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Useful And Fantastic: Music As Noise - Part 1

"Almost anything we make can be used. Everything we make can be abused,'' says Val Yule, going on to consider whether the flood of loud music which assaults our lives may have a long-term damaging effect on our lives.

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"Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own. Under the influence of music I really seem to feel what I do not understand, to have powers which I cannot have." ~Tolstoy

Humans may be the most adaptable creatures in the world except for viruses and bacteria. They can adapt to living with great extremes of climate, temperature, food, geography, speed, on land, sea and air. Current experiments explore how to live in space, on another planet, under the sea, inside bubbles. Are there any limits? What about loud noise in music?

Humans have always conducted mass experiments on themselves. On what food was edible, what could be done with fire, on being in, on and under the water . . The new adaptations almost always depend on individuals who dare to try or are forcibly experimented on. Even agriculture and horse riding began with individual experiments.

But since the Industrial Revolution experiments have been more and more on mass scales with no real attention to consequences unless there are short-term disasters. And so far, the answers have tended to be complacent – human beings are able to adapt to almost anything.

For example, people worried about railways, then cars, then about flying and now space travel. Human physiology could not stand going so fast. Human physiology can stand it – so far.

But are there limits to adaptability? The obesity epidemic suggests there may some dietary excesses in a culture that people’s metabolisms do not always adapt to.

Now there is a question about intellectual development – keeping people remaining homo sapiens. Can people become less intelligent? In the mass we don’t really seem to be much better than the mobs of old. Futuristic fiction gets dismal, with mad scientists, zombies, robots, Big Brother.

How could people be made more intelligent? The ongoing quest now includes mind-enhancing drugs, not just better schooling.

My psychological colleagues look at how to raise intelligence. I try to warn, to prevent its waste – waste in so many ways. All those factors that make people more stupid than they might have been.

What about loud noisy music then? There have always been ideas about whether music can make you more intelligent. Develop children’s brains. There are commercial ads for ‘brain music’ guaranteed to stimulate your brain and make your neural connections grow and work better, so that all sectors of the TEMPORAL LOBES will cascade movement into FRONTAL LOBE regions

But, like anything else, can music be abused? I remember enormous public outcries in the 1930s when Bing Crosby’s crooning was accused of softening the brain because of its soppiness. There are no such public fusses about the present mass global experiments in loud music, vibration and percussion. On the internet teenagers ask for information to use in school essays, but do they get it? We now know that very loud music can damage hearing long-term, and people going to loud music venues are recommended to wear ear-plugs, although the plugs do not cushion against the sensory impacts of noise on the bone behind the ear. The people who don’t wear ear-plugs – well, shrug . . Some reports of ruptured lungs have been explained as due to the booming bass frequency of loud music that is felt as a vibration going through the body. The lungs may essentially start to vibrate in the same frequency as the bass.. In Melbourne areas where gigs can be very loud, objecting residents have been advised to move home.

Today there is more music around available to everybody than ever before. Some people live all the time in an ambience of music, around them in public spaces, in their ears, wooftering in their cars, so that the vibration shakes the streets they travel. Instrumental music that is. Ourselves, we may be singing less – even the age-old lullabies to sing babies to sleep – where are they?

Nobody can escape other people’s music, even in traffic jams, or disrupting and even obscuring voices on Radio National. TV, Sony Walkmans, i-pods, mpg, car radios, DVD players, home entertainment systems and Muzak in almost every public place make possible a constant ambience of musical noise.

And a great deal of it, especially at raves, discos and festivals is loud, very loud, louder than is permitted in factories - amplified to pack electronic punch. There is far more drumming and percussion as automatic repetitive beats, without rhythm, than even twenty years ago. For an elderly ear, these beats can trump the melody or lyrics. How do these drumbeats match the old purposes of this sort of beat drumming – to keep soldiers marching, and tribal ceremonies self-hypnotising in the jungles?

Loud music is also used as torture in interrogating prisoners. Teenagers however are most exposed to it. How does it affect them? Does it make them any different than teenagers who missed out?

Where are the longitudinal experiments with proper controls and proper measurements of brain function for something that is far more widespread than thalidomide ever was, and yet is not within the ambit of any Food and Drugs Administration?

Are there long-term effects that are not being researched in this enormous unmonitored global experiment? Are human powers to think adapting to incessant decibels? Journals of music – I have not found any research that investigates loud music. I have been able to find only scrappy items – such as mice who don’t learn, children under flight paths reading badly, or occasional studies of increased emotional pressures. A 2004 study found that loud music reduced reaction time and decision-making ability, and recommended lower decibels when driving. Long-term? Experts on noise research have asked me to tell them if I find more about cognitive effects of very loud music – because they don’t know, although some speculate that while the ear may habituate to very loud music, the brain may not.

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