A blog of music and the mind

Tag: Psychology in music (Page 1 of 2)

The Music Goes Around

Communication and miscommunication seem to drive every human action. They’re responsible for the slow build of every strong and worthwhile friendship and the skulking, sinister suspicion and hatred that anyone can develop for some “other” who isn’t like them.

Miscommunicating even with yourself can spell all kinds of trouble, as people lie to themselves or refuse to acknowledge troubling thoughts and memories.

Music, though, has its own way of acting as our thoughts. It can communicate for us in ways that we can’t bring ourselves to do otherwise.

I seek out and listen to music every day without fail, and unless I’m in a boring mood, I never actually have to do the work of consciously selecting the genre, artist, or song.

That’s because I already know what I need on some level. I need the music that’s going to communicate to me what I’m struggling to tell myself.

Notes and chords and words and voices are made by and for humans. Some song, somewhere, in some far-away corner, is going to resonate with me, and it’s going to get in me and probably never leave.

At this point, my own long-curated selection of music is everything in the world. I can find it anywhere because it lives everywhere.

It’s in my bones.

It’s in my organs.

It’s in my blood.

It grows everywhere because I plant it everywhere. And I would bet that others like me feel the same.

The music that communicates to me, that whispers in my ears every day, that can never leave. It helps me understand the world. It helps me to know myself. It lets me connect feelings to thoughts and memories and times and places.

Songs that hit me in the chest have driven me to action and inaction.

The songs of my teenage years, my twenties, from 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2021, this very day, will both remain in those times and always be with me because I’ll always carry them. They’re in my head when other songs play, when I traverse the streets of some city, when I stand idle in an elevator.

It must be the same for others. It has to be.

Music can mark the most significant, ecstatic, grim, and poignant moments of our lives. The music that lands with you seems almost completely arbitrary. It depends on who you’ve discovered, what you’re inclined to like, what you’ve lived through, and how much you’ve matured.

The music that lives in me can take me across the world, really. I visit my hometown neighborhoods, I go back to school, I go to a 1940s jazz club, I go to the Middle East, I head up to Russia. The musical DNA of the human family shows me the ancient world, the halls of royalty, the family birthday parties, the world wars.

Led Zeppelin’s “The Rover” is a 14-year-old huddled in front of the kitchen radio.

Rage Against the Machine’s “Roll Right” is that long highway commute to an exciting new job in the dark of the early winter mornings.

Mark Knopfler’s “Everybody Pays” is the devastation.

Bob Dylan’s “Up to Me” is waiting in the wings, wondering if shame or courage could drive me out on what I believed to be the biggest stage of my life.

Phish’s 2/28/03 “Back on the Train” is cruising.

Even that foolish 2008 era of Lady Gaga has its place.

Charley Patton’s “Going to Move to Alabama” is my first real experience of adult life.

John Coltrane’s “Naima” and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Lenny” are tender love and tribute that can never go away.

And if the original “Proud Mary” is the last song that I, too, ever hear on this earth, that will be just fine with me.

What do you think you wanted when you got here? What do you want now? What do you still want? How can you get it? Will you vow never to step over others to get there? Do you think that you could? Will you comb through the trust you’ve built and decide which ones would be best to betray? There really are no consequences for you if you’ve already rationalized it.

I find that music can help me address so many of these things, just not always in the most obvious of ways. No matter how loud it is, music really is like a whisper. You might need to do the work to hear it.

Sometimes, I wonder if the past is a time and place that can actually be touched again, either through wormholes or black holes or some other disruption in space and time.

But I think even if it isn’t, the connections people have to the music that means something to them will live on in some way. You won’t see them or hear them spoken about, but if you stop to realize the breadth of what the human animal is capable of synthesizing in its mind, you might meet up with those connections yourself, someday down the road.

How Phish Made Me Love Live Music

I have found that many of my life’s most profound discoveries and other turning points have happened at random, at those times when I wasn’t even looking for something new.

Once I catch wind of something I’ve been missing out on, I have to sit and wonder how much else I’ve turned a blind eye to over the years. If the discovery is important enough to you, it could alter your whole outlook for the rest of your life.

Regular readers of the Musical Record blog will know that music is one of my lifelines. It has its duty, its role to play, right there with my family, my alone time, the food I eat.

As such, my connection to music has been well established over the last 15 years that I’ve been seriously listening to it. That is to say: I know what music I like and what I would like. That knowledge comes from near-constant listening, studying, and self-examining. Over the years, without having done the research, I felt like I fully understood why we like the music we like.

Well, before the year 2019, I thought I knew everything I ever would about my musical tastes. But then, one of those unexpected discoveries burst into my life. It hit like a train, and the effects were nearly the same: my musical knowledge seemed to shatter and lie broken all over the ground.

But this wasn’t a scene of destruction. Rather, it was the breaking down of norms that is necessary if one really wants to learn and grow.

