We listen to music that has a pulse…
It lets us know that we’re continuing to move forward, that we’re in motion,
that everything is all right.
— Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music
A question: what do you do with music? An answer: You play it.
No shit, right? But bear with me.
You play the guitar, or the keyboard, or the kazoo. You play the disc, or the tape, or the file. In order to create the uniquely magical effects of which music is capable, you have to play.
Can I ask you to keep that in mind? Is that cool?
I don’t always watch the moments leading up to the moment, but those moments are important, too. And so, a description:
Dan Deacon stands behind the Tiny Desk. The one rule of Tiny Desk concerts, as I understand it (though I am no connoisseur), is that the musician’s entire setup must fit behind an office desk, whether that means a guitar, a jazz trio—or, for Dan Deacon, an electronic console covered in neon tape and a piano wired to play for itself.
Preparing for the third and final song of his set, Deacon looks off camera into that mysterious zone that usually goes unseen during Tiny Desk concerts.
“You with your arms crossed,” he says. “Can I get you to the center?” The camera cuts and we’re in a crowd of NPR staffers, who look exactly the way you’d imagine them to look—dapper, mostly young, mostly white, all milling around a fluorescent-lit open-plan office space. Called out by Deacon, a man in a black jacket grins anxiously and walks into the center of the room.
“Can I get you with your arms crossed, as well?” Deacon asks someone else. “Is that cool?” A woman wearing a lanyard joins the man wearing the jacket as Deacon fills the crowd in on what will happen next: as soon as he begins playing, they’ll begin dancing. Half the room will mimic the moves of the man in the jacket, while the other half will mimic the moves of the woman in the lanyard. When these “captains” are ready to stop leading the dance, they’ll pick a replacement.
“This is going to be a hive mind mentality,” Deacon says. “Think of the captains as the brains and the teams as the bodies, the bones, and the muscles.”
To begin with, he asks the entire group to take a knee and raise their arms. “Feel your new brains set in,” he says. “This song is called ‘Learning to Relax,’ and I have much to learn.”
Then, he starts to play.
An old saw: writing about music is like dancing about architecture. An interpretation: it’s impossible, or at least pointless.
Some ways that people have danced about Dan Deacon’s architecture:
Per Winston Cook-Wilson: “Rave music for the DIY-house-show set? Avant-garde electronica? Performance art? Minimalism? Maximalism?”
Per Jon Dolan: “Keyboard mania.”
Per Gerrit Feenstra: “Chaos put to a 4/4 beat.”
Per Andy Beta: “Manic, chewed-power-line indie pop.”
Per Tom Moon: “Almost defiantly destabilized…like a Rube Goldberg contraption of synchronized moving parts running on bacon fat and ecstasy.”
“Deacon wants you to join him in adding silly joy to a world that’s been feeling pretty drab,” Jess Harrell wrote 15 years ago, reviewing Deacon’s debut album, Spiderman of the Rings.
Pretty drab, indeed.
YouTube provides a handy hyperlink in the video description: “‘Learning to Relax’ 16:32.”
And so I’m able to jump straight to a moment of stillness punctuated by nervous laughter. I like to pause it then and relish the sight: bodies in the foreground, close to the floor with hands in the air; desks in the background, computer monitors and recycling bins and wheeled chairs receding out of focus. I can sit, savoring an anticipatory smile that mimics those of the NPR staffers, waiting for the moment that Deacon will press the button that triggers his gear. I wait until I can’t wait any longer, and then I let it play.
“It’s all you now,” Deacon says.
At first, it’s unclear exactly what’s happening; it looks like chaos, so everyone must be waving their hands carelessly, right? But then something happens. It’s not that they fall into unison—that would be too precise to be remarkable; it would look like any number of choreographed dance videos. Each of those hands is clearly working from one template, but, through human imperfection, adding some idiosyncracy that’s passed around. As though carried by an ocean current, the movements of the lanyard-wearing woman ripple through the crowd in waves. The first row mimics her movement, the second row mimics the first, and so on. Then, they rise, trying to keep up, trying to stay together.
