Over the years, technology has taken over the lives of the majority of the world, whether that be in the depths of the countryside or in the streets of the concrete jungles. In bustling cities, buskers fill the streets and the underground as people rush past them with their headphones plugged in as they continue on with their busy day. In contrast, if we go into the depths of the rainforests of Papua New Guinea, the Kaluli tribe use the music of birdsong to understand their relationship with the natural environment as well as a way to connect with their ancestors who have passed away. It seems that wherever you are in the world, you cannot escape the power of music, but how can a geographical approach to the senses affect our experience of music? We want to explore how people move through both space and place when surrounded by music and what this approach to the senses can tell us about our experience with music. We will look at the combination of a geographical approach and the experience of music and how it affects our senses, emotions as well as our personal relationships with our surroundings.
Our first project was to look at how the experience of music can change in different spaces. In contrast to place, space is not meaningful, it is just an area that we move through. When walking through the streets of Bristol, there is so much life going on around you which affects all of the senses. We found that at as soon as we put our headphones on, the music narrowed down our senses and we were not as aware of what was happening around us. We felt that the senses which were most dulled down were sound and touch. Immediately the noises of the city were blocked out and we were less conscious of things that we might bump into as we were so engulfed by the music. Another example of this is when you are at a gig or a festival, you constantly bump into people as you are in such a confined space but you often are not aware of the other people around you as you are so focused on the music.
We also found that our social interaction hugely lessened in environments such as festivals, clubs or concerts, where we all are primarily listening to the music, which is in almost every case too loud and pummelling to interact with your peers. Instead of blocking out our overpowering surroundings, we become engrossed in the music and atmosphere. Our hearing focuses on one certain sound and whereas the other senses seemed to decrease in effectiveness. We found this rather ironic given the fact that there is a clear common ground between everyone; we all appreciate and want to experience the same music, yet it is extremely difficult to interact with each other due to said music and confined space.
This is the same in situations when we move through both crowded spaces and places with our headphones in. When we put our headphones in, we isolate ourselves and create our own world where we dull down our senses. People can view you as being antisocial or “busy” listening to the music in the current environment. For example, in a public and sociable space (pubs, cafes, common areas etc.) we found it often difficult and awkward to approach someone listening to music, given their lack of auditory senses and general closed-off nature. We also felt that people were at their worse when they had music plugged in and they were on their way to work as they tried to avoid us if they saw us approaching them. However, when we move through spaces, such as busy cities, are we listening to music because our surroundings are too overpowering for our senses, or is it because we want to put a meaning to space and turn it into a distinct place?
As we move through different places, we create new memories for every place we visit and we conjure up different emotions from these memories. We also found that music, despite it narrowing down certain senses by blocking out the foreground and background sounds, it also created a new relationship with our surroundings. The different genres of music toyed on our emotions whether we were listening to something upbeat or something much more depressing and slightly changed our attitude towards the place we were walking through. Given the feel of the particular music and your own personal mood, our perspectives on certain places differed. The fairly obvious example being when we were listening to a song with melancholic lyrics and gloomy instrumentation, then the meaning of the particular place that we were in reflected this music and we associated these emotions with the place in the future. We also find ourselves being less alert when listening to more negative music as, for example, we may be looking at the ground or generally thinking more deeply about the poignant lyrics. On the other hand, we found that when listening to upbeat and joyful music we often take in more of our surroundings and are more observant of the various activities in them. We found this extremely interesting – the fact the mood certain music exudes heightens or lowers our visual intake and sensory awareness.
However, this is not just the case with busy towns and cities, we found that we built a new relationship with our surroundings when we walked through the peaceful countryside with music playing. That said, despite there being more things happening in the city, we felt that we built a stronger relationship with our surroundings in the countryside rather than the city. This being due to the tranquility and space in the countryside, which contrasts heavily against how we became almost overwhelmed by sensory stimulation in a big city. This overwhelment stems from the intense sensory stimulants which are often too quick and excessive to mentally process and make clear distinctions. We found that, when listening to the music in the countryside, some of our senses were heightened. We noticed our surroundings much more, from the temperature to the overpowering smell of manure to when a branch brushed past our bodies. We thought that the amalgamation of the tranquil countryside and the experience of music created a much more meaningful place than that of when you are in the city.
In both crowded and isolated places, listening to your own music can be both therapeutic and soothing. Wherever you are, your experience can be individualised by the genre that you like to listen to. The experience of the environment in which you are is made completely distinct and personal through the music that you are surrounded by. For this, we decided to undertake a study of listening to different genres of music in the same location. We both took turns listening to either Heavy Metal and Jazz whilst sitting in a cafe and the outcomes could not have been more different. When listening to Heavy Metal, we found that everything seemed to rush past us but as soon as we turned over to Jazz, we were at much more ease. This shows that, given the variety of genres nowadays, there are so many different experiences to have in various places for each individual.
Looking back at all of our research, we have learnt a lot about our approaches to our surroundings and how our senses interact with our environment when engaging with music. In most cases, music seemed to dull our senses because we are so engulfed by the music that we are less aware of the things that are going on around us. Primarily, we thought that music just dulled our senses in urban situations to block out the chaos of the city. That said, music turned these spaces into place by giving the meaning; whilst the lyrics and the melody engrain themselves into your mind, you also attach meaning and emotion to the surroundings that you are walking through. We have become more observant and perceptive of the oddities which our senses encounter when faced with music in all of the different places and scenarios aforementioned and our engagement with music in the various forms will perhaps alter from now on. The study has also told us how unique and specific the experience of music is. As we have seen, there are many different things that make up our individual and distinct experience when we look at the senses from a geographical approach alongside the experience of music. Although it may not seem obvious at first, the experience of music varies hugely depending when taking a geographical approach to the senses.
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