Earlier this week, I drove to my final shift at my restaurant job in Columbia, South Carolina. No, this is not a story about how I was able to leave my “day job” to pursue writing. That remains to be determined.
As I got into my car, I felt an excitement about the future and my upcoming relocation to Los Angeles—triumphant music was the aux move. First, I queued up Future’s “Draco,” a song that unfortunately came and went as the unintended result of his prolific output. As the DJ Spinz-produced track reached its first drop, I heard an element of the instrumental I’d failed to notice prior to this drive. Besides the rolling hi-hats that carry Future’s voice over the drums, there was a secondary hi-hat ringing new to my ears. Like all novel sensations, its presence was overwhelming. As the song continued, it kept hissing at me with industrial force to the point that I could focus on nothing else. Future did not come to bring peace to the earth but came to bring a Draco. Yet, as his psalm ended, I was confused.
The newly-discovered hi-hat was “there” in all of my earlier listens, the air molecules vibrating in a similar fashion against my eardrums. But if you asked me about it, I couldn’t provide you with an account. So did I really “know” it? Even if I had, it’s plain to see I didn’t have a proper understanding of the beat as a complete work. Since my perception of the instrumental had shifted, was I hearing a “new” beat? These internal questions were quickly exchanged for external inquiries from restaurant guests about steak temperatures and valet tickets. Questions of a higher order must be answered on my own time.
My aural confusion led me to consider, “what does it mean to really know and understand a beat?” Once again, I curse my disposition to push the inquiry back. Asking what it means to know a beat is a specific instance of the question, “what does it mean to know?” Epistemology, the study of the nature and process of how we know, is too dense a subject to tackle on DJBooth or my own personal understanding, but let’s look briefly at one mode of knowing.
Looking through the lens of neuroscience, we process instrumentals when the vibrating air molecules make contact with the eardrum, which in turn sends that signal to the auditory cortex, activating the cerebellum. The cerebellum then breaks down the information it’s receiving and transmits it through neurons to other parts of the brain, each performing their own interpretive functions, such as deciding if this sound is “dangerous” (i.e. explosion, gunshot, etc.). Our brain acts as a self-reliant post office, sorting out packages and parcels of different sizes, assigning them a particular classification, and sending them where they belong.
It’s clear this isn’t the whole picture, though. While the air molecules might change their velocity (volume/amplitude) or frequency, when those sound files move their contents through sound waves, it’s virtually the same every time. However, that doesn’t explain why our perceptions of beats shift, which is a phenomenon so universal for music listeners that it puts the alt-Ye in solidarity with idealogues in Cole’s World.
Also, we must assume that empirical evidence—things we can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell—is the only reliable way to know if something fails to satisfy its own criteria. Unfortunately, we can’t prove that empirical evidence is the only valid benchmark by using empirical evidence. Simply, it’s deeper than vibrating air molecules.
Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and the author of This Is Your Brain on Musicwrote, “Music can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds. Just how this structure leads us to emotional reactions is part of the mystery of music.”
Shifting music perception is a universal phenomenon, and it happens more often than we think. We can all relate to the impact of a beat wearing off. The bass might not have as much oomph through your speakers or a snare might hit softer than before, but nothing has changed in the song’s composition. Apart from songs that didn’t employ refined engineering, I simply don’t feel the same level of intensity in, say, Bankroll Fresh’s “Hot Boy” or Future’s “Radical” as I used to. Part of the reason could be me grinding down my connection to the production from excessive streaming worse than the brake pads in my first car. Lupe Fiasco recognized this reality and tried to remedy it on Tetsuo & Youth. His four interludes, each named for a season, are “palate cleansers,” he says, meant to wash away the residue of 808s and synthesizers so we can enjoy the next instrumentals.
Live performances can also drastically alter your perception of a beat. If you’re watching a DJ set, and he or she is creative, they will add an effect to this hi-hat progression, or throw in that extra sound that balances an overwhelming element. An artist too can emphasize different parts of the song by delivering them with live instruments instead of a laptop DJ. Some even do both, a course of action Smino took on his recent tour. Getting a complete picture of artistic intention in these ways can make listeners feel like a musical novice, but it’s a beneficial humbling.
I took a liking to Plato’s dialogues in college and one of the ways in which his interlocutors tried to discover the best definitions was through finding commonalities. What do all these shifts in music perception have in common? Experience. By the nature of existing, each time we listen to a beat we’re doing it with a different conception of the world, no matter how slight. My brother put his hand on an iron when he was six years old and that’s when he learned the extreme intensity of heat and how to avoid it. We grow and absorb new information, ideas, and experiences, playing our role as earth’s sentient sponges. We can’t help but “see” and “know” things differently every time.
On Tetsuo & Youth, Lupe adding those interludes to our mind’s instrumental bank colored our perception of the proceeding beats. Similarly, the shifts in Smino’s live set wouldn’t have meant anything to me had I not been familiar with Monte Booker’s already quirky production. Music isn’t only informed by music, though. I’m confident some albums require certain interpersonal experiences to begin the process of understanding. I wouldn’t have felt the visceral reality of isolation in Blonde’s sparse production had I not been familiar with psychological solitude.
The cold, hard reality is that there just might not be a hard litmus test for “knowing” a beat. For better or worse, it’s affected by the way we move and interact with the world, our conceptualization of that experience, and our unconscious application of that to our interactions with sonic entities. Instrumentals are one of the beauties of existence. Capturing an emotion, a moment, a relationship in the way instruments, physical or digital, work together is the closest thing to magic I’ve encountered.
I’m not sure I’ve helped anyone reading this conceptual vomit of a think piece, or myself. If anything, I’m stepping away from my computer with more questions than I had when I started typing.
The only datum I can take away from this writing exercise is that if experience plays a role in how we understand a beat, we should read that as a joyful imperative. Simply, go do shit! Hit up that show, hike that trail, alter your consciousness, or indulge those carbs. Get disappointed and pleasantly surprised by your interactions with people, whether platonic or amorous. Sure, it sucks to have your heart broken or to fall short of a goal. But it could be the bridge between grasping the depth of Metro Boomin’s bass or the emotion behind a Madlib sample.
Beats exist at the crossroads of the abstract and concrete. To remain in your head with them is fun, but ultimately only provides half the picture. Thinkers in ancient Greece knew this, which is why they lived out their kaleidoscopic philosophies. We must live out our interactions with beats, too. There will always be an ineffable quality to music production, but that’s what we like about it; if there were hard answers, I wouldn’t be typing these words.