The Physiology Of Dunk-Dunk-Dunk

Arthur Schopenhauer claimed that great intellect was always correlated with an intolerance of noise. So that makes two of us, but it would be interesting to investigate the matter with a larger sample. And Schopenhauer simply assumed that the first was cause and the second effect, whereas it might easily be the other way round, and that one is intelligent only to the extent that one has succeeded in escaping the brain-murdering racket of modern life. Moreover, the sort of noise he was thinking of was domestic – washerwomen shrieking to one another in the courtyard of his apartment building in Frankfurt – the same sort of thing that distracted Proust; I do so wonder what he would have thought of children doing their homework “to” action movies on the television; of practically everyone walking, running and working-out with devices delivering loud noise to their inner ear; and of modern concert amplification equipment.

We know for a fact that the use of Walkman/ iPod type devices causes hearing loss, and that the sound level at rock concerts causes even more. We know that our children and young people regularly expose themselves to decibel levels that would mandate double ear protection in a factory or at an airport. I am nearly sixty, but can hear much quieter noises than my office-equipment supplier half my age, who used to be a DJ; after he was unable to hear a whining computer monitor that was driving me crazy, we tested one another with a radio, which I could still hear when he had turned it below his own threshold. I could also hear the hum of the CPU from way out on the balcony, while he had to put his ear to it to hear whether it was on.

All this is known. What is not yet known is the full effect on the mind, as opposed to the auricular faculty, of loud noise. What is also not yet known is the effect of the brain of different kinds of noise. The Tomatis Institutes study the alleged therapeutic effects of Mozart, but I do not know of any systematic work to compare the neurological impact of different genres of music. The Red Brigades in Italy, however, once provided some useful experimental data; they captured an American officer and tortured him by playing rock music at him over headphones, causing permanent brain damage. Similarly, American forces coerced Manuel Noriega into surrender by ghetto-blasting him.

There are sound neurological reasons why mothers have for millennia sung soothing and harmonious lullabies to their children. One day we will identify the exact processes whereby such sounds shepherd infantile brain development. What, then is the neurological effect of growing up in homes whose very walls vibrate with unsoothing and disharmonious music? We spend billions on permanently rewiring our own brains, and frequently on rewiring other people’s brains without their consent, all while carefully avoiding knowing exactly what it is we are doing. This is because the results might be embarrassing for the recording industry, which happens to have a lot of money. As with tobacco advertising, so with music; people claim not to know what effect it has, while putting a lot of energy into achieving that very effect.

A movie reviewer criticises a brainless action film inter alia for “one of those soundtracks designed to get you all pumped up about killing aliens or Muslims or Germans or whoever the hell is available”. In earlier ages, armies marched with drummers to the same effect. Would they have done that for centuries if it didn’t work? As far as I know, however, early-modern armies did not encourage civilians to make this massacre-encouraging noise at home, like we do.

I have been accused of having no idea of the difference between genres of modern pop or rock or whatever music, and this is entirely true; to me it is all just horribly loud noise. In the following, therefore, I shall be purposefully vague, and let others attach the correct hair-splitting labels to the phenomena that I describe, which in themselves are quite indubitable.

Whatever aficionados of [insert name here] music may hear close up, neighbours kept awake by the bass describe only the repetition of a very simple pattern – the endless recapitulation of three notes, or even the metronomic beat of a single note: dunk, dunk, dunk, dunk, dunk, for hours on end. People trying to sleep experience this as a Chinese water torture. Those who have voluntarily chosen to subject themselves it, however, appear to be feeling something different. Now, it is self-evident that such insistent repetitions of extremely basic patterns must have a profound effect on the brain, whose activity is itself nothing but wave-patterns. An interesting question for laboratory research then becomes: what exactly is happening when volunteers embrace a stimulus that is highly unpleasant to non-volunteers?

My own hypothesis is as follows: Loud noise triggers the fright-flight-fight reflex. Overruling that reflex causes a massive release of adrenalin, which is addictive. When the noise rises far above the pain threshold, the body releases endorphins, which are also addictive. Alleged musical styles and so-called lyrics are merely bait, designed to hook the victim into being neurochemically reprogrammed by this high-decibel “aural sludge” into a lower level of intelligence, which naturally leads to obedient consumption. This is the bottom line and therefore the object of the exercise.

The narcotic effect of [insert name here] music is similarly supported by the fact that it is ubiquitous among prison inmates and the underclass generally. The question is then, which causes which? Do people on the bottom of the pile listen to [insert name here] music because of their anger and despair, for the same reasons as they get smashed or high; or does very loud and very monotonous noise, just like heavy drinking and meth, imprison people in the underclass by destroying the brain cells that they would need in order to escape from it?

Posted on December 25, 2011 at 12:32 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Cause and Effect Of Brain Damage

6 Responses

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  1. Written by urban
    on December 25, 2011 at 13:34

    Well Hugo, you’re out on a bunch of limbs here. Although there may well be something to your basic thesis, it’s just a whole lot more complicated.

    You are absolutely correct in connecting hearing loss to listening to loud music on headphones. This is demonstrable from the medical data collected by the military. Starting shortly after the introduction of the Walkman in the 70s, the collective hearing loss among a broad cross section of 18 year olds forced the military to lower its hearing standards–just to get enough warm bodies into uniform. And they have had to do this again and again since. There was another HUGE drop in hearing scores in the 90s when kids started staying up all night mixing on turntables.

