“What have we done with inno­cence? It dis­ap­peared with time, it nev­er made much sense.”

~David Grohl, Monkey Wrench

Dave Grohl - Photo by Diego Mora Barrantes on Unsplash
Dave Grohl — Photo by Diego Mora Barrantes on Unsplash

My broth­er Ian and I have a long-stand­ing argu­ment about Dave Grohl’s most impor­tant musi­cal con­tri­bu­tion. I vote for Nirvana, while Ian main­tains the Foo Fighters are one of the best bands in musi­cal his­to­ry. We are actu­al­ly both right – I mean, what can’t Grohl do well? – but it’s still fun to com­pare the striv­ing beat of the Foo Fighters’ Learn to Fly with Nirvana’s sim­plis­tic but haunt­ing Come As You Are

I have been under­stand­ably sad for my broth­er late­ly. Taylor Hawkins, the drum­mer for the Foo Fighters, died unex­pect­ed­ly hours before a March gig in Columbia. Only 50 years old, Hawkins’ death is still under inves­ti­ga­tion, though it’s assumed he over­dosed on drugs since his blood con­tained opi­oids, mar­i­jua­na, and benzodiazepines. 

So I found myself cue­ing up an old iPod mix Ian made me of his favorite Foo Fighters songs. I’m sure I lis­tened to it when it was gift­ed, but I prob­a­bly didn’t pay atten­tion at the time. I believe that per­fect songs – like per­fect books – come to us at the per­fect time. So if I had heard the song Monkey Wrench before, I didn’t real­ly hear it. Because when I heard it this time, it lit­er­al­ly stopped me in my tracks.

Monkey Wrench is an up-tem­po trea­tise on the devo­lu­tion of Grohl’s mar­riage at the time. Though the lyrics are a down­er, the song is a barn­burn­er. It’s pop meets punk meets hard rock, writ­ten in a 4/4 time sig­na­ture. As the gui­tar riffs and just before the ini­tial verse begins, there is a con­fus­ing but delight­ful stop-start, a sin­gle mea­sure where the time sig­na­ture changes to ¾, then goes right back into 4/4. This front-loaded dra­mat­ic pause is so con­fus­ing to your brain and body that you auto­mat­i­cal­ly sit up and pay atten­tion. That weird full sec­ond of silence com­plete­ly hooked me.

When we lis­ten to music, we’re real­ly tak­ing a jour­ney. We wan­der through rhythm, tone, and voice, look­ing for pat­terns, sub­con­scious­ly count­ing bars and mea­sures. So when a preg­nant pause hap­pens, neu­rons in the pari­etal lobe spike rapid­ly, as our brain strug­gles to under­stand what just happened.

I’m com­ing back to Monkey Wrench, but we need a quick tuto­r­i­al on dopamine, that feel-good neu­ro­trans­mit­ter that makes us feel awake, moti­vat­ed, and happy.

On aver­age, Americans check their phones about once every four min­utes. That’s well over three hun­dred times a day! My phone is a reli­able source of dopamine. I solved today’s Wordle? Dopamine. My post gar­nered over a hun­dred likes? Dopamine. I watched a video of a duck and pup­py who are best friends? Someone sends me a thumbs up on my sto­ry? I get an email that bright­ens my day? All tiny shots of dopamine. Over time, I start to asso­ciate that momen­tary eupho­ria with my phone. But dopamine is metab­o­lized very quick­ly in our brains, leav­ing us want­i­ng more and more as soon as pos­si­ble. So I con­di­tion myself to check it more often, chas­ing the dopamine dragon. 

But what we now under­stand about dopamine is that it’s strong­ly con­nect­ed to crav­ings. So I hear my phone ding with an incom­ing text. I actu­al­ly get a shot of antic­i­pa­to­ry dopamine just hear­ing the alert, with no under­stand­ing if I am going to read that mes­sage with plea­sure or displeasure. 

The antic­i­pa­tion is the chem­i­cal reward. 

Pauses in music are paus­es full of life. That tiny break alerts our brain to antic­i­pate excit­ed­ly what’s com­ing next. And when the beat final­ly drops, we feel that euphor­ic rush of dual dopamine hits from the antic­i­pa­tion and the downbeat. 

Really good music hits us in our feels by using a bal­ance of sound and silence. In musi­cal nota­tion, this is called a caesura, or a short silence, refer­ring to a sud­den stop in the per­for­mance with an equal­ly sud­den resump­tion of sound that inter­rupts the nor­mal tem­po of a com­po­si­tion. A well-placed caesura makes the lis­ten­er sit up and pay atten­tion, total­ly present. The silence cre­ates an antic­i­pa­to­ry con­tain­er for the next sound. As Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “Music is pleas­ing not only because of the sound but also because of the silence in it: with­out the alter­na­tion of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be hap­py by fill­ing all the silences of life with sound… we will only suc­ceed in pro­duc­ing a hell on earth.”

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.