“Just take me out of my mind,” Deacon sings in the song’s most oft-repeated line. His eyes are squeezed shut as he plays behind the Tiny Desk, his face flushed and sweaty. “I want to see the lights coming towards us with my glasses off. Soft dots drifting by in darkness.” And then, once more with feeling: “Just take me out of my mind.”
When I first encountered Dan Deacon’s Tiny Desk concert, I was sitting at my own desk, watching on a laptop with headphones. I was caught off guard by the moment of peace, and when it was broken by sound and motion, I burst into tears.
I suppose it should be easy to say why: as I entered the third year of the pandemic, the sight of bodies moving joyously together during what should have been an ordinary day provided some immense catharsis, right? But I can’t believe it’s that simple. I can’t believe my emotional life has been so thoroughly flattened that every response could be chalked up to that single blighted source. Please, for the love of God, it can’t be that simple.
I’ve been reading about murmuration. Noticing the resemblance between the movement of the NPR staff and that of some underwater body got me thinking of shoaling (the habit of a school of fish to move as one), which got me thinking of flocking (the habit of any number of animals to move as one), which got me thinking of murmuration (the habit of starlings to fly in groups of thousands, twisting through the air like a single, rippling scrap of fabric blown by a fan). The sight is breathtaking, eerie, even inexplicable. In 1931, the ornithologist Edmund Selous observed murmuration and wrote a book theorizing that starlings are telepathic, passing impulses back and forth through psychic waves. He titled his book Thought-Transference (or What?) in Birds.
Or what, indeed.
Just over 90 years later, scientists can basically rule out the idea that murmuration represents telepathy, but they don’t really have a more satisfying answer. Murmurations “are of dazzling complexity in their changes in density and flock shape,” wrote biologists H. Hildenbrandt, C. Carere, and C.K. Hemelrijk in their paper ‘Self-organized aerial displays of thousands of starlings: a model,’ “but the processes underlying them are still a mystery…patterns in [computer] models come nowhere near the complexity of those of the real starlings.”
It may be overstating the case to suggest that watching the follow-the-leader dance of the NPR staff could be as breathtaking as witnessing a murmuration, but I think the mechanism is the same. As I understand it (though I am no biologist), some researchers believe that we crave exactly the sort of flocking behavior found in so many social creatures. There have been experiments, there have been theories tested, and it all points back to the conclusion that flocking is wired into our consciousness. It likely goes back even further than our Neanderthal roots, back to something even more primordial.
“We think of ourselves as being incredibly complicated creatures,” biologist Iain Couzin has said, “[but] your interactions tend to be much simpler than you think.” Moving together, our minds tell us on some unconscious level, is what we were built to do. There’s an evolutionary advantage to paying close attention to those around us, using those cues to tell us where to go. And thus, it stands to reason, the opposite would be true: to be alone with our thoughts is to be tremendously disadvantaged.
“I’m so sick of the inside of my mind,” I told my psychiatrist around the time that I discovered Dan Deacon’s music. This was one of the refrains through which I tried to simplify the weeks of chaotic spasms wracking my brain. Another refrain: “I don’t know how to be.” And then, once more with feeling: “I am so sick of the inside of my mind.”
My friend Ryan is a musician, a producer of music, and a Dan Deacon fan, so I turned to him for perspective on the emotional effusion that Deacon’s music summons in me.
“He is in your brain when you’re listening to his records,” Ryan told me. He saw Deacon in concert 14 years ago, and it changed his conception of live music. “He’s dividing the dividing line between audience and performer. He wants to be part of you. He wants to be in there with you.“
A few ways that people have danced about Deacon’s live architecture:
Per Phil Maye: “The manic energy of his music is meant to be channeled through everyone at the show.”
Per Rebecca Bulnes: “Another universe, a singular bubble where everything was free and colorful and cathartic.”
Per Rashod D. Ollison: “Goofy, manic, and completely unpredictable.”
Per Nathan Stevens: “Some of the concert sounds corny in retrospect, but in the moment it felt absolutely necessary.”
