Re: Rave culture, Music Theory, and Escapism... Feedback

James Rogers (
Sat, 06 Feb 1999 12:44:27 -0800

At 10:49 PM 2/1/99 -0500, Sean Parker wrote: [...snip...]
>Now for a little whack-ass music theory, inspired by maddeningly complex
>drum n bass, a little house and a lot of funky breaks. Listening to
>underground dance music, I became aware of my mind’s inability to wrap the
>long tentacles of cognition around each distinct element, to fully encompass
>the sum and entirety of a song, always finding myself limited to the
>momentary perception of individual components. Take for existence a
>particular drum-loop. Let your mind latch on to it for a moment and it
>repeats; you can focus for just long enough to pick out its recurrence. But
>it is sporadic and unpredictable, and quite often your mind loses it in some
>other component, a bass-line or competing drum loop.

I think this simply requires training your hearing. I was raised on baroque music (the structural predecessor of many genres of electronica) and took piano lessons from the age of five years. I've been involved with producing music in the dance/techno/trance/etc. genre for many years. I find that I have little trouble deconstructing complex compositions in my head; indeed, it is practically automatic.

The important factor, particularly with dance music, is that the number of useable structure permutations per unit time is relatively small. Rather than viewing a rhythmic note progression as a function of time, I tend to view it as a single discrete object (think an arpeggiation function) which takes far less brain power than remembering the progression itself. This is augmented by the fact that dance music progressions are in base 2 time and I deal with base 2 numbers frequently as a software engineer.

Therefore, your average 4 to 8 bar dance sequences typically never contain more than 4-6 progression "objects" across all tracks, which makes it easy for a trained ear to dissect. It is essentially removing the entropy from the data stream.

>Most frustrating, the
>patterns of beats and samples, taken individually, are just that, patterns;
>clearly, recognizable as structured, layered, and arranged via some stroke
>of human intelligence. But that predictability is limited to the
>individual samples, to perceive the song as a whole requires a kind of
>detachment, a removal from the deep analytic perceptibility of sound
>patterns. So it follows that electronic music has the peculiar capacity to
>dissolve the immediate locus of thought and erect in its place a kind of
>detached imperception that is neither analytic nor emotional -- it simply
>is. Historically, this characteristic of beat oriented music was exploited
>by aboriginal cultures seeking communion with the spirit world via
>provocation of altered states of consciousness, generally through highly
>repetitive layered beats and frenzied dancing; a phenomenon commonly
>referred to as trance induction.

One of the most interesting features of rhythm-centric music is the strong tendency of the mind to sync to it. Some genres, such as trance, are so compelling that it is almost involuntary. The unfortunate side effect of this is that it makes it difficult to think deep, complex thoughts while listening to it. When I am working I tend to listen to more texture-oriented forms of electronica because I find it has less impact on my cognitive abilities.

>What really scares me about this “connection,” ironically, is exactly what
>inspires others. We’re talking about something with a longstanding record
>for being used as a spiritual aid, a physical and psychological tool
>tailored to subverting the conscious mind and refocusing it entirely on the
>“spiritual,” - which like any religion, is a wholly irrational belief
>system. Spirituality was the dominating characteristic - the focus - of
>every primitive “aboriginal” culture I can call to mind. What does this
>mean for dance culture? I have a feeling we’ve hit on something big,
>something capable of squelching one’s inner voice, drowning it in a barrage
>of aural horseshit and inducing cognitive dissonance pretty reliably - in
>essence, the perfect form of escapism.

There is actually a field of study that revolves around the psychological impact of sound. It turns out that sound, even at the most fundamental levels, has a significant impact on our mental and emotional states. Musicians often characterize the sounds of different instruments by their emotional characteristics. For example, analog synthesizers (a favorite of the techno/rave crowd) are prized for the "warmth" of their sound, while a digital synthesizer generating the same type of sound is often described as "cold" or "edgy". The difference in this case can be attributed to the amplifiers: analog amps emphasize odd harmonics, while digital amps often emphasize a particular subset of the even harmonics. The sound may be virtually identical, but the feeling is different. Similarly, slightly modulating the pitch of sound (below the threshold of detection in some cases) tends to cause people to feel "uneasy".

Movie soundtracks often take advantage of many of these emotional cues to enhance the emotional state of the audience. The subtle and subliminal emotions are purposely written into the movie soundtrack with the intent of inducing a certain mental state at specific times. Musicians often use these cues to give a particular "feeling" to a piece of music (although I suspect many musicians are not aware of the specific cues, only the results).

-James Rogers