In Part 1 of The Sounds of Data, I wrote about the power of sonification, which translates data into sounds and music. I finished the article with a cliffhanger. I promised to tell “the surprising conjunction between two incongruous pieces of music: Taylor Swift’s Midnights album and the great Late Romantic composer Gustav Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.”
This “conjunction” may strain my readers’ credulity (especially those familiar with Gustav Mahler). As I’ve started to write Part II, I have been questioning my own sanity. I’ve made some farfetched analogies before — data stewards and Tolkien’s Stewards of Gondor, data curation and Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul. But Taylor Swift and Gustav Mahler? That’s a stretch even for me.
Happily, I discovered synectics, a methodology to enhance creativity through finding relationships between disparate ideas or objects. George M. Prince and William J. J. Gordon developed synectics in the 1950s. In Three Steps to Finding Inspiration in Unexpected Places, Emily Esposito describes synectic exercises which encourage “divergent thinking”: “Making connections between unlikely elements can unlock that ‘aha’ moment that shows you the answer.”
I’ll explain how I unlocked my “aha” moment connecting Mahler and Swift shortly. For now, I’m glad to know that there’s a science around making crazy associations. It reminds me of Douglas R. Hofstadter and his theory that it’s the power of analogy which machines must learn to be truly intelligent. It’s something that keeps humans distinct from and ahead of ChatGPT and its ilk, regardless of the hype.
I will begin with Ms. Swift and assume most of you are familiar with her tremendous songwriting and performing career. I’ve enjoyed Taylor Swift’s music as a casual listener, but I was not one of those millions who stayed up the night of October 21, 2022, waiting for Swift to drop her latest album, Midnights. The hosts of Switched on Pop, musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding, must have listened to the new release well beyond 12 AM ET judging from the fascinating analysis they recorded the next day, in the episode Up late with Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights’.
The co-hosts spent half the episode ruminating over Swift’s ingenious lyrics. Then, they moved onto the sonic landscape of Midnights, identifying an element which quite literally underlies almost every song on the album, from Question …? to Anti-Hero to Karma — the Reese bass.
The Reese bass is a synthesized “massive, pulsing, living, moving bass sound,” which John Hull, speaking in this same Switched on Pop episode, traces back to “revolutionary DJ/producer Kevin Saunderson’s early side-project moniker, Reese.” It spread to genres of music I’d never heard of, like “jungle” and “UK garage”, and now is common across the popular musical archipelago. The Reese bass permeates Midnights. Nate Sloan even uses a Dune analogy to explain its impact:
“I think Reese bass is sort of equivalent to the sandworms in Dune. It’s under the surface; you almost don’t really hear it clearly, you only see the sand moving… You get the sense that if you turn up your speakers to hear the bass more clearly, you still wouldn’t be able to. It’s always a little bit out of reach… I feel like that’s a metaphor for many of the themes on this album: being up in the middle of the night trying to catch a fragment of a dream you had, trying to re-create a half-lost memory.”
Hearing this idea of a mysterious bass sound evoking the imponderable nature of midnight made me impatient for an upcoming episode of another podcast I follow, Embrace Everything – The World of Gustav Mahler. Narrator/producer Aaron Cohen is exploring Mahler’s symphonies sequentially and devotes this season to the 3rd Symphony. I knew the upcoming episode would be about the fourth movement, titled What the Night Tells Me.
Gustav Mahler has been my favorite composer since I first listened to conductor Jascha Horenstein’s breathtaking recording of Mahler’s 1st Symphony (on vinyl, of course!) I must have been 11 or 12 years old, and my obsession with Mahler’s massive symphonies must have struck my friends and family as odd. But what captivated me then and since is how Mahler tried to encompass so much into his music. As Cohen writes:
“[The symphonies] are enormous, both in length and in the size of the orchestras (and sometimes choruses) needed to perform them. [Mahler] once told fellow composer Jean Sibelius: ‘The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’ There is nothing half-way about a piece of music by Gustav Mahler. It is utterly fierce and fearless in its determination to convey everything in Mahler’s soul.”
The third symphony is the longest of them all, and the most ambitious. Mahler depicts nothing less than the history of consciousness, from primordial ooze to plants, animals, humankind, a vision of the afterlife, and a marvelous finale meditating on the power of love.
