When a song doesn't sound like itself
Just a small change can make something unrecognizable
Sometimes you can hear a song and if you don’t start in the right place it sounds like something alien. This happens to me every few months, especially if the song’s volume is turned down too low and it’s that much harder for me to hear. It could be one of my favorite songs but if I start listening mid lyric or mid beat it sound like gibberish to me.
[A bit of background: I was in school bands from junior high to the middle of high school and played guitar for many years so I have some knowledge of song structure and music theory.]
A lot of popular music is written and performed in 4/4 time and at a tempo somewhere between 100 and 130 beats per minute, at least prior to the rise of hip hop/rap and various types of metal music. If you listen to enough pop music these musical forms become very familiar and help us to recognize a song when we hear it on the radio or on some other music playing device. Conversely the exceptions are extremely memorable: Strawberry Fields Forever (The Beatles) and When Doves Cry (Prince and the Revolution), with their intricate composition, multi-track arrangements and unusual rhythms make them stand out.
A song often has many tracks with different instruments and vocals playing simultaneously so there’s a lot of information for our brains to interpret. If you remove some of the tracks or make them inaudible then the song becomes noticeably different. I’ve heard songs by the Police, XTC, Bryan Adams and many other artists that were originally unrecognizable because my brain was missing information it needed to identify the song: perhaps the vocals were too faint or some of the guitar tracks were missing. It’s a doubly disconcerting feeling: at first when you can’t identify the song and then again when your brain gets the information it needs to recognize it.
The same problem can occur when you start listening to a song mid lyric or mid beat. The time signature and tempo of a song are key things that help us recognize it. If you don’t start right at the beginning or off beat it can take the brain some time to clue in.
This idea, that it’s easy to fail to identify something familiar if you listen to a partial version or start mid beat, has fascinated me for years and I’ve never really asked anyone else about it before. It’s like only hearing half of a conversation or trying to read through a redacted document: you struggle to make sense of it. Or better yet, imagine the gyrations your brain goes through when you try to put together a puzzle if you don’t know what it’s supposed to look like.
The principle can apply across all media, in my opinion.
Today’s post is more of a wondering than having a concrete point to make. I’d like to know if other people have had this experience of experiencing a song or another piece of art and it suddenly changes from unrecognizable to recognizable, like someone turning on a magic switch. Do you have a point of view on this topic? Does it happen to you? Why not post something in the comments section and we can discuss this?
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