Independent Investigations
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VOLUME vs. TONE


My first guitar was a brand new Fender acoustic.  After a year of lessons I gave up on my pursuit of music theory when I realized it was going to take real effort to learn it in a way that allowed me to express myself.  In the absence of any real musical skills, I just learned to turn up the volume to hide my lack of technique.  In the mid and late 60’s volume became the enemy of tone. 

Eventually, I replaced my acoustic with a very inexpensive electric guitar.  I couldn’t turn the volume up on my acoustic.  I discovered that it was easier to turn up the volume and rattle the windows than to produce any kind of legitimate tone.  Pretty much anything I did with music involved the volume knob being sent through the roof.  I remember buying this huge speaker enclosure that I could plug into my cheap amplifier.  I doubled my volume capability without having to improve my technique. I loved that speaker!  

Once in high school I pretty much put the guitar away and concentrated on football and track.  However, once I began to drive, I did not hesitate to listen to any music that I could at full volume.  If you have ever been to a concert where a popular band is playing, you know the score on that one.  Guitarists playing in front of walls of Marshall stack amplifiers blowing the ear drums out of those silly enough to sit close to get the “full effects” of the sound.  The bands of my youth, The Doors, Cream, The Who, Steppenwolf, The Stones, Led Zepellin, Jefferson Airplane, even 3 Dog Night and Creedence Clearwater Revival all had one thing in common in concert.  They blasted the doors off the place. People left the arena numb. (Not always resulting from their intake of certain herbal remedies of their time). Attendees almost always experienced certain hearing difficulties for the next few days. You see, in a concert venue, volume replaces tone.  Live music is not as refined as what comes out of the studio.  It can’t be, they have to play it once, mistakes and all.  Volume overcomes certain musical inconsistencies.

I know it will not come as a shock to those of you who know me that I am not 15 anymore.  Most of you who read this either don’t know me at all or did not know me at that age.  Over the years I have come to realize that the human ear is not, and was not ever capable of discerning many of the variances in tone that are produced and played back with the volume knob set to 10.  Obviously our ability to hear sound diminishes as we age.  However, most of us are still capable of discerning the difference between sound and noise.  

These days my musical expression flows through a really fine Carvin electric guitar that was hand made for me a couple of years back.  The day that instrument was delivered to me changed the way I thought about volume and tone.  That is not to say that I can’t crank up the volume with this beauty and blow the windows out of the room.  However, the sound that comes from guitar is very different than what I was used to.  It’s a professional instrument and it has changed the way I think about my playing. All of the sudden, theory and technique are more important than volume.  Even now, I am considering setting aside 1 hour a day for practice.  I don’t necessarily want anyone else to hear it, I just want to know I can get the tone I want!

Musically, one of my biggest frustrations is that I didn’t focus on increasing my musical skill when I was younger.  I always experience a level of frustration when my fingers don’t obey the wishes of my heart. I don’t set my rig to full blown chaos levels anymore.  I want to hear every note to make sure I am getting the vibrating strings to say what I want them to say.

Now I find myself listening to music differently.  I listen and study the music of real masters.  Some people consider these masters “God’s of the Guitar”.  I find myself listening to music by Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, and Eric Johnston and wonder how in the world they come to that tone.  If you haven’t heard Eric Johnston play, give yourself a treat.  Johnston will take two or three years to put a CD together and the results are always amazing.  So where am I going with this one?

How did we get to the point where volume has replaced tone in the political arena?  Am I the only one out there who thinks that we need to turn the volume down so that we can hear the real tone of each others arguments?  How is it that our elected officials, for the most part, continue to turn the volume up so loud that we can’t discern the reality of the message they are trying to get out?  Do the politicians we elect think that we don’t have the ability to discern the reality of their message?  Are they afraid that if we discern the message clearly that we might decide we don’t like their message and decide not to vote for them in the next election?

Politics is about power. Power is expressed through volume these days.  Politics involves all of the processes involved in attaining power, wielding it, and maintaining it.  I fear that our elected leaders are like the bands on stage during their performances.  Crank up the volume and we won’t realize that they are making mistake after mistake.  Politics is the ultimate live performance.  Just like the musicians who get on stage to perform, politicians must experience an unmistakable “rush” or “high” as they become the object of everyone’s attention.  They have power, they do whatever it takes to stay on stage.

I remember the old “battle of the bands” events.  Different bands with different sounds and different voices battling it out on stage to be crowned the winner and move on to further glory.  This day and age, our politics have become the battle of the bands. Politics is dominated by groups of individuals, with different messages turning their amps up to drown out the competition.  At least in the battle of the bands, you could hear one band at a time and discern the level of their skill and the effectiveness of their presentation.  We don’t often get that opportunity in today’s political environment.  What we get today is two bands on stage together, each loudly proclaiming the correctness of a particular cause and the incorrectness of anyone who thinks the other band is really better.  

