modes of listening 4: the embodied mode

It begins with a walk.  You can try this yourself. If you drag your left foot gently as you step forward, you generate a thump-shup thump-shup thump-shup sound. We call it a shuffle, and in music it’s called a shuffle too. Kid Andersen shows how it’s done on the guitar, Jimmy Reed-style. The bass strings provide the thump-shup and the upper strings provide the ‘talk’. Now he’s a-walkin’ and a talkin’! Shuffles appear on countless variations in all kinds of popular music, as in this example from metal pioneers Blue Őyster Cult. The shuffle can be modified, of course, into myriad variations. This next example shows a polyrhythmic extension of the shuffle in the hands of master soul/jazz drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. Check out his step-by-step lesson here.

Appreciating the shuffle is an example of the embodied mode of listening. “Embodied” means that many musical experiences have their perceptual beginnings in auditory experiences of living in our bodies. In everyday living, we experience all kinds of sounds, most of which are taken for granted, burning themselves through repetition into an auditory subconscious – an auditory subconscious which our brains then call upon when we listen to music with elements which evoke or relate to these bodily perceptual memories. You can likely come up with your own examples – an obvious one being the heartbeat, which lends its pulse to music. It’s no accident that the tempos, or the pulse of music, range typically from 60 to 120 beats per minute– the normal range of speeds of the human heartbeat.  Music, at least in part, is an expression of embodiment – the particular auditory experiences that emerge from the way we are built.

But embodied listening is not confined to pulses and rhythms. Embodiment can be the stuff of melody and harmony. More than any other pop singer, when I listen to Patti Smith, I am reminded of how her slides up and down and round, her whoops, hollers, and snarls, resemble not just other human voices but the style of rock guitar soloing – note-bending, hammering-down, slurs, rakes, the works. Listen to this performance and consider how close her phrasing, attack, and intonations resemble rock and roll guitar playing.

I mentioned harmonies can be embodied. We can perform another little experiment. Find a quiet room with no distractions. Make yourself comfortable and grimace, commanding all your facial muscles to contract, including clenching your teeth and closing your eyelids tightly. Listen to the sounds of your facial muscles contracting at various frequencies, all at once. This is the sound of dissonant harmony in your own head. In ordinary life, it’s the sound of you preparing for an impact, or fighting pain, or the sound of fear mounting. Resembling the sounds of a dissonant string section (or vice versa) film composers in particular use this embodiment trope to heighten tension in scenes involving threatening, suspenseful action. Il Maestro, Ennio Morricone, provides a fine example from his The Untouchables soundtrack, the dark-hallway scene where the Irish cop, played by Sean Connery, is being stalked by the bad guy.

The embodied mode of listening makes for compelling musical experiences, from dance to terror.  Chances are you can’t sit still.

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