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Seeing Sounds and Neisserian Songwriting

The following short essays were assignments based learning journals I completed in my undergraduate degree in Psychology.



The Nature of Music: An Auditory Fractal Symphony

As a musician, songwriter, and producer, I find myself immersed in a world where technology intertwines with the creative process. In my small attic studio, surrounded by guitars, microphones, and the essential computer software, I endeavour to transform raw sounds into a cohesive piece of music. In this process, I often marvel at the wonders of technology, for it allows me not only to hear but also to "see" the constellation of sounds that constitute a musical composition.

Whilst studying my undergraduate degree in Psychology, I came across the work of Eric Fromm, who spoke of the biophilic nature of certain visual forms - shapes that we recognise from the patterns found in the natural world. Curiously, this biophilia extends to the visual representation of sound waves as they appear on my studio screen. Analouge modalities like guitars and vocals, produce sound waves characterised by undulating peaks and troughs, akin to the natural ebb and flow of ocean waves. In contrast, the digital instruments, like synthesisers, produce a starkly different sight: MIDI files filled with rigid, rectangular blocks of sound, bereft of the organic curves and contours that define their analog counterparts.

This stark dichotomy mirrors a broader dichotomy in the world of music - the divide between digital and analog, urban and natural. Consider the human voice, with its beautifully fractal nature, a term introduced by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. Fractal structures exhibit self-similarity and repetitive patterns across different scales, a concept that applies not only to visual phenomena but also to auditory experiences. Think of the sound of rain, or the ocean washing upon a shore. Research by Richard Knopf suggests that humans exhibit a preference for natural patterns and landscapes imbued with fractal qualities over the linear and sterile aspects of urban environments; car engines, etc.

As a musician, I have spent countless hours absorbing the world through the medium of sound, and I have come to appreciate the auditory fractal patterns that underlie most musical compositions. Whether it be the notes forming chords, the sections repeating to create songs, or the mesmerising flow of blues music, fractal patterns emerge, captivating the ear just as natural fractals capture the eye.

In this realisation, I recognise a similarity between my musical preferences and my visual preferences - a biophilia that transcends sensory modalities. Attention Restoration Therapy (ART) proposed by Roger Ulrich and the various forms of ecotherapy emphasise the positive impact of exposure to nature on our well-being. I cannot help but speculate that my profound affinity for the fractal nature of blues music and other natural-sounding compositions serves as an auditory equivalent to the rejuvenating effects of immersing oneself in nature's splendour.

In contrast, I can't help but wonder if the prevalence of digitally generated soundscapes in modern pop music contributes to what some have called "nature deficit disorder." The sonic uniformity and lack of natural fractal qualities in electronic music may deprive us of the auditory nourishment that our minds and souls crave.

In conclusion, the nature of music transcends mere auditory sensations. It extends to the visual, the fractal, and the biophilic, revealing a profound connection between the sounds we hear and the landscapes we admire. As a musician, I find myself not just creating music but also nurturing a symphony of fractal patterns that resonate with the human spirit, echoing the harmony found in nature's own creations.


The Harmonic Psychology of Neil Young: A Melodic Exploration of Self-Knowledge

Ulrich Neisser was an eminent cognitive psychologist who played a pivotal role in shaping the field of cognitive science. Born in 1928, Neisser dedicated his career to understanding the workings of the human mind and how individuals perceive and process information. One of his notable contributions was the formulation of the "five kinds of self-knowledge" theory, expounded in his influential 1988 paper. Neisser proposed that the human mind consists of distinct layers of self-knowledge, including the ecological self (related to one's direct environment), the interpersonal self (involving relationships with others), the private self (personal experiences and emotions), the extended self (anticipating future and reflecting on the past), and the conceptual self (how we conceptualise ourselves and our place in the world). This comprehensive theory sheds light on the multifaceted nature of human cognition and serves as a lens to understand how artists, delve into various aspects of self-knowledge when crafting their creative expressions through music. I will use one of my favourite artists as an example of the manifestation of the various selfs in artistic expression.


Within the realm of music, few artists have epitomised the intricacies of Neisserian psychology as profoundly as Neil Young. As I immerse myself in the enchanting melodies and soul-stirring lyrics of his songs, I am drawn to the profound understanding he exhibits of the diverse layers of self-knowledge that coalesce within the human mind, finding expression through his musical masterpieces.

The ecological self finds resonance in Young's work as he weaves vivid tales inspired by his direct environment. In songs like "Harvest Moon," he captures the essence of nature's beauty and romanticises the dance beneath the celestial sphere. Like a wandering troubadour, Young takes us on a musical pilgrimage, painting landscapes of love, heartache, and fleeting moments of joy, reflecting the very world that surrounds him.

Within the interpersonal self, Neil Young navigates the complexities of human relationships, laying bare the emotions that bind and sometimes fray those connections. In his iconic ballad "Old Man," Young explores the profound intergenerational bond with a wisdom that belies his years, bridging the gap between youth and experience with heartfelt poignancy.

The private self emerges as Young bares his soul through song, delving into his innermost struggles and conscious experiences. In "The Needle and the Damage Done," he confronts the devastating impact of addiction, sharing a poignant journey of pain and vulnerability. Through these intimate revelations, Young creates a powerful sense of empathy, touching the hearts of listeners who may have faced similar demons.

The extended self unfolds through Neil Young's musical reflections, intertwining past recollections with aspirations for the future. Songs like "Long May You Run" epitomise this aspect, with its nostalgic undertones celebrating enduring friendships and memories of youthful exuberance, projecting into an uncertain horizon.

Yet, it is within the conceptual self that Young's music holds a profound sway, reflecting his identity as an artist and an individual. His genre-defying style, embracing folk, rock, and experimental sounds, mirrors the fluidity of his self-concept. In tunes like "Rockin' in the Free World," he expresses his fierce social consciousness, challenging societal norms and advocating for change, embodying the multidimensional nature of the conceptual self.

The harmonious psychology of Neil Young resonates deeply within the human spirit, forging an indelible connection between the melodies he weaves and the complexities of our inner worlds. As we journey through the symphonic tapestry of his music, we find ourselves immersed in a captivating exploration of self-knowledge - a profound testament to the power of music in capturing the essence of the human experience. Just as Neil Young's songs echo the intricacies of Neisserian psychology, they reverberate within our souls, leaving an enduring imprint of melodic wisdom.


Sean McBain

06/06/2022














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