“He’s not afraid to be like, everybody act like children,” Ryan told me, “and that’s huge. Music, I think, is our sense of play.”
I’ve been reading ludic theory—or, to be less obnoxious, I’ve been reading academic ruminations on the significance of play (is that less obnoxious?).
It would seem (though, again, I am no biologist) that there is an evolutionary advantage to spontaneous play. In the paper ‘Juvenile survival and benefits of play behavior in brown bears, Ursus arctos,’ Robert and Johanna Fagen determined that cubs who play are more likely to survive their first year. Though it should theoretically be evolutionarily disadvantageous—after all, recreation takes away time and energy that could be spent ensuring survival—the Fagens ultimately theorized that, by playing, these cubs are able to process their past stress and develop coping mechanisms for future stress.
And (not to put too fine a point on it) what do animals look like they’re doing when they’re playing?
“The connections between playing and dancing are so close that they hardly need illustrating,” Johan Huizinga wrote in his 1938 book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. “It is not that dancing has something of play in it or about it, rather that it is an integral part of play: the relationship is one…almost of essential identity.”
Given that he died almost 60 years before their study was published, Huizinga did not have access to the Fagens’ conclusions on the advantages of playfulness. Instead, he saw play as something that “resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” If play doesn’t typically create anything tangible, it must be a testament to the power of the mind. Because our brains can manifest a phenomenon with no physical form and no clear purpose, the mind must be capable of “[breaking] down the absolute determinism of the cosmos.”
Or something like that.
One more source (for now): in their book Play and Performance, Carrie Lobman and Barbara E. O’Neill argue that if we forget how to play as adults, we limit our abilities to relate to one another, and even relate to ourselves: “In school and in the workforce people are rewarded for who they are and what they know how to do, not for who they are becoming.” If you forget how to be playful, you forget how to want something better for yourself. And (not to put too fine a point on it) Hunziga did believe that dancing is “the purest and most perfect form of play that exists.”
Is this why I’m profoundly moved by watching a chaotically unified dance taking place in an office? Do I see people remembering how to relate to one another and themselves? Do I see Dan Deacon defying the determinism of the cosmos? I don’t know; I think I basically get what that means, but I’m probably just gesturing at the surface. I like to try and be scholarly, but really I’m just a guy who knows what it looks like when a hole gets ripped in the fabric of the ordinary.
I was in pretty rough shape when I discovered Dan Deacon’s music. I’d rather say in rough shape than use the psychiatric terminology at this point. Is that cool?
It wasn’t the first time that I’ve been in rough shape, and though I’d say I hope it’ll be the last, I know life isn’t that simple. I was spending a lot of time alone on this go-round; I’m lucky enough to live in the woods, so I spent a lot of time walking in them. When I’m in rough shape, I have a tendency to be impulsive and careless, irritating the people I care about at best, and hurting their feelings at worst. At a time like that, there are worse places to be than the woods.
My understanding (though I got a C+ in Introduction to Neuroscience) is that this psychic roughness has something to do with hyperactivity in the parts of the brain devoted to emotion1 and impulsivity,2 as well as (for whatever reason) the parts devoted to motor control.3 As a result of these chemical misfires, I find myself euphoric at best, and irritable, inattentive, and chronically sleepless (to name just a few highlights) at worst.
So I walk in the woods, trying to use music as a distraction. It tends to be ineffective, just adding more noise that compounds the stress rather than relieving it, amplifying the impulsive irritability that’s already par for the course. But during the walk that led to my discovery of Dan Deacon, something happened, and if I were inclined to simplify, I might call it miraculous.
Ryan had recently recommended Deacon’s 2007 LP, Spiderman of the Rings. And so, desperate for anything that might provide relief from my own mind, I put my earbuds in and hit the trail. At first, all I heard were some marimba-esque plunks, but within seconds they were joined by Woody Woodpecker’s iconic laugh, which was immediately doubled by an eerily slowed-down version of the same; Woody was reconfigured as a nightmare version of himself existing alongside the carefree original. I was frightened by what I heard, and what I recognized in it. And yet I felt compelled to let it play.
