The One About Music

I’m about to fail miserably.

Let me explain.

In the introduction to Scott Miller’s book Strike Up the Band, he writes:

 “[…] Words alone can never have the dramatic power or intensity of emotion that music possesses. The great director and teacher Konstantin Stanislavski said that the abstract language of music is the only direct way to the human heart. And in this modern world where emotions – particularly big emotions – are often considered inappropriate, inconvenient, even impolite, where the expression of full-bodied emotion has been “civilized” out of most of us, the extreme, unapologetic emotionalism of musical theatre offers audiences a much needed release.”

Music has an innate emotional connection to us. That connection speaks to us on a level we are incapable of reaching with words. That’s why we have music. When we can’t explain how we feel, when we can’t deal with how we feel, when we want to feel something specific, or when we just want to feel something… there’s music.

Every film that’s ever made you wipe your eyes on your hands/sleeve/tissues had help. The story, characters, and dialogue undoubtedly had their part in reducing you to a heap of failed attempts at controlled breathing and unstemmable ocular leaking, but the music dealt the killing blow.

“I would use my katana, but my violin solo already killed you.”

That’s why scenes like the possession/friendship-is-awesome scene from the end of Order of the Phoenix…

“Voldemort I can deal with, but these strings…”

…or the dancing bag scene from American Beauty…

The piano might as well be kicking you in the sensitives.

…or The Iron Giant’s “Superman” scene…

Oh, you didn’t cry during this scene? Then you’re a lying robot.

…are all emotional knockouts.

While the above examples are accentuated by their music, there are two examples of films that depend completely upon it.

The first is John Carpenter’s Halloween.

This knife is messed up, and it’s always bothered me.

John Carpenter provided a cut of Halloween to executives before he composed the music. They were unimpressed, didn’t think the film was scary, and were considering not releasing it.

After composing and recording the score, he applied it to the exact same cut of the film. Suddenly, it was the most terrifying thing they had ever seen.

The second film that comes to mind depends entirely on music for a short interlude. That is Disney/Pixar’s UP.

Beautiful, buoyant, sweet, and sad.

If you haven’t seen UP, or if it’s been a while, this sequence alone is worth more than most movies. There is no dialogue. The music is playful, touching, and tragic. It narrates the story of Carl and Ellie’s life with subtlety and grace; I daresay better than any spoken narration could.

Of course these examples are all loaded with angst, terror, and sadness, but if you took the music out, we’d all have much better odds of maintaining our composure.

But that wouldn’t be the point.

These film scores are designed to elicit an emotional response that we might not give willingly because, like the quote at the beginning states, “emotion has been ‘civilized’ out of most of us…”

It’s not just movies that use music to push us beyond our comfort zones, either. We do it to ourselves. When my wife and I work out, we make sure to load up a playlist full of hard-hitting music. It helps us concentrate to push ourselves further than we could listening to the motor of the treadmill and our own quick, shallow breaths. Even if there are only moderate physiological effects from the music, there is still a psychological effect: inspiration.

But you wouldn’t see it because of the shaky-cam.

Think about when you need to listen to specific kinds of music. For me, the list would go something like:

  1. Angry – Metal, Rap, Techno
  2. Happy – Rock, Pop Punk, Showtunes
  3. Sad – Emo (duh), Folk, Alternative
  4. Sexy – Barry White.

Granted, that’s a small example of both emotions and styles, but you get the idea. I may need to listen to something from the Happy section because I’m feeling Sad. Or, in order to achieve a catharsis, I’ll “go around the horn” by hulking out to Tool or Rage Against the Machine. Either way, I’m still using music to manipulate my mental and emotional states.

Music can make us fly or bring us to our knees. It can speak to a part of us we thought was long dead, take us back to an afternoon in high school when we were driving with a car full of friends and the windows down, or simply be something to cut the deafening silence. Some of my experiences with live music vie for the top spots in my life.

Like I said when we started this, I have failed at articulating exactly what I felt when I got the inspiration for this post, but that’s because it was inspired by watching a group of students singing an a capella version of Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek. It reminded me of performing music in high school and college, how much I miss it, and what kind of power music holds over us all.

It’s enchanting.

It’s disarming.

It’s subliminal.

It’s universal.

One of my favorite things is when I hear a song that was overplayed in its day, but that I haven’t heard in years. Because now it’s like this old friend that I’ve photoshopped (autotuned?) all the imperfections out of, and I’m just happy to be bombarded by all the memories that are attached to that annoyingly catchy “toothpaste commercial” of a song.

Maybe that’s what this post is really about. Remembering how great music is and how much we take it for granted. Maybe it’s nothing you don’t already know, but it’s something we let slip under the radar and we need to be reminded from time to time.

Be affected.

Be emotional.

Be uncivilized.


Achievement Unlocked

There are probably plenty of people that wouldn’t consider me a gamer.

