There is always noise in my head. Sometimes it is intentional – playing, studying or teaching music, listening to it, singing whilst doing the washing up… Sometimes is isn’t – lists rolling around my head of things I need to do, overthinking things when I don’t want to, worries and anxieties…
I have been thinking a lot about auditory masking this week since we have been looking at it as part of my MSc in Music Psychology. Auditory masking is where one sound can no longer be heard because, at a certain volume, another sound will cover or ‘mask’ it.
Usually, this refers to actual sounds – not being able to hear the whir of the microwave when you turn on the vacuum cleaner for example. But I think we do this all the time with music – we mask the sounds we feel like we can hear but which are not really there. We distract ourselves – cover the unpleasant noise with something more bearable.
People talk a lot about meditation and mindfulness these days as a way to feel calm and focussed. Personally, I find ‘noise’ very calming and I also think you can interpret mindfulness in a whole lot of ways. I like industrial sounds and find them very relaxing (think the screeching of the London Undergound trains or the Eraserhead soundtrack!). I am not sure why this is, but one thing I have noticed is how well these sounds work when I want to shut off my own noise. I suppose it’s not that strange – babies are known for falling asleep almost instantly to vacuums and hairdryers – and white noise apps are directly marketed at new parents!
So, as a musician, psychology student, and someone who needs absolutely no excuse to talk about Nine Inch Nails, I wanted to share some of my favourite meditations with the world. There are loads more of course, but these two work really well I think.
The Background World from Nine Inch Nails’ Add Violence is my absolute favourite meditation music. It’s a great song anyway but it’s the end that makes it so unusual. The last seven and a half minutes of the song is just a loop of the same 12 beats over and over. But each time they get slightly more distorted – you hardly even notice it happening – until by the end of the song you are listening to basically pure, beautiful, wonderfully calming distortion.
Crucially, each repetition has a tiny gap between, like a hiccup, disrupting the flow – so your mind may still wander, but you keep being brought back to focus on the beginning of the loop every few seconds, until the distortion covers even the tiny gap.
If you really allow yourself to focus on just the complex, ever changing sound, gradually your mind should clear. Just as the music succumbs to the noise, so will your thoughts. By the end, you might feel quite relaxed (just don’t have it autoplay anything afterwards!)
If you want to try something else (which is less music, more sound), have a listen to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room (1969). The performer is sitting in a room and speaks a few lines which are recorded. This is then played back into the room and that sound is rerecorded. This is done over and over again until you can no longer make out the speaker’s voice and all that is left, as with NIN, is a totally different sound, formed from the resonances of the room. Each performance of this piece is therefore very different and there are a many versions, but here is my favourite – it’s 17 minutes long but if you have the time I would urge you to try it, it becomes quite beautiful.
This idea has been copied by a couple of people on YouTube – where someone downloaded an reuploaded the same video over and over again. I have even heard about a TikTok version…
I would love to know – if anyone reads this and listens to the music – if it worked for you. Happy meditating!