In the musical arena, hitting incorrect notes with incorrect timing really messes up your presentation.  The music that comes forth under these conditions is incorrect.  It doesn’t portray the wishes of the writer.  It doesn’t portray the real emotions and desires of the originator.  No matter how loud you turn up the amplifier to distort and hide your mistakes, they are still there whether or not they can be discerned by the crowd.

This weekend I learned about yet another attempt to turn up the volume in the political arena  This is just one example I have noticed over the past month or so with regard to the battle of the Healthcare bands. There are others and I am sure they will come to your mind.

When one side of the political spectrum distorts the message of the other side, those trying to discern the message have no ability to accurately determine the quality of the message.  When one side purposefully distorts the other sides message and encourages their followers to do the same, the crowd is left with no ability to make a legitimate evaluation of the message.  When one side does all that it can to keep the message from getting out, those trying to hear the message are prevented from it. How can we decide the better band under all this distortion?

The blaring noise coming out of the battle this weekend was brought to us through the mental musings of the recently unemployed Sarah Palin.  Sarah got on stage, cranked up her amplifiers and presented the audience with the absurd notion that the Democratic healthcare plan involves “death panel” discussions.  Sarah is concerned that passing the Democratic health plan will result in individuals having their future decided by members of “death panels”.  Sarah has now been officially convicted of turning up the volume in a way that  distorts the true tone of the message. 

There are a couple of options available to explain the purpose behind Sarah’s distortions.  The first is that she really believes her statement. I am of the opinion that this was not the case.  Anyone with the ability to read and discern the English language could not come to Sarah’s conclusion. I will admit that I think poor Sarah jumped into the pool without realizing how deep it was. She may indeed be a really nice person who is just trying to raise her family and live her life in a way that makes sense for her.  But there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that her recent ridiculously unverifiable conclusions indicate that she was thrust into the national spotlight long before she was ready.   

A second and more plausible explanation of Sarah’s commentary is that she willingly distorted the message in an attempt to get the crowd behind her and call attention to the fact that her band is still in the battle.  “Listen to me real Americans, I have taken my band off of the stage but we will return after tightening up our message.  In the meantime, here is a little tune to give you a taste of what to expect in the future”.  And the crowd roared it’s approval.  In the absence of an invitation to play more promising venues, their band is reduced to playing in shopping malls and Independence Day Parades in the small cities where the “real America” hangs out.  The big venues have been hijacked by a band they don’t like.

Imagine what it is like for the crowd.  They paid good money to attend the concert, they told all of their friends about how great it was going to be.  When they arrived they found out that their band had lost the battle of the bands and they would be hearing a different band, one with a different style and message.  The crowd is unhappy.  They want to hear the band they paid to see.  However, the band has gone missing and their concert experience is not going to be a happy one.  The real problem is that they won’t get to see their band perform for at least four years.  Truth is, they don’t hold out much hope for their band being ready at that time.  It could be a long time before their band is back on the stage.  Thus is the plight of the conservative band today.

That being said, one should realize that there are individual’s who rightly or wrongly believe in this band’s message.  Press organizations jumped all over Sarah’s message this past weekend.  Members of the press are predictable.  One group spent the weekend praising Sarah’s message and broadcasting it to “real Americans”.  One group spent the weekend calling attention to the hypocrisy of the message and the utter foolishness of the premises contained within it.  Either way, the band is getting exposure.

Of course there are always instances of cover bands repeating the message.  Thus we find other bands playing the same music and adding their own flair to it.  The Newt Gingrich Band did it’s best interpretation on the national stage not long after the original message was broadcast.  You remember Newt, the one who did his best to get Clinton impeached while behaving in the exact same behavior that he believed was an impeachable offense. Good ole Newt.  Please explain to me again how you told your wife that you were leaving her while she was in the hospital with a very serious condition that could have ended her life.  I guess he was used to being the charter member of the “death panel” during those days.   

After the weekend was over, Sarah did an amazing thing.  In her infinite wisdom she basically called for a more civil and responsible direction for the health care debate.  How sweet of her.  Sarah has decided to tell everyone to turn the volume down after blasting the crowd at full volume in her recent performance.  Do you think Sarah has realized that her performance was a dud after all?  I doubt it.  It doesn’t matter anyway.  The message is out there and there are those who will believe it and continue to broadcast it to those undiscerning souls seeking confirmation of their beliefs.

But the damage is done, the music has been grotesquely distorted. Individuals have reacted to the distortions in many ways, not all of which are peaceful.  The battle of the bands continues.  Two distinctly different groups of musicians, each with their own style, their own message.  One declared the winner and reaping the benefits of their victory, the other trying to revamp their image and their message so they can be invited to participate in the future. 

Interestingly enough, the losing band has not realized that the judges removed them from the stage when they determined that playing their music at full volume didn’t satisfy the discerning ears of the crowd.  Who was it that removed the band from the stage?  The crowd accomplished that feat in November.  And the bands play on, one with the volume turned up in an attempt to disguise their minimal accomplishments, the other waiting patiently for them to get off the stage so they can get their message out without distortion.

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