Tools of Mediation and Association: Music

The Role of Music

“Psychologists and (neuro-)cognitive scientists have extensively researched the role music plays in the relation between emotion, individual identity, and autobiographical memory.” (pg. 77).

hifi
“Engaging in shared listening, exchanging (recorded) songs, and talking about music create a sense of belonging, and relate a person’s sense of self to a larger community and generation.” (pg. 77)

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“People become aware of their emotional and affective memories by means of technologies, and surprisingly often, the enabling apparatus becomes part of the recollecting experience.” (pg. 78)

This has definitely been true in my experience. There are things that I’ve listened to in different formats that I can’t disassociate from that technology. When I listen to Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails, even if it’s on Spotify now, I always remember that I first got into that album as a cassette tape which I listened to in my first car, which had a tape player. I can remember listening to my sister’s iPod shuffle in middle school and how I got to know her collection of random BeeGees and associated disco tunes on that device. When I hear those songs, I think of that little white music player and remember what it was like to use it – shuffling instead of selecting a song, using the headphones, the way the buttons felt, et cetera. I have certain things that I’ve bought on iTunes that it never quite feels like I really own – and the same is true these days for the music I listen to on Spotify. Spotify in particular is interesting in our discussion of the difference between analog and digital media formats pertaining to music, because it has most definitely changed the way I go about listening to music, new and old. First of all, there is the fact that it’s semi-public. I don’t control how it works, but every once in a while I know that it pops up on someone’s newsfeed (and it’s visible in my Facebook activity log) that I’m listening to such and such a song. The feeling that it’s somewhat public has at some moments caused me to forego listening to certain things or to make a point to listen to others (whether or not it matters in the end). The access to so much music also at other times makes me less selective of what I listen to. Whereas when I was in middle school and high school, I had to put down money on a CD at a bookstore or record store and hope it was something I would feel was worth the money, now I can just check a whole album out for free and maybe never listen to it again. Similarly, I don’t feel as though I “own” that music (and I sure don’t, legally!). I’m not just talking about legal ownership though, but about more of an emotional and self-concept creating ownership. When I’m in the car with someone and they look through my CD case, I feel that this huge part of me is being revealed to them. This is stuff that at some point or another I spent money on, and that’s a powerful thing. On the other hand, while I might be embarrassed here or there by something I listen to on Spotify, the things I listen to that don’t fit in with my personal identity don’t matter as much since I haven’t made a conscious choice to assume ownership of that music.

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“Building up a repertoire in one’s memory (an inventory of familiar songs) and accumulating selected items of recorded music (a material collection of sound items) are considered important parts of one’s coming of age.” (pg. 79)

When I was in my formative years, musically, I actually had a physical repertoire of all the music I liked. It was a neon-green folder with shiny, blinding holographic squares on it, and inside it had twenty six sheets of notebook paper. One for each letter of the alphabet. And each time I heard a new song that I liked I would write down the name and artist under the appropriate letter so that I could remember them and get to know them. I am so sad to not have this folder anymore! I threw it away in a moment when I didn’t realize how much I would have loved to have it a decade later. If I had made it digitally, there’s still the chance that I could have deleted it or used an online platform that would now be obsolete. If I could choose, I would definitely take the analog version over any kind of digital version, even if the digital version would take up less space and be extremely portable. For me, personally, the digital takes away so much of the emotion involved in personal mementos and so much of the nostalgia. How do you feel?

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” ‘The tendency of working memory to cyclic repetition combined with the exaggerated accessibility of a simple and frequently repeated tune gives rise to a situation in which the song is likely to cycle repeatedly through working memory. When this continues for a long time, we refer to it as ‘having a song stuck in our head.’ ‘ ” (pg. 80)

In Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, there is a thematic strand that runs through much of the first half of the novel associated with a string of notes from a sonata by a fictional composer named Vinteuil. One of the characters, M. Swann, comes to deeply associate this little musical phrase with his lover and future wife, Odette. This is just an example of the dozen or so times it comes up in relation to memory and association:

“He would find, lying open on the piano, some of her favourite music, the Valse des Roses, the Pauvre Fou of Tagliafico (which, according to the instructions embodied in her will, was to be played at her funeral); but he would ask her, instead, to give him the little phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata. It was true that Odette played vilely, but often the fairest impression that remains in our minds of a favourite air is one which has arisen out of a jumble of wrong notes struck by unskilful fingers upon a tuneless piano. The little phrase was associated still, in Swann’s mind, with his love for Odette.”

