Burgess Laughlin

In listening to music, what do you experience?

75 posts in this topic

At the age of 62, I have only now begun listening -- truly listening -- to music. My tiny but ever growing collection of CDs so far includes smooth jazz, classical (Pachelbel, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, and Johnson), and marches (Sousa).

When I listen, I experience individual emotions at times, such as elation or poignancy or yearning. But sometimes I also see scenes such as a walk up a steep mountain path, or galloping across a rolling countryside. Occasionally I experience fragments of a story: someone doing something as part of a longer thread of action (not further defined).

I love stories, especially success stories. I wonder, am I "reading in" most of what I experience when I listen to music? I wonder too if my reading-in is a result of the nature of music: being limited to one medium, sound, its main role is to evoke -- evoke emotions felt before, evoke scenes seen before, evoke storylines lived or viewed vicrariously before.

I know nothing about esthetic theories. What explanations have been offered that objectively account for the effects of music?

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I know nothing about esthetic theories. What explanations have been offered that objectively account for the effects of music?

I don't know the science that explains the effects of music. Perhaps someone on the Forum does.

I'm sure you've read "Art and Cognition" in the Romantic Manifesto. On the top of page 51 in my Signet paperback edition, Miss Rand makes this statement concerning the "subconscious material evoked by music":

..the emotional meaning of the subconscious material corresponds to the emotions projected by the music.

She explains this in more detail in the paragraphs that follow on that page.

At the top of page 61 in the same edition she states:

If a given process of musical integration taking place in a man's brain resembles the cognitive processes that produce and/or accompany a certain emotional state, he will recognize it, in effect, physiologically, then intellectually.

On page 61, she also gives the scientific steps that she thinks would be necessary to prove her hypothesis about music integration.

From what I can understand, a particular piece of music is a series of emotional analogues that correspond to the emotions that the composer is purposefully or implicitly trying to convey. The listener recognizes or in some degree, experiences these emotions when he hears or integrates the music. The particular existential events involved in evoking the emotions in the composer are not conveyed by the music, but the particular emotion evoked by the event is abstracted in the process of integrating the music by the listener. The exaltation experienced by the composer because the birth of his first child may be expressed in his music. The listener, upon hearing the music, will subconsciously abstract the emotion of exaltation, and it may remind him of a different existential event in his experience, such as the time that he achieved some great or important accomplishment (See Miss Rands discussion of St. Francis Walking on the Waters on p. 52).

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I am a musician, albeit an amateur -- I've been singing in various choirs for more than 20 years now, and I played piano for about 12 years (I can still plunk out a few notes on occasion, but with no great skill) and stringed instruments (violin and viola) for almost as long.

Even with quite a bit of musical experience, I can tell you what types of music evoke what emotions, but I have difficulty explaining WHY. For example, why does music in a major key typically sound happier and more carefree (Mozart's piano sonata in C major, Bach's two-part invention No. 8 in F, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus), but music in a minor key evokes anywhere from a dark sense of foreboding ("Montagues and Capulets" from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet") to terror ("Night on Bald Mountain") to passion (Mendelssohn violin concerto in E minor, first movement) to power (final movement of Dvorak's "New World" symphony) and even playfulness ("Funeral March of a Marionette")? Why do we associate the sounds of trumpets with heroes, while a bassoon conveys buffoonery (have you ever noticed that on many reality TV shows, when a contestant is doing something incompetently, a bassoon starts playing)?

Tempo is a bit easier to figure out. A slow tempo can convey languor (because we associate fatigue or laziness with moving slowly) or be majestic (because, on majestic occasions, we take more time to savor a celebration), while a fast tempo can indicate the frenzy of emotions gone too far (as in "Tybalt's Death" from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet") or the quickness of an agile mind (this is what C.P.E. Bach's "Solfeggietto" suggests to me).

But, I wish I knew more about why certain sounds, and certain ways of arranging sounds, are tied so strongly to certain emotions.