    That’s true, but theres more to it. For starters, some of what you describe is in the nature of the way sound disperses. The High frequencies have lower energy and are highly directional. They travel better through the air than they do through buildings and pavement. The low frequencies are omnidirectional, travel further before dissipating their energy and tend to turn floors and walls into radiating repeaters.

    Although it is rude to those in the next block, the music probably sounds very different in the club. You aren’t hearing whatever is going on above the low bass. It may or may not be musically rich. (How would either of us know?) The underlying structure, which is all you can hear at your place, is indeed simple and repetitive.

    That’s because it’s dance music for people who can’t dance to start with, people whose innate inability to move their body to anything but the most basic rhythms is further attenuated by alcohol and drugs. In an unsophisticated dance culture such as the one you and I both live in, that sad fact is irreducible. As a musician who thinks that playing music for bodies to move to has always been a noble and central function of music, I get very depressed about this state of affairs.

    Unfortunately there are feedback loops exacerbating an already tragic situation–I refer not to your insomnia, but rather to the fact that even severe hearing loss is becoming pandemic. Since hearing loss starts with the higher frequencies and moves down, as the pandemic progresses, eventually only the throbbing low end will be heard at all. You don’t really “hear” it. You feel it in your chest. You feel it through your feet. Eventually the DJs won’t need anything but that Big Bottom to pack the dance floor. And this is actually happening. There is even a genre called “Bass and Drums” reflecting the depth of hearing loss in the club scene.

  2. Written by urban
    on December 26, 2011 at 04:10

    I do want to emphasize that I think your hypothesis is worth examining in detail. I have no set answer, but I do know this: correlation does not demonstrate causation. You need a lot better than anecdotes and gut feelings to pull this off. But I’d love to see you succeed!

    You are completely in line with the ancients, but that only means you’re in good company. Music matters. Correct. It’s not ‘all good’. This stance puts you squarely at odds with the ‘wisdom of crowds’ set, of course, or what I prefer to call the ‘path of least resistance’ clique, or perhaps the ‘least common denomination’, but that’s OK. The ‘stupidity of crowds’ is almost too self-evident to require more than casual, just-for-fun demonstration.

    As both a musician and as a music lover, my testicles retract over the collective damage to hearing. Generations all but lost. All that talent wasted! Without hearing there is no listening. Without listening there is no music. Glad I don’t have sprogs!

  3. Written by Mick Whitehead
    on December 26, 2011 at 11:43

    My woman calls me the ‘deaf stuntman.’ This in reference to a British comedy show with one of the gigs featuring, you guessed it, a deaf stuntman. On set the director shouts to the stuntman, ‘hold it for a moment, we need to adjust a wire.’ The stuntman cups his ear and shouts back, ‘set myself on fire?’ Which he then does. Another time the director shouts to him, ‘I need you to come down here,’ and he shouts back, ‘drive my motorbike off the pier?’ Which he does.

    I’ve lost some hearing and it’s Mr. Walkman and Mrs. Ipod and exactly where Urban says–the high frequencies. The left ear is worse. This the result of Bosnian soldiers loosing a battery of 155mm howitzers without telling me, whilst I was filming them. It’s maybe worth noting that in a firefight the first thing that strikes a rookie is the off-the-scale noise level and many soldiers will drop their weapons to cover their ears.

    Like Schopenhauer I am tormented by noise (even with my ears!). I live on a farm, and am constantly amazed how those in nearby properties, especially in the summer, are able to keep up a constant barrage of noise with all manner of saws, hatchets and what have you. The king here is the swirling grass cutter whatever that diabolical device is called. The noise seems designed to cut through to your soul. Is there no muffler for these things?

    I like the theory of hormones. Could be right. Leibniz said humans enjoy music because they are really counting without being aware of it.

  4. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on December 26, 2011 at 15:37

    Mick, I assume you know the WWI story of “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” becoming “Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance”?

  5. Written by Mick Whitehead
    on December 27, 2011 at 06:46

    Ha! No, never heard it but you should pass it along to the stuntman.

    Another thing about the neighbours around here and their noise. Besides their incessant cutting and drilling they cannot seem to talk without shouting. I’ve developed a theory on this that may have some value. I believe they shout because historically that is how they communicated from one hillock to the next. Remember they are all farmers and have been for countless generations. I, as Schopenhauer was, am stunned by their ability to tolerate noise. Nothing, but nothing seems to bother them. I believe that even if there is nothing to cut they fire up a machine and walk around with it. Away with the damnable silence!

  6. Written by Grinebiter
    on December 27, 2011 at 10:15

    Yes, farmers shout across their fields and always will, but there are plenty of yellers who have been urban for generations. It’s in the family culture, like wife-beating and incest. You know that all teenagers shun silence, I did myself (though with classical music instead of pop and this was before the Walkman). The older I got, the quieter. Since all teenagers are also anxious, there may be a causal relationship there.

    Schopenhauer, by the way, rejected Leibniz’ reduction of music to unconscious arithmetic. Whereas the other arts are representations of the external world, he thought music was a representation only of the Will; and by Will he as you know means the underlying but unknowable principle of the universe. But we neither understand nor even want to understand exactly how music represents the world, we make it and enjoy it in a kind of sleepwalking.

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