Musicophilia, musical hallucinations and synesthesia

It recently dawned upon me that something I thought was normal all my life is not. For as long as I can remember I’ve always had music playing in my head – during literally every waking moment and frequently in dreams too. I’m not talking about ear worms (when one gets a song stuck in their head, although I get that too). I mean like a constant soundtrack that only you can hear.

In my case it’s often about three quarters of a bar looping over and over, changing gradually. Often it will start as a longer phrase but will progressively narrow into just a handful of notes, often looping around at an odd point. Or the next bar will fade in over the top of the previous one while it’s still playing.

I’m aware that it’s in my head rather than a real sound occurring in the room. The timbre is usually somewhere between humming and breathing mixed with an orchestra. It gets extremely vivid when I’m tired or stressed, to the point where it can keep me awake. Sometimes at moments of extreme emotions (positive or negative ones) I start to perceive colours too, in the same way that anyone can see anything in their mind, but it’s always the same colour (a neon green on a background of very pure white and black).

I also have synesthesia – the sensation of perceiving colours and textures in relation to music. I wrote about it for Guitar World here.

I know I’m not alone with this stuff, but I know that not everybody has it either. There’s a book called Musicophilia: Tales Of Music And The Brain by Oliver Sacks which talks about a lot of these topics. You can order it here. It includes a lot of case studies of people with various music-related problems, quirks or sensations.

I don’t really consider this stuff to be a problem, although it can be kind of annoying when I’m stressed out and need to focus my mind but instead there’s this constant and ever-strengthening stream of sound happening in my head. But for the most part it’s just a welcome little companion. It’s kind of nice to have your own internal soundtrack.

WILTOTWTWT: Fear Factory, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss

So I just realised that if you turn ‘What I Listened To On The Train To Work Today’ into an acronym, it looks like an onomatopoeic interpretation of the sound a finch makes.

Okay, this morning seems to have been one of polar opposites for me. I started my walk to the train station cranking Fear Factory’s ‘Obsolete’ album. When this one came out, I got to interview Raymond from the band (for Curio, the student magazine for the University of Canberra – I was the News & Reviews editor). Allow me to slip into self-indulgent journo mode for a second…

When Fear Factory toured Australia to promote this album in 1999, I was lucky enough to get a backstage pass and a photo pass to shoot the first 3 songs. The band opened with ‘Shock,’ the first track off ‘Obsolete.’ After getting a bunch of shots of the band (including Dino with an Ibanez UV777BK Universe 7-string with a single EMG active humbucker), I turned around to get some pictures of the mad wall of mosh happening behind me. Suddenly I felt ‘a presence’ and I realised singer Burton C Bell was right behind me, getting the crowd to go extra psycho for my photos. So I turn around and we sing the chorus to ‘Shock’ together into his mic. Awesome. Awesome.

Anyway, ‘Obsolete’ is my favourite Fear Factory album. The production is sharp, hi-fi and aggressive, with monstrously tight grooves and direct songwriting. Dino’s guitar tone is clear even when he plays complex chords on tracks like ‘Descent,’ and Burton strikes the perfect balance between his screamy voice and his singing voice. Fear Factory made other great albums before and after ‘Obsolete,’ but this is the one for me.

Anyway, after getting to the train station and stopping at the kiosk for a coffee this morning, I switched over to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s ‘Raising Sand,’ which won every single one of the Grammys yesterday, with the exception of the Best Rock Instrumental award which went to Zappa Plays Zappa.

This is a cool, low-key album which reminds me in parts of Page and Plant’s 1998 ‘Walking Into Clarksdale’ album (not only because both albums include the song ‘Please Read The Letter). There’s lots of cool tremolo-drenched guitar playing by T Bone Burnett, and the whole atmosphere is very laid back and real. I would consider this one a bathtub album, or maybe a quiet Sunday afternoon album, sprawled out on the sofa with a sunbeam slowly crossing your bare feet as you read Oliver Sacks’ ’Musicophilia’ or something. Man I wish it was the weekend.

By the way, anyone else notice that T Bone Burnett looks a lot like John Hodgeman (Daily Show correspondent and the PC in those “I’m PC” “And I’m a Mac” commercials)?