“In that way Vinteuil’s phrase, like some theme, say, in Tristan, which represents to us also a certain acquisition of sentiment, has espoused our mortal state, had endued a vesture of humanity that was affecting enough. Its destiny was linked, for the future, with that of the human soul, of which it was one of the special, the most distinctive ornaments. Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is without existence; but, if so, we feel that it must be that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, are nothing either. We shall perish, but we have for our hostages these divine captives who shall follow and share our fate. And death in their company is something less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less certain.”

How is this idea complicated by the digital landscape?

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“Compiling one’s own favorite collections, to give away or share, has become a popular social practice since the emergence of tape recorders. Mixtapes typically have a strong emotional and personal touch to them. They are anchors of personal memory…” (pg. 93)

mixtape“MP3 files lend themselves particularly well to multiple and effortless exchange.”

Now think of Spotify, which lets everyone that uses it have access (for free) to the same general warehouse of music, in digital format. Are mixtapes special anymore? Can a shared playlist online do the same thing as a physical tape? I would argue that it can’t. A mixtape just has that tactile, material substance that makes it feel like a special gift. Someone hands it to you, but you can’t listen to it until you go home or wherever and put it into a tape or CD player. On the flip side, you get a shared playlist and it’s instantly accessible – but just as accessible as all the other music just clicks away. You might not devote all your attention to it, you might skip songs, you might add certain ones you like to your own playlist and it becomes disassociated from its original context (the other person). Or it might not! That’s the thing. You might get so much out of a digital playlist and keep it intact and listen all the way through and always remember those songs as connected to the person who put the songs together. I think one of the biggest things to remember as we discuss this is that everyone is different, every circumstance is different. Just like we all learn differently, I think our personal tastes vary based on a huge number of variables – what gets to the emotional core of one person might not even faze another in the slightest. What is important though is that we recognize the power of music as a form of media to incite strong emotion and form strong associative memories, in various contexts, in varying degrees, at different times.

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“Damasio’s conjecture about the mind’s involvement in autobiographical recall, suggests that narrated audio impressions help glue recorded music to people’s cultural memory. Understood in terms of bodily affect, the mind is a sewing machine that quilts personal memory onto recorded music, stitched together by emotions and feelings. Whether tied in with experiences or general moods, stories appear a distinct aid in remembering the mental associations attached to a particular kind of music.” (pg. 86)

This idea plays out in the movie High Fidelity as the main character attempts to reorganize his giant record collection:

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Van Dijck discusses popular music at length, saying things such as:

“recorded music is perceived and evaluated through collective frameworks for listening and appreciation. Individual memories almost invariably arise in the context of social practices, such as music exchange and communal listening, and of cultural forms, such as popular radio programs, hit lists, musical programs, and so on. These social practices and cultural forms appear almost inseparable from the memory of actual songs; as a sign of their time, popular songs create a context for reminiscence.” (pg. 91)

Thinking of my own musical taste formation, I’d have to agree, though it makes me uneasy at first, because it makes me feel like brainwashed citizen just taking whatever comes at me from the top twenty countdown list, which I most certainly am not. I’d say some people are like that, definitely, but for me music is a deep negotiation with myself that is negotiated through exchange with a very few close friends and between me and the internet. I suppose we must count the internet as an inherently social landscape, so even if I’m sitting at home researching bands all by myself, I’m still participating in a network of people by viewing their content online. I’m also often the sort of person who has absolutely no idea what songs are currently popular and when people try and say “remember when this song was popular,” I don’t know what they’re talking about. This might be one of my problems with the book in general: that it seems to focus on very collective practices, and I think that collective practices and trends often leave out a subset of the population that does things differently.

//EC

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