Maybe it’s just me but I’m getting sort of tired of the steady stream of articles and books that attempt to apply scientific analysis to our perception of music. Do we really need to know why certain intervals elicit certain emotions. And what brain waves were induced after hearing minor chords? Or why that signature riff from Jaws was scary? (Hint: It might be the sharks?)
What ends up happening with most of these arguments is that we find that there might be a cultural element to our reactions. Yeah, imagine that. So listeners in Indonesia have no issues with microtonal intervals whereas in the West they make our eyeballs spin counter-clockwise. I don’t need a scientist to tell me that.
Besides, there’s a lot more to our perceptions of music than just the actual notes. Though some critics will try to discount it, it’s nearly impossible for a person to divorce their perceptions of songs from the environment in which they were first encountered. You met somebody and fell in love while listening to the Marshall Tucker Band’s Carolina Dreams. A summer romance revolved around Supertramp’s Give A Little Bit. A relationship fell apart and you spent the better part of a chilly winter listening to Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville. The emotions and the music are forever conjoined. Science has little to do with it.
I was actually thinking of this not because of the recent research, but because of the 4th of July. The weather has finally been heating up and with it are the memories of that summer of 1984 when Bruce Springsteen released Born In The USA. I’d just graduated from college, moved in with my girlfriend, and started my first job. Those were all big events, but there was still a lot of kid in me. So Bruce was around for a bunch of drunken pool parties and barbecues (and more than a few regretful Sunday mornings, truth be told).
Lots of fans put this album at or near the bottom of the E Street pile. It’s not my favorite either. But its commercial nature is pretty much irrelevant to how I react to the songs. When I hear that title track or “Glory Days,” or “No Surrender,” or “Bobby Jean,” I’m 23 again, with my whole life stretching out before me. As I’ve grown older, that distance imparts a different kind of spin to how I hear the music. It’s not just the songs. It’s the songs and who I was then…and everything in between.
My mom loved Born In The USA. She also loved watching the Boston Pops celebration on the television. That was after we’d grilled and eaten way too much food and then had a slice of her American flag cake. Me and TheWife™ (and TheStepSon™, TheDaughterInLaw™, and the new Grandbaby#1™) will all be on vacation together this week. I feel a little Bruce and some cake comin’ on. It’ll be awesome.
Does science maybe have something to do with it? Probably, but I don’t care.