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This is a pure hypothesis on my part for which I have virtually no evidence but I would suspect that the cognition of music should be similar to the cognition of speech (and thus language), only on a different level because

a) Speech involves making sounds. Understanding a speech involves processing those sounds. No matter what the speech, it has to produce some emotional reaction within us, whether the emotion be of approval, disgust, sadness, happiness, exhaltation, contempt, etc.

;) Listening to music too involves processing the incoming sounds, only now the sounds have a rythm, a melody, etc.

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I'm sure you've read "Art and Cognition" in the Romantic Manifesto.

Actually, I have not read it. My ancient hardback copy of The Romantic Manifesto does not include a chapter with that title. Perhaps that essay was added later. The hardback RM does not even have a listing for "Music" in the index. I will purchase the paperback version, though I see that the "Music" entry for The Ayn Rand Lexicon contains excerpts from the essay you mentioned. (As a Mac user I no longer have access to Oliver Computing's Objectivism Research CD.) Thank you for the lead.

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Even with quite a bit of musical experience, I can tell you what types of music evoke what emotions, but I have difficulty explaining WHY. For example, why does music in a major key typically sound happier and more carefree (Mozart's piano sonata in C major, Bach's two-part invention No. 8 in F, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus), but music in a minor key evokes anywhere from a dark sense of foreboding ("Montagues and Capulets" from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet") to terror ("Night on Bald Mountain") to passion (Mendelssohn violin concerto in E minor, first movement) to power (final movement of Dvorak's "New World" symphony) and even playfulness ("Funeral March of a Marionette")?

I suspect it has to do with the harmonics of a major key vs. a minor key.

Observe that a musical sound -- a tone -- is a sustained sound of one frequency. It has a regular vibration, unlike non-musical sounds that don't. Observe that the C, E, G chord has three tones with frequencies that are related multiples such that, when played simultaneously, the combined sound also has a regular frequency and that's why we hear it as a single musical sound. Now play a C and the adjacent D together and EWWW! That HURTS!

Why?

I suspect it has to do with the way our perceptual mechanism works. It automatically tries to integrate tones heard simultaneously into a single sound. With the C,E,G chord it is integrated easily and hearing that chord is pleasant and satisfying. With the C,D chord, the tones don't have frequencies with a sufficient common multiple for our perceptual mechanism to integrate it into one sound ... but it tries to ... and fails ... and that's painful.

Music written in a major key has many more pleasant consonant harmonies while music written in a minor key has more painful dissonant harmonies. Maybe that's why we respond to that aspect of music the way we do.

Why do we associate the sounds of trumpets with heroes, while a bassoon conveys buffoonery (have you ever noticed that on many reality TV shows, when a contestant is doing something incompetently, a bassoon starts playing)?

I think that probably has to do with associations between the sound of the instrument and similar sounding non-musical sounds. Sometimes the associations are universal such as timpani (thunder), violin (female), bass (male), flute (female), trumpet (male). Sometimes they are optional but become accepted and used as part of the musical vocabulary like Spanish guitar (romantic), piccolo (whimsical), etc. (I will leave it as an exercise to figure out what kind of "wind" one might associate the sound of a bassoon.)

Tempo is a bit easier to figure out. A slow tempo can convey languor (because we associate fatigue or laziness with moving slowly) or be majestic (because, on majestic occasions, we take more time to savor a celebration), while a fast tempo can indicate the frenzy of emotions gone too far (as in "Tybalt's Death" from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet") or the quickness of an agile mind (this is what C.P.E. Bach's "Solfeggietto" suggests to me).

I agree. Also there are associations with tempo and human rhythms (heartbeat) and movements (running from danger).

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I'd like to add something to Betsy's comments, if I may. My background in music is as an enthusiastic amateur listener and semi-professional guitarist. I welcome correction from experts. My comments reflect what I believe to be true based on my own context of knowledge.

