Saturday, February 12, 2005

Music As A Drug

The following is the first in a series of some old bullshit I wrote at one point or another, but had nowhere to display them...until now (dun-dun-dunnnn!)


Music As A Drug

Disclaimer: This column does not seek to condone, promote nor advocate the use of music to enhance the enjoyment of drugs. While music is never necessary for self-medication, it is, at times, complimentary. The reader is implored to use music judiciously and within the realms of the documented and observed laws set forth in your zone, code, county, state, country, continent, planet and universe. The rhetoric contained herein is metaphorical in nature and should not be taken out of context. Please remember not to operate automobiles or heavy machinery while under the influence of music.

It has long been theorized (by me) that music can have as much influence over the mental state or even the soul of a person as any drug - street, pharmaceutical or otherwise. If you really let it, music can take you to another place. From music we can feel the deepest moments of brooding, the most tranquil feelings of harmony, the most assured sense of happiness. For some, music is a way of recreating feelings actually felt while under the influence of a psychoactive substance. Or, some people may listen to music to plunge themselves into a similar kind of music-induced euphoria in lieu of actually ingesting mind-altering drugs. For me, music is a drug.

It’s the never-ending search for the song that keeps music enthusiasts going. You know the song: the one that makes you feel like you’re the king of the magical, mystical mythical world of Zatron and are revered and respected by all of the Zatronites as you zoom through the purple sky in your cloud-mobile. Or maybe, it isn’t just a song, but the perfect melody, or harmony or riff that keeps music enthusiasts interested.

The merits of music are many. People claim that music makes them feel invincible, inspired, transparent, heroic, etc. Some people even claim that music can heal illnesses. Yes, unlikely, but maybe it’s possible. While browsing through a yippie grocery store here in LA, I noticed a flier advertising what is known as ‘sonic therapy.’ The sessions promised to provide cures for countless ailments and bring balance to an otherwise disharmonious state of mind through the aural implementation of single harmonic tones. Initially, I scoffed at the preposterous notion of jingling bells being able to cure leprosy. But upon further contemplation, the notion suddenly appealed to me. Despite my skeptical leanings, I began to imagine the possibility of healing through sounds and music in particular. If the old proverb “laughter is the best medicine” is even remotely true, then surely music can be attributed to mental as well as physical changes in the human consciousness. We are all a result of the psyche that we embody. It occurs to me that there is actually a similar proverb, adjusted here for my purposes: music not only soothes the savage beast but can also enrage the docile lamb.

It was at this moment that I had an epiphany – music actually is a drug. And the healing power, among other things is just as tangible as any affect a drug can have, you just have to be willing to ‘go with it’ as is often uttered in the language of dopespeak.

I briefly took guitar lessons in college, during which my Zen-Buddhist instructor, or sensei, as I liked to call him, put forth the notion that music was simply filling empty space with time (rhythm) via harmonic tones. My guitar sensei’s version of the theory, while oversimplified, stands to reason that music is manipulating time and filling space where nothing previously existed. The syncopated pulse of a drum in conjunction with the fluttering of melodic tones provides an intangible aural environment that appeals to the most basic sense of human awareness, most often the desire to feel good and sometimes even the notion of psychic transcendence.

Nearly everyone who has endeavored to partake in the use of psychoactive substances can confirm that any kind of music can take on certain otherworldly, transcendent, almost religious qualities. It’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated the ethereal feeling you get from a spacey, Pink Floyd epic or the warm comfort found in a pastoral movement by the Poylphonic Spree while on a psilosybin-induced trip.

In fact, the influence of drugs has aided in devising some of the most interesting music ever captured or performed. It is arguable to state that drug use in and of itself is solely responsible for such music, but it is hard to deny the impact. Recently, I have found psychedelic music to be my drug of choice. The conscious addition of eerie, spacey, sounds and dissonance creates a sort of sonic pillow of ecstasy on which I am only too glad to lay my weary head in the hopes that I will be figuratively carted off to other realms of cosmic consciousness.

