~ Or: I thought time dilation was just a science fiction device for making television episodes more confounding
Tempo memory is straight up weird.
So picture this. You’re listening to your favorite radio station that plays “classics” and lamenting the fact that you’re old enough for Huey Lewis and the News to be considered as such. Great! Now that you’re in that frame of mind, go with me on this. Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” comes on and suddenly the weirdest thing happens.
It feels too slow.
Like, literally. It feels as though someone has slowed down the tempo of the track. The notes are in the correct pitch from what you remember, but it’s too slow!
Every other song seems fine as it comes on. Then Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” pops on and it ALSO is too slow.
What on earth is our keto-compatible fatty computer made of meat trying to do to us???
This is the subject that I wanted to look into this week and, surprisingly, I’m having a difficult time finding concrete information to explain the phenomena (doot dooooo d’doo doot). Most of the time when I dive into a topic involving the brain-bucket processing device I start looking into science and health journals for reference material. For this topic, I’m coming up mostly dry.
So! Here we are going blind into the frontier of the æffectation that is our brain playing tricks on us where song tempo is concerned. I present to you four prevailing theories that exist out there on the intertron. Let’s get into it!
Theory #1: Heart Rate Impacts Tempo Memory
The topic that comes up the most when searching through this idea is as it relates to exercise. Exercise is then tied to everything related to heart rate at that point going forward. The more intense the workout, the higher the heart rate, the slower a piece of music that we are familiar with will sound.
If I didn’t know what that feels like from first-hand experience, I would wonder about that more. Once upon a time when I was taller, I got it into my head to run a local 5k event.
We won’t talk about the fact that my sister ran a half-marathon at the same event because I already feel feeble for how much I had to walk as it was
I had a whole playlist of music picked out, with some overflow in case I ran longer than anticipated based on the build-up to the event. It looped anyway, but that’s another story for another time.
There was a significant amount of INXS music on that playlist. All music that I was familiar with down to every last note, every beat, every breath.
Every last one of those songs while I was running sounded slower. It was uncanny but definitely a perception that I had in the moment.
It might not explain while sometimes a single song will come on the radio that sounds slower than remembered, especially when there were no heartrate events happening at the time. There are other possible theories that could explain it but we’ll get there momentarily.
Side note on the theory of how Flow State impacts this
Not a state in the union, unfortunately because if it was I would want to live there. Flow state is most assuredly a double-edged sword at times but it hits all the buttons for psychological plausibility regarding musical tempo memory.
People go through varying degrees of focused flow state based on a variety of things. Getting “into the zone,” hyperfocus, concentration. Under normal circumstances we would be distributing our fluctuating levels of attention somewhat evenly. But when flow state hits and we focus on a singular activity, our perception of time changes. The world around us feels like it’s slowing down, even though time hasn’t actually been æffected; it’s just us. The theory is that hyperfocus and flow state cause music to be perceived as slower. When our attention is more equally distributed, tempos seem to speed back up again.
Weird but plausible! It still might not explain why that one song out of so many sounds different but the theory is sound.
(no pun intended)
((ok you got me, pun intended))
Theory #2: Metabolism Impacts Tempo Memory
Not exactly related to heart rate and being a discussion all its own is as regards to what our metabolic state can do to our perceptions of music. Except in this case the theory is opposite to what we’re looking into. But let’s take a look anyway.
In our earlier days as earth humans when our metabolism runs as a well-oiled machine, stuff and things work great. We metabolize our intake and turn it into energy and our bodies activate and life progresses in that accelerated fashion. In this state of more rapid processing, the theory is that everything around is perceived as a bit slower than the upcoming category demographic.
Because then there’s the other side of the mountain. As we grow shorter, things tend to slow down. We don’t process intake as efficiently as we once did, we complain about it bitterly in our increasing shortitude, and changes get made to lifestyle. As that change progresses and continues to impact our lives, time is perceived as moving faster, and with it tempos of music.
So this theory concludes that music is actually faster to us when our metabolism has betrayed us when compared to our previous state of burning. There were enough theories about this out there that it could not be discounted but it definitely does not play into the theory at the moment of “music sounds slower now than it did years earlier.”
Theory #3: Mood Impacts Tempo Memory
This may seem like an obvious response but it’s absolutely worth mentioning. Our state of mind is going to have an impact on the way we perceive the world around us. Audibly, visually, everything.
Information for this segment is more anecdotal than anything else, however it’s based on volume of comments. Plenty of research exists surrounding the nature of how sad music can actually help with depressive states. There isn’t as much information correlating how music is perceived depending on the degree to which we are manic or depressive. Just reports that when in depressive states music feels slower while in more upbeat moods music tends to feel faster.
This is one I would really like to dive into more but the information just does not seem to be available in journals that I have access to, so I’m relying on more individual reports.
This is also one category where I would love to hear from anyone who happens to read this and is willing to share their experiences.
Theory #4: Radio Stations Were Jerking You Around
Turns out that there might be some merit to this theory. That our tempo memory may have been manipulated by the nefarious DJ overlords of our taller days!
In some cases it is referred to as the “1% Theory” where turntables would be sped up around 1%. Some stations took this a bit further and could fluctuate anywhere from 1-5% in speed increase. The rationale being: if your playback is slightly faster than the next station, your version sounds more energetic and people will like it better.
Kinda like the 1db volume increase rule that makes music sound “better.” The psychological impacts of just that teensy bit of speed increase was apparently enough to sway listenership once upon a time. That may not be the case now in the alleged demise of radio, but there are enough first-hand confirmations of its existence that it cannot be discounted as a possible theory for why some songs sound slower now than they once did.
Is it possible that the station I was listening to as a kid when Open Your Heart was on the airwaves (probably Seattle 93.3 KUBE before they switched from top 40 to hip hop) was utilizing a speed-up anywhere from 1-5%? Sure! Definitely something to keep in the back of the mind.
That’s Probably Enough For Now!
I’m not entirely certain we actually came to a conclusion on this one. Why do other songs from the 80s sound normal but certain ones just sound slower when listening on the radio today? I just cannot explain it.
Some of the theories above ring with a degree of plausibility. Or at least aspects of them.
Hopefully this œffering of text avalanche has been interesting to you! Let me know what you think!
Until next week.
-= george =-