Music written in a major key has many more pleasant consonant harmonies while music written in a minor key has more painful dissonant harmonies. Maybe that's why we respond to that aspect of music the way we do.

Just strumming A major and A minor chords on my guitar creates different moods. Both chords contain the same intervals - a major third and a minor third - but in a different order. The difference is that the C is natural in the minor chord, and in the A major chord, it's C sharp. The three tones of the major chord (In this case, A, C#, and E - a major "triad") - correspond to naturally occurring harmonics of the fundamental tone, A, so the result is more harmonically unified.

There's also more to mood than just the key signature. Here's a good example: the "Pink Panther Theme" by Henry Mancini has a playful, sassy feel - yet it's in a minor key. The mood is also affected by time signature, tempo, accents, syncopation, instrumentation, etc.

I read someplace that we hear music the way we do because of the structure of our inner ear. The snail-like shape of the cochlea causes us to perceive frequency changes logarithmically, not linearly. If you double the the frequency, it is perceived as the same note. I'm not sure why this is so I'd love to hear it if anyone knows more detail about this.

I would also recommend listening to "Adventures in Good Music" by Dr. Karl Haas. Unfortunately it's only broadcast on NPR as far as I know. Dr. Haas passed away a few years ago but many stations still play his program regularly. He always has a theme for his show, and uses recordings, and his own piano, to demonstrate concepts relating to his theme.

This is in interesting subject to me - thanks for bringing it up, Burgess!

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I read someplace that we hear music the way we do because of the structure of our inner ear. The snail-like shape of the cochlea causes us to perceive frequency changes logarithmically, not linearly. If you double the the frequency, it is perceived as the same note. I'm not sure why this is so I'd love to hear it if anyone knows more detail about this.

This could be because of the harmonics of the tones.

For instance, if I play the A below middle-C, its frequency is 220 Hz (cycles-per-second). But, unless I'm using something like a tuning-fork, the note will also have harmonics present, which are multiples of the fundamental. So there'd also be frequencies of 440, 660 and 880 Hz, etc. (The relative strengths of the harmonics are going to be different for different instruments though - this is one reason the instruments sound different.)

Now, play the A above middle-C. Its fundamental frequency is 440 Hz. And it will have also harmonics of 880 Hz, etc. But notice that the A below already had the 440 Hz and 880 Hz harmonics. So the upper A sounds like the "same note" as the lower A because these two notes have so many harmonics in common. I.e., if you play one of these A notes, you're already hearing some of the harmonics present in the other A note.

So we hear notes whose fundamentals differ by a ratio of 2:1 as the same note, they're so similar.

Other simple ratios also sound nice ("consonant") together, and this gets back to what Betsy was saying about major triads. For instance, in a C-major triad (C-E-G) the ratio of the C and G is about 2:3. The ratio of the C and E is about 4:5.

I believe the ancient Greeks knew about the fact that these simple ratios gave pleasant sounds. True, they didn't know what frequency was, but for sounds made by strings or blown pipes, the frequency is inversely proportional to the length, so they would have seen these simple ratios when comparing the lengths. (In fact, one simple musical scale is called the "Pythagorean" scale, and I'm guessing the Pythagoreans would have been fascinated by finding these numerical ratios in sounds.)

On the Sensations of Tone by Helmholtz (mentioned in Ayn Rand's previously noted essay Art and Cognition) treats this subject in much detail.

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Observe that a musical sound -- a tone -- is a sustained sound of one frequency. It has a regular vibration, unlike non-musical sounds that don't. Observe that the C, E, G chord has three tones with frequencies that are related multiples such that, when played simultaneously, the combined sound also has a regular frequency and that's why we hear it as a single musical sound. Now play a C and the adjacent D together and EWWW! That HURTS!

There are interesting things about context and harmony in music, too.. I'm still just beginning to understand some of this.. But try playing your C and the adjacent D together, while simultaneously playing D, F#, and A an octave lower. Then you'll have a D7 chord, which will sound fine, especially if you follow it up with (for instance) an A major chord (A, C#, E).