This was my first contact with a rock band called Phish, and here is the story of how Phish taught me to love something I had never truly respected: live music.

phish purple lights

Live Music and Me
Enter: Phish Concerts
What Is a Phish Concert Like?
A Few Personal Notes about Song Favorites
2/28/03 “Bathtub Gin”
2/28/03 “Back on the Train”
7/22/97 “Mike’s Song”
So, Why Do I Love Live Music Now?

Live Music and Me

When I connect to certain artists on deep levels–with Bob Dylan, say, or Leonard Cohen–then, rather than just skimming the hits off the top, I like to dive deep. And inevitably, once I get through the studio discography, I’m left with the artist’s live output.

This is where things have gotten sort of murky for me over the years. Until quite recently–literally 2019–I wanted almost nothing to do with live recordings. I’ve been to plenty of concerts in my life, but mostly for the excitement of seeing one of my favorites in person.

Indeed, until last year, I had long held a negative opinion of live music, for this reason: I disliked how different the songs often sounded compared to their studio counterparts.

You can take that in multiple ways. Probably many people like the variations. I didn’t. I would get annoyed when a song that I knew well was so altered that, were it not for the lyrics, I would never be able to tell it was the same song. Dylan likes making those kinds of changes in concert.

I also never liked how concerts seem to make everything sound somewhat rushed and sloppy. When you’re an artist putting on a show, you’ve got thousands of people in front of you, and just one chance to sing each song.

As a result, I found that many performances I had been to sounded like rehearsals, with my favorite instrumental parts or vocal inflections from the studio glaringly absent or just trampled over in the rush of the show.

Compare all that to studio recordings, in which the artist has plenty of time to work through the songs with the band and producers. Musicians can go into the studio with unfinished songs and work them out with the recording time they’ve booked.

The slow progression to perfection eventually allows the studio album to be completed and released. Then, when I hear that album for the first time and happen to love it, I know I can return to it anytime I want, with all the sounds staying exactly the same for the rest of time.

This setup was unbeatable to me. I stuck to the studio stuff and didn’t really budge toward live albums. This was the case even with Bob Dylan, an artist to whom I have the strongest of connections through music and emotions.

So, what happened to explode this world and, in effect, show me the error of my thinking?

Enter: Phish Concerts

The short answer is that Phish kicked down the doors to my musical heart and started spewing funky jams and psychedelic space journeys all over the place.

To contextualize that somewhat: my now-buddy Steve became my coworker and started playing Phish on the office Spotify.

phish red lights

I don’t know if I can do justice to my initial reaction to Phish concerts. Here was a band that for the last almost 40 years had been specifically known as a live act. So they had a lot of practice at the whole live experience. They relished it, and so did the fans.

At first, I would waffle between thinking all Phish sounded the same and thinking I liked some songs, but only sometimes. Ultimately, I wasn’t totally buying it yet, all the jamming.

But the familiarity principle eventually took its toll on me. More listening meant I was able to pick out more details, and I slowly started paying more attention.

After a few months, I realized that all the live music I had heard to that point seemed to be falling off a cliff.

Something I may have thought at the time was: “Why have I been letting some poorly recorded Buddy Guy from the 1970s color my opinion of live music, especially when I now have access to this obviously creative and zany jam band that’s having such a good time being different in concert?”

What Is a Phish Concert Like?

What struck me, and still does, about Phish was how many things the band can be in a single concert performance.

I don’t just mean that on a musical level. Those elements are there: I love funk music, and Phish is nothing if not oozing funk out their ears. They’re also a straight rock band a lot of the time, and what musical genre is more accessible than rock?

However, as strange as this sounds, take the music out of it for a moment. What gets me and probably fans everywhere about Phish is the band members’ abilities to jam, sometimes for a half hour or more, while never losing pace with one another.

Listen to singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio slip into a rhythm and have keyboardist Page McConnell instantly back him up, and know how to do it tastefully. Then, pay attention to the rhythm section of bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman as they intuit how to give it all as much or as little force as the piece needs.

Anyone who knows Phish understands that this kind of improv is no surprise. The real surprise is always in what you’ll get on a given night, how one song will transition to another, and where the song will take everyone.

See, when Phish plays a show, they’re aren’t like most bands. They don’t go out there and repeat a setlist from the night before. And, even if they did, it wouldn’t actually be the same set.

Now, what do I mean by that? Phish is as cohesive a unit as there ever has been on a stage. The band creates conditions whereby an existing song can take off by itself and become something that nobody expects. There are Phish songs that can be 7 minutes one night and 19 minutes the next.

As you might expect from what I’ve said so far, the differences between these song versions aren’t just in the length. The whole feel–the mood, the rhythm, the atmosphere, the places the song goes–all of this changes from performance to performance.

In the Phish universe, there are type I jams and type II jams. Type I jams are more traditional songs; a song’s structure holds throughout the performance and ends as you might expect. There’s plenty of room for interesting and surprising jamming in the middle, but we’re not nuking the fridge.

