Take Two Grateful Deads and Call Me in the Morning
If you've never suffered a panic attack, the idea of oneof being, in the absence of any real threat, suddenly overwhelmed by fearcan seem inconceivably strange. Try to imagine fear flooding your mind with such fierce momentum that you struggle to catch your breath, so convincing is the sensation that everything is spinning horribly out of control. Once that happens and the fear has taken over, it doesn't matter if the threat is real or not.
In fact, my friend says, that's the scariest thing about itno actual, external threat is needed to trigger a panic attack. It happens like a sucker punch, creating an internal climate of fear in which you find yourself constantly anticipating the next attack. Always simmering below the surface, this perpetual dread of terrora fear of fear itselfcan cruelly fulfill itself in a vicious cycle of panic attacks.
But there is good news: A panic disorder, as debilitating as it can be, is treatablewith music.
That's no real surprisemusic is powerful medicine. Science has shown that it can mitigate stress, lower blood pressure, soothe pain, boost the immune system, and deliver a host of other salubrious services, both emotional and physical. And we consume music to feel a certain way, just as we take drugs. My friend consumes music to feel safe.
But not just any grade of music. It has to sound good. It is a rule by which my friend has staked his sense of sanity, having realized, as he did, through the seemingly obvious but no less impressive observation that listening to music through a good playback system did more to relieve his panic disorder than did listening to the same music through mediocre gear. The better a recording sounds, the easier my friend finds it to become lost in the performanceto hear beyond the recording's inherent mechanical character into that unique moment in time when the music was actually being performed. Conversely, sonically deficient MP3 files pull my friend right out of the music, and on a few occasions have even exacerbated his panic disorder.
"Well, duh!" I hear from audiophiles. "Of course sound quality matters!" Which, of course, it doesto audiophiles.
But here's the thing: My friend wasn't an audiophile in any traditional sensehe didn't, from a relatively young age, discover great sound and cool gear and decide to make of them the twin obsessions of a hobbyist pursuit. No, he got into high fidelity because it made what had become a very difficult life sufficiently bearable for him to want to continue living it. It was this catalytic revelation about the quality of his lifethat better sound quality improved how he felt, beyond his fundamental affection for the music itselfthat turned him into a devotee of good sound.
Socan good sound simply be a healthier alternative to bad sound, in a similar way that the quality of a pharmaceutical drug has some bearing on its therapeutic effectiveness?
Yes, according to prominent neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, the New York Times best-selling author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Plume/Penguin, 2007, footnote 1). However, the good doctor was quick to point out that none of his research directly looked at differences in sound quality. Still, Levitin said to me that "My intuition is that the better-quality audio will provide better health results because listeners won't be distracted by distortion or other signal-degrading artifacts."
Powerful stuff. After all, Levitin's is the opinion of a leading expert on music's effects on the brain. This wasn't some lowbrow fluff thrown off the top of some dummy's head.
"Is music healthier than vitamin supplements?" I threw off the top of my head.
Levitin's nod was bittersweet; I wondered how much more audio hardware I could have bought with the money I'd wasted on vitamins, and been the healthier for it.
On the other hand, this was darn near groundbreaking news: a quasi-scoop from an expert source about the potential not only of music, but of sound quality itself, to be healthy for us. But "Not all listeners will benefit from better sound," Levitin cautioned. "Those with tin ears are probably just as well served by music coming from another room on an old baseball-stadium horn speaker."
This raised a caveat with which Levitin agreed: that those more able to hear distortion and other signal-degrading artifacts would likely require better sound to reap the same health benefits from music as those whose hearing can't detect such artifacts. Then again, said Levitin, "The average person may still be affected by poor-quality sound. They may not know they're hearing distorted material, but it could affect their ability to become completely absorbed by it, thereby offering them no help."
I thought of my friend, and how high-quality sound helps him every day. Then I thought of us: As if our hobby weren't already cool enough, turns out it's also probably good for our health. How many of the other things we enjoy consuming can we say that about?
So screw vitamins. And overcooked broccoli. And screw shitty audio that's bad for us.
Being now the wiser, we should insist on being subjected to nothing less than great sound, wherever the source, and whatever the mode of playback (footnote 2). The doctornay, the neuroscientistrecommends it.Robert Schryer
Footnote 1: Daniel J. Levitin teaches at UC Berkeley. Check out Daniel Levitin's Wikipedia page for "wow"-inducing tidbits about his backgrounds in music and soundsuch as the fact that he created guitar tones for Santana and the Grateful Dead.
Footnote 2: See Stephen Mejias's thoughts on this subject.Ed.