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A major part of my alter-ego lives firmly on the arts end of the arts-sciences spectrum (false though it may be).  But one area where I find the two intersect is in the field.  As anyone who spends copious time either getting to a field site, or doing observational work knows, those lengthy periods can be improved with a little audio stimulation.  For me, it was flying from Newfoundland to Alaska (and back) for field work, days on a boat at sea en route to my field site, and then 3-6 hours each day in a blind watching for marked birds, marking new birds, or collecting diet samples.

Climbing up to our observation blind on Kiska Island, Aleutian Islands, Alaska

Climbing up to our observation blind (about 1m x 1m) on Kiska Island, Aleutian Islands, Alaska

At my very first field sites, we were close enough to have radio reception, and a portable radio would accompany me during countless observations (for those Canadians reading, this was during the last CBC lockout/strike in 2005 – a particularly bad summer to be relying on radio).

Various blinds (and the outhouse) scattered around the south end of Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick

Various blinds (and the outhouse) scattered around the south end of Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick

But then I started doing field work in the Aleutians away from any radio signals (apart from the ones we created getting weather reports and checking in).  The first summer I was there, My field tech and I (miraculously) subsisted on about 4 dozen CDs, and often sharing earbud headphones.  This was clearly not ideal, especially when listening to some albums like The Beatles, where the two channels had different information (e.g., guitar & vocals in the right, bass, drums, & back-up lyrics in the left).  Still, that gave me a renewed appreciation for the music that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Fast-forward to the last year of my PhD, and we had a pretty great set-up.  Battery-powered speakers (kept in ziplock bags for protection against the constant Aleutian rain, drizzle, and fog), and each of us had an iPod with several hundred or thousand items.

Banding a least auklet in our blind on Kiska. Photo by Chris Brake.

Banding a least auklet in our blind on Kiska. Photo by Chris Brake.

But even that was insufficient for the summer I spent on a 10-week 3-person archaeological dig in the western Aleutians.  Solo work for 6-9 hours/day trowling bits of a shell midden, and screening it through ¼” mesh (about 25 tons all in all) meant I would rapidly exhaust (and then grow tired of) my music selection.  Enter the podcast.  I was fortunate enough to have been tipped off to a radio show in late 2007 called “This American Life” (TAL), and had their complete archive with me that summer, starting from their first show 1995 (when the show was called “Your Radio Playhouse”.  Because each episode was an hour, I could keep track, roughly, of how many hours in “the pit” I did.  I think the total was around 350 or so.

Working the archaeological site of Imuqudaagis (Witchcraft Point), Kiska Island.

Working the archaeological site of Imuqudaagis (Witchcraft Point), Kiska Island.

So because of these experiences, when I listen to certain songs, or TAL podcasts, I’m transported back to the field almost instantly.  Sometimes I plan it.  If I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, or needed a brief escape from my windowless office, I’ll tune up some “field music”, and 3-5 minutes later, my mood is markedly improved.

And in the field, it’s amazing how music in general, or a certain album/artist in particular can really improve the mood and morale in camp, which is really important when the field crew is small, and the deployment for a long time.

How do you integrate music into your lab or field work? Does a particular song remind you of certain experiences?

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