When given a choice during my sickest years, I would always choose whichever option was most familiar to me. New experiences take effort whether it’s becoming familiar with the characters in a new TV show, navigating a different route to a destination, or trying a new recipe. I didn’t have the brain power for any new information to stick, so I stuck with what I knew – and this also applied to music.
There was a stretch of several years where I only listened to one band: Black Sabbath. You might think that’s a pretty small group of song to pick from but it gets even better: I only listed to the 1980-1996 era of Black Sabbath. I’ve always had a preference for their rarely-celebrated later years for some reason. When Ozzy Osbourne was fired in 1979, Ronnie James Dio took over for a bit, then there were a few unstable years before Tony Martin finally gave the band some stability as he remained singer for their final decade of existence.
I did shake thing up from time to time… sort of. I rarely listened to the studio albums. I instead listened to live performances after discovering places online where they could be downloaded. These came from several sources of varying quality: soundboard recordings that were broadcast over the radio or TV, high-quality audience recording, and barely listenable garbage. There were dozens of recordings available for each tour with usually at least one high-quality recording. This allowed me to change things up from time to time without leaving my comfort zone.
Music was part of my nightly routine during these years. I would take my sleep meds on an empty stomach, have something to eat, then once I felt drowsy enough I’d pop a CD-R into my nearby stereo and listen on a low volume until I fell asleep. Music wasn’t really something to enjoy during this time of my life, it was just something to fill the silence.
My enjoyment of music and the desire to explore new songs had a brief boost in my early 20s. There was a period of about three years or so at this time of my life where I would drink alcohol as often as it was available to me. By then the Adderall wasn’t working as well and I had constant muscle pain from years of trying to live like a healthy person. Alcohol was great at numbing the physical pain, allowing me to get through physical activity from standing up through a concert to sex. What I enjoyed most about booze though were its psychological effects.
Stimulants make you cold and unfeeling but when I drank I was able to feel. I could laugh, cry, become angry, passionate, etc. It didn’t matter if they were positive or negative emotions – feeling anything at all made me feel like a human being for once.
Getting drunk was my way of self-medicating before I understood the science of how and why I enjoyed it. Have you ever had a few drinks (or more) and really enjoyed a song? Picture the stereotypical drunk girl at a party, what is she doing? She’s up on the table dancing her ass off telling everyone around her “THIS IS MY SONG!” What about the booze causes this effect?
The neurotransmitter GABA is partially responsible. Altering the amount of GABA floating around in the brain will dramatically alter the way a person feels. Prescription drugs that increase the amount of GABA in the brain are used to treat insomnia (Restoril, Halcion), anxiety (Xanax, Valium) and used as muscle relaxers (Lyrica, Baclofen). Alcohol also (indirectly) increases the amount of GABA in the brain. That, combined with its short-term effects on other neurotransmitters like dopamine, makes music sound great.
I stopped drinking years ago when the aftermath stopped being worth the couple hours of pleasure, and spent the next couple of years finding myself listening to Black Sabbath live shows again.
I stopped using Adderall for most of 2014 which allowed my brain to bounce back slightly. As long as I didn’t take it every day anymore, it was one again providing me some energy and flooding my brain with dopamine. A year or two later I discovered Baclofen which increases the amount of GABA in the brain and noticed something interesting: Music sounded better than it ever has before! This feeling was similar to but very different than the way I enjoyed music with alcohol and fortunately a lot better.
The first time noticed this, the first time I really felt music in a long time, was when I heard the song “Arizona” by the Scorpions:
My favorite part of this song is the guitar lick that happens shortly after 1:05. I can’t describe the feeling this song gave me with words beyond saying it was euphoric and I was nearly brought to tears. I make the alcohol comparison because I imagine that’s the closest feeling most people have had to get them to relate to this, but it this was a truly different and better experience.
I frequently got sidetracked for hours when a good song would become more important than whatever I was trying to achieve at the time. I revisited old favorites, bands I discovered in my teens but hadn’t listened to since. I explored new bands in my usual genres of hard rock and metal. What surprised me most though was that I found myself enjoying genres I never explored before!
I moved from rock, to pop, to funk, to jazz, to classical, to ragtime piano. Each time I discovered something new, I would branch off in several different directions and couldn’t keep up with myself.
Home listening is just one part of the music experience. I plan to write about attending live music in the audience as well as performing live music myself in the future.
Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is so badass it has a cannon in it (at 5:00)
I saw P-Funk live last year and it was incredible.
Everyone knows this one, but I didn’t appreciate it until recently.
For whatever reason I enjoy songs about paranoia, so the “Are we under their control?” line really works for me.