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When I listen, I experience individual emotions at times, such as elation or poignancy or yearning. But sometimes I also see scenes such as a walk up a steep mountain path, or galloping across a rolling countryside. Occasionally I experience fragments of a story: someone doing something as part of a longer thread of action (not further defined).

Listing every emotional or conscious experience that's evoked in me by music would probably exhaust every emotional or conscious experience that I ever experience. But what impresses me the most is the speed and intensity with which music is able to evoke these things in me. It has happened that a piece of music that I've never heard has evoked an emotion that I haven't fully experienced in years (sometimes one that I felt at some pivotal point in my life, when I wasn't even listening to music at the time), and it will put me right back in that situation, like when you smell something that you haven't smelt in a long time-- but sometimes it will feel even more intense and "real" than it probably did when I initially experienced it.

Music can make me feel positive or negative emotions. It can make me feel subtle or intense emotions; and emotions that are obvious as well as ones that are extremely hard to identify, and take lots of introspection to be able to understand.

When I'm sick with a fever, sometimes a carefully chosen song can bring me out of hell and make me feel like I'm sane again. When I'm happy and healthy, a particularly annoying or poorly performed song can make me feel frustrated, angry, or even physically nauseous (or give me a headache, especially if it's too loud).

Some music helps me to concentrate on some specific thing; other music makes me feel disconnected from everything. Some of it makes me feel motivated; other music puts me in a trance.

I think tonality, harmony, melody, and rhythm all have effects on the way this turns out. But also-- different instruments can have very different effects, even if they're playing the same "notes." This might be because every instrument (in fact, every physical object) has a different "fundamental frequency," which results in different "overtones" (pitches that play simultaneously-- sometimes subtly or sometimes more audibly-- to the note being played). Overtones are (one aspect of) what makes a guitar sound different from a piano or a French horn.

Another thing that can affect the sound and therefore the impact of an instrument on consciousness is the room you're playing in. An instrument will sound different whether you are playing in a carpeted room, a symphony hall, or a cave. Sound waves bounce off walls and other surfaces-- and depending on the fundamental frequency of the surface, different types of sounds and tones will be emphasized, and to different extents, in different environments. A Gregorian chant will sound much different, and likely will have a quite different effect, in an ancient cathedral than it will in the church on your nearest street corner.

I know nothing about esthetic theories. What explanations have been offered that objectively account for the effects of music?

Aristoxenus in ancient Greece wrote an interesting an influential work on music theory called Harmonics. He was, I believe, one of the first to identify a 12 note scale, rather than the disconnected "modes" that were derived from the work of Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans thought music effected people mystically, but Aristoxenus was the first (that I know of) to approach the issue more scientifically. Helmholtz, in the 19th century, was a physiologist who did a lot of study on how different tones played simultaneously effect humans. He's mentioned by Ayn Rand in her essay in TRM.

But I still don't know a lot about music theory myself! Well, nobody knows all that much about it, yet. It's a very young field of study.

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Helmholtz, in the 19th century, was a physiologist who did a lot of study on how different tones played simultaneously effect humans. He's mentioned by Ayn Rand in her essay

hi Bold, have you read Helmholtz's book?

On the Sensations of Sound, 1877/1954

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/048660753...glance&n=283155

Or this one, the Physics of Sound 3e 2004 Berg & Stork

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/013145789...0495945?ie=UTF8

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Aristotle also wrote a little about how music affects people. I couldn't find the exact references, but I found this description of his view here:

Aristotle wrote that music imitates (that is, represents) the passions or states of the soul, such as gentleness, anger, courage, temperance, and their opposites. Music that imitates a certain passion arouses that passion in the listener.

