How do we hear motion in our everyday lives? It’s easy to explain how we see it: an object shifts in position through visible space, and we work out that this must have been as a result of movement. If an object moves towards us, it appears ‘bigger’, and we are able to see it in greater detail. This is broadly the same for auditory motion. Sounds that are further away appear quieter and ‘blurrier’, and we tend to be unable to hear higher-pitched sounds in the distance. Moreover, if the distance between the sounds and our ears gets progressively smaller, we would notice a gradual change in its properties: it would get louder, and we’d be able to hear it more clearly as it approached.
Imagine being at a festival, for example. From your tent, you can just hear the throbbing, blurry bass lines from the various stages. But, were you to begin walking towards the centre of the site, you’d gradually be able to hear more and more of the details of the various songs: low-pitched kick drums first, perhaps an indistinct vocal line, then a set of high-pitched crash cymbals and a wailing child who doesn’t appear to appreciate the dulcet tones of Slipknot.
In everyday life, such spatial information helps to tell us what is going on in our environment, and we use it to work out if there’s something we should be doing about it. For instance, if there’s a loud, threatening sound coming towards you at high speed, you’ll probably want to start running. This is because our senses have evolved to be biased towards things that appear to be approaching (or ‘looming’, to use the more frightening scientific term), so that our bodies have a greater chance of staying out of danger.So what does all of this have to do with music? For a start, we use the same perceptual frameworks in everyday reality as we do when we listen to music. As a result, just as we say we hear worldly things in motion when we hear certain gradual changes, we may also say that we hear aspects of music ‘in motion’.
When we speak of musical motion, we might be referring to the experience of musical sounds coming towards us, or we might feel as if we ourselves are moving towards the music. Sometimes it sounds like the music is coming from somewhere far away, or that it is moving out from inside us. Of course, the music isn’t actually doing any of this – but it does so in a ‘perceptual reality’, a virtual reality that exists for you as a result of your sensory frameworks (it’s the same principle that allows us to feel that we’re in our own private space whilst listening to headphones, even though that space isn’t physically there at all).So what makes this so interesting? Club producers commonly harness the power of ‘approaching’ musical motion in the breakdown sections of their songs. This is because, as our ears have evolved to be wary of sounds (or sights) that appear to be coming towards us, our bodies react emotionally – or affectively – to make sure that they’re ready to deal with a potential threat. So, if it seems like the music is approaching us, and the psychological frameworks that govern our expectations are preparing to be ‘attacked’ by this sound, it can be very exhilarating and – strangely enough – enjoyable.
In his book Ways of Listening (2005), Eric Clarke, Heather Professor of Music at Oxford, uses as an example Fatboy Slim’s 1998 track ‘Build It Up, Tear It Down’. As Clarke notes, after the 30-second intro, there is a sudden shift – almost like the sense of being plunged underwater – which gradually lessens over the course of the next 30 seconds. After a while, we can soon hear a drum kit and a male voice enter, before there’s a sense of imminent climax or collision – like a ‘drop’ in dubstep. What makes the experience even more exciting is the ambiguity of what is ‘moving’ – is it the listener who perceptually moves towards the sound signal, or the sound towards the listener?
The thrill of approaching musical motion is, of course, not limited to club music of this kind. But its compelling effects are perhaps most obvious here. Now, when your friend is getting (slightly irritatingly) hyped about a particular breakdown and build-up in Park End (Atik?) on Wednesday, you can politely explain the phenomenon over a tequila.