested through the chords themselves. Let’s take a closer listen.

The first thing to note is that Rolex’s epic sound world is grounded in a minor key–in this case, f minor. Very briefly, in the history of Western concert music going back many hundreds of years, minor keys have long been synonymous with sadness, heaviness, a sense of longing, foreboding, and so on. Basically, a minor key is used to convey the opposite of a major key, which generally speaking is all about happy, brightness, and optimism. Of course, I’m generalizing about the range of meanings inherent in major and minor chords (and meanings are never inherent in anything musical anyway), plus there are a lot of grey areas too. For instance, one can freely mix and match major and minor chords, putting one after another in a sequence called a chord progression. In other words, context is everything in music, and a major chord can sound very differently after a minor chord and vice versa. Also, a simple major or minor chord consists of a triad with three notes–a root note, plus an interval of a third and a fifth above that root. But other intervals can be added on as well, giving major or minor triads very different favors. With added notes, minor is no longer simply sad and major simply happy; the extra tones can make the chords feel emotionally more complex. You can hear this emotional complexity in jazz among many other places.

Having said this, the music in the Rolex commercial doesn’t inhabit any grey areas at all: it’s just straight ahead triads, albeit with a few inversions thrown in to make the chord progression seem more elaborate than it in fact is. So then, the second thing to note about Rolex’s epic sound world besides its use of one minor chord and two major chords in the key of f minor, is its chord progression. Chord progressions have been the basis of Western music–classical as well as popular–for a very long time too. Chord progressions are what create a sense of the music “going somewhere.” The music isn’t actually going anywhere besides traveling through the chords one at a time, of course, but such is the neurological wiring and enculturation of the human imagination that we really feel like the music is taking us on a journey. The Rolex chord progression, while brief, packs a wallop because the i – VI – V – i sequence has such a rich history in our listening lives. We’ve heard it used many, many times without realizing it. It also affects us because the dynamics between its chords are so entrenched in those little movements by one semitone (e.g. the fifth of the i chord moving up to the fifth of VI in 1st inversion, and the third of the V chord moving back to root if the i chord). If you don’t believe me, flip the minor chord to major and the major chords to minor and listen again. I assure you the progression will feel differently.

Perhaps because of its history of heavy use and the dynamics among its major and minor parts, this chord progression continues to speak to us–even when we don’t quite know what is being spoken and how. In fact, the viewer comments on YouTube suggest that Rolex commissioned just the right music to subliminally convey a sense of what the brand is all about: luxury, achievement, precision, pedigree and class. Thus, a viewer named awe4cs asks about the music “Can someone say what’s the name of this ÜBER song?” This sentiment is echoed by others: mrvishal1000 calls the music “epic” and Katherineli notes “There’s so much class in this it’s ridiculous.” Finally, warLock21x speaks of Federer–but perhaps unwittingly too of the 100-year old watch company and the chord progression of the music–as being “of divine descent”.

Here, then, is the commercial:

Moving Serenity: On The Resonances Of Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run

At first glance, ultrarunner Scott Jurek is an odd bird: he enjoys running astonishingly long and punishing distances like 100+ miles. But at a second, longer glance by way of his lucid autobiography Eat and Run, Jurek seems to be motivated less by extremes as ends in themselves and more as means to help him achieve altered states of consciousness. Okay, maybe that’s still unusual, but it’s interesting too. The athlete as seeker: Jurek is a runner in search of something more.

Eat and Run explores a number of themes that pertain to this something more–this quest to explore the contours of consciousness and depths of perception through physical activity. These themes include discipline, training and physical limits, instinct and intuition, egolessness, meditation and mindfulness, tuning in, and transcendence. What follows are some passages that illustrate these themes.

In a passage on discipline, Jurek touches on Bushido, the culture of ancient Japanese samurai warriors that espoused an empty mindset, “letting go of the past and the future and focusing on the moment.”

Here is Jurek discussing limits: “I wanted to know more about that space between exhaustion and breaking.”

On intuition:
“The more I measured and adjusted, the more I trusted my instincts.”

Here is Jurek on egolessness and mindfulness: “I wanted to lose myself, to connect with something larger.” And this: “I did want to find that place of egolessness and mindfulness that only the monotony of a 24-hour race can produce.” And also this: “running had turned into something other than training. It had turned into a kind of meditation…” And finally, this: “I stayed plugged in.”

In one passage, Jurek recounts a conversation with a seasoned ultrarunner who spoke in almost musical terms about connecting with the resonances of the natural world through running: “he spoke of vibrations and wavelengths and signs from the hidden world, and while I knew what he meant–the sensation of losing oneself, of entering a zone at once connected to the earth and separated from earthly concerns–I wasn’t sure how to achieve it on a regular, predictable basis.”

And finally, Jurek touches on transcendence by discussing the need to run “with abandon and animal freedom…if I wanted to lose myself, to break into another dimension”; by quoting the Greek Spartathalon champion Yiannis Kouros who says that ultra running is a “test of ‘metaphysical characteristics'”; and describing the great native Mexican runners, the Tarahumara: “while the Tarahumara run to get from point to point, in the process they travel into a zone beyond geography and beyond even the five senses.”


As a distance sports enthusiast myself as well as a musician, I have an interest in activities that go on for a while and in so doing change my perceptions. In sport or in music making, this is not a state of mind one goes after deliberately–at least initially–but rather something revealed in the course of expending energy and exercising attention over a chunk of time. So, generally speaking, Energy spent over Time = Cool Perceptual Changes.

But the conditions need to be right too. In sport, a steady-state pace, repeated mile after mile is a must. In music, a steady groove, repeated over and over can certainly help. It’s with these similarities in mind that I think about how sport is a physical workout while music is a virtual one. One of the only analytical accounts of musical activity that describes it as a virtual workout is musicologist David Burrows’ work on music and dynamical systems theory. (See his articles “Music and the Biology of Time” (1972), “A Dynamical Systems Perspective of Music” (1997), and his book Time and the Warm Body (2007). Proceeding by analogy, Burrows proposes that pieces of music model our experiences as living beings–constantly maintaining a steady-state, dynamic equilibrium through constant change. (“Music takes place in its own almost total sonic absence.”) Burrows’ view of music addresses the old question of what music is actually for: Is it for self-expression? Mobilizing large groups of people in coordinated behavior? Is it for the mind or the body, or both? If music’s primary purpose is in fact as a kind of technology for reflecting back to us the experience of being alive and sensate and time-bound, then that helps explain why there are such a staggering variety of musical styles floating around: there are, after all, a lot of different ways of being in the world.

Similarly, distance sports are distinctive ways of being in the world. And as the excerpts from Jurek’s book illustrate, the experience of long distance running is not unlike the experience of making and listening to certain kinds of repetition-heavy music in that in altering our perceptions it paves the way for new ways of experiencing the world. This, most of all, is the reason why some of us keep listening and keep moving.