Heraclitus once wrote that you cannot stand in the same river twice. Something like that, at least; his ancient Greek writings are incomplete and don’t translate perfectly. Change, the philosopher explained, is a fundamental part of our universe, our lives and ourselves. Everything is in a constant state of flux. This idea is important to how we understand the relationship between music, experience and consciousness.
Music is, on a very literal level, a collection of sounds. It can be described by wavelengths, periods, amplitudes and frequencies. Well, duh; that’s the definition of sound—an oscillating wave that propagates through a medium. But for humans (and maybe other animals, depending on who you ask), music is more than just a bunch of equations from physics class. When a person listens to music, he or she feels something (assuming the music is within the frequencies our ears can detect). The act of listening is a means to an end; sound affects emotion. I’ll spare everyone a half-assed attempt at armchair neuroscience, but it’s an important distinction: a man doesn’t “listen” to music so much as he “experiences” the effects of auditory stimulations. When he says “I really like this song,” he means “this song makes me feel a certain way that I find pleasurable.” But can that experience be repeated or relived? Nope. Never. It sucks, but it’s true. A person can never experience the same song twice.
The first argument is literal and mathematically provable: auditory stimuli change. A persons might hear different things on each listen. Hearing a song through headphones is different than listening to that song with speakers. A live performance is different than a recording. A cover isn’t an original. The medium, performer and quality of a song change constantly. Think of your favorite song. Now turn the bass all the way down, like you’re using the speakers from a laptop. Is it still your favorite song? What if you’re only listening to the left channel? What if you’re listening to a really compressed MP3, the kind that gets that ugly leaf-crunching overlay if you turn the volume really loud? The vinyl/MP3/CD/casette versions of any particular song are pretty similar, but they’re still technically different.
It’s a rather weak argument—most people listen to the same MP3 over and over. Besides, even if the 128kpbs version of Hey Jude is different than the 160kpbs version, most people wouldn’t be able to tell. Since the human ear isn’t perfect, the difference between two versions is often indistinguishable. The second argument is that there’s no consistent “level of listening.” Listen to your favorite song but focus on the baseline. Then do it again, but now focus on the drums. The experience is different. Now put that same song on in the background while you’re organizing your closet. Are you still “listening” to it? Sorta. But there’s a big difference between passive and active listening; the “level of listening” affects the experience. Have you ever watched a movie while using your laptop, then suddenly realized about half-way through the film that you have no idea who the bad guys are after? Same idea.
But music isn’t the whole story. Argument three: the listener’s surroundings affect the experience, and surroundings always change. Blasting your favorite bass-laden Rusko song at a party with forty friends is different than blasting it at your grandma’s bridge club (though the latter sounds like a funnier YouTube video). In fact, hearing the song at tonight’s party will be a different experience than hearing it at last week’s party, even if the same people are attending and the same drinks are being served. There’s only one first-time-at-a-party experience. Context always matters—the time, the place, the people. But the most important argument involves the listener himself.
A listener never experiences the same song twice because the listener is always changing. Think about your own “self.” You’re not the same person you were five years ago. Certainly not physically; you’ve got a few more wrinkles in your skin, maybe you changed your haircut, gained/lost weight. Not intellectually; you know more—or less—than before. Not ideologically; you’ve probably changed your mind about something. You’re a different person sober than drunk; you act one way when you’re happy, another way when you’re sad; you do things when tired that you’d never do wide awake. That’s Heraclitus’s contribution to ontology: what philosophers call the “self” is actually a collection of infinitely many “selves.” You’re the same person you always were, but you’re always a different person. (Read that last sentence over a few times.) Consciousness is a series of infinitely many consciousnesses. Hence, the listener’s music-induced experience has less to do with the quality of the MP3 and the particular listening environment than with, well, him. And since he keeps changing, his experience keeps changing, too.
This last idea explains why the same song—even literally the same set of noises in the same context—can trigger two completely different experiences; why Bob Dylan sometimes makes me feel happy and sometimes makes me feel sad; why music I used to love became music I was apathetic about (or secretly still enjoy in a self-deprecating, what-was-I-thinking? sort of way); why music makes me nostalgic for specific stages of life, friends or cities; why I listen to the same songs over and over without getting bored.
Most importantly, the constantly-changing-self idea explains why people both look for and create new music when there’s already so much in the world. It’s not a search for sound, per se; it’s a search for emotion, a pseudo-existential I-want-to-feel-alive-and-music-lets-me-do-that quest for feeling. When I look for new music, I’m really just looking for new experiences—experiences that last between two and ten minutes and are, by their very nature, ephemeral (which, in a sense, almost makes them more special). It’s frustrating. It sometimes seems pointless. And takes up way too much time. But it’s worth it.
Because when I hear the right song at the right time with the right people, I feel alive and special and inspired, like everything’s going to be fine and every choice I’ve made has been the right one and every person I love also loves me. And I think to myself, “I’m lucky.”
Dance Area – AA 24/7 (Diplo Remix)