Musings on Sound

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Sound….something that we all interact with on some level. But wait, all of us? How can sound be relevant to even those that are deaf? Were they born deaf and don’t quite know what sound really is capable of being or doing? Was someone able to hear prior to becoming deaf and must then rely on past experiences and memory to recall what sensation sound produced? Interesting thought, for me at least.

Sound is around us all of the time, even in the stillness of what may appear to be complete silence. How many of us have become selective in our hearing and what we consciously allow ourselves to hear? Like the parent that has tuned out the child banging on the table or playing with his or her toys, or the sounds of the city and the constant sounding of car horns in Manhattan, New York for example. These are merely a few examples of most would initially think of sounds they experience. Is anyone even truly experiencing sound in a real cognitive way at all? I do, all of the time, in perhaps the most inescapable ways.

Lying in my bed, sometimes I am forced to submit to the loudness of my own heartbeat thumping in my ear and on my pillow as I lay on my side. The feeling is as though any outsider surely would be hearing this too. Some of you may laugh, while others of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The vibrations of sound are very complex. While there is overwhelming data about sound waves, sound frequencies, transduction of the auditory system, psychoacoustics, etc., My sentiment for the time being isn’t to cite or supply scientific data and it’s findings, albeit extremely useful, but rather to invoke thought about how in simplified terms sound can and does very much relate to humanity and societies.

I’m a drummer and musician, and most of the sounds that I hear are far from just noises. Even white noise can have a quality to it that some may miss if dismissed too quickly. The constant hissing and frequency of white noise on a television can become very transcendental and hypnotic with time. Have you even been in a classroom for example, and everything seems quiet and normal until the air conditioning in the room turns off? Have you ever felt that the “quiet” now seemed louder than when the air was on? Strange isn’t it? How could it appear louder to our senses for something to be turned off rather than when a more sound was actually present in the room? Did we tune it out, or just adjust to it? Do you sleep better with a fan running in the room? This isn’t a quiz, just something to think about.

Sound vibrations run through our lives constantly. Music, one of the most beautiful mediums of sound is universal. Different types of music will sometimes magnify a particular sound frequency for example. Most rap and hip hop music rely on heavy sub bass frequencies while techno music will incorporate the lower frequencies along with sound effects starting from low to high, running a spectrum of frequencies that actually become inaudible to the human ear.

Where am I going with all of this you may be asking yourself? Well, I’m more interested in sparking thought with how sound does relate to human psychology, thus human emotions, feelings, and behaviors.

If you muted the music for a film, it just wouldn’t have nearly the impact at all. A percussive tribal type of drumming for example can inhibit elevated blood pressure, create tension and anxiety, and can enhance any piece of film footage, and rightfully so. A somber scene without the beautiful orchestrations just wouldn’t reach the soul on its own. Sometimes there is even more impact with the syncing of music and film strobing in and out and just the right intervals. All of these are done for a reason, to capture and harness emotion.

Heavy metal music to many is just noise, while the same person may fully embrace the common musical thread that a neoclassical piece of music would share, all the while never knowing they were related. The low end power of bass drum hits coupled with soaring high vocals mixed with raging distorted guitar resonates to the core of the true heavy metal fan. The low frequencies of a cello, the higher frequencies of the violin, and the beauty of an opera singers voice makes for the perfect balance as well, all of which are covering a large spectrum of sounds to our ears.

How would the movie Jaws be without that classic tension of the cello building up? That’s my point simplified. Why does some music make you feel empty, lost, angry, sad, or happy?

Let’s get further down the rabbit hole:

A much more serious example would be how a soldier that has been in combat might relate to specific sounds. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in this example might deal with the variables regarding sound associated with such combat situations, and possible effects a soldier or any person involved in war conflict or the like would suffer as a result. In simplified language, a soldier may not enjoy the sounds of a fireworks celebration, which could trigger severe psychological changes. The neurobiological impacts of such stresses can be triggered by the sounds of an impressive fireworks display, down to something as simple as a single firecracker. Both sounds can and are many times undoubtedly perceived differently: from a soldier, to the average civilian that has never been exposed to similar sounds in a combat environment.

You are sitting in your car; it’s raining, stuck in traffic. Your windshield wipers are going back and forth at a medium pace. You notice the car in front of you has his turn signal on, also at a specific pace. Now, if you are like me, you will end up pairing the two together, utilizing the sound and motion of your wipers to the visual of the cars turn signal. Are they in sync? Are they not quite in sync but are getting closer due to the rate at which each is working individually? I notice how they will be together, then will drift apart and flam (for you drummers out there), then eventually becoming perfectly 180 degrees out of sync, whereas the wipers are in the up position and the turn signal flashes. After several more times around, the signal light and wiper motion and sound become one again, with the wipers going up and down perfectly in time with blinking light from the car in front of you.

This type of thing happens to me all of time, and it’s virtually a metronome audibly and visually. I cannot tell you how many times I have come across this type of thing and find myself creating drum beats and patterns based on this input and my visual surroundings. Some of you may also relate.