My gamertag profile is Recreational, not Underground. I’ve never played through all the Halo games, the Call of Duty has gone unanswered on my consoles, and the Gears of War stopped turning after about 45 minutes. I rarely play online multiplayer, and when I do, I don’t scream slanderous imprecations.

Not pictured: Me

I’ve never played Madden (or any of the 2K sports games), the only RPG I ever finished had Mario in it, and in case you skipped the first section, I’m not a big fan of shooters (BioShock excepted).

Now would you kindly release BioShock Infinite already?

These reasons would be held against me in a court of gaming.

I still feel like a gamer, though. I grew up playing video games like Metroid, Zelda, Tetris, Mega Man, Contra, Ninja Gaiden, and of course, the Mario suite (We only ever had Nintendo consoles until I bought a PS2 in college). For the first time in my life, I have all the current-generation consoles. I have an Xbox Live Gold account (hamm0ndeggs; yes, that’s a zero), a PlayStation Plus account, (hamm0ndeggs610; again, zero), and a GameFly membership. I play whenever I get a chance, and I find myself wishing I had more time to play, since I have a stack of games that have barely been touched, if they’ve been touched at all.

But I find myself enjoying it less and less. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m getting old and curmudgeonly, and these new games <old man voice> AREN’T LIKE THE ONES WE HAD WHEN I WAS A KID, </old man voice> or if I’m seeing it as less of a worthy expenditure of my time.

I’m leaning toward the latter.


Now, I never thought I would have even entertained the idea that I would ever outgrow video games. That would be ridiculous. Even now, I’m not entirely sure that I have, or I ever will. My wife will attest to my regular rendezvous with my consoles. I’m still active. But I’ve felt a definite shift in the attitude I have toward my games. It’s almost like I view them as a chore now, instead of the diversion they’re supposed to be. The conclusion I’ve come to is this:

Achievements are ruining my game experience.

Call them achievements, call them trophies, call it gamerscore… it’s all the same thing. Collection trophies, completion achievements, these are all arbitrary numbers attached to arbitrary actions, and those numbers add up to a poor paycheck for jobs that are designed to be tedious.

But it’s a paycheck I line up for like a lab rat hitting a feeder bar. Like a junkie chasing the high. And that’s exactly what it is. Don’t believe me? Cracked published an article about 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted. You should read it, especially if you’re a gamer.

The idea of achievements is an effort/reward system, and it makes you want more. And more. And more.

When I was a kid, we didn’t give a crap about achievements. We had points, which you could say were similar, but it at least changed with every new game you played.  With gamerscore and whatever the trophy quotient formula Sony uses is, it becomes part of you. It’s your gamer CV. And it’s killing my inner child.

Who do you think you are? Michael Bay?

I don’t play games that don’t have trophies on my Ps3. Because I don’t see the point. Because I think of it as time spent without compensation. Do I expect some kind of compensation when I go to the movies? When I read a book? No, but I’m sure I would if I was using an app like Glue or trying to become the mayor of some place on FourSquare. And that’s in real life.

The chase for achievements has robbed me of games I’m sure I would have enjoyed. Metal Gear Solid 4, for example. I didn’t play it despite the amazing things I’ve heard about it solely because there weren’t trophies for it.

Games are not the only thing I believe achievements are snatching from my life. I think that I’m not only becoming addicted to them, but I’m also finding a sense of accomplishment through something that has no value in the real world.

That’s right: I’m letting video game achievements stop me from achieving things that will improve my life.

That has to stop.

Maybe that means I’ll play less video games. Maybe I’ll just care less about harvesting achievements and trophies, and play games I enjoy. One of my recent goals is to start writing more. And I’m doing that now. Talking about something that’s fighting for my attention seemed only natural.

So if you made it this far, thanks for reading.

Achievement Unlocked.

Want more? I did a guest post on my wife’s blog. Check it out.

Writers write.

I talk to myself.

Like, more than anyone this side of the nuthouse should. It’s my way of processing what my brain pours into itself. I’m my own sounding board. Not that I don’t have friends or family to talk to; in fact, it was my wife who suggested I start this blog. To get me writing again. Which, in a way, is what I’m doing when I’m talking to myself. I’ll start ad-libbing a scene between two characters, and do the back-and-forth, which immediately ceases if/when I get within earshot of anyone who might ask the nice men in white coats to kindly remove that weird mumbler from the action figure aisle.

The problem comes when I think of something really cool, and I’m nowhere near a computer or notepad to write it down. The best I can manage is using the Notes app on my phone to jot down the main idea behind the exchange. Of course, even that ends up being useless for one very important reason:

I don’t write.

That’s why I’m here. Just by customizing my settings and plunking out my About section, I felt the old beastie lurch. Even now, by excising these words from my brain and preserving them here, I can feel the wheels turning. I’m picking up a very dull knife and scraping it with every word. Making it sharper. Or maybe just… less dull.

Writers write.

I will make myself a writer again. Maybe I’ll stop talking to myself. Just look at me now.

I’m talking to you.