iPod apohenia

(A post I wrote a few days ago, but for some reason didn't publish)

Today, as I was walking from one meeting to another, my iPod on shuffle started playing "Homesick" by Kings of Convenience. It's a song I really like, and it seemed to mesh with the particular part of the city I was walking through, so I was really having a nice listening experience.

The funny thing is, that just at the emotional climax of the song, I passed a Generic Bulgarian Harmonica Player, and he played a sort of loose, sad melody, in the exact same key as "Homesick." It fit so seamlessly into the melody that it took me several seconds to realize that the harmonica part wasn't usually there. It really sounded like it was an intentional inclusion.

On the surface, I guess such an event is so unlikely as to border on the miraculous (but then, mathematically speaking, the miraculous happens to us once or twice every month). Maybe it's just that the brain automatically seeks to find patterns in reality, to relate one thing to another. In this case, it goes beyond pattern recognition. I think I could have physically proven that what he was playing fit into the key of "Homesick" (C major, I think? I forget) and its basic rhythm. This makes it pretty much a unique experience in my time with the iPod, which usually generates patterns which I suspect originate in myself somehow.

The thing is that the iPod has become a source of everyday synchronicity. I keep noticing strange coincidences in the shuffle function. Like two songs in entirely different genres seeming to slide perfectly into each other, like one song is a natural extension of the other. Or like hearing "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" from the Album "Mingus", and then immediately after hearing the same track in the live version from an entirely different album. Or hearing two consecutive tracks in the same order as they appear on the album.

Even more: songs that seem to mirror the situation I'm in, like hearing David Bowie singin "walking through the snowy streets..." when I am. Or Joni Mitchell going "the bed's too big, the frying pan's too wide" when I'm cooking dinner while Ragnfrid is out of town. Or even just playing instrumental music that is exactly right for the situation. It seems that the iPod, somehow, knows what I'm doing, what I'm feeling. It chooses songs surprisingly well.

The rational explanation is this: We have a tendency to see patterns in everything. It is natural for us to look for patterns in our experience of the world. When a pattern is detected, we notice. When no pattern is discernible, we do not. Therefore, the times a pattern is detected are more memorable than not. If I see a similarity with the contents of a song, or the emotional tone of it, it is because I look for some similarity. I want to find meaning, and when I do, I am rewarded by a memorable experience. This is enhanced by the fact that I skip the songs that do not match my situation in some way. I don't listen to the songs that clash or have dissonance with my situation. I don't listen to James Brown when I'm depressed (unless I want to shock myself out of that state), and I don't listen to Ligeti when I want to relax after a hard day at the office. There's a time for everything.

(Except Scooter. There can be no excuse for Scooter.)

My point is this, I guess: when my attention is constantly focused on a portable generator of random events, it's not strange that I seem to find meaning in it, and I think it representents a fruitful illustration and vehicle for looking into how we generate meaning and patterns in the world.

What about you? I'd like, in the comments, to hear people's opinions and experiences with randomness, and I don't mean just the iPod kind. What was the latest weird coincidence to happen to you at all? Do you have opinions about randomness? Do you have random opinions?


Blogger Gaute said...

My iRiver (the PC to your iPod's Mac), once segued almost seamlessly from a part of Steve Reich's 'Music for 18 Musicians' and into a song by Sufjan Stevens which starts with some kind of glockenspiel.

It wasn't completely random, seeing as the two folders were placed next to each other alphabetically and the player was set to continuous play mode, but it was never planned, and the effect was very pleasing.

March 02, 2005 9:25 pm  
Blogger Gaute said...

"Sometimes I just know what's coming up - I can sense it. My iPod knows me and knows what I'm doing. The other day I was walking into a churchyard and it started playing Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah - it was an amazing moment."

From a Guardian article I remember reading when the first signs of iPod hysteria were showing up in the UK about a year ago.

March 02, 2005 9:34 pm  
Blogger MGL said...

But, but, "Hallelujah" is about love, God and sex. The only Big Topic it *doesn't* adress is death. It's atmospheric, though.

I remember reading a similar piece a year ago in the NY Times, which started out with a guy explaining how every time he threw a party, his MP3 player started playing all the cheesy, embarassing Elton John-like songs in it.

March 02, 2005 9:57 pm  
Blogger Gaute said...

Good point about "Hallelujah", and I suppose it illustrates the way people now think about mobile music: film music becomes the central point of reference for life music. In films, already existing pop songs are often used to tangent the visuals and narrative, without really matching it specifically. So when Elliot Smith sings "Needle in the Hay" during the suicide scene in The Royal Tenenbaums, we know he's really not singing about Luke Wilson, despite the song's atmospheric and thematic aptness.

I've got "Sounding out the City" by Michael Bull on my reading list this semester; a book on personal stereos and the implications of their use. I'm looking forward to reading it, and I'll make sure to blog any new insights made in the process.

March 02, 2005 10:32 pm  
Blogger Sara said...

ok. so there may be a hint of jealousy involved here, but that's just not the issue

March 02, 2005 10:43 pm  
Blogger MGL said...

Actually, just the other day, I saw the JB version of "Hallelujah" completely misused on tv. It was in the episode of the West Wing where Mark Harmon's annoyingly perky character gets shot, in his death scene.

It's funny how that song has become related to death. Must be because Jeff himself drowned. And because it has something (..."høystemt?") sacred about it, which very little music does.

On some level, I think Brian Eno's theories about how we listen to music (or anyway, his music) are enormously interesting in relation to that (there's some interesting interviews with him online). The iPod has made me think alot about that, because I got a Brian Eno album about the same time I got the iPod, and have listened to it alot.

Ambient music matches the ambulatory way of listening, to put it aphoristically.

March 02, 2005 11:25 pm  
Blogger glassdråpe said...

hej, sender du meg en sms når det er avklart om ØR kommer, skal møte ER i morgen for lunsj, så perfekt om vi vet det til da, kanskje litt tidlig, så intet must.

ni sju

March 03, 2005 1:26 am  
Blogger Susanne said...

Had Friedrich Kittler written anything on iPods yet? About time!

March 03, 2005 8:34 am  
Blogger Susanne said...

Like I said:

Has Friedrich Kittler written anything on iPods yet? About time!

Goodmorning from Södermalm, a non-iPod residence.

March 03, 2005 8:37 am  
Blogger MGL said...

Kittler has written the following:

"(...)the transition inherent in the mass-marketing of the iPod, however, is worse.

When the transfer of analogue sound moves completely into the domain of the digital, it heralds the end of musical culture.

Actually, I just made that up. I don't think he's written anything on the subject.

March 03, 2005 10:05 am  

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