Phenomenology Project 1_Introduction
How to listen in time: factors that determine our listening experience though Love Like a Sunset by Phoenix
Anticipation of the future. We do it all the time as humans. It is a part of who we are. We are always looking forward and attempting to guess what the future will hold. Although in reality we will never truly know what the future holds, there are many instances that we can make “educated guesses” at. The probability of one making correct predictions grows less and less the farther one goes into the future. I cannot guess where I will be in five years (certainly not in a tenure track position!), but I can guess that in ten seconds I will be typing the next sentence. But even guessing twenty seconds in the future is more difficult than ten. I maybe should have thought that I had a lot to drink at lunch and that I might need to use the restroom between sentences.
That last sentence gives away something about the future that we may take for granted when thinking about it, what we think will happen in the future is dependent on what has happened in the past. Husserl links the two time frames as past (retention) and future (protention) horizons around “now.” These three planes of time all work together to give us a sense of where we are, what has happened, and what we think will happen next.
As time goes by, we constantly accumulate more and more of the past that can potentially affect the future. As something recedes into memory it will be coded as some kind of event. These coded events become markers that we consciously or unconsciously use to look into the future. Example: I’ve been sitting on my couch, typing on my laptop, it’s been raining outside, cars have been going by, I had an oreo a minute ago; okay, so what happens next? It is easier to determine what will not happen more than what will. Things that would not happen: the earth explodes, a tree falls on me, a swarm of cats attack me, I catch a baseball. Things that could happen but would be a shock: a car hits my house (or gets in a wreck in front of my house), the rain causes a flood, the oreo I ate is bad, my laptop breaks. Things that I think will happen: I will keep typing on this paper, I will eat more oreos, cars will keep driving by.
If something other than what I think will happen occurs, it will be somewhat of a surprise to me. (although if it is something like the earth exploding I’d be very surprised) Most of the events that come to pass in our immediate future are fulfillments of what we intended to happen. The moments that go against our expectations stick out to us and are more likely to be encoded as a memory, i.e. when I fell in the springs of a trampoline when I was 17 and cut my leg all up. I was not intending to fall in the springs, but when I did it was a great surprise (especially to see my calf muscle without the skin covering it!), this moment will always be in my memory.
The fact that time and memory is contextual cannot be stressed enough. Even a slight bump in continuity of time can alter the context. I was recently in a bike accident that knocked me unconscious for a bit. I was riding my bike (as I always do, fast and intense) and turned a corner (that I’ve turned many times) an instant later I am laying face down in the street looking at a stopped car, my iPhone, and headphones strewn about in the street in front of me. The moment I woke up I didn’t know where I was, how I got there, or what I was doing. I had lost some time (I think about 10 seconds?), I had lost some “now” and was trying to piece together what happened. I soon figured out that I wrecked my bike (what? I was riding my bike?) turning a corner (how did that happen? I’ve turned many corners) and was bleeding on my face and legs. What a surprise! I was so surprised because I do not remember being out of control, my now had shifted from riding my in control of my bike to laying wrecked in the street with no context in between, no memory of being out of control or that I was going to wreck.
The man in the car who saw me wreck has a very different experience. He was driving up to a stop sign like he always does, he sees a guy turning a corner on his bike, the back tire slips out from underneath it, the guy wrecks and lays on the street face down. He stops the car, gets out, and begins to ask if the guy’s alright. He is not confused, his time continuum has not changed or been disoriented, he is able to piece together the whole event. Now, it was probably a surprise to see the wreck, as it is uncommon to see that type of event, but his experience is much different than mine was. Although, he may have already seen many bike wrecks in his like (say he used to cycle competitively) and this one was a sort of run-of-the-mill wreck, he may just as well let this memory recede into the backlogs of his memory.
This is an interesting point about memory. According to our temperament and our life experience, we “mark” events differently. These markings will determine if we actually remember an event strongly or if it will fade away. Often it is the event itself that seems to mark us, while at others I say things like, “I must remember this”, but usually it is more likely that the event creates a strong impression that I cannot forget. The things/events I choose to try to force myself to remember usually gets lost in my memory, while events that “mark me” are inherently stronger to lasting in my memory.
Time in music
Time and music are one and the same. As opposed to art, which stands outside of time, music can only exist through time. When we hear a note, what we are actually hearing is some mechanism (a string, or vocal cords) vibrating at a certain rate. We calculate this rate in cycles (or vibrations) per second and this vibration travels through the air and into our ears where it vibrates parts of our inner ear that then encode it as a sound. The standard tuning pitch (in the United States that is) is A=440, that means that we tune all of our instruments to match the pitch A to something vibrating at 440 times a second. Without time, music would not exist.
Pitfalls of experiencing music
Experiencing music, much like anything else, is more full when you understand its pitfalls. Because the music experience is time-based, in a way there is no going back. This is especially true in the pre-recording era when all music was performed live. Once the orchestra begins, they will not stop until the final note, unless you were some type of king or in nobility and it was your court, you would not be able to tell an orchestra to play something again or to begin from earlier points. Experiencing music from front to back with no breaks causes one to listen to it differently than being able to stop and “rewind”.
Like life, listening to music is contextual. A good piece of music, regardless of genre, will require the listener to remember certain moments in it that will affect future moments. What makes a double-chorus at the end of at Bon-Jovi tune so powerful?, the fact that we have already heard the chorus twice as a single chorus and know the music and words. Why is the climax of Barber’s Adagio for Strings so powerful?, it may be because up until that point he has evaded the tonic chord and has waited until this most powerful moment to reveal it. These moments in music are much more engaging, important, and gratifying when the listener is actively listening and is trying to make contextual connections.
Some genres are easier to make these connections, pop being the easiest, ostensibly, classical and jazz being the most difficult. Having words to follow along with generally helps with remembering music, this is why typical “song” form (verse-chorus-V-C-bridge-C-C) is so popular in pop music, one knows what to expect, and it delivers. It takes little thought to understand, is predictable, and hooks the listener in. (btw, this is not a rant against different genres, I’m not arguing for any type of elitism or supremacy in any one genre) More abstract genres and forms require more hours of studying, listening, internalizing, and knowledge of to understand.
Empty and fulfilled intentions
In listening contextually, one begins to use retention (the past) to make judgements of protention (the future). This leads to the simple yet powerful idea of an intention being fulfilled or empty. Each can be a powerful statement and the context surrounding each will determine whether or not they become a lasting moment in your memory of if they will fade away. At base level, a fulfilled intention is one in which the protention matches your expectation of retention, this can be satisfying in that a context is established and at certain moments what you had hoped would happen does indeed happen. Empty intentions are when a context is established and an event occurs that is different that what you think would fulfill it. It should be noted that one intention is not better than the other because the names of each does so. Empty intentions are what most humor is made of, establishing a set-up and delivering a punch-line that fits but catches you off guard. There are many ways of having empty intentions be rewarding, the element of surprise, things “coming from left field”, and almost all M. Night Shayamalan movies come to mind as a few.
With that being said, Love Like a Sunset plays with our expectations as listeners and uses different techniques to establish contexts only to break them. Specifically, I believe that there are two points in the tune that merits an empty intention, that go against what we were led to believe would happen, and thus makes for an interesting and memorable work.