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High Fidelities: Augmenting Music from Within

on February 06, 2015, 3:45pm

Brainwave is a column by Sasha Geffen, exploring the interaction between music and the mind. Today, she listens to a high quality recording of The Beatles, and discusses how brain pills affect the brain’s appreciation of sound.

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I just listened to Abbey Road in high fidelity for the first time that I can remember. vector abstract illustration with brain and puzzle

Hear me out: I know I heard the record on vinyl when I was a kid. One of my earliest memories is running my hands along the clear plastic jackets of my dad’s record collection, packed into wooden cubes in our living room. Two speakers on either side of the stereo console dwarfed me. I wouldn’t grow to be taller than my dad’s speakers until I was, like, 10.

I must have spun Abbey Road on CD, too, with cheap Sony headphones plugged into an old silver Panasonic player. The files were lossless, but their delivery system wasn’t.

Sometime in high school, my dad gave me a stash of Beatles mp3s burned onto CD-R, but this was in the days of peak iTunes and 80 gigabyte hard drives. To conserve space, most of the files were flattened to 128 kbps. That’s how I’ve heard the Beatles for most of my adulthood — with the details of their recording smoothed over to accommodate the limited space inside an iPod.

Rihanna and Kanye West just released a song with Paul McCartney, and because Paul McCartney played acoustic guitar and nothing else — which is hilarious, by the way — it prompted me to go back to his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy days, if you will. (I’ve always felt that Kanye was our Beatles, an idea that’s been cemented now that he’s worked with an actual Beatle.)

The Abbey Road on my computer still played back at 128 kbps, so I downloaded another copy at 320. I’ve tried, and I can’t hear enough of a difference between 320 kbps and uncompressed files to justify the extra storage space required to keep a FLAC collection. 320 is now my go-to, but I don’t feel compelled to upgrade from 256 if that’s what I already have.

That’s nerd talk. The point is that it sounded wonderful. I didn’t even remember that The Beatles had played synths. There were dozens more instruments on the album than I thought.

I have good headphones now, a pair made by Grado Labs that’s toward the bottom end of their line but still worlds better than the Apple earbuds I’d been relying on. I’ve used Sennheisers and Audio-Technicas, but I think the Grados are my favorite; light, warm, easy on the ears, natural, and nothing fancy to look at. They pick up a lot of detail, but they’re real humble about it, and while they’re not cheap, they’re affordable even on a writer’s salary.

Something else has ramped up my experience of hearing music a few notches, too. At the end of 2013, I went on sertraline — generic Zoloft — for the first time. I’ve been clinically upset since I was 11, but I’m stubborn and just kind of dealt with it, sometimes badly, until I was 24.

Meds aren’t for everyone. I don’t know if depression is necessarily a permanent chemical defect that can only be corrected with pills. Eating better helps, drinking less helps, exercising definitely helps, but meds can act as a springboard toward those behaviors, and they’ve worked well for me. After a really rough introductory period, I found my dose, and I started feeling more normal. I could go out to social events without wanting to crawl into a hole and die 10 seconds into a conversation. I could make friends without worrying that I was just being humored.

I could also hear music way, way better than ever before. Albums I’d loved for years — decades, some of them — opened up new wrinkles in my ears. There were quirks and squiggles that had been hiding from me beneath my brain fog all along. I finally realized just how sarcastic Colin Greenwood’s bass playing sounded on “No Surprises”.

I try to think of myself as a full human person and not a chemistry experiment that can be tweaked indefinitely with different molecules, but the fact that music sounded better on sertraline changed my relationship to the drug I had been so suspicious of. It still makes me sleep more than I’d like, and it gives me trippy dreams that usually verge on nightmares, but I’m more functional. And music sounds better.

The fact that a brain drug changed my experience of hearing music more than upgrading gear or bit rates makes me extra suspicious of stuff like Pono, the Neil Young-branded FLAC player that’s supposed to change the way that baby boomers relate to their favorite albums. I bet it sounds good, but I wonder if any album would sound good if you’ve just spent $25 to listen to it. Does lossless really sound that much better, or is there some element of an auditory placebo prepping our brains for expanded pleasure?

I’ve mocked Pono plenty, but the truth of it is that your own internal machinery matters as much as the machines you buy to play your music. Listen to a song you love while running outside underneath a beautiful summer sky, and maybe it’ll sound better than when you spin it on vinyl indoors on an expensive stereo. That’s not an illusion. You are your own sound system. Good headphones, like good sound files and good drugs, are just augmentations to an experience of listening that maybe doesn’t vary as significantly as the companies who sell you equipment want you to believe.

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