Monthly Archives: November 2012

“The Misty-but-Tactile Feeling of a Sense Memory”

Clear Moon album cover

Grabbed from the Pitchfork review page

In a review of Mount Eerie’s Clear Moon album for Pitchfork, Jayson Greene writes this delightful line:

The album’s sound, meanwhile has the misty-but-tactile feeling of a sense memory.

I keep thinking about that line.

A sense memory. The memory of how something felt, smelled, tasted, heard, or looked after the stimulus was gone.

Misty-but-tactile. Sharing qualities of certainty and uncertainty. Unmistakable, but unable to be brought to mind exactly. Sense memories are always augmented by all the similar memories we’ve ever had in the same vein. The thought “I remember how it felt when she put her arm around me” really means “I have memories of all the times she has ever put her arm around me, and I summon all those memories into a single, joined moment when I remember that single time.”

And perhaps most surprising: The album’s sound. An album, never heard before, works on us like sense memories, according to Greene. So the sense of its sounds on our ears is like the sense of other things we’ve heard before. That’s not to say it’s derivative or boring or predictably generic, necessarily. It’s to say that there’s a comfort, as if all the times I’ve ever heard sounds like these are brought together in my emotions when I hear this sound.

But wait. When are sounds not like that?


Half an hour ago, debating whether or not I would write this post this morning, Iron & Wine’s “Upward Over the Mountain” came on my music shuffle. Instantly, I felt.

It’s not that I have a long history of listening to this song. I finally bought this I&W album just a few months ago when it was $2.99 to download on Amazon. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album, but it’s not like I associate it with years of heartbreak and longing and relationships and late-night drives across the country or anything.

But when those chords started, I felt like I did.

There’s nothing fancy about the chords: Em, C, G, D. It’s one of the most common progressions in all of guitardom. I associate it with Ben Gibbard singing about Jack Kerouac and Smashing Pumpkins singing about whatever they were singing about in “Disarm.”

If I can get musicky for a moment: the chords fall into a i > VI > III > VII pattern, at first glance. But really, it doesn’t feel that way; not many affective lights go off in our brains for III chords, usually. Really, we’re hearing vi > IV > I > V.

So what? It means that even though the emphasis is on the Em, since it begins and ends the song–that lonely chord, the first chord every guitarist learns, the easiest and the darkest, with the low E string ringing for so-so long–we hear the song as if it were in G, the relative major, even though G is in the less in-your-face position of the third chord in the progression. It wouldn’t sound wrong if the song ended on a G chord, but it would change everything. Everything.

So I can’t help but wonder what it is I’m responding to emotionally when I hear “Upward Over the Mountain” begin. Does it have something to do with every other song I’ve loved with that progression? Or is something built into the progression, that gut-wrenching recognition that we’re in a happy major key but simultaneously pushing ourselves over and over back into the minor key surrounding it?


“Do you think we’ll ever get past the circle of fifths?” I asked my brother-in-law Matt. We were at a restaurant, and my wife/his sister was in the bathroom.

“What do you mean?” he replied.

“You know,” I said. I was struggling to figure it out myself. “So much music relies on the same chord progressions. And so often it follows the circle of fifths: we go from C to G to D and so on.”

Matt is a musician and occasionally a composer. He knows music theory better than anyone I know. I wondered if he thought the standard progressions were boring, hackneyed, old-school, overdone.

“No,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get past that in popular music.”

“I know! Like, I hear Lady Gaga on the radio and think, Okay, this is seriously catchy stuff. What makes it so catchy? And it’s the flipping chord progressions! The same ones as ever, and yet somehow I don’t get sick of them!”

“Yeah,” he said. “People will never get sick of them. They’ll totally stick around forever.”

He didn’t really say if he thought that was a good thing or not.


Marc Hirsh at the Boston Globe calls the Iron & Wine progression the “sensitive female chord progression.” Some worthwhile quotes:

Let’s call this the Sensitive Female Chord Progression, so named because . . . well, because when I first noticed it in 1998 (when I became keenly aware that Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery” sounded an awful lot like Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”), it seemed to be the exclusive province of Lilith Fair types baring their souls for all to see. Think Jewel’s “Hands.” Melissa Etheridge’s “Angels Would Fall.” Nina Gordon’s “Tonight and the Rest of My Life.” . . .

Hooters guitarist Eric Bazilian, the songwriter behind “One Of Us,” has a particular interest in it. “I think it’s a comforting chord progression,” he says. “It was iconic with Heart. It became more iconic with Joan [Osborne]. It became even more iconic with Sarah McLachlan. There’s not a lot of testosterone in it, even though [‘One of Us’] was written by a man. But it was written by a man to impress a girl. Think about that.” . . .

. . . when Beyoncé wanted to tug at the heartstrings, she knew exactly which tool to use.


This post is clearly getting away from me. There’s more to misty-but-tactile sense memories to talk about that I haven’t touched on: muscle memory (and the Beatles, according to NPR), Roland Barthes on gesture and musical “grain” and memory (as explored in Michael David Szekely’s “Gesture, Pulsion, Grain: Barthes’ Musical Semiology,” which I haven’t read yet), and worlds and worlds of thoughts about touch and taste in addition to sound.

And yet, there’s something familiar about that feeling too: the familiar memory of being so into a piece of writing that it wandered away from where I thought it would go into somewhere else. We come to writing (the most “misty-but-tactile” craft I can imagine) in the same way we come to sounds and chord progressions: connecting the new with the familiar, recursively adding to our memories, reliving our lives.

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