Meanwhile, type II jams go off the rails, usually by a lot. Type II performances break down the song structure completely and become different animals. Trey may go off into no man’s land,  but the others are right there with him, keeping time, holding the experience in place.

These are where the jams get nasty, crunchy, you could even say. The band might spin us a dark tale, or get progressive and take us through space and time for a while, as the moody rhythms wind their way through places you’ve never been. And this can all be done without any singing whatsoever.


Here’s a perfect example of the type of differentials I’m talking about. Take a classic like “Ghost,” the 7/23/97 version of it. This is 26 minutes of funk-infused jamming that drives along at a swift clip before bringing things down about 20 minutes in.

It’s classic type II, as we expect one thing to be the case but are then smoothly transitioned into something else. The places your mind goes in this type II can be astounding (by the way, it’s performances like this one that can run a Phish concert to three hours or more).

Next, go to 11/17/97’s “Ghost.” The Stevie Wonder-style funk returns, but this time, we’re at mid-tempo and able to catch our breath a little more. As we go on and hit the 7-minute mark, things get spacey. Page’s piano comes in and lends almost a nostalgic air to the performance.

By about 11 minutes, we may as well be floating on a cloud, as the overall tone of the song has become calmly euphoric. Page knows exactly how to complement Trey, and Fishman and Mike are always present in the back, keeping us moving.

Then, at about 15 minutes, we gracefully transition back to the core of the song. The musicianship is nothing short of stunning, akin to a jazz or classical band hitting every step just right.

Finally, listen to “Ghost” from 7/6/98. This is a type I song. As I said, there’s sufficient time for some jamming in the middle, but we never leave the structure behind.

Now, I don’t want you to think that a type I Phish song is boring in any way. The band might stay within the established structure of the song, but that doesn’t mean that this night’s type I “Ghost” is going to be anything like the type I “Ghost” they play the next night or next week or whatever it is.

Here’s an example of how this 7/6/98 version is different. We ease along for about 7.5 minutes before Trey starts riffing on his own. The band keeps him grounded in “Ghost,” but still, there he goes, charting his own course.

Things really take a turn at about 10 minutes in, when Trey hits his pedalboard and fires away into a full-on guitar party. It’s a jam! It just happened that way, and it still fits right into the type I “Ghost” format.

Now, tell me who in the audience knew that was going to happen in exactly that way? Maybe Phish fans knew what they could expect–what had the potential to happen–but no one had any idea where this performance was going until it went there.

To cap off this perfect event, listen to how “Ghost” transitions so elegantly into a cover of “Cities” by Talking Heads. It’s so smooth that you don’t even know what’s happening until you’re in it.

The thing is, we just enjoyed such good feelings with “Ghost” that to end it all so abruptly would be jarring. Instead, we ease right into something new and different in the tasteful way that Phish handles just about all their musical decisions.

It should be plain to see by now that, for someone like me who is at this moment still “getting into” Phish, it would seem that the great diversities of a Phish concert are more than enough to absorb.


But then, there are the theatrics. What would a Phish show be without a little fun, juvenile or otherwise, along the way?

I’m talking about Trey and Mike’s synchronized trampoline jumping over the years, all while continuing to play and never losing time. I mean the novelty of Phish’s annual Halloween shows, in which the band covers an entire album of another artist (or their own). There’s also the craziness of their New Year’s Eve shows, in which audiences always get to experience some kind of surreal gimmick, such as the band riding a giant hot dog through the arena in 1994.

And obviously, “theatrics” also refers to the absolutely stunning light shows the band puts on, all controlled by the fifth member of the band, Chris Kuroda, who will improvise right along with the music. The images throughout this post give you a good idea of what I’m referring to.

phish yellow lights

A Few Personal Notes about Song Favorites

So, I’ve explained a lot about Phish here. We went into my discovery of them, some technical details about the way they work, and how a Phish concert usually proceeds. Here are some notes about a few of my favorite Phish performances.

2/28/03 “Bathtub Gin”

“Bathtub Gin” has been a Phish classic and fan favorite for a lot of years, and for good reason. Like probably most of the Phish repertoire, it’s a fun romp into the surreal and never really takes itself too seriously.

That playful opening and chill guitar riff are in fine form on 2/28/03. We drift along pleasantly for about 12 minutes before picking up the pace a bit. Trey shreds for a little while, and then we ease back into the relaxation and fun of the “Gin” main riff at about 19.5 minutes.

This is a long, fun adventure of a Phish staple, and I’ve drawn a lot of pleasure from working with it in the background, as it stirs up a current that takes me off into a more comfortable place.

2/28/03 “Back on the Train”

This is a top 10 Phish performance for me. No other version I’ve heard (so far) compares to this one. “Back on the Train” is lyrically a travel song about ideas traveling all around the world, turning one’s face to the wind, and going. The song drives along at a rhythmic clip, reminding me of a chugging train.

“Back on the Train” is profound to me in that it fills me with a self-confidence I never thought possible. It could be the cavalier lyrics or the rhythm that keeps on going through the whole performance, but I put this on when I’m happy or when I need to get happy.

