THE IMPACT OF MUSIC ON EMOTION

Originally commission by Mimi-Hearing-Technologies, 2018

Without a word of French, somehow I still dither on the brink of complete blubbering mess every time I listen to Jacque Brel’s “ne me quitte pas”. The Francophone, chanson singer lays claim to a wide breath of musical influence, with Nina Simone and David Bowie noting him as a key inspiration to their work. The question arises, why does this Belgian born, strange looking, gap toothed singer move me or any Anglophone alike so much? The answer I’ve come to suspect is that some music is like a language all onto itself. Unlike spoken languages, such music operates solely as an emotional dialogue where one emotion expressed brings about a counter emotional affect in the listener. Here, I’ll examine music’s impact on the full emotional spectrum of the human condition. Sex may sell, and, as such, usurp the charts for the most part, but, as we’ll see, music can stir even the darkest, and more subtle crevasses of the our minds.

Music and Murder

Neil Young and the Beach Boys were noted fans of the failed singer, Charles Manson – that is, until he led his “family” to commit an infamous series of murders in Hollywood in the summer of 1969. The story is as dark and depressing as they come, effectively killing the hippy era of the sixties along with the targets of their heinous crimes. Strangely, the cult accredited the Beatles’ music as the true culprit for their actions. The Manson family stated that the Beatles spoke to them via such songs as Blackbird and Helter Skelter, suggesting the group left notes in cryptic lyrics for them to target celebrities and bring about racial war, revolution. This was a clear case of drug-fueled madness, driven by a charismatic, dangerous, and deeply disturbed leader – but, this example also serves to show the power of music’s influence. It can help turn peace loving hippies into aggressive, killing criminals the wrong hands strike a chord.

Sound and Early Development

Leaving lyrics aside, music still manages to hold such sway over our feelings, via emotional responses, as it simply demands our attention more than most other sensations. Unlike taste or smell it’s incredibly difficult to cut off the experience of external sound, completely. If you manage it, by use of ear plugs or, failing that, jamming your fingers in your ears, sound still won’t fully dissipate. Rather, like placing a seashell to your ear, you’re presented with everlasting ocean of sound – namely, the inner workings of the human body. The flow and swirl of the body’s blood, heart beat, pulse and breath calms the mind. A recent study published in American Scientific suggests that the sounds of the inner body could hark the mind back to the earliest stages of hearing development within the womb. With help of a tiny waterproof microphone the researching scientist, Sheila Woodward, demonstrated that the “rhythmic sound of blood coursing through the uterine artery” is heard within the womb, adding “nature allows us to evolve with rhythm all around us”. When external music is played, such as Bach or the mother singing a lullaby the result “is like listening to music underwater”. What’s more, the effect of a mother listening to calming music brings about a similar easing of the infant’s heart rate. The study suggests that the fetus is not only able to hear – albeit distorted or muffled – sound in the womb, but takes cues from the mother’s reactions as how to feel relative to these sounds – growing calmer or more excited as a result.

Tone and Reaction

Perhaps the most poignant example of music’s ability to encapsulate emotion, comes from the bizarre mishmash of NASA scientists and delta blues players. When NASA sent their Voyager probe into space in 1977, researchers such as Carl Sagan put together a golden vinyl record to express a variety of different sounds representative of the human race – in case any hipster extra-terrestrials happened across it with a handy vinyl player. “Dark was the night, cold was the ground”, a song made up of a loan moaning voice accompanied by a single glass bottle dragged along a low tuned guitar played by Blind Willie Johnson, made the cut. The song was chosen as it was said effectively convey the feeling of loneliness. Hearing the song, the choice is starkly effective as you can’t help but feel affected. The ache, moan and pain of the 1920’s bluesman are blatant, and soul-shatteringly beautiful. The vast complexity of humanity’s emotional arch are there plain as day and rich with colour – now floating outside the solar system in dark empty space.

It is true that not all music or art gives rise to an emotive response, and, similarly, aliens, sociopaths and emotionally crippled fungi alike may appreciate expressions of humanity on different levels. However music and art, at their best, are reflections of us. What I find comforting about an emotional response to the music of a bottle being dragged across an old guitar, or the faltering voice of a French language performer aching and breaking with longing, is that music and art, at their best, need no interpretation. Great music simply needs to be heard to be understood. An emotional response to music is a sign this effect has been achieved. All art, then, may just be a reminder that others feel it, too.

KURFÜRSTENSTRASSE: LIVING ON BERLIN’S RED LIGHT DISTRICT

Originally commission by Berlin Logs, 2015

There’s nothing pleasant about moving house. Lugging hefty mattresses onto cramped, ill-equipped buses is bad enough, but that all-knowing Germanic glare adds a whole new dimension to the trauma. All you can do is hang onto the belief that it’ll all be worthwhile once you’ve arrived, sighed and then settled. Today, however, I question this sentiment as I recall how I ended up a new tenant on the infamous Kurfürstenstraße.