However, one cannot underemphasize the importance of space and silence in music today. In watching a documentary on Pink Floyd’s most popular and arguably best realized album, Dark Side of the Moon, I discovered that the Floyd wanted to create noticeable space between the notes and in fact, made a conscious attempt at making the themes of the music apparent, thereby creating “soundscapes” as opposed to just songs. To be sure, the album is admittedly incredibly dense with sonic textures – music, reverb-laden sound effects or otherwise – but there is plenty of space for the notes to breathe, so to speak, and resonate within both the sonic space of the song itself and the ear of the listener, which is what makes many of the songs so effective.

Nowadays, one can’t help but feel inundated with the invasive sounds of radio-friendly popular music. There is a certain indescribable sheen to contemporary music that strips it of any of the character that its so-called Indie counterpart can easily achieve. Granted, this glossiness is the result of the art of finding just what is most pleasant to the ear and packaging it in a form that is ready for mass consumption, much like an aspirin. While it’s hard enough to put a finger on just the reason why, the difference between radio-ready music and all other forms is tangible. Some may find this music pleasing, but some may find it intrusive, trite or even boring, which is a testament to the notion that there is no accounting for taste. So much of today’s radio-friendly music feels like an opiate that the masses ingest knowing full well that it will make them feel good, even if they want to feel bad. (It’s okay to feel bad sometimes.) It’s like the age-old fluoride in the water conspiracy: the government keeps the saccharine MOR stuff playing repeatedly for mass consumption on the most expansive, diverse and cost effective medium possible – the radio. In this sense, figurative drugs are literally being beamed through the airwaves and into our homes.

I don’t consider myself a music snob, but sometimes when I hear music on the radio, the bile rises in the back of my throat in protest of the mediocrity and the way that I feel pandered to. The “punk rock” played on the radio doesn’t make me feel any rebellious angst as much as it makes me feel like going to Pacific Sunwear to buy a pair of vomit-splatter-colored board shorts. If my drug of choice is the one that doesn’t make me feel ill, then consider me a non-radio patron.

But I digress, diatribes about the perceived listening tendencies of music fans the world over are endemic to the cause of only the most serious and easily provoked of music snobs. Though every fan seems to think he or she has the best taste in music and certainly I am no exception. However, in light of this ideology, I have come to the very real conclusion that my taste in music may actually and most likely does suck.

If it is true that music inspires in us certain feelings, then can it also be said that music influences our actions as well. Much has been made of lawsuits that accuse popular artists of encouraging their audience to perform various sinister deeds. The notion that Marilyn Manson’s music inspired the Colombine massacre a few years ago immediately springs to mind. Rarely, if ever are songs a call to action, not to mention a call to arms. However, misinterpretation of intention is rampant. Possibly the most notorious example of misappropriations of ideas or imagined post-hypnotic suggestion in music is Charles Manson’s gross misconception that the Beatles self-titled so-called “White Album (particularly the songs “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution No. 9”) was a call to arms for a coming race war. Manson interpreted the Beatles music as a direct linkage to manifest biblical verses coded with subliminal message prompting a call to grotesque action.

The fact that Manson can draw such abstractions from completely unrelated material is shocking, but not altogether surprising. To attempt to divine a reason for people’s interpretation of lyrics within this essay is tangential. However, it should be noted that lyrical rhythms, phrasing and pacing are equally as responsible, if not more so, for the unconscious toe tapping that many of us do from time to time as the simple instrumentation of a particular piece of music. In essence, not only the music itself, but also the way in which it is delivered can invoke an emotional reaction. If it was not so, we would all be content to listen to simple instrumentals.

Science has yet to find a link between the pleasure derived from music and its importance in the grand scheme of human survival. It can be assumed that music is strictly an aesthetic pleasure and has very little to do with the perseverance of the human species and preservation (or debilitation, for that matter) of cognitive and emotional mindsets, but that’s a topic better left for the philosophers to debate. However, music is also a viable and pleasant form of communication that, as has been mentioned before, triggers a variety of emotions, both negative and positive. On a biological level, the simplest species of organisms use musical forms of communication as a means of attracting, warning or greeting other organisms. Birds sing. Whales and dolphins use sonar tones to “speak” with each other. Granted, humans are the only species that uses the means of music as both a communicative and aesthetic emotive modes. The question is whether or not the reactive emotions in humans are biologically or culturally implanted. It is clear that while one arrangement of instrumentation into melody and harmony is pleasing to one ear, the same configuration may not necessarily be pleasing to another. Such is the beauty of music. Such is the beauty of life.

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