I was reading this super valuable post by Rob Walker listing different strategies for how to pay attention. Deep attention makes the difference between looking at something and actually seeing it. Rob is talking mostly to visual artists and designers, but his methods work well for musicians too–seeing is to looking as hearing is to listening. Paying attention is the most basic skill an artist needs in any medium, and one of the most basic skills a person needs in life. Not only does artistic practice require attention, but it also helps you learn it. When you look critically at a painting or listen critically to a song, you’re disciplining your attentional system.
Being able to focus deeply has its obvious practical benefits, but it’s also an invaluable tool for making your emotional life more manageable. It’s significant to me that the image below appears in two different Wikipedia articles: attention and flow.
When people ask why we should study the arts, the attention argument is the best answer. The variety of deep attention known as mindfulness is a powerful antidepressant. Teaching the arts isn’t just about cultural preservation and transmission; it’s also a cost-effective public health measure. Music isn’t the only method for practicing your attention, but it’s one of the best. This post will address my preferred method for focusing my musical attention: the infinite loop.
Repetition is an infallible method for grabbing your attention. I would guess that music emerged as an outgrowth of our broader fascination with repetition. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the definition of music is repeated sound. There is no more repetitive sound than Afrodiasporic dance music: hip-hop, EDM and the various pop styles that derive from them.
Music has always been repetitive, but only in the past few decades has it been possible to repeat a sound exactly and endlessly. It wasn’t even possible with tape loops; each pass over the playback head degrades the medium, so each time through the loop you hear slightly more noise. Not so with digital samples. The experience of perfect and indefinite repetition has gone quickly from an uncannily novel one to being the backbone of all of global popular and art music.
It’s a common experience for electronic musicians to leave a loop running for many minutes, or even hours. You don’t generally pay close attention to the loop during all of that time. Maybe you get something to eat, or wash the dishes, or answer the phone. Maybe you’re deliberately soaking up the nuances of the loop, but maybe you’re just letting it run absent-mindedly. Either way, this is not a listening experience that a normal person has. Even the most brutally minimalist music has more narrative to it than a breakbeat cycling identically for an hour. All producers of recordings end up listening to pieces of those recordings many times, but it’s only in hip-hop and EDM where you routinely listen to a bar or two on repeat uninterruptedly, seamlessly, and endlessly.
One of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards says that “Repetition is a form of change.” I interpret Eno to mean that looping a sound changes your perception of it, especially over long time spans. The sound itself doesn’t change, but the repetition opens up new avenues of attention and understanding, like a zen master staring for hours at a rock. You discover new details in the sound, and in your emotional response to the sound, on listen number 1000 that you wouldn’t have found at 100 or 500.
Most sounds don’t benefit from extreme repetition. They either become annoying, or they fade into the background, or both. But if you find or create the right loop, you might find that your enjoyment gets deeper and deeper the more times you hear it. Hip-hop and EDM production mostly consists of the hunt for those loops. Certain breakbeats get sampled heavily because they’ve been found to generate greater pleasure with increasing repetition. Any break on this list fits the criteria. With experience, you develop an instinct for what might make a good sample, but ultimately, the only way to know whether a loop will be annoying or gratifying is to try it.
Rob Walker wrote another post that’s pertinent to the discussion of repetitive music, about a strange YouTube phenomenon: videos of endlessly looped nonsense. During the writing, Rob consulted me and Marc Weidenbaum:
Some weeks back my editor at Yahoo Tech and I were back and forthing about this YouTube video — basically the cool drum fill from “In The Air Tonight,” looped for 30 minutes.
Then he noticed this absurdity: 15 minutes of “Do You Guys Know How To Post Videos To Facebook?”
We discussed how this might be a sort of genre descended in part from You’re The Man Now, Dawg, and one of our colleagues pointed out the 10-hour version of “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and I guess a whole category of 10-hour repetition videos on YouTube.
Rob asked us for more examples of the “super loop” — a relative of the supercut. Here’s an emblematic supercut: Don Draper says “what?”
While a supercut is a compilation of many similar things, a superloop is simply one video fragment looped endlessly. This turns out to be quite a popular subgenre of YouTube video. Casual Googling surfaces some endless loops of nature sounds for relaxation purposes, for example:
But then you quickly get into the absurdist comedy superloops, like the aforementioned “You’re the man now, dawg.” While pondering Rob’s question, I discovered this insane loop from a Donald Duck cartoon, which is funny, then annoying, then funny again, then annoying again. (However, it’s not nearly as annoying as “You’re the man now, dawg.”)
Another related listening experience that occurs to me: the Infinite Jukebox from the Echo Nest. My favorite song to load in there is “Billie Jean” — it isn’t exactly an identical loop, but it’s the same idea, and I’ll happily listen to it for half an hour.
I find “You’re the man now, dawg” extremely irritating, almost immediately. On the other hand, I positively enjoy the endless Phil Collins loop, and can listen to at length. It helps that it’s an actual drum groove; actually, it’s three quarters of the way to being a totally plausible hip-hop instrumental. “Posting videos to Facebook” I enjoy too, not as much as Phil Collins, but it does have a nice musical vibe to it. After a few passes, I discovered that I can beatbox a four-on-the-floor techno beat underneath it that fits perfectly. I could imagine turning it into a bumping dance track.
Vi Hart has taken the excessive repetition concept to the next level by doing a physical performance of a loop that, while not endless, certainly feels that way: a microwave timer counting down for ten minutes. Vi counts along with the timer out loud for the entire duration. Her voice begins to rise and fall rhythmically, and the result is like an incantation.
The line between a gratifying loop and a maddeningly irritating can be fine indeed. The same loop can inspire both emotions over the course of a long listen, as I experienced with Donald Duck.
While loops can bring on mindful meditation, they can also evoke madness and neurological disease. In normal happy brain functioning, neurons fire in a chaotic fractal pattern. In epileptic seizures, the brain gets “phase locked,” with big groups of neurons all firing in rigid patterns. Depression and anxiety involve inescapable loops of obsessive thought, and there’s some speculation that they might be related to the loops of epilepsy, but on a smaller scale. At their worst, loops can evoke the feeling of misery, of being out of control, or of losing your mind completely. This is why noise pollution is a genuine public health threat. You can close or avert your eyes to light pollution, but you can’t close or avert your ears. There’s a special place in hell for Darrell Issa and other makers and sellers of car alarms.
So why are some loops distressing and others gratifying? My guess is that the loops that invite imaginative participation are the good ones. If the loop is a scaffold for internal play, then it’s good. If it forces you into brain states you don’t want to be in, then it’s bad.