It was a sweltering May morning, and I was ten minutes early for my 10am flat interview. Quite pleased with the fact I’d managed to find the place, I decided to explore. I had traveled a staggering ten paces before someone grabbed my arm, muttering something I couldn’t quite catch, prompting me to rattle off my catchphrase, “Entschuldigung, mein Deutsch ist Nicht so gut.” The striking blonde thought for a moment, before retrieving the elusive word she was searching for, “Blowjob?”

You could say the usual small talk and appliance demonstrations inclusive of a WG apartment-viewing were somewhat hindered by the scantily clad elephant in the room. I had to say something. “Lot of, eh, prostitutes out there …” was all I could muster. The law student showing me around went on to tell me how he’s lived in the area for six years, and not one day has gone by where he hasn’t been the target of solicitation. Suddenly, the very reasonable renting price made a lot more sense. Despite a minor internal dialogue in which I considered the rare possibility of my older relatives coming for a surprise (and likely traumatizing) visit—I decided to accept his offer.

Nights, not surprisingly, are the worst. Kurfürstenstraße is carpeted by all manner of prostitutes – typically wearing luminous colors, tiny tops, and matching bottoms, and demonstrating a “hands-on” approach to salesmanship. My former housemate, a native Berliner, was actually amazed by the lack of leather, stating these girls lacked the certain “professional” air of their Oranienburger Straße counterparts. She had a point. There’s a certain creeping chaos to this street, which is unnerving, but really only at first.

On Kurfürstenstraße I drink in every conversation I happen upon, every seat offered to weary workers, every familiar look. Occasionally it feels like a close-knit community. More often it seems a place of strained business partnerships. What remains consistent, though, is the tone of the place: the BMWs which slow to a stop, the clinical conversations, the assortment of miserable characters dotting the street. All of it adds up to a perpetual grey.  Seeing it all unravel daily in front of you, you can’t help but wonder how everyone ended up here. The would-be lawyer, six years here. The girls whistling at good prospects. The Imbiss worker who keeps everyone well-fed. The shop owners who give up their seats for tired heels. And me.

Then I remember, at least in my case, all I had to do was accept an offer.

SINGING FOR YOUR SUPPER: BUSKING IN BERLIN

Originally commission by Berlin Logs, 2015

There comes a stage in every man’s life when he’s faced with a difficult employment related dilemma. Clutching a heavy guitar case, I gazed over the alcohol section of one of the more frugal supermarkets in Berlin contemplating my own. “One or two bottles? Sternberg or the cheapest Spanishesque brand?” The Roma band who play at the same Ubahn station as I do tend to go for Sternys, but I’m not at their level just yet. I need to raise ten euro just to break zero, as I’m indebted to friends after the costly May Day festivities of the weekend before. Insistent I need at least a little Dutch courage, or perhaps Spanish company, I grab two 28c beers and set out toward Eisenacher to busk.

Unemployment in Berlin is common enough to come with its own set of myths and misinformation. Jobcentres are the last resort of the most wanting, desperate expatriate. Without good German, or without good help, you’re without hope facing the damning tone of the over-worked, begrudging government employees. Groups such as Basta in Wedding offer free help and insight for those who are in need, regardless of their background or situation.  They’ll come along to Jobcentres demanding their voices are heard, and your needs are met- just waiting for the inevitable, “maybe, they should just return to their home country to seek work”, before they release hell upon the unsuspecting, supposed “xenophobe” behind the glass screen.

Having successfully paid my rent for the following month, I felt the stress levels involved in attempting to file for benefit, while awaiting another job, were too high to truly consider the option seriously. Thankfully, I spent one summer before in Galway, Ireland, living off a busker’s budget, so I remembered the protocol- and, thankfully, a lot of the songs. Berliners differ from Irish crowds in as much as they don’t seem to care whether or not they know a song before they chuck a few coins into an eager, open case.  In those ten to twenty seconds they walk by they just want two things from a performer, if they are to be accosted by his music without their consent: not to be bombarded with insufferable wailing, and to be pleasantly surprised. I’m certain when I’ve been scraping the bottom of the song book- barrel, I’ve failed at times in both regards. However, for the most part, it’s an enriching experience.

Kids are always the first to pay attention and babies are oglers like no others. Parents seem to be taken aback by the sheer attention their children can give to something they, as adults, barely register. Tiny hands are given coins, big ones push them along toward the folk playing pauper trying not grin with delight at the sound of coins bouncing off the green felt interior. “Veilen dank” interrupts any melody, regardless of convenience or timing. I have no name on my case, there are no contact details- this is purely survival. This is selling out before ever even contemplating artistry. Granted I play my own songs on occasion, and only others I find enjoyment in performing, but that’s only because they’re the ones I know, not for any ill-gotten thought of credibility.

