Interpretations:Sensurround

From This Might Be A Wiki

This is the lament of a deformed child. According to him, his deformity came from the vibrations from the movie his mother watched while unknowingly pregnant ("If Mom had known she was expecting, she might've gone to see Jaws / Instead of picking the film where the sound effects came right up through the floor / And I'd be differently formed")

Sensurround is the combination of senses a baby feels, not as distinct entities but as one combined sense. The sight, sound, smells, feelings, tastes, and knowledge are all combined into one "Sensurround". The movie overwhelmed his senses, and thus became deformed.

I would disagree about the idea that the singer is deformed. If he was, the the lyric would be "I'd be properly formed" instead of "I'd differently formed". It fits right in. -deathgecko

Actually, Sensurround is a movie term... It was a novelty, like 3-D was but it dealt with sound... It consisted of a speaker (woofer) that played such a low tone that it couldn't be heard. But it supposedly could be felt as it vibrated your sternum.
Note the line "I still don't know who conceived it" and the "If I could swim under the water" verse play off the "memory from the womb" theme of the song.

As for