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April 20th, 2010


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12:41 am - A Personal Musical Oddity
Tonight I was talking with amberite about my reactions to music. I love listening to music. I was in chorus in Junior High, and while I don't sing as well now, I can sing along with songs that I'm familiar with fairly well. However, I recently took and on-line test of tone perception and scored mildly tone-deaf. I also know the reason, which has to do with how I listen to music. The test solely involved differentiating between patterns of notes in wordless music (specifically determining if two patters of notes were the same or different). Not only don't I listen to music without words, I largely can't. I find it not merely boring, but on the few occasions that I've gone to concerts with large amounts of music without words, I end up falling asleep or getting lost in thought to the level that I completely lose track of my surroundings. If I attempt to deliberately listen to wordless music for more than 15 seconds or so, I simply find that I can't.

One odd feature of this limitation is that I have absolutely no trouble listening to music with words that are in other languages, includes languages that I am drastically unfamiliar with, nor do I have this problem with the instrumental intros of songs with words (which admittedly are generally quite short). The difference is also not one of vocal vs. non-vocal music. I've attempted to listen to the sort of Jazz where the singer sings sounds rather than words, and I find myself no more able to listen to it than I am to any other wordless music. I don't find any of this any sort of problem – to me a song or other piece of music is defined as much by its lyrics as by its music. However, I am curious to know if anyone else reacts to music in this fashion.
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From:alobar
Date:April 20th, 2010 08:14 am (UTC)
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We are opposite one another on this. I can listen to singing with no music and understand it just fine. But words and instruments together is annoying, at best. I like wordless music because I can concentrate on what I am doing and not be distracted by my mind attempting to decipher the words.
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From:geek_dragon
Date:May 4th, 2010 09:49 am (UTC)
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me too
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From:eclective
Date:April 20th, 2010 09:59 am (UTC)
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I have this inclination, but not to as dramatic an extent. There are some instrumental pieces I find truly inspiring, mostly videogame music. However, it's rare that I'll encounter an instrumental piece I want to listen to on its own, for its own sake, and even if I want to, it's hard for me to acquire the focus to do so. I mostly use instrumental pieces as mood-setting background to something I'm doing, although there's also a lot I find hard to do while listening to music, so it's not that often, either.

I also share your ability to listen to lyrics in languages I don't understand (I enjoy songs in Cantonese, Japanese, Finnish, and completely made-up languages, for example - btw, if you like choral/epic music with a fantasy bent, you might want to try some of the Ar tonelico soundtrack), and your inability to listen to whatever that style of jazz is (actually, I find jazz to be a style I dislike in general, for some reason).

I have enjoyed instrumental concerts before, so I think that's where we differ: e.g. there are orchestral rearrangement concerts of videogame music I've enjoyed, and indeed there's one I want to attend this summer, because I really love that sort of thing. But otherwise, I think it's a matter of degree.
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From:eclective
Date:April 20th, 2010 10:05 am (UTC)
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BTW, if I were to suggest a theory as to why this is so: I think it's because I interpret vocalised lyrics, even if I can't understand them, as being about a very specific emotion or range of emotions by their tone. Sung lyrics tell a story, and even if I don't know the details, the sadness or cheerfulness or aggressiveness of the voice conveys a distinct emotional setting: I am feeling X at this given time.

Instrumentals mostly can't reproduce that, for me. I can't perceive a specific person feeling specific emotions, and so it's harder for me to connect with. Usually, the instrumental songs I'll connect with evoke a strong sense of place (e.g. Secret of Mana's "Pure Night" melody) or are associated with a character I like (e.g. a lot of the themes from Final Fantasy VI, which were used as leitmotifs for various characters and are amongst my favourite instrumentals). In most cases, I've experienced them in the context of a fictional setting and I associate the music with that place or person, so the emotional connection is there. On their own, these songs are often hard for me to derive emotion from, unless they invoke a particularly sweeping or lovely sense of place. (I'm very fond of the Hollow Bastion theme from Kingdom Hearts currently, for example.)
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From:heron61
Date:April 20th, 2010 07:26 pm (UTC)
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I think it's because I interpret vocalised lyrics, even if I can't understand them, as being about a very specific emotion or range of emotions by their tone. Sung lyrics tell a story, and even if I don't know the details, the sadness or cheerfulness or aggressiveness of the voice conveys a distinct emotional setting: I am feeling X at this given time.