That seems acurate to what I remember him saying. Also, I think he said somewhere that musicians should live on the edge of town, apart from everyone else-- the implication being because they're corrupt. I don't remember where he said that, though!.. But I did find this in a search just now, from his Politics:

And we may consider the conception that we have about the gods: Zeus does not sing and harp to the poets himself. But professional musicians we speak of as vulgar people, and indeed we think it not manly to perform music, except when drunk or for fun.

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hi Bold, have you read Helmholtz's book?

On the Sensations of Sound, 1877/1954

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/048660753...glance&n=283155

Or this one, the Physics of Sound 3e 2004 Berg & Stork

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/013145789...0495945?ie=UTF8

I haven't read them yet-- I hadn't been able to find any English translations of the Helmholtz book before. Thanks for the link, I think I'll probably get those! : )

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[looks at prices] I mean, I'll probably get the Helmholtz book! : D Have you read the other one?

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In reading the various mentions here of major vs. minor mode, I'm reminded of an experience I once had.

I had some visitors at my house, and was explaining and demonstrating some musical ideas to an 8 year old boy, who of course didn't have any knowledge of music theory. I decided to illustrate the difference between major and minor modes.

First, I played, very simply, one verse of "Jingle Bells," using only a single-note melody, accompanied by three-note chords, in the key of C-major. (Musically, you can't get much simpler than that.)

Then I did exactly the same thing - played it again - except that I changed to c-minor, and before I could even ask him what he thought, my young visitor exclaimed "Oh, that sounds like a funeral march for Santa Claus!" I couldn't have put it better myself. One can still tell that it's the same tune, but it does indeed sound dark, grave and sad. Listening to this would definitely not put me in a cheerful holiday mood!

(I'm not claiming that all uses of the minor mode create this same effect, but in this case, it sure was decisive in changing the emotional effect of a tune.)

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"Oh, that sounds like a funeral march for Santa Claus!"

That's terrific! Would you possibly have access to recording so you can post it?

These things sort of make abstract sense to me, but I can't make the musical switch in my head.

[i haven't read the books I listed btw]

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That's terrific! Would you possibly have access to recording so you can post it?

These things sort of make abstract sense to me, but I can't make the musical switch in my head.

[i haven't read the books I listed btw]

You can achieve a similar effect just by greatly slowing down the tempo of the music in your head. Or, you can take the funeral march from Chopin's Sonata and speed it up. I do this with a lot of music I like, changing tempos, changing directions of melodies (even making a slight change within the melody), changing instruments---all in my head. It's fun, and sometimes I come up with something new that's very delightful or emotionally powerful. And yet I don't play an instrument, nor read or write a note.

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Just thought that some may find this of interest.

Many years ago when I lived in New York, I took a muscial appreciation course at NYU. The teacher was demonstrating the effects of different keys on musical pieces on a piano. He played a piece of music by Leonard Berstein (I don't remember exactly which one it was, but maybe it was something from West Side Story). Then he played the same piece but changed the key. He did this for a few keys, and all of a sudden, the music from another famous piece of Bernstein was played (I don't remember which one it was).

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But, I wish I knew more about why certain sounds, and certain ways of arranging sounds, are tied so strongly to certain emotions.

Joseph Schillinger wrote a 2-volume text called the Schillinger System of Composition. He explains a lot of what you are asking about. He catgorizes instruments and combinations of instruments and other musical elements in a progressive chart of he the emotions from extreme mania > excited > joy > ....etc... static/neutral.... sad > bored > to depressed (not his exact terms, but similar). He was very influential on movie composers and also taught George Gershwin, Glenn Miller, Oscar Levant, Vernon Duke, John Barry and others. He also wrote another treatise called the Mathematical Basis of the Arts. I like his ideas on rhythm more than I do on tonality. He does give ways of mathematiclly permutating music materials that help the composer to come up with new ideas that might not ordinarily be thought of.