The landscape of the song makes me think of a train leaving a station at the beginning, then heading out into the wilderness during the jam, and finally reaching the next station toward the end, with a lot of fun adventures along the way. I’ve listened to this performance during a lot of tense moments in the past few months, and it has always gotten me through.

7/22/97 “Mike’s Song”

The 7/22/97 version of “Mike’s Song” is all about the funk, and I would be nothing without a funky groove in my life. It’s 14 minutes of mostly funk jamming. The band is having a good time here, and it’s this kind of extended playing that can get me through work or a long drive, or really just sitting and chilling.

It’s also cool because, at about 10 minutes, things get dark and brooding. It reminds me of the sludgiest of Black Sabbath in the early days. That shift from the funky dance party to this slow, progressive meander is incredibly skillful and unexpected. It plays with your mind in a way that not a lot of other live music does.

So, Why Do I Love Live Music Now?

You should have a decent picture of Phish now. I repeat that my words can’t do them justice, but at least you know what you’d be getting into if you start listening to the band.

Phish is something that fans experience rather than simply listen to. I’ve been using the word “experience” throughout this post. It’s the best word to describe what listening to Phish is like.

Maybe with a lot of other artists, fans simply “listen” to them. I get that completely. We can’t all be Phish.

phish nye at msg

With Phish, though, you have to be all in. They don’t just make music; they create states of mind in their listeners that didn’t exist before. It’s a kind of magic that I don’t think I could generate on my own.

So, how did Phish get me to love live music? If no one else does what they do, why do I now appreciate other live performances, where before, I dismissed them as shadows of their studio betters?

It’s because Phish showed me that live music isn’t studio music and is never supposed to be. Whereas studio recordings essentially freeze an artist’s performance and emotions in time, live music is special in that it’s fleeting. It will never “exist” again. Just look at the three versions of “Ghost” above, and you can see that.

Sure, we have recordings of live shows, but no one live performance is exactly like another. This applies to all musicians. Each concert an artist gives is influenced by so many factors that seem to arise out of the ether. Setlists change, vocal inflections come and go, and even the mood of the artists on stage can affect how the performance sounds.

This is not something to be lamented or annoyed by. It’s what makes me appreciate a live performance for what it is. It doesn’t matter that it may not match a studio recording exactly or at all. Enjoying that live performance is about living in, and appreciating, the present moment.

I now have new ears for every note of live music I’ve ever heard. It’s been a beautiful rediscovery in that sense.

And it all started with Phish.

Paul Simon and the Power of Musical Repetition

Have you ever listened to a new piece of music that you’ve heard was “perfect” or an artist’s “masterpiece” and not actually liked it right away? Or, have you ever heard a new work by one of your favorite artists, still not loved it upon first or even second listen, but maybe warmed up to it later?

I have definitely been there, and I’ve noticed something interesting in maybe 90% of those cases: the frequency with which I listen to new music seems to correspond to how positively I feel about that music over time.

In my first post, “Why Do We Like the Music We Like?” I mentioned how early familiarity with certain genres of music helps to shape our musical preferences as adults. When I wrote that, I hadn’t thought of this side of that issue, the matter of liking music you once disliked.

One of my favorite YouTube channels is called Canadian Studmuffin, where Trenton, Ontario-based YouTuber Larry Graves reviews classic rock music and does comedy videos. Over the years, he has mentioned this matter every so often: the importance of giving yourself time to appreciate music that you don’t like at first.

So, all of this has got me thinking. I want to explore this subject and talk about the power of musical repetition, or how music can grow on us, given enough time and exposure to it. I’ll illustrate the matter using a perfect example from my own life: how dramatically my opinion has changed over the years on Paul Simon’s 1990 worldbeat album The Rhythm of the Saints.

What Is the Mere-Exposure Effect?

German psychologist Gustav Fechner is believed to have been the first to study what is now called the mere-exposure effect, in 1876. The name of the concept describes it well: this is a phenomenon in which we enjoy and appreciate something the more familiar we are with it.

The effect is also called the familiarity principle, and it can apply not only to our music preferences, but also to love, attraction, and advertising.

Think about your workplace, as an example. You get a new job, and everyone is a stranger at first. But that isn’t the case after a few months or years. Some people become attracted to certain coworkers over time. Our familiarity with these people tends to breed that attraction. We know them. We know what to expect from them. We start liking them.

The mere-exposure effect happens all the time, including with people and music.

enjoying music

Paul Simon, the Mere-Exposure Effect, and Me

Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints really is the perfect example for me to use in describing the mere-exposure effect. In the decades after Simon and Garfunkel broke up in 1970, Paul took his solo career in some interesting and to-me unfamiliar directions.

Paul has always known how to make a hit. He did it multiple times over with Simon and Garfunkel and continued it with his solo work. This is why I enjoyed his 1970s records so much, and so easily.

Then, I started skipping around Paul Simon’s discography and landed on 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints. On this album, Paul continued the tradition he had started with his 1986 record Graceland: that of recording worldbeat/pop music with musicians from other countries and cultures.