I completely agree. However, I think such statements would also cause composers and performers to classical music and wordless jazz to despair, since from what I've read, they claim that such music does exactly this. I've never perceived it, but at least some people believe that it's there.
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From:eclective
Date:April 20th, 2010 10:23 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I've just... never clicked with it that way. I can sometimes tell if a piece is meant to convey a general air of melancholy, for example, but it never resonates with me in the same way as a singer's voice does: it's like the difference between being told in a narrative "the scenery had an air of melancholy to it" and "Jane was feeling down". And often, what I want to connect to in music is... well, I often associate it with characters in stories I'm working on, or in existing fiction I like, or such, so I want a sense of person more than of place.
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From:rjgrady
Date:April 28th, 2010 03:42 am (UTC)
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A position held by one of my psychology professors, which I find very compelling, is that music is "shaped like" emotion, having the same contours and exciting the same kinds of process. When a song has a particular association, or you hear lyrics, your brain may fill in the appropriate emotion. From that standpoint, instrumental music is basically recreational sensory anxiety.
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From:heron61
Date:April 20th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)
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Your comments got me thinking - I do enjoy some intrumental music. A wordless version of a song with words is fine, since my mind fills in the words. Also, some intro songs for movies, TV, and suchlike can be enjoyable because I have a strong association with them. I never go out of my way to listen to such music, and I'm not certain if the reason that I can listen to it isn't simply that such pieces are usually fairly short, and there's a while before I fuzz out. In any case, it sounds like our reactions are quite similar.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:April 20th, 2010 10:06 am (UTC)
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Hmm...what kind of instrumental music were you trying to listen to?

I can listen to instrumental music if it's interesting, such as classical or psitrance. If it's boring, like "smooth jazz" (think jazz by Kenny G), easy listening, or Muzak, I can't listen to it either.

You may wish to try instrumental music from a genre you like.

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From:heron61
Date:April 20th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
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Any and all, from classical to jazz - my reaction to all of them is identical.
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From:cusm
Date:April 20th, 2010 12:17 pm (UTC)
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I have heard this complaint before. So you are certainly not the first.

I wonder. Music without words relays purely abstract emotional sense. Words key in the left hemisphere and engage language and logic. I think I might have read something about this topic once too. Its a brain thing.

For what its worth, I tend to tune out the lyrics of most music entirely. I often find them hard to recognize, even. Unless the lyrics are a rhythmic part of the music like most of the varying techno I listen to. Then it sticks in my craw for days and I'm left with "shake that thang" bouncing around in my head on repeat until something displaces it. Different set of neurological issues at work here.
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From:lyssabard
Date:April 20th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
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Huh. Neat. I also suspect it's a logic brain type thing.
I am curious, do you tune out during solo breaks in a musical piece with lyrics, or is it once you are into a piece of music with lyrics, you are there for the ride?

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From:heron61
Date:April 20th, 2010 07:34 pm (UTC)
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Instrumental interludes in music with lyrics are fine - in large part because my mind fills in the words. I think much of the issue with completely instrumental music is that there's nothing there to hold my attention or interest.
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From:dancinglights
Date:April 20th, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC)
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I react wildly differently to music with words in a language I know and music without words (or with words in a language I am vastly unfamiliar with). I typically listen to the former actively, while the latter I use for passive mood-setting, from dancing to coding. I cannot think through logic processes while music with English/French/German lyrics is playing, because it interferes with some sort of processing pathway in my brain. I haven't tried listening to jazz with scat singing while coding, since I don't generally like it anyway, but now I'm curious to see if it would work.
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From:rjgrady
Date:April 28th, 2010 03:40 am (UTC)
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Sounds like your music appreciation center plug in pretty closely to your "that is a human talking and I am interested" areas of your brain.

On the other hand, I, personally, sometimes listen to songs over and over again just to listen to transition between individual notes, and I love musics that involves lots of tones, like the Doctor Who theme. Sometimes I develop a fixation on a specific recording of a specific song and can't stand any other version because I like a certain musical change so much. I love musicians who can reproduce certain flourishes reliably.

Currently, I am entranced with La Roux, who combine really lush vocals with very tonal melody and bass and mechanical rhythm. Bliss!
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From:heron61
Date:April 28th, 2010 05:25 am (UTC)
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Sounds like your music appreciation center plug in pretty closely to your "that is a human talking and I am interested" areas of your brain.

That's an excellent way to describe how I react to music. Well said.
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From:geek_dragon
Date:May 4th, 2010 09:55 am (UTC)
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I sing in non-words because I find words get in the way. I like folk singing like joik- which is non-wors, and i prefer to not actually listen to the words because i have trouble picking out the words, and when i find out what the lyrics actually are, I'm often disappointed.

oddly enough i get a lot of emotion out of certain songs, from the sound of the voice, as well as the instruments, and can get emotion out of instrumentals too.

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