What the Night Tells M” features a vocalist singing a setting of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Midnight Song from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I hadn’t listened to this symphony in years, yet I knew there was something about Mahler’s music which echoed in the texture the Reese base evokes in Midnights. I could not wait to listen to this episode and was thrilled to find that I was right! The movement opens with bass sounds — cellos, double-basses, and harps, all playing extremely low in their ranges to suggest the mystery of midnight.
Mahler and Taylor Swift’s music use bass sounds to reach the listener in a way that words alone cannot. In my last article, I wrote about data visceralization which Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein describe in their book Data Feminism as “representations of data that the whole body can experience, emotionally as well as physically.” This particular collection of vibrations is something the whole-body experiences powerfully — why? There must be something about the bass…
Fortunately, I have a dear friend who is an expert in the field of music’s effect on the mind, Martha Summa-Chadwick! Martha and I were students together at Hartt School of Music, and she has had wonderful success as an educator, presenter, performer, and music therapy advocate. Read more about Martha at marthasumma.com.
Martha introduced me to research by Grace Leslie and others on the beneficial effects of extremely low sounds to mitigate epileptic seizures. Their paper, 40-Hz auditory stimulation for intracranial interictal activity: A pilot study, states the problem (Hz stands for Hertz and measures the number of sounds waves per second — the lower the number, the lower the sound):
“Interictal epileptiform discharges (IEDs) are abnormal electrographic elements that result from the hypersynchronous firing of hyperex-citable populations of neurons in persons with epilepsy (PWE). IEDs have been shown to be epileptic biomarkers that are associated with seizures and impaired cognition. Thus, noninvasive methods for modulating IEDs may be beneficial for mitigating the severity of epilepsy and its related comorbidities.”
The researchers evaluated the effects of several different auditory stimuli, including the 40 Hz tone and Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K448). Remarkably, the researchers found that “all subjects in the high baseline IED group had a significant 35.25% average reduction in IEDs during the 40-Hz tone.”
There’s been other research on the potentially beneficial effects of 40 Hz sounds: with Alzheimer’s disease and fibromyalgia. There’s even a website, Health & Bass, with a marvelous mission statement: “We are driven by a conviction that the transformational experiences people report from music are more than just subjective, fleeting aesthetic pleasure, but have real lasting value.”
A 40 Hz tone is roughly halfway between the lowest E and Eb keys on a piano, a note that few orchestral instruments can reach, including double-basses and harps. Remember the orchestration at the beginning of the fourth movement of Mahler’s 3rd symphony? Cellos, double-basses, and harps. The double-basses and harps begin with a sustained A, at 55 Hz. This is remarkably close to the 40 Hz to which our brains appear so sensitive.
How about the Reese bass we hear on Midnights? I don’t have the full score for songs like Anti Hero, but in the sheet music, the opening note in the bass clef is that same low A, inferring the Reese bass incorporates the same or similar pitch as the beginning of Mahler’s midnight hymn!
We can only
speculate whether Mahler or Swift were aware of these bass sounds’ visceral
effect. What’s undeniable is the sublime way these two composers use combinations
of low Hz to build their musical worlds. Given the research on extremely low
bass sounds, these illustrate how sound and music can create effective and
affecting data visceralizations. As D’Ignazio and Klein write, “humans are not
two eyeballs attached by stalks to a brain computer. We are embodied,
multisensory beings with cultures and memories and appetites.”
The midnight songs of Swift and Mahler, so different in many ways, are alike in
how they reach us at so many of these levels, and even stimulate, in my case,
divergent thinking and strange loops.
 Gordon, Randall, Data Discovery, Learned Machines, and Strange Loops , December 2021,
 Also see Why Taylor Swift is a Literary Giant – by a Shakespeare Professor about renowned Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate analysis of Taylor’s lyrics.
 Leslie, Grace et al, NIH, April 2021, 40-Hz auditory stimulation for intracranial interictal activity: A pilot study – PMC (nih.gov)
 Leslie, Grace, ibid.
 Naghdi, Lili, et al The effect of low-frequency sound stimulation on patients with fibromyalgia: A clinical study, NIH, Jan-Feb 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4325896/
 D’Ignazio, Catherine; Klein, Lauren F. Data Feminism (Strong Ideas) p. 85. MIT Press. Kindle Edition.