To begin with, the beat is stable, a simple 4/4 count. And then that beat doubles: the space that used to house four pulses now houses eight. Then, it doubles again: the space once reserved for four pulses is now crowded with 16. If it were to double again, the pace might become truly unbearable, particularly when combined with the increasingly frantic dual-woodpecker cacophony. But Deacon knows when to relent, and so the pace cuts back, returning to ground level. No sooner can you catch your breath, though, than the crushing hyper-arpeggiations begin. (Would that be an appropriate term? I’m no musicologist.)
The distinction between music and mind was overwhelmed and then obliterated. Rather than becoming exponentially loud, though, my roughness went silent. Where I should have felt compounding stress, I felt—for the first time in weeks—nothing but peace. Dan Deacon’s “Woody Woodpecker,” with its ultimate screeching climax, functioned as some sort of psychic weighted blanket. I played it compulsively, riding a wave of chaos with all the bliss of bobbing on a calm sea.
Ever since, it’s felt somehow essential that I understand how this counterintuitive effect should be possible. And so I’ve been reading about the neuroscience of music. I’m struggling to make much sense of what I read (again, a C+), but it would seem that there is persuasive evidence that the parts of the brain associated with my rough emotions are also associated with tracking a musical beat.4 So perhaps, when “Woody Woodpecker” flooded my head with cacophony, the already hyperactivated areas were so occupied making sense of Deacon’s musical madness that no other feeling or impulse could break through (or something like that).
All I can say for certain is that, for just under four minutes, Dan Deacon took me out of my mind.
Deacon’s Tiny Desk concert has been viewed on YouTube approximately 525,000 times. I’m responsible for a few dozen of those, a good 10 of which took place within 48 hours of my first viewing. I didn’t watch the entire video that first day, nor have I often done so since; I’m too impatient. I crave the moment of stillness, and the commotion that follows.
My buzz tends to wear off as “Learning to Relax” nears the middle of its six-minute runtime. My joy crests around the time that the first NPR “captains” swap for the second pair; I’m moved by the cheers that greet the bow-out and the way the replacements throw themselves into the mix. But by the time another staffer has used his moment in the spotlight to big-dog his colleagues by doing the worm, the transcendence has ceased and I’m back to simply enjoying Deacon’s performance.
I struggled profoundly to find a conclusion for this essay, throwing myself at books and articles, plumbing interviews with Deacon in print, audio, and video form. I sent the Tiny Desk concert to friends, hoping that they would connect to it the way I had. “I’ll check it out!” they’d say, and that was the last I’d hear on the topic. I can’t blame them. We’re all trying to make sense of our own parade of mysterious moments; I won’t hold it against anyone if they can’t help make sense of my own.
One potential ending: in his book, Johan Huizinga claimed that our civilization has become “worn with age” (and if that was a century ago, I’d love to get his take on how it’s doing now). Through play, though, we can break down the faux-sophistication that ages us too quickly. And, Huizinga figured, the best tool for that productive-destructive play was music: “In feeling music…the perception of the beautiful and the sensation of holiness merge.”
Or something like that.
Something else: in 2021, the student newspaper of Pittsburgh’s Winchester Thurston School published a list of essential Tiny Desk concerts. Their arts editor, Danny Haglund, described the beginning of Deacon’s set as “what could be called an act of mindfulness.”
“Let’s all just close our eyes,” Deacon says at the beginning of his Tiny Desk concert. “Our consciousness is gonna drift off into the ether, and when we open our eyes, we’re gonna have a new consciousness, but attached to our old memories.”
“If you feel like dancing your consciousness away,” Haglund wrote, “this is the Tiny Desk concert for you.”
Another potential ending: Ryan described watching Dan Deacon perform and feeling “so glad somebody decided to be human and exposed. And once one person does, everyone else can. I would have just stood there without that person, but then all of a sudden I’m crying and laughing and experiencing. That’s what life is—it’s connection.”
Or something like that.
“Our eyes are closed,” Deacon says at the beginning of his Tiny Desk concert. “Feel from your feet, slowly rising up, your consciousness leave your body.”