With Graceland, the focus had been South African music. On The Rhythm of the Saints, it was Afro-Brazilian and other Latin American influences, played with musicians from those cultures.

When I first heard The Rhythm of the Saints in 2012, I hadn’t yet heard Graceland, so I didn’t know what Paul had been up to at this point in his career.

My first listen to The Rhythm of the Saints was terrible. To my 21-year-old self, the album was slow and boring. For the most part, it had no recognizable melodies that I could recall after a listen. The songs meandered through their tunes with lots of strange percussion instruments that I identified as being from other cultures, but that I still didn’t like any more.

However, I stuck with it, and listened to The Rhythm of the Saints over and over again. I still hated it after several months. I chalked it up to one of those albums that maybe received some good reviews at the time, but that I would just never “get.”

Then, one day, with no prior warning, it clicked for me. I don’t remember much about where I was when this happened, or when it happened, except that it was quite some time later. That’s how unremarkably The Rhythm of the Saints slipped into my personal canon of favorite music. It seems I literally went from disliking it to liking it.

I think it’s important to repeat that I gave this album quite enough time to sink in. I probably listened to The Rhythm of the Saints between 15 and 20 times before I got it. And I didn’t attempt to “cram” in all those listens in a few weeks. I’m talking about years here.

Now, the Afro-Brazilian batucada music made sense in my mind. The heavy percussion of this samba-music subset gave me that driving rhythm feeling that I love in my tunes. The congas sounded cool, and the melodies were free to meander all they liked. Songs such as “She Moves On” and “The Coast” are relaxing and enjoyable now, whereas before, they were simply confounding.

Exposing myself to that music over time had indeed done its long work. I now appreciated how Paul Simon had combined Western pop music with Latin American musical styles to create a unique work of art.

The Power of Musical Repetition Can Open New Doors

Being unfamiliar with any form of Latin American music had prevented me from liking The Rhythm of the Saints initially. I gave it about 20 listens over several years, and now I’m enjoying the fruits of that labor.

This is how I think the mere-exposure effect can open all kinds of new musical doors for us if we allow it. There’s that level of music that each of us already knows we like. It’s probably music that’s familiar to us already in some form. But then there’s another level of music–the stuff that goes against our grain–that we can access if we’re just patient enough to let it work our minds.

For me, learning about the mere-exposure effect has at least given me the option of trying to like certain new music. If I really feel like I want to attempt that, then I now know what’s involved. And I think that can be fun.

Exploring Music and Emotions through Bob Dylan’s Work: Part 2

Bob Dylan is an elusive one. He has been in the public eye as a poet-musician since 1961, and yet he is still the subject of so many questions, speculations, and myths. Millions of words have been written about Dylan as a man, a writer, and an American cultural icon.

Dylan is a person who can be open and honest in an interview in one moment and then start spinning his typical Dylanesque misinformation in the next. He is notoriously private and a master at deflecting questions he finds too probing. He can spin, avoid, and joke his way out of any verbal exchange.

As such, there isn’t a great wealth of information that one can learn from Dylan himself about his songs or the emotions he felt when he was writing and performing them. When questioned about even his barest and more vulnerable album–Blood on the Tracks (1975), in which he seems to confess all his feelings about the fading of his marriage–Dylan claimed he simply wanted to write songs in the style of Anton Chekhov’s short stories.

One responsible way to interpret the emotions Dylan intended to project in a given song is to perform close readings of the song lyrics. The words are there for all to see, so if we are going to study anything, that’s a good place to start. I think we can also learn a bit from Dylan’s delivery of those lyrics in the actual tracks.

I feel I can also offer insight into some Dylan songs with what I happen to know about the man’s personal life at the time of a given composition.

The component of this endeavor that I will find the most interesting is when I attempt to convey the emotions I experience when I hear certain Dylan songs, and whether I think my emotional responses match what Dylan was feeling.

I don’t think disconnects in that area will signify any kind of song misinterpretation on my part. The songs mean whatever they are to the person hearing them. That’s just how music and mood work in every individual.

For the sake of organization, I will divide the post into three major emotions I feel when listening to Dylan.

Dylan and Contentment

Dylan and Anger

Dylan and Sadness

I’ll discuss some specific songs that fit into those categories and see if I can read into what Dylan actually meant when he wrote them (it doesn’t help that he has sometimes admitted to not knowing what his own songs mean).

You can check out the first post in this two-part series to get a bit more granular on how music and emotions go together.

Dylan and Contentment

If you look at a hundred photos of Bob Dylan from the early 1960s to 2020, you’ll see him smiling in maybe 25 or 30 of them. The man’s likely an introvert who doesn’t need to express his every feeling for a camera. However, his chronically reserved demeanor doesn’t mean he is never happy. I detect a ton of contentment and joy in many Dylan songs. It’s a nice, positive place to start.

