avatarTerry Barr

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Why I Love the Music I Love

Understanding love at first listen

Photo by Ga on Unsplash

Since I made only average grades in Biology and Psychology, I can’t begin to explain the phenomenon of “love at first sight.” I know that something happens in our neural pathways: our eyes grow large, our heart even larger, and our body, soul, being, yearn in ways that feel both intoxicating and toxic, depending on the who-what-when of it all.

Of course, such events last only so long, often confused with pure lust or pure fantasy.

But what happens when we fall in love at first sound?

Susan Rogers explains so much of why we love the music we love in her study This Is What It Sounds Like: A Legendary Producer Turned Neuroscientist on Finding Yourself Through Music (Norton 2022). She explains that for most of us, our love for certain musical forms, certain songs and artists, begins in our infancy. As we are exposed to any kind of music, those sounds get imprinted on our minds and in our psyche, which explains why I react positively to both “This Land Is Your Land” and the theme song from “The Mickey Mouse Club” TV show.

“The sweet spots on your listener profile were formed out of genetic predisposition, cultural influence, and all the random and purposeful listening episodes you experienced over a lifetime of exposure to music. Most of your sweet spots started out broad and fuzzy in infancy, but as your musical world progressed from your first lullaby to your first live concert, they gradually became increasingly fine-grained. Your brain became more attuned to recognizing whether a melody, lyric, rhythm, or timbre was especially rewarding. Similarly, you unconsciously learned to listen for the kinds of authenticity, realism, and novelty that had delighted you in the past” (227).

This, I understand, is what happened to me when I watched/listened to certain Woody Allen films like Manhattan and Radio Days. From Gershwin to Benny Goodman, I heard music I had been hearing all my life, and while this was not, obviously, love at first sound, it was actually a deeper kind of love, a love that lay dormant and that had me, finally, apologizing to my father for belittling what he loved in the wake of my own passion for, say, Jethro Tull.

You definitely live and learn, and what you learn is to quit denying what you love since it’s gonna find you no matter what you do, and so you can quit wasting all that time in denial and go ahead and listen to and recognize that you desperately love “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Sing Sing Sing.”

But Rogers adds something else in her study of what happens to us when we hear something completely new, or actually, what we assume is completely new:

“The musical street you live on [that sonic home base of sound (quest) love] when you’re young won’t necessarily change as you get older, but you might begin to visit other neighborhoods from time to time. Although the type of records you crave may vary, the records you enjoy when you’re older usually have something in common with the records you enjoyed when you were younger, reflecting deep preferences that are part of your core” (239).

On some level within me, I think I knew this, but until I read Rogers’ words, I couldn’t explain what happens to me when I hear new bands I love. Sure, I might hear that Beatle-esque voice in Tame Impala almost instantly, but that isn’t what I think Rogers is saying or meaning here.

No, this is what happens in one of those love-at-first-listen moments.

That moment — that artist — whom I fell in love with is Ernest Greene, aka Washed Out. On his 2013 SubPop LP, Paracosm, there are so many ethereal sounds that I can’t describe them all, nor can I explain all that I feel when hearing them. What I can do, first, is link this song, the first track on Side A:

This song works for and on me, deep into my core. I know it’s Greene’s voice and the lush, synthesized music, along with the steady bass track, that does it.

But then, so do the lyrics:

“We’ll be gone for a few nights Meet up with the old crowd Music’s playing so loud It all feels right.

Close my eyes Think about the old times What’s it all about? The feeling when it all works out.”

It’s not my purpose to analyze the song or the rest of Paracosm, nor am I trying to convince any of you that it’s a great album and that you, too, should love it at first sound.

Even though I do — love it, that is. I’ve been deeply in love with it since I first heard it ten years ago, which is long enough to tell me that my love is alive and real.

But without Rogers, I would have acknowledged and felt this love without understanding the well it springs from. What it triggered in my past. What it reminded me of. So when I read her passage above, I knew immediately. I first thought of “It All Feels Right,” and then I recognized what it reminded me of, this song, the song I most adore in this world, this life of music:

Neil Young’s voice floating within Jack Nitzsche’s production. I first heard “Expecting To Fly” when I was fifteen. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I played it repeatedly. My stereo component turntable/amp sat on top of a crushed orange mod trunk my mother bought for me the previous Christmas. I stared out my windows; I was paralyzed with love. I felt more emotion than I ever had, though I didn’t understand all of these emotions: what they were, where they came from.

But then, I’ve never understood the whys of those times I’ve fallen in love with another human, either. While I have an analytical mind, I also have a rather deep emotional well; while I can analyze my emotions, in this case — and others too — I really don’t want to know.

I just want to feel it, all right?

It all feels right.

Neil’s lyrical poetry resonates more deeply with the strangest of images (“There you stood on the edge of your feather, expecting to fly”), and Washed Out’s reflections of friends, the old times, and what happens when we close our eyes and try to figure it all out, in turn, remind me so resonantly of these from “Expecting to Fly”:

“By the summer it was healing We had said goodbye All the years we’d spent with feeling Ended with a cry…

I tried so hard to stand As I stumbled and fell to the ground So hard to laugh as I fumbled And reached for the love I found Knowin’ it was gone…”

The song ends in this lament:

“If I never lived without you Now you know I’d die If I never said I loved you Now you know I’d try…”

So, at fifteen, I know I had fallen in love at first sight a few times. Maybe I thought of one of those loves as I heard Buffalo Springfield for the first time. And fell in love.

But now I wonder if there wasn’t some other sound before them that I was responding to, a deeper sound of love — some strings, an orchestra playing a concerto? Strains of Tchaikovsky in Mrs. Porch’s first-grade music class?

Maybe I’ll never know, and so I should be happy with the love I found, knowin’ that it isn’t gone at all but there for me to find, to listen to, and to love again when I need it.

And I think that’s true with all of our loves. We don’t have to have or [to] hold them all. We might never have held them at all. But we felt them all.

We, I, still do.

That’s my neighborhood, my musical street, and the place I reside. I think it’s an open design, ready to be filled and then remembered for what and all it’s worth.

Close my eyes and dream about the old times.

It all sounds right.

Thanks to The Riff for publishing. If you have similar musical loves, consider writing about them. I’d love to read whatever song memories you’d like to share.

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