Tag Archives: emotion

The Affective Slam of Sound

“What you’re looking for,” he said, “are words to theorize that moment when sound slams into you.”

We were at my dissertation defense, the committee and I sitting around a table situated to ignore the rows of onlookers. One of my committee members was rephrasing what he saw as the core of my theoretical project.

I thought of the sounds in the room at that moment: the shifting in seats, the typing on all the laptops, the echoes of the “Fratelli Chase” theme from The Goonies that had recently played as people entered the room. And I thought of the silences: my wife’s silent, smiling face in the crowd, the committee member’s silent waiting for a confirmation of his summary, and my silent pause before answering.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s exactly it. The subjective, emotion-tinged, situated experience of hearing sound. And on the other end, the craft that goes into designing sound that will be subjectively experienced in such an uncontrolled way.”

(Of course, I don’t really remember what I said, or what was said next, or when in the defense this conversation happened. But in my memory-as-constructed-the-way-it-ought-to-be, my committee member waves away my big words and says:)

“Right, but it’s all about the slam. That slam of sound.”

***

We know sound affects our emotions in an uncontrollable, knee-jerk way. It’s almost not worth mentioning, it’s so obvious.

In Blade Runner, Deckard finds out who is a replicant and who isn’t by reading aloud scenarios that would lead humans to have an involuntary reaction in their eyes. The sounds of the spoken words lead to immediate emotion. Deckard doesn’t give the suspects a print-out of the questions; he says them out loud. That matters.

Here’s 19th-century music theorist Eduard Hanslick on the effect:

Even if we have to grant to all the arts, without exception, the power to produce effects upon the feelings, yet we do not deny that there is something specific, peculiar only to it, in the way music exercises that power. Music works more rapidly and intensely upon the mind than any other art.
Two things: I would extend his point about music’s “specific, peculiar” power to sound in general. Also, I can’t help but notice how he descends so swiftly, so gently from “the feelings” in the first sentence to “the mind” in the second.
It’s almost as if the slam of sound into our bodies (slam!) works on us in more ways than simply the emotional. It’s as if the very way we make meaning from sounds in our minds is tied to the way we feel about them.
***

Henry Jenkins (following Bourdieu): “Academics come to distrust their own affective responses, to speak of them apologetically or to deny them outright” (170).

I am thoroughly not disinterested in the music and sounds of Tecmo Super Bowl, an NES game from 1991. Let some of its music play while I tell you why I care.

Tecmo Super Bowl has a cheat built into it (though cheat is clearly the wrong word for such an aesthetically interesting, non-gameplay-related trick): on the intro screen, if you hold B and press left, you’re brought to an interface allowing you to cycle through all the sounds in the game.

I used to play around with this all the time, cycling methodically (frighteningly methodically?) through the sound and music samples, playing some of them over and over. There’s something satisfyingly physical about hearing, say, 5 different electronic sounds meant to reproduce players’ armored bodies slamming into each other. (Slam!) The sounds would grow more meaningful to me recursively, as I would recognize a sound I knew from the game, and then when playing identify a sound I had heard from the sound screen, and then return to the sound screen to listen again with fresh ears, and then later hear something new in the game. . . . (I’m embarrassed to say that I never noticed that Sound 32 isn’t in the game, though.)

I built emotion and meaning into those sounds, and echoes of those meanings are still with me, as corny as it sounds to write. They live in a part of me that I can’t access unless a similar sound draws it out of me, and when it’s drawn out it journeys through my whole gut and throat and head so it’s all my body hears.

***

Virginia Kuhn: “[A]nyone who has ever edited video clips would likely attest to the fact that one must have passion for the footage; editing demands extensive playing and replaying of clips. Whether this passion issues from a fannish impulse or is born of righteous indignation (or both) matters little. To argue, one must take a stand, not be disinterested” (3.11).

***

I can’t help but wonder what would evoke emotion and meaning from you. Yes, you: whoever is reading this. If I pulled some of the most commonly heard sounds from sources like Audioboo, SoundCloud, or Freesound.org, sounds like cars crashing or popular song clips or mothers’ heartbeats or ominous footsteps, would you feel something new when the sound slams (slam!) into you?

Or would I have to choose unusual sounds, hoping to catch you off guard and draw up a new emotion you hadn’t expected or remembered, perhaps since you last heard that sound years, or even decades ago? What would my success rate have to be to make that worth it? What does “success” even mean here?

And finally, where does, to use Kuhn’s phrase, “fannish impulse” fit in? Would sounds from Star Trek or Lost or Tecmo Super Bowl “work” on you in ways that the everyday wouldn’t? How would those sounds work on different fans in different and similar ways?

Obviously, the answer to all of those is a simple “I don’t know.” But let me add a: yet. I think I want to make you hear some sounds, and I want you to feel and think because of them.

Slam.

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Instrumental Music

I just finished reading Mark Evan Bonds’ Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the Metaphor of the Oration (1991). He gives us a delicious 1799 quote from a fellow named Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, who apparently is one of the founders of German romanticism. (Who knew?)

The context of the discussion: Bonds is describing people who would retroactively write programs for instrumental music. That is, they would listen to a Mozart quartet, ask themselves what it reminded them of–Lush, rolling hillsides! Deep, powerful oceans!–and then write essays telling people that these are the meanings of the works. This, says Bonds, “represents the antithesis of all the German Romantics stood for,” since they valued individual genius and indefinable, untranslatable beauty.

On that, here’s Wackenroder:

What do they want, these timorous and doubting sophists, who ask to have hundreds and hundreds of musical works elucidated in words and yet who cannot acknowledge that not every one of these works has a nameable meaning like a painting? Do they strive to measure the richer language by means of the weaker and solve with words that which disdains words? Or have they never felt without words? Have they stuffed their hollow hearts with only descriptions of emotions? Have they never perceived in their souls the mute singing, the mummer’s dance of unseen spirits? or do they not believe in fairy-tales?

Ouch! I think Herr Wackenroder is taking things too far, but his heart is in the right place: it seems important to me to embrace the undefinable as something worthwhile, though ineffable, transient, and so on.

But I still feel perfectly fine “programming” music in my own mind, imagining stories and settings that it could be representing, like scoring a film in reverse, where the score already exists but I need to invent the story. This is one reason why Explosions in the Sky is one of my favorite bands, and why this is my favorite song. We only get into trouble when we start claiming that our individual interpretation is the interpretation, right?

Side note: this book was due yesterday via interlibrary loan, so there were no renewals, so I spent much of yesterday rapidly typing my notes into Evernote so I could return the book. And then today I paste in this quote, which I think Bonds translated himself, and all I recorded was that it was from Wackenroder in 1799. Normally Google Books or Amazon previews would save the day: I could look up the book online and find the page and grab the exact citation that I stupidly didn’t record yesterday. But nope: even though this 1991 book is long out of print, Google Books only gives snippet view, and the page I need isn’t available at all. And by now, my ILL copy is being trucked back to wherever it came from. Bleah.

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