Outro #5: What is tuning in?

radio 1

Thesis #1: the most important thing you have done in your music listening career, besides turning out for concerts and turning on your devices, is tuning in.

Music does many catchy things to ingratiate itself. But there’s the Paradox of Ingratiation: a piece of music that is 100% agreeable, requiring no adjustment to enjoy it, actually prevents you from performing the act of tuning into it. It slides by, and you’ll never think of it as essential.

What do you do to tune in?

(Of course, you have always already tuned in to a certain general musical stylization, a certain set of tropes: rock, hip hop, country, etc. Now your attention turns to more particular embraceables . . .)

You might instantly catch what is thrown your way in depth (as it feels to you). “Deep greens and blues / Are the colors I choose,” yes! I thought.[1]

You might resonate increasingly with nuances that determine the rich quality of the whole experience, as in “getting” a groove.[2]

You might be examining how something that sounded questionably, possibly, occasionally promising (like the early Grateful Dead) fulfills its promise. Or you might only be curious initially, and then surprised by delight.

You might be immediately delighted but also hooked by a problem to solve. Is that a male or female singer of “I Can See Clearly Now”? What kind of rock drummer is Spencer Dryden? How can Bill Payne’s unfunky synthesizer voice work so well in the live version of “Fat Man In The Bathtub”? Would this be one of your desert island tracks?

As tuning in succeeds, you value the specificity of each thing you discover you like. Each tuning in establishes another radio station on an expanding dial. Your communication channels reach out in many directions in a brilliantly talkative universe.

You value the particular knowing of the good thing, like knowing that friend of yours with his quirky sense of humor. Indeed, your friend might be a little problematic, a little rough or uneven, so that you have to know how to take him — and likewise you might get satisfaction from figuring out how to take this music, for best results. Maybe you have to meet it halfway. Maybe it’s on the verge of too harsh or too bland and you have to tug it in the right direction.

The implicit theme through much of this is that you are capable of this discernment and problem-solving, you are the one who hosts this resonance; further, you are one of the ones with this capability and this function — you belong to the fellowship of the tunes.

Is there a peril here of tuning in so thoroughly that your musical favorites become sure commodities, old familiars, cognitive easy chairs? Might the curious tuner-in become the complacent enjoyer, the stolid friend of same-enjoyers?  Thesis #2: that won’t happen to the true tuner-in.


[1] James Taylor, “Sweet Baby James” (1970).

[2] Tiger C. Roholt, Groove. A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).



About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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