In the end, the first draft of the words you’re reading now came to me after a morning meditation. I only started the twice-daily practice two weeks ago, but in that time I’ve spent a cumulative 10 hours inside my mind. It can still be rough going in there, but I hope that this is the beginning of learning to relax. I can’t help hoping.
Another potential ending: in a 2018 interview, Deacon asserted that his shows are meant to be more than escapist celebrations. “I try to do certain things in the show that show that everyone in the group is an individual but also a member of a collective, and that simultaneously you’re always both of those things. You’re never just an individual, and you’re never just a part of a group.”
Or something like that.
After this morning’s meditation, I learned that Dan Deacon began meditating a few years ago, too. I’d say I’m surprised by the synchronicity, but the guy already synced up with the inside of my mind once; why shouldn’t I believe he’d do it again? In a 2020 interview, Zen Buddhist writer Matthew Abrahams presumed that Buddhism had informed Deacon’s most recent album, but Deacon claimed ignorance as to any specific spiritual theory. His is a more personal practice, and so his song “Sat by a Tree” was inspired not by the story of the Buddha, but by meditating next to a tree that turned out to be a “sarcastic asshole.” According to Deacon, the tree’s sarcastic message was this: “What would you even want to do if you had the ability to relax?”
“When you open your eyes,” Deacon says at the beginning of his Tiny Desk concert, “you will be Martin Lawrence’s character from Bad Boys II but with your memories. So open your eyes at your own pace.
“Hi, I’m Martin Lawrence.”
Given the host of electronic textures and rhythmic distortions employed, “Learning to Relax” sounds complex, but it’s actually incredibly simple. The song consists of just four easy chords, which loop for six minutes beneath production that critics can’t seem to help describing as manic. In practice, it may sound like chewing on a power line (per Andy Beta), but really it’s just A, E, F#m, and D.
This recognition flooded me with excitement. I know how to do that, I thought. And so I stopped brainstorming. It took a great deal of effort—I’m still halfway convinced that Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia might contain everything I need to wrap this up—but I’m telling myself that I already have everything I need. I know how to hold my left hand in four simple configurations. With that, I can get out my battered, old guitar. And with that, I can play.
- “Amygdala hyperreactivity in bipolar disorder is consistent with the euphoria, irritability, insomnia, inattention, and distractibility that often define a manic episode.” — A. Hariri, “The Highs and Lows of Amygdala Reactivity in Bipolar Disorders,” American Journal of Psychiatry, August 8, 2012.
- “The frontal cortical areas of [the] brain oversee behavioral control through executive functions. Executive functions include…inhibition of impulsive responses…Dysfunctional impulsivity includes deficits in attention, lack of reflection and/or insensitivity to consequences.” — F. Crews & C. Boettiger, “Impulsivity, Frontal Lobes and Risk for Addiction,” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, September 1, 2010.
“Our results indicate that volume decrease in frontal brain regions can be attributed to the incidence of manic episodes.” — C. Abé, C. Ekman, C. Sellgren, P. Petrovic, M. Ingvar, & M. Landén, “Manic episodes are related to changes in frontal cortex: a longitudinal neuroimaging study of bipolar disorder 1,” Brain: A Journal of Neurology, November, 2015.
- “There is increasing evidence that the cerebellum is connected to cortical areas involved in the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders…in the last 20 years, increasing evidence has changed the view of the cerebellum from a structure specifically implicated in motor control to a structure involved in higher-order cognitive and emotional functions.” — M. Lupo, G. Olivito, L. Siciliano, M Masciullo, M. Molinari, M. Cercignani, M. Cozzali, & M. Leggio, “Evidence of Cerebellar Involvement in the Onset of a Manic State,” Frontiers in Neurology, September 12, 2018.
- “In my laboratory we found strong activations in the cerebellum when we asked people to listen to music…The cerebellum appears to be involved with tracking the beat…[and] the cerebellum contains massive connections to emotional centers of the brain [including] the amygdala, which is involved in remembering emotional events, and the frontal lobe, the part of the brain involved in planning and impulse control.” — Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.