Saturday, September 19, 2009

Another Nerd Superpower: Audio


Tyler Cowen’s recent writing about the virtues of mild autism included reference to autistic people being better than most at detecting subtle changes in sounds (though not necessarily their emotional implications). I was reminded by this of (a) the suspicion I no doubt share with a lot of people lately that someday there’ll be an even broader “autism-Asperger’s-nerd” spectrum, since so many of the attributes of mildly autistic people mentioned in descriptions like Cowen’s seem to be shared by, well, the sorts of people who like to hear Cowen describe things and (b) my own pretty good ear, if I do say so myself, for spotting the fact that “This version of the song must be a slightly different recording” or “That background singer must be the New Order guy.”

In karaoke, this power can be used to recall — and do a “good impression” of — a song’s vocal inflections even when I don’t actually have what a real singer would call range or, y’know, talent. I think my Eric Burdon’s getting pretty good in that limited sense, which is helpful, since “House of the Rising Sun” can be a crowd-pleaser. On the downside, you won’t likely badger me into attempting a song I don’t have a pretty good feel for.

I’m not an “audiophile” in the technical sense of being obsessed with good sound systems — aside from becoming quietly outraged at concerts every once in a while when I’m reminded for the hundredth time that after decades of rock concerts, they still haven’t fully mastered the whole avoiding-feedback problem or the audible-vocals problem (concert organizers also have an odd love of shining incredibly bright spotlights directly in the audience’s eyes, which you’d think by now someone would have told them is unpleasant). And even with the nerd hearing skills I claimed to have in the previous paragraph, I would estimate I have been able to discern only about half the “between-songs patter” I’ve heard rock stars mumble over the years, though I trust Cy Curnin is saying something cryptic yet interesting, judging by the tone of his voice. Generally, though, I feel like if I can hear the melody and the vocals and there isn’t offensive static, my technological needs are met — Hell, half my music’s on audiotape just because it was the most flexible medium when I was a teen.

As it happens, Jacob Levy, whose recommendation of the band Arrogant Worms I noted yesterday, also forwarded what he calls “the strange story of what happens to a kid with Daredevil’s powers” (Daredevil being a blind superhero with super-hearing). It is a reminder that nerd/autistic powers should be used for good and can be terrible when used for evil.

P.S. If the no doubt nerd-filled audience at the Decemberists tonight notice Colin Meloy deviating in any way from his usual, distinctive (and nerdy) vocal inflections, I assume there will be a riot.

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