I noticed something recently that I’m still struggling to explain: it is often possible to recognize a recording within its first few seconds. It surprises me because it goes against the received wisdom about how — and maybe why — we remember music. That is, it is not the melody, the chord changes, the rhythm, the drama, or any of the other events that unfold over a song’s progression, but something elemental that can be drawn at will from memory and identified almost instantly. But what are the cues? They don’t seem to be universal, but — rather — act in subtle concert, like the characteristics of a complex flavor.
There, of course, exist some songs that are instantly identifiable by their opening hook — "Satisfaction," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — or an introductory sample (like most of the songs on the current charts). But, as any frustrated songwriter will tell you, those are few and far between (otherwise he wouldn’t be broke and expecting you to pay for the drink). Hits are the exceptions that prove the rule. How else would it be possible to identify songs on a stereo through the noise of a bar? It is as if all recordings contain primitive — unintentional — meta-tags that the ear seeks out when encountering a song.
The first place I ever noticed this was when random live tracks would come up on shuffle play, and I — with some knowledge of what was contained on my iPod — found myself often able to figure out where they were from before a note was played. The sound of dead air in the room acted as a constant, and it was easy to distinguish the black-and-white hiss of Bob Dylan’s Live ’66 from the shitty sub-mp3 compression on an acoustic Beck show I downloaded in college, simple to pick the club chatter of a minidisc bootleg of Yo La Tengo at their native Maxwell’s from the high-pitched Beatlemania that greets the Fabs on any of the first three discs of Anthology. Gradually, I saw that this occasionally extended to studio recordings, too: the ghostly tape machine whir on John Darnielle’s early Mountain Goats albums, the tin can rattle of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the low warmth of a million vintage reggae singles.
Elsewhere, musical factors came into play, but in often unpredictable manners. Dylan, for example, was just as recognizable by his sense of time as his voice (listen to him lead a band into a song). Tom Waits — who might have a more instantly recognizable voice than Dylan’s (if such a thing is possible) — was likewise familiar before he opened his lips, by arrangements and feel. The Postal Service could be distinguished by their early 21st century synthesizers. And so on, really. Literally.
It should also be noted that whatever qualities exist within the first few seconds of a song also exist in any given chunk of the middle, too — any bit that might be heard incidentally, from a passing a car, through a dormitory or apartment wall, as a sound cue on a teen drama, edited to five seconds for a television commercial (a format more experimental than most commercial radio these days), or condensed into a ringtone. Whether or not this — music’s cultural omnipresence and the ability to pick it out instantly — represents anything new (as part of me would like to believe) I’m not yet sure, but I’m thoroughly fascinated. Surely, radio listeners of yore have had such experiences, but — just as surely — their concept of what music is and where it comes from was different from ours, too. .
I am not convinced that this is a skill of any special type, so much as just another methodology for finding out what makes music special. Without shuffle play, I never would have glimpsed the abrupt drop-off between They Might Be Giants’ "Birdhouse In Your Soul" and the Velvet Underground’s "White Light/White Heat," nor appreciated the specific methods by which the latter rocks even though it sounds muted and muffled immediately after hearing the former.
"Ugh, I feel so materialistic about gushing over my iPod," I groaned to Tommy over the weekend, "like one of those new parents who won’t stop talking about his kids." I paused, and tried to hold off saying it, but I said it anyway. "It fuckin’ changed my life, man."
"Well," Tommy said reasonably, "if you listen to music all day, and it’s a new way of listening to music, then — yeah — it changed your life. That’s not being melodramatic."
"But what about people who don’t listen to music all day? Won’t it sound shallow to them?"
"Fuck them," Tommy said — again quite reasonably — "if they don’t listen to music all day," and then continued to sell me on a Nick Cave album.