Photo by Diego Mora Barrantes on Unsplash
“What have we done with innocence? It disappeared with time, it never made much sense.”
~David Grohl, Monkey Wrench
My brother Ian and I have a long-standing argument about Dave Grohl’s most important musical contribution. I vote for Nirvana, while Ian maintains the Foo Fighters are one of the best bands in musical history. We are actually both right – I mean, what can’t Grohl do well? – but it’s still fun to compare the striving beat of the Foo Fighters’ Learn to Fly with Nirvana’s simplistic but haunting Come As You Are.
I have been understandably sad for my brother lately. Taylor Hawkins, the drummer for the Foo Fighters, died unexpectedly hours before a March gig in Columbia. Only 50 years old, Hawkins’ death is still under investigation, though it’s assumed he overdosed on drugs, since his blood contained opioids, marijuana, and benzodiazepines.
So I found myself cueing up an old ipod mix Ian made me of his favorite Foo Fighters songs. I’m sure I listened to it when it was gifted, but I probably didn’t pay attention at the time. I believe that perfect songs – like perfect books – come to us at the perfect time. So if I had heard the song Monkey Wrench before, I didn’t really hear it. Because when I heard it this time, it literally stopped me in my tracks.
Monkey Wrench is an up-tempo treatise on the devolution of Grohl’s marriage at the time. Though the lyrics are a downer, the song is a barnburner. It’s pop meets punk meets hard rock, written in a 4/4 time signature. As the guitar riffs and the just before the initial verse begins, there is a confusing but delightful stop-start, a single measure where the time signature changes to ¾, then goes right back into 4/4. This front-loaded dramatic pause is so confusing to your brain and body that you automatically sit up and pay attention. That weird full second of silence completely hooked me.
When we listen to music, we’re really taking a journey. We wander through rhythm, tone, and voice, looking for patterns, subconsciously counting bars and measures. So when a pregnant pause happens, neurons in the parietal lobe spike rapidly, as our brain struggles to understand what just happened.
On average, Americans check their phones about once every four minutes. That’s well over three hundred times a day! My phone is a reliable source of dopamine. I solved today’s Wordle? Dopamine. My post garnered over a hundred likes? Dopamine. I watched a video of a duck and puppy who are best friends? Someone sends me a thumbs up on my story? I get an email that brightens my day? All tiny shots of dopamine. Over time, I start to associate that momentary euphoria with my phone. But dopamine is metabolized very quickly in our brains, leaving us wanting more and more as soon as possible. So I condition myself to check it more often, chasing the dopamine dragon.
But what we now understand about dopamine is that it’s strongly connected to cravings. So I hear my phone ding with an incoming text. I actually get a shot of anticipatory dopamine just hearing the alert, with no understanding if I am going to read that message with pleasure or displeasure.
Pauses in music are pauses full of life. That tiny break alerts our brain to anticipate excitedly what’s coming next. And when the beat finally drops, we feel that euphoric rush of dual dopamine hits from the anticipation and the downbeat.
Really good music hits us in our feels by using a balance of sound and silence. In musical notation, this is called a caesura, or a short silence, referring to a sudden stop in the performance with an equally sudden resumption of sound that interrupts the normal tempo of a composition. A well-placed caesura makes the listener sit up and pay attention, totally present. The silence creates an anticipatory container for the next sound. As Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but also because of the silence in it: without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound… we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth.”