There’s a tattooed-faced man who plays an odd musical box instrument outside Brandenburg Gate. I used to hold a job there where I spent the majority of my day fishing, like so many others, for straggling tourists in need of entertainment or distraction. There, I witnessed the king of Berlin’s buskers at work. He never spoke, apart from the odd greeting to other fair weather workers as he set up his antique musical contraption.  When a tourist asks for a photo, he reaches for a spare top hat, more fetching than his own, to place upon them and continues on smiling his unrelenting grin. He tips his hat in gratitude only when he’s been tipped first. This act is never less than perfection, never altering, never anything other than professional. The rest of the tourist trade looked on with awe, as we complained about the heat of the weather or scarcity of the crowd. I think of him now toward the end of a quiet day busking. Weekdays are always bare. There’s still enough money left to get all my groceries, and as I walk toward my awaiting train- I nod toward the Roma band who’ve packed up for the night. Smiling, I think perhaps tomorrow I’ll go for Sternbergs.

The Five Stages of Hearing Loss

Originally commission by Mimi-Hearing-Technologies, 2018

Joining a rock band when you’re eleven plays havoc with your ears in the long run… evidently. After countless sessions, wherein my fellow miniature punk peers blasted our amplifiers, and assaulted our instruments, I was left with continuous ringing in both my ears. Tinnitus is terrible, there’s no way around it, but those who suffer without silence eventually get somewhat used to it. During the day, you have to actively seek out the hum to notice it – as the sounds of the city, even the singing of birds, are enough to drown out the monotonous tone for the most part. Nights are where the real trouble lies, when you’re trying to drift off asleep. Sufferers each have their own individual remedies for this, such as talk radio, meditation or, the classic hysterically weeping until they’re all tuckered out. For me, music has always been my savior in my nightly time of need.

Suffice to say, I’ve come to realize at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, how sensitive, unique and troublesome one’s hearing profile can be. Realizing you’re starting to have hearing problems is a strange and stressful time. Even stranger still, I found it mimics the five stages of grief and loss almost identically.

The Five Stages of Hearing Loss

First there’s denial that you have a problem. “I can’t be hearing impaired, I’m too young.” “This ringing in my ear is bound to go away in another week or two.” I honestly kept up both of these self-deluding mantras for a number of years. The ego can be a strong, albeit nonsensical, tool in this regard.

Second comes anger that you have a problem. The former quote is identical for anger, however there are an abundance of exclamation marks which follow it, and depending on the severity of the anger, a frowny emoticon is a nice touch. You’ll blame everyone but yourself – thanks again to the ego, and curse everywhere you were subjected to loud noises. “I can’t believe they allow speakers that size in nightclubs…”. “Why do bands actually need drummers?!”. You’ll say and think anything to avoid the fact you, yourself, where instrumental in your hearing’s deterioration, and to avoid recalling the times you said “but, earplugs look ridiculous!”

Bargaining, the next stage of grief and hearing loss, comes about when you realize tinnitus is so devoid of treatment it’s almost comical. During the bargaining stage, however, you’ll convince yourself that a medical breakthrough is just around the corner, that scientific research has made a turning point, and you’re willing to beg, steal or borrow anything to get your hands on it.

For the depression stage, see the aforementioned hysterical weeping option.

Finally, there’s the acceptance that you are hearing less than you used to. This is the stage of hearing loss where you admit to yourself there is no quick fix for tinnitus, that you’ll probably never be able to enjoy clubs and concerts like you used to, and that ear plugs are now an essential part of life.

Not Dead Yet

Where hearing loss differs from the five stages of grief and loss, is due to a quantum leap forward in technology. How we listen to music and the world around us has changed dramatically. As a result, all hope is far from lost for my hearing-impaired brethren who can once again take charge of how and what we hear. Thanks to smart phones sneaking their way into almost all aspects of modern life, we’re never more than an arm’s length away from music, knowledge, and millions, upon millions, of applications ranging from the inexplicably silly to near life changing.

The Modern Ear

Big name companies such as Napster and even have teamed up to take advantage of this niche market of consumers such as myself, that need, or simply want, to pay more attention to how they hear. Mimi Hearing Technologies (that company you’ll find at the top of the page) distinguish themselves from companies like Nura – who focus on marketing headphones with personalized hearing functionality – as Mimi allows you to test your ears via your smartphone, and hear the clear results for yourself once the sound is adjusted to your unique hearing profile on any device, with any set of headphones.

For people such as myself, who need to be conscious of sharp contrasting tones creeping into my nightly playlists and irritating my sensitive ears, using Mimi limits unwanted surprises. Once the Mimi Hearing Technologies hearing test is complete, all music played via a partner of Mimi will be personally adjusted to suit your own individual hearing profile. This is not a matter of simply making the sounds louder, or clearer – it allows you to take charge of how all sound interact with your inner ear.

Your headphones can also be adjusted to interpret the external sounds of the world around you. The sounds of external world can be set to match your hearing profile, without guesswork and in accordance with the latest scientific research. As a result, typical conversational catch phrases such as “excuse me?” “pardon?” and – the classic – “huh!?” become a thing of the past. It’d bring a tear to your eye, though thankfully no longer on the pillows of those restless tinnitus sufferers. Hearing loss, then, differs from the five stages of grief and loss, as thanks to a rapidly changing technological world – there is hope.