Listening, hearing, and the infinite loop

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.

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.

6 thoughts on “Listening, hearing, and the infinite loop

  1. Ok, I understand. Everything is rhythm and a matter of repetition. Light works the same way but without reflections or medium. But then we still need structures to declare when something is just noise and when it’s music. The word “pleasing” you mention is essential. A “pleasing harmonic sound” is a musical element but when it’s not harmonic we must call it noise. Speaking can sound musical when the intervals are melodic, when not, it’s just speech. Repeating it doesn’t help in my opinion.

  2. Although it’s a great discovery I have always felt that the Diana Deutsch experiment is missing one important thing. It doesn’t prove what makes that sentence sound like music. Not all sounds, or all speech on repetition sounds like music. The frase “they sometimes behave so strangely” is spoken with a lot of melodic differences and a timing that makes it musical. If you would start repeating “The sounds as they appear to you” you will not get the same results because it doesn’t sound melodic enough in my opinion.

    There’s a huge difference between noise and music. And most noise on repeat simply sounds awful.

    Music is a word for describing the way noise is organised. We have a set of rules for what we call rhythm, what we call harmony and what we call a melody. Just words. But in our world there’s a huge difference between sounds and music. Not all sound on repeat is music. And what makes it music is simply a matter of rules.

    All sounds are repetitions. A decay is like a repetition of a small part of the waveform. This doesn’t make it music. So although I find it very interesting when people say repetition is an important part of music, it is, but it is not the most important thing. When we hear a melody we can recognise it as a melody without any repetitions. And sure, repetitions are nice. We do that all the time. Life is repetition. This is how we create our own taste.

    • I believe that the repetition is enough to make a sentence sound like music. It’s not enough to make it sound like *good* music, but it’ll still activate the rhythm detector. Actually, I think that what we call our “musical” sense is really just a repetition and harmonic detector. We needed to be adept at picking footsteps or animal noises from the natural sound mass back in the stone age, and we can’t turn that equipment off.

      If you repeat and envelope filter your noise properly, it can sound wonderfully musical. Max Roach used to end his concerts by doing an extended solo on just a hi-hat cymbal and it sounded fantastic.

      • Aha. I get it now. You call any repetition of noise or words music. I can understand that but for me there’s something missing. “The sounds as they appear to you” on repeat simply sounds bad to my ears. But “they sometimes behave so strangely” sounds like a melody. Probably because the intervals between the words are more like a well sung melody. At least, that’s what I am hearing.

        Don’t forget that repetition can also kill a great melody. Sometimes we hear a piece of melody only once and we immediately think it is music without it being repeated. If you play a few notes of a scale that sounds like music to most people. Without repetition. We are all aware of intervals. So when we speak we hearing melodies straight away when they appear. Without any repetitions.

        Max Roach used rhythms. He played within a time frame, using the rules of rhythm. If you randomize an envelope filter it sounds awful, but if you add structure to it which fits our rhythmic rules we will say we’re hearing a musical rhythm.

        Repetitions is a method for making people remember things. Like rhyme. Rhyme is not the most important thing in song lyrics, it’s the text itself. And repetition is not the most important thing in music. Repetition is often used so people feel “this is the refrain”. To make something stand out a bit more. But repetition on it’s own is simply boring. At least for me. I can not listen to a beat which stays exactly the same for more than a few bars. James Brown I love, but his rhythms are repetitions but with a lot of subtle changes, the band is driving the beats in a very hot way. Make a sample of 2 bars of James Brown and after 8 bars you get bored. At least I am.

        • My definition of music as repetition doesn’t say anything about pleasure or quality. The fact that you can use music as a highly effective torture device doesn’t change its status as music. The pain of car alarms is that their musical characteristics make them impossible to ignore. Being next to a noisy river or waterfall is relaxing because the white noise lacks a pattern and so you can ignore it at will.

          All pitched sounds are intrinsically rhythmic and therefore repetitive. Sound is a series of thumps on your eardrum as the air pressure changes. If the thumps come fast enough, you stop experiencing them as discrete events and instead perceive them to be a unified sound, but that’s an illusion, a kind of shorthand used by your consciousness. Your brain is still timing out the thumps; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to make sense out of anything you heard. If the thumps come at random intervals, you hear noise. If they come at a steady rhythm, you hear a pitch. If the thumps form a pleasing polyrhythm, you hear a pleasing harmonic sound. At the base level, pitch changes in a melody are tempo changes.

          Monotonous repetition is a rhythm. A boring and annoying rhythm to be sure, but a rhythm nevertheless. We can’t help but pay attention to a steady beat, because it’s such an improbable sound in a natural context. Adding a structure like Max Roach does certainly adds pleasure to having our attention grabbed, but it’s a difference of degree, not kind.

  3. Ethan! This is awesome. (Amusingly, I saved it to instapaper just based on the headline, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that first graf, ha ha.) “Seeing is to looking as hearing is to listening,” is a line I’m going to use for sure (crediting you, I mean), and I really really find the whole opening, culminating in studying the arts to cultivate attentional skills, extremely valuable. Thanks.

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