"Schillinger’s star pupil was George Gershwin, who studied with him in New York for four and a half years, before moving to Hollywood. Gershwin had studied nearly every branch of the System when he died in 1937. Evidence of Gershwin’s studies can be found as early as the Cuban Overture, where counterpoint (note the small episodes with woodwinds), form, orchestration, and harmony (listen for the polytonal chord at the end) are all effected. Everything between the Overture and Porgy and Bess was written under the tutelage and careful supervision of Schillinger and his system. Gershwin’s well-known opera still serves as an asset to the system’s practical validity (when correctly taught and used) – or at the very least as an academic curiosity, a rank it does not currently hold.

"As another outstanding example of Schillinger’s theories in action: Glenn Miller once wrote out a series of harmony exercises for a homework assignment, and Schillinger was so taken with one of them that he suggested Glenn orchestrate it. Glenn made a small fortune with that “Moonlight Serenade.”

( I think he was also mentioned in the Glenn Miller Story )

"Nicolas Slonimsky wrote in 1947, some years after Schillinger had passed away, that “the interesting aspect of Schillinger’s mental make-up was his pantheistic conception of the world. His religion was man’s conquering mind."

(not sure about he pantheistic part, but I like the last sentence)

I don't know whether he was a communist or not. He was unfortunately associated with John Dewey for a while, but according the the web site, Dewey helped him to get out of Russia.

from:

www.schillingersystem.com

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That's terrific! Would you possibly have access to recording so you can post it?

Sorry, I don't, but somebody with a piano or other keyboard instrument (and only a minimal skill in playing it) should easily be able to duplicate the demonstration for you.

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Can we take a particular example of music as a focal point for talking about what we experience when we hear it?

I can suggest what I -- as a non-musician -- think is a simple example: Tom Grant's smooth-jazz piece, "Restless." (My copy is in an album by Tom Grant, an album called "Reprise.") Is there some way to make a link to a sample so that everyone can hear the sample?

First, I hear the metronome-like sound in the background. In me, that cognitively evokes "time passing," particularly late at night, and that recognition in turn evokes memories of pacing while wrestling with some problem in my work, in my relationships, or in my direction in life. There are powerful emotions involved in those areas. Besides the emotions that I feel, I see a whole scene -- of pacing, of wrestling with an issue, perhaps leading to a resolution.

The music may evoke certain emotions, but I realize now that I am providing the scenes and the stories around them. I suppose most listeners might experience the same emotions -- but see different scenes and imagine different stories, if any.

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Can we take a particular example of music as a focal point for talking about what we experience when we hear it?

I can suggest what I -- as a non-musician -- think is a simple example: Tom Grant's smooth-jazz piece, "Restless." (My copy is in an album by Tom Grant, an album called "Reprise.") Is there some way to make a link to a sample so that everyone can hear the sample?

There is a segment from that piece that is available for listening right here on amazon.com. (Space down to "Listen to Samples.")

First, I hear the metronome-like sound in the background. In me, that cognitively evokes "time passing," ...

Interesting. To me the metronome-like sound forms a standard, a regularity, about and through which the ensuing music moves.

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To me, that suggests a steady on-going will, a calm determination.

Intriguing. The central question of this topic-thread is: What do you experience in listening to music? I experience something different than your experience: A restlessness (as neatly captured by the title of the piece) in contrast to the steady, relentless passing of time, specifically time passing in the quiet of the dark of night, when all that can be heard is the ticking of a clock. I hear the tick-tick as background that provides a setting, and the other music (I don't know the terms for describing it) brings out the theme concept, restlessness.

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Burgess, I am not sure if this is exactly what you want so correct my direction if I am wrong.

I experience nostalgia of certain times in my life where I had to make critical decisions. Because of the importance of these decisions I was always left restless. The funny thing for me is that I have listened to the music a few times now and each time takes me to a different time and place. One time I was on a balcony overlooking the ocean trying to think while another I was on a hill overlooking the interstate moving westward, which was the direction I wanted to head.

Again, I hope this is what you are asking for.

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