“Music is the shorthand of emotion.” -Leo Tolstoy
I must’ve been about six or so when a friend of my dad’s invited us for dinner. His son was a little older than me, and we spent the evening goofing around, and at some point he showed me his new keyboard. I watched fascinated as he played a little melody. He invited me to give it a go, and I pressed random keys, getting a feel of the sounds, then played the opening verse of some popular Bollywood song. My parents, sitting nearby, were pleasantly shocked since I’d never touched any musical instrument before.
Later, they asked me if I’d be interested in taking lessons, and I said yes, much to their delight, especially my dad’s since he’s always been a music aficionado and learned to play the harmonium (a one-handed pump organ, a staple of Indian classical music) himself in his youth, and which I likewise learned in mine later. But my first instrument was the little two octave keyboard he got me soon after the dinner.
I enjoyed playing it and got a kick out of the built-in rhythms and various sound effects. I was experimenting with the latter once, and an echoey boom blared from the single speaker. Frightened as I was by the sound, I should’ve switched to another effect, but I guess it says something about our intrinsic desire to flirt with the fearful that I pressed the key again. This time I screamed and was close to tears. For the next few days, I only eyed the keyboard suspiciously from afar but resumed playing eventually.
I haven’t thought about the incident in years, and I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly about the sound sacred me, but now, I can see it being nothing all that different from startled cries in a dim movie theatre. Part of the reason we do that is a conditioned response of sorts from consuming media, and the other part is more primal, a biological response to distress.
Since time immemorial, animals have relied on their sense of sound for survival. Even more so than their sight. Our Ancestors had pointy ears (The better to hear you with, my dear), which they could wiggle, now known as Darwin’s tubercle. As our necks became more flexible with evolution, they grew redundant; however, we still carry a vestigial trait as evidenced in the bump along the top of our ears. Being able to hear a predator beforehand was the difference between life and death. If you were unlucky enough to encounter one, the only thing you could do was what Janet Leigh’s character did in that shower scene in Psycho: scream.
High-pitched shrieks serve both as an outlet and alarm, alerting others to either offer help or run for cover. Our brains have developed an atavistic aversion to sounds that are stretched too thin, and filmmakers employ these non-linear sounds, the kind which are either too loud or drastically change frequency, to invoke dread in audiences. Many directors have famously incorporated animal noises as part of the film’s score to that end. The most notable instance that comes to mind is Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which blended the cries of a baby elephant, a tiger and an alligator to give voice to the T. Rex.
Sounds don’t necessarily have to be a harsh mishmash to unsettle the listener. Certain combination of notes can have the same effect, like the tritone, a musical interval spanning three full notes. Thought to be so menacing to the ear that it was dubbed diabolus in musica, “The Devil’s Interval,” and was banned by the church during the renaissance. Also, a more technical reason being it was a difficult chord to sing to. Half the sinister effect is a result of subversion of expectations since we’re accustomed to hearing music in more traditional, harmonious scales. It is, however, used widely in heavy metal since Black Sabbath’s eponymous song.
Music plays a crucial role in my short story featured in In the Air. One of the things I wanted to play with was context. While an unharmonious sound is disturbing, one that’s the opposite could easily be likewise in a different circumstance, be creepy not because of any inherent dissonance but rather because it’s at dissonance with its surroundings. Even the most cheerful little lullaby would set your heart thudding if you were out camping and heard it tinkle delicately outside your tent. And you may wish you had our ancestors’ pointy ears to discern the crunch of a footfall.
Rohit Sawant’s fiction is forthcoming in The Twisted Book of Shadows and has appeared in Weirdbook, CultureCult Magazine and can be found inTranscendent, Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of H.G. Wells and other anthologies. He lives in Mumbai, India. Enjoys sketching, films, and his favorite Batman is Kevin Conroy. You can find him at rohitsawantfiction.wordpress.com
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