New Morning

The titular track from Dylan’s 1970 album New Morning finds our hero opening with lines about watching the wildlife scurry about outside while he enjoys his lover’s smile on a beautiful morning.

It’s a raucous track, by 1970s folk standards. I don’t need to do much of a close reading to determine Dylan’s outlook here. As a longtime fan of Dylan, I happen to know that the year 1970 found him happily married to his wife, Sara, and raising his young children while living in New York. Dylan had lived in the countryside of Woodstock, NY, in the late 1960s. He enjoyed the simplicity and solitude of life there, especially after the chaos of his highly public 1966 world tour.

What I think “New Morning” comes down to is the contentment Dylan felt in the quiet man’s life. Dylan’s “new morning” was every morning the rooster woke him so he could see a rabbit running out in the sunshine. It was him returning to the house to see the love of his life smiling back at him.

What my exercise in music and emotions requires of me is to be able to empathize with another person, even someone I’ve never met. As a married man who adores my wife, I get Dylan’s sentiments here. I feel the exaltation in the simple pleasures of being young and married, of waking up to see the friendly wildlife outside and knowing my wife is near me.

Listening to “New Morning” makes me wistful for the life I’m currently living. It’s a strange thought, and yet it’s something Dylan has been able to achieve with a song so simple, straightforward, and seemingly devoid of much poetic artistry. That connection to Dylan’s feelings makes me happy for Bob himself when I listen to “New Morning,” even though it was 50 years ago and that period of his life is over.

All the same, as we learned about music and memories in my previous post, I know what I’ll always think about when I hear “New Morning,” whether it’s tomorrow or in another 50 years.


Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You

If we’re talking about Bob Dylan and contentment, then we’re likely going to be finding a lot of songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I wrote above, I am someone who has read Dylan’s biographical information a few times over, and so I know the reason for this happiness. Still, I don’t believe a listener needs this information to detect elation and satisfaction in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” which comes from Dylan’s 1969 country album Nashville Skyline.

Dylan sings about getting off a train so he can stay with his lover forever. This isn’t the standard poppy love song about failed love or a ruined relationship. It’s Dylan doing a country croon with lively piano accompaniment while singing lyrics about tossing away his hardships and settling down for good.

Those are words spoken by someone who has seen his share of trouble, loneliness, backstabbing, and anything else you can imagine one person doing to another. He’s finally found what makes him whole. This is a happy Dylan, one content to stop rambling down the dusty road and plant himself down with the right woman.

I think about all this as I hear the song. The lyrics and the positive musical arrangements suggest rising joy, acceptance of the pleasures of a pastoral life, and a celebration of the miracle of finding real happiness.

The words and music get in my brain and do their work, I suppose. As with many songs I have heard over the years, I seem to take the place of the narrator in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You.” Dylan conjures up images of domesticity, having a life partner you love, and being relieved that a certain set of life troubles are behind you. The song makes me wistful and content right alongside Dylan. It’s an incredible musical achievement, and yet, on paper, one so simply composed.

Dylan and Anger

The trouble with Dylan songs, and maybe with all popular songs generally, is that it is nearly impossible to tell which parts of the lyrics, if any, are autobiographical to the writer.

Dylan has claimed he does not write confessional songs. However, he has always been a known purveyor of smoke and mirrors, and so I often struggle to take him at his word.

Regardless, even in the two Dylan and Contentment songs above, I really can’t prove anything. I wouldn’t even say I’m out to produce proof, so far as it would even be possible to do.

angry singing

With Dylan and anger, as with any emotion, one of two things is probably true: either Dylan himself was angry but masked his identity with cryptic lyrics, or he wrote angry songs as plot devices, so to speak, breathing those feelings into his first-person narrators.


Planet Waves (1974) is a little-discussed album by Dylan and his longtime collaborators The Band. It seems it’s the diehards only who care about or know many of the songs from this album. That doesn’t mean the content isn’t worthwhile. It is. One song in particular stands out to me, a deep cut, an angry piano-and-guitar ballad called “Dirge.”

Once again, who can say what Dylan’s true subject was, but we can analyze the words themselves. The narrator expresses self-hatred for loving someone and bitter satisfaction at the relationship having ended. It’s strong Dylan, no watering down with this one.

He goes on to mention concepts such as solitude, hollowness, and doom. “Dirge” ends with a remake of the opening line, about the narrator hating himself for the love he felt.

What kind of situation makes a man hate himself for once loving someone? Who is that other person? What did they do to warrant such a song being written? Furthermore, what do these lyrics say about the narrator, to feel hatred about a feeling as positive as love?

One fact we know from psychology is that anger is often one and the same with sadness. In fact, a psychologist might tell you that anger many times is sadness in masquerade.

The difference is that anger allows us to be on the offensive. It lets us seem like forceful beings, appearing as if we can now control a situation.

Conversely, sadness exposes us as victims of tragedy or unfair treatment. By being sad, we are choosing to “accept” those events and let them get us down.

In that case, the lyrics of “Dirge” seem like a person in defeat and denial. The narrator is saying, “See? I already hate myself for ever thinking I needed you. I’m over you. You can’t hurt me.”

What I fully love about Dylan’s lyrics is just this very thing, Dylan’s ability to get at human feelings through words. We know that humans use anger to cover up their hurt. I hear the words of “Dirge” as the inner monologue of someone who has been through the worst parts of life and is using a classic defense mechanism to go on surviving.

We know what has to lie beneath that kind of emotional savagery. “Dirge” lashes out, if only to keep the song’s subject from lashing first.

Idiot Wind

Dylan’s masterpiece “Idiot Wind,” from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, is an exercise in bitterness, sarcasm, and hostility, not unlike “Dirge” before it.

Whether the music and mood of “Idiot Wind” is a complete fabrication meant to survive suspended in time for eternity, as Dylan has more or less suggested, or simply Dylan angry at his soon-to-be ex-wife, Sara, one fact remains: “Idiot Wind” is a blistering verbal assault that never lets up throughout its nearly eight-minute run time.

Dylan, or the narrator, attacks people who are telling lies about him in the media before laying into an unnamed female target. The jabs include references to the woman being dead in a ditch and the speaker wondering how she is even able to breathe on her own.

The imagery is violent and disturbing. Even Dylan’s delivery is all-in with the song’s fury. He sings-shouts the words from start to finish, spitting out the lyrics like poison. It might be worth noting that initial takes of “Idiot Wind” found Dylan performing the song as a mournful ballad, alone with his acoustic guitar, while the album version features a full band and Dylan’s more energetic vocal delivery.

Those first few quiet cuts of the song reflect a narrator who is admitting his own hurt but is still no less angry. The released version is all rage.

Here again, the emotions I feel when I listen to “Idiot Wind” are ones I suppose most people would consider negative: sadness and anger.

Why, then, is it a “good” song? I think the reason is that Dylan is able to use his greatest tools, his words and his ragged voice, to project his own emotions so clearly.

His tone is fierce and unbridled, and yet his lyrics remain so eloquently structured as to suggest the self-control of a master poet. It would seem Dylan created these eight venomous minutes during some kind of tantrum, but the word construction suggests otherwise.

Do I enjoy listening to “Idiot Wind,” given all this? Yes and no. The performance is solid and will do when I’m feeling pissy, myself. When I’m not, the song is grating and even unpleasant. Dylan’s emotions can clash with my own.

Sometimes, I can enjoyably let that anger wash over me. Other times, it just isn’t for me. But that’s the force of this song.

Masters of War

I had a select amount of angry Dylan songs that I almost chose for this one, but “Masters of War” won out for its unabashed take on the global nuclear tensions of the early 1960s. Dylan recorded the song for his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963).

“Masters of War” is unusual in the Dylan pantheon because it does away with the ambiguous poetry that characterizes most of Dylan’s work.

The song speaks directly to those “masters” who were threatening the world with nuclear war at the time. Instead of couching his feelings in any kind of allegorical stories, Dylan monotones his anger in lines about the masters hiding away while young soldiers die.

It’s a moralistic condemnation of warmongering, which Dylan saw as irresponsible to the entire world population. How dare you keep ramping up hostilities, Dylan is saying, while expecting all the young people to do the eventual fighting for you?

Later, Dylan questions whether all the money the masters have made in their positions of power will be enough to earn them forgiveness for their sins. The killing stroke comes in the final verse, as Dylan states flatly that he hopes these people die, and that he will follow their bodies as they are lowered into the ground forever.

“Masters of War” leaves almost nothing to the imagination. While the Cold War leaders continue to threaten one another with mutual destruction, Dylan thinks of the safety of everyone who would actually be put in harm’s way because of that.

lightning storm

Another aspect of this song I find worth noting, aside from its directness, is Dylan’s vocal delivery.

Unlike his performance of “Idiot Wind” 12 years later, Dylan sings “Masters of War” in measured tones. It’s controlled anger. He has thought through what he wants to say. The repetitive sounds of his guitar and vocals tell me that this performance expresses a different anger than “Idiot Wind.” This one sounds menacing.

I can feel Dylan’s emotions infecting me when I hear this. I’m a calm person by nature, but if I felt strongly enough about something, I can also see myself penning something like “Masters of War.” If anything, listening to the threatening tone of Dylan’s voice puts me in a state of mind in which I begin considering the world’s troubles from the most sober of perspectives.

Dylan and Sadness

We end this investigation into music and emotions in Bob Dylan’s repertoire with a closer look at sadness in Dylan songs.

With “Dirge,” I mentioned the basic psychological fact of people sometimes using anger as a deep cover for sadness and hurt. Being sad is admitting to ourselves that someone or something has gotten to us where it pains us the most.

Expressing that sadness tells the world we are vulnerable and opens us up to ridicule and other forms of criticism. Yet, sadness is what we can find in Bob Dylan songs from throughout his career. When I think about Dylan, I can truly say, “Here is a man who’s at least honest with himself.”

If we’re talking about sadness in Dylan songs, I could write a book. But let’s cover just a few and discuss how Dylan uses words to convey that sadness to listeners.

Most of the Time

Dylan didn’t always need to be cryptic, apocalyptic, or even especially poetic to express a sentiment. That’s the case with “Most of the Time,” which opened side 2 of his critically acclaimed 1989 record Oh Mercy.

This song is lyrically straightforward, and yet it’s one of the most effective expressions of human emotions in Dylan’s catalog. It gets at how the human brain works in the aftermath of turmoil. Dylan sings about being strong, being a survivor, but only most of the time.

How many of us have felt this way? We encounter great strife in our lives, struggle a bit, and then get into a mindset of being strong again and able to take on the world.

Those feelings are not necessarily permanent. We feel that way…most of the time. Everybody knows those old weaknesses can come creeping in at random. Or they can violently blindside us at the most unexpected moments.

Of course, we recover and get back to our new normals. And we’re all right again, until the next time.

Imagine Dylan, or the narrator of this song, making himself so vulnerable. He is only admitting what many of us feel but don’t discuss. We can present our stone walls to the world almost every minute of every day. The world sees and essentially accepts that illusion of complete strength. But the illusion lasts only so long.

That’s human emotion for you, isn’t it? That’s what sadness appears to be after we’ve recovered from its initial onslaught. I have wondered what was lingering in me in the months and years following traumatic events, the effects of which never seemed to go away completely.

Dylan put into words that otherwise indescribable feeling: I’ve recovered. I’m strong again. Mostly.

Not Dark Yet

Our last song selection is “Not Dark Yet,” which comes from Dylan’s 1997 comeback record Time Out of Mind.

Dylan had not produced much original material in the previous eight years. In the mid-1980s and into the 1990s, he experienced a major career slump, and he was feeling tired and uninspired.

Whether any of this informed how Dylan was feeling about his life and work in 1997, I cannot say for sure. In any event, Daniel Lanois produced that year’s Time Out of Mind, meaning the album bears his characteristic murky and moody atmosphere throughout.

Dylan brought lyrics to match. Each of the songs seems like its own confession of depression, its own rumination on impending doom.

As we’ve been discussing, music and emotions can do funny things to us. Time Out of Mind is a dark work, to be sure.

Why listen to it? Because enveloping yourself in those kinds of feelings can be cathartic. If you let Dylan’s existential crises from this record subsume your thoughts for an hour and 12 minutes, you may just come out the other side having exorcised the demons that were haunting you.

If that’s the case for you, as it has been for me many times, then the mid-album track “Not Dark Yet” is sure to make you feel the most human you’ve ever felt.

broken piano keys

The melancholy guitars and other instrumentation accompany Dylan’s foggy-twilight lyrics. He sings of the lengthening shadows, his unhealed scars, his apathy in the face of other people, and the numbness of his body.

The most poignant parts of the song are the last lines of each stanza, in which Dylan sings that, while things aren’t that bad just yet, darkness will be here soon.

One could perform a dissertation-length analysis of lyrics such as these. I think that, from a psychological perspective, there’s no truer expression of human sadness. It sounds like utter indifference, giving up.

To cap it off, Dylan or the narrator knows what’s coming. No, it isn’t dark just now, but darkness is but one moment away. What will the tipping point be? It almost doesn’t matter.

What is concerning, if a person ever said these words to you, would be how that person arrived at this place to begin with. Would there be a way to bring that person back?

I truly don’t know. I can’t listen to “Not Dark Yet” and not hear someone crying out in this way in the moment before death, possibly even a self-imposed death.

The catharsis that songs produce in listeners can be enormously beneficial to us. Imagine going into “Not Dark Yet” with repressed feelings of sadness, perhaps sentiments you have been hiding away from everyone, even from yourself. Maybe the song gets at you like nothing else has. Maybe you express those feelings.

If music can help you cleanse those secreted emotions, I would say it has done its job.

Final Thoughts

I hope this series–both the previous post on music and emotions and this one specifically related to Bob Dylan’s songs–has laid bare the true force of music on the human mind. Humans are the ones making the music, so we mostly know the elements to infuse into our work to evoke feelings in others.

What we cannot know is how this or that person will take a piece of music, or how the music will infect the person of its own volition.

Dylan’s songs are akin to literature. They are whatever the listener interprets them to be.

Once you realize what emotions a Dylan song is conveying to you, then only you can decide how you respond to those emotions, what they do for you. Do you feel the same? Do you feel differently? Do you like how it makes you feel?

For myself, I know that I have a Dylan song for every day, every occasion, every moment of my life. I know which feelings I want to use Dylan’s music to enhance or suppress, and which songs can actually access those feelings.

I suppose that’s the crux of this two-part series, that Bob Dylan has long been a central figure in my quest to understand the emotional effects of music.

In that sense, Bob has done me a great service: through his own poetic expressions of the complete range of human emotions, he has allowed me to know myself like nothing else has.

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