Sunday, December 30, 2012

Coming soon: The music post

I'm working on the annual Year in Music post...which apparently is a popular feature of this blog. Or at least it's popular if Blogger's analytics can be believed. Last year's post and a place holder article for it beat out everything else in terms of page visits this month (December), for three out of four weeks.

I'm good with that, if a little surprised.

While I'm on the topic of music, I've taken time out during school terms to indulge in some futurism and update my ideas about what the coming decades might look like. As part of this project, I've been thinking about how I listen to music, and how much that's changed since 1996 -- both in terms of software, hardware, and circumstance. Why '96? Because that was the year I left Nevada, enlisted in the Army, and then went off to Korea.

That was most definitely a change in my audio life. Suddenly I wasn't spending an hour or more in a car each day, motoring from place to place and listening to tracks. In fact, for the first few weeks of regular Army life after OSUT scout training, I didn't listen to any music at all. There simply wasn't time or a private space for it in the workdays. Thankfully, that lack was easily remedied with some new hardware and a few conscious choices. A skip-resistant CD Walkman purchased at the camp store brought my selection of music into the gym for the first time. Additionally -- also for the first time -- I started making time to listen to my favorite songs while doing nothing else. A-half hour or forty minutes of lying in my bunk in the evening, headphones on, eyes closed, and with the sound of Sheryl Crow's voice or the Red Hot Chili Peppers carrying me along through my year in the Land of the Morning Calm. Under the bridge, if it makes you happy, every day is a winding road, and on and on.

It was amazing how much more there was to hear in each track when there was nothing but music to focus on. All sorts of small deviations in the chorus, clever pauses, and subtle shifts that just aren't as noticeable, or that you otherwise stop being aware of if you've heard a song more than three or four times.

The change in hardware and circumstance probably wasn't as significant as the later arrival of MP3 players and the ability to buy tracks selectively, rather than whole albums. Still, it was a big one, and it's had a lasting impact.

I've also been doing a lot of thinking recently about music as a neurologic activity, and how near future biotechnology might alter it. My current novel involves a crew of biotech smugglers and an engineered drug called Aulos -- named after the double flute of the Classical muse of music.

Aulos facilitates enhanced feedback between the brain's audio cortices and the emotion-mediating structures of limbic system. This heightens the naturally occurring emotional responses to music by an order of magnitude. The drug is also designed to create signal bleedover into the feedback loops of the motor function cortices, so that both rhythm and any melody are physically felt in the body. Lastly, the drug generates intense nostalgia flashbacks with songs that a user has listened to in years past, by increasing the firing potential of synapses in the pathways of the autobiographical memory system.

While Aulos isn't physically addictive, it's difficult to quit. Once you've had it, listening to music without the drug is a pale and passionless experience. Then there are the issues that crop up with a bad batch. In the case of the smugglers, it's the delivery of an Aulos production run that leaves its victims unable to distinguish words from melody, and robs them of the ability to hear meaning in spoken language.


My favorite book about music and how it interacts with the brain's many systems is neurologist Oliver Sachs' accessible and fun to read Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. A collection of interesting case histories, it's well worth the time if your interested in the hows of how we experience music, and the bizarre things that can go wrong when the underlying wetware systems fail to function as they're meant to.

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