We all want what we do in life to matter. Our ego isn’t typically satisfied enough with just doing something without the praise, acknowledgment, or seeing the impact of our good deeds. I believe there is always a cause and effect to our actions, even if it isn’t seen with the naked eye.

How can this simple scenario of the wipers and turn signal be relevant or pertinent in a greater context, and does it have an infinite or exponential value? Inspirational signs and signals are all around us without one even realizing it. It’s not our job to focus on every little thing and make something out of it. Just “knowing” that there IS an effect to your actions is quite beautiful in and of itself.

A very inspiring philosopher that I have listened to for over a decade named Alan Watts once articulated the following, and I’m paraphrasing: “Have you ever been in the water and tried to grab hold of the water in your hand? What happens when you try to grab the water tighter? It escapes that much faster from your hand. The harder you try to grab the water, the quicker it will escape from your grip”. This is the very essence of what I am trying to convey. It may be futile trying to know “what” the effect of the cause is or was. Just knowing that there is an effect somewhere down the line, somewhere in time has great value that should not be undermined.

I’ll give you another example: If you could throw a ball in outer space, it would travel forever without actually coming to a stop. It could be years, decades, or thousands of years before the ball ever hit another object in space. Let us postulate that eventually the throwing of that ball would have an effect, by ricocheting and continuing another path. This concept highlights the notion that there is still cause and effect, even if that particular effect is not observable. It may not satisfy our ego because no one was there to bear witness, hence negating our joy to relish in the effect of our efforts. Typically, we find comfort in the resolution of the results of our actions, and that’s not a bad thing either. Giving praise and accepting praise is also a motivating factor in various ways. We should be proud of our accomplishments.

In the same way that the ball lost in space is bound to travel another path unbeknownst to us, the drumbeat I spoke of earlier that was created would too share a similar fate. That drumbeat becomes the foundation for which the song will build from. Adding the bass, guitars, and other instruments have now shaped the musical composition for the song. Melodies and vocals will finish off this once nonexistent piece of music. We have now created a multifaceted, harmonious conglomerate of sound vibrations that will most definitely be perceived differently to virtually every recipient’s eardrums, bones, and neurotransmitters in their brain. Metaphorically speaking, this is the pebble dropped into the water. Here comes the ripple:

The song is recorded and eventually is heard by some or many, or even just one person. Importantly, the listener’s surrounding will also play a role as to how they will perceive the music, how it relates to them, and what action will or could be taken by them, whether consciously or not. I’ll reiterate that the environment and the timing of the exposure to a new piece of music can have a profound effect on how one responds to that music, i.e. heavy metal at 7am may not be felt the same as hearing the same song at 11pm for example. (Blasphemy to the true metal fan!!) In other words, we may have to be in the right frame of mind sometimes to truly listen rather than just hearing.

Did any aspect of the song touch a special place in their heart? Did those sound vibrations resonate on a level that allowed them to actually reflect on their life and relationships for example? In some capacity, the domino effect is very much alive, present, and working.

What initially may have appeared as a menial event stuck in traffic, being receptive with that moment of sound, has now perpetuated a rhythmic creative process that evolved into an actual finished piece of music. The song may have been heard by a man or woman that sparked a memory, a place in time, or a smell that was reminiscent to a special memory. We all love nostalgia at some point in our lives. Perhaps a simple sound vibration or tone resonated in the most unpretentious yet most profound way, acting as a catalyst for the listener to act on those emotions. Did they pick up the phone and call that old friend or loved one. Maybe a dinner engagement was the result of that phone call, further evolving into getting the best friends of the good old days to reconnect. Let’s continue to say that the reunion/gathering created new opportunities, relationships, and of course new memories, which is sure to be inspiring. Maybe a new business opportunity became present by that meeting, or you were introduced to the new love of your life. As you can see, the ripple effect is as beautiful as a raindrop on the lake that no one saw, and that was just fine too.

Life, with all of its simplicities and complexities is filled with cause and effect. Too many times we are caught up in the information age, completely dissatisfied with having to wait another second for the payoff. How many of you get so upset at having to wait for a video advertisement to finish before it will play? How many of you are annoyed with even the five seconds of commercial playing before you are allowed to just skip the ad? Yeah, I’m guilty of it too at times. If we knowingly admit this, then I’d be curious as to how many of us are also guilty of not truly stopping to smell the roses, taking just a few moments to indulge in the things around us that don’t give to us in the way we have become accustomed to? The admiration of the tangible that transcends into the intangible, like an emotion that can manifest thought into action becoming the difference between something and nothing.

What makes something “real” anyway? Is it good enough to just feel something and internalize it? Surely that is a natural high for anyone that creates anything. Seeing something perfectly in your mind without the physical materialization doesn’t make it feel any less real or special to the individual. It’s the hunt not the kill right? That’s all fine and good, but thought without action “can” be a spoke in the wheel of motion…..the damn in the rippling water.

Are you making excuses for why you haven’t taken action? Are you falling prey to complacency? Do you or someone you know claim that time hasn’t afforded you the ability to take care of certain things? Have your passions fallen by the wayside? We are all guilty of this on some level, so this isn’t a “beat you up” session. It’s being able to self-analyze, ponder, reflect, and evolve that makes the complacency have any value. It’s like trying multiple ways to do something and many ways just won’t work. The pessimist will amplify how badly that didn’t work. The optimist will find value in knowing that “that” particular effort is not conducive to progress. The value is only relative to its perception.

Whatever moves you, surround yourself with those elements. Music is a huge part of my life, and I draw inspiration from so many things. Find the creative genius inside of you, embrace the sounds around you, and harness the vibrations around you. Be the next ripple in the wave for someone else to ride.

Let something as simple as the rain’s percussive serenade inspire you. Even the hearing impaired can feel vibrations, which are the origin of sound. Does someone with hearing loss feel inspired by the pulsing pattern of their heartbeat that is felt? What symphony are they writing to their silent movie that is always playing with open eyes? What symphony are you missing with yours?

– Todd La Torre

13 Responses to Musings on Sound

  1. Excellent read, some valid points brought up. Thank you forsharing and the motivational speech. Blessings… Tara

  2. Delores


  3. Shona Simmons

    You are indeed brilliant Todd. That was an amazing read, very thought provoking. It would be fun to be in a philosophy class with you! Heck, you could no doubt teach a philosophy class! :)

  4. Alice van der Bruggen

    A very fascinating essay!!! I myself am studying “healing” sounds. I do want to integrate that into my professional as well as my personal life. Experience has proven just EXACTLY how well it works. :-)

  5. Laura Austn

    Its amazing how much sound impacts you even when you don’t notice it.

  6. Faith Stabley

    Thought provoking on many levels. I have always found that music helps to reset my thought processes and centers my emotions. I enjoyed reading this, thanks Todd.

  7. Adil S.

    Great insight! It’s why I consider the “Promised Land” album to be my favorite work of art. Any art. The percussions, the guitars, the vocals and the lyrics all line up to tell the same story with the same mood, something that any of those elements alone could not do. It was awesome to hear that vibe back on the last album, and I can’t wait for the next one!!

  8. I’m always amazed at the impact that a person’s voice or a piece of music can have on you when the vibrations of the sound match the vibrations of your ever-changing internal life. When they match up, it’s like time stops. You actually experience the fullness of the present, which is usually just this tiny sliver you barely notice along the way from the past to the future.

    That’s what creates my lasting favorites, those songs and albums you know you will never let go of. They remind you of that place and the power within it. They keep you connected to that raging source of life and help you flow with it rather than resisting it. I’m also a fan of Alan Watt. One of my favorite quotes of his:

    “For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”

  9. Another great nugget from Alan Watts about the value of the present and how the future is too abstract to ever get ahold of (like the lesson about trying to grab water):
    “To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead.”
    Anyway, you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about, which rocks. \m/

  10. Jen

    Very insightful.

    I have been hearing impaired since I was 24. I’m now almost 42, on my third set of hearing aids. It’s a weird sensation to put hearing aids in, be able to hear better (they are not like glasses, they will never give me “normal” hearing), and then take them out at night and barely be able to hear my own voice.

    To hear things like birds chirping, the fizzy sound when you pour coke over ice….little things like that….is amazing, and something many people take for granted.

    The way people treat a hearing impaired person, geez. Talk loud, slow, and exaggerated. Or make jokes like CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? Or cup their hands like a megaphone and “DID YOU HEAR THAT?” Ugh. And the isolation because people get so frustrated when you ask them to repeat something, so they just write you off…..

  11. Great stuff Todd. You are definitely not just a singer in a heavy metal band. You have a lot more going on. I’m grateful for your contributions to Queensryche and music in general. Now we get to hear more than maybe we ever would have if you’d not had this opportunity. Keep talking. We’re listening.

  12. Renee

    This very well thought out piece proves that you can be a metal fan and still be a person of higher intelligence. (Most people in my school thought only stoners that were going nowhere listened to metal.) Very thought provoking. It is too easy to just let life happen to you, and look back to realize you didn’t really put the effort in to do what you wanted. Then you make excuses like I couldn’t then because… and it is too late now.” I have known a lot of people who died at too young of an age. A friend passed just a month ago at the age of 46. Many of my friends didn’t make it to 25. The more years I get than some others have, the fewer regrets I want to have. I try not to waste time letting life happen. Yes, music often helps drive me on. I know I would not be the person I am without it. I often gather strength from it. Tomorrow, I turn 50. Instead of bemoaning getting older, I will be sitting in my classes with a bunch of 20 somethings, working toward my archaeology degree, looking forward to field school in Belize where I can actually participate in a dig at a Maya site – something I have wanted to do for years.

  13. Paul Chism

    Such a wonderfully insightful read, approaching a philosophical state. Though a “tinkerer” in sound, I hear instruments – all of them, and each sound evokes feelings…from the highest notes of the piccolo, to the lowest notes on a double bass. Now, I have a new outlook on hearing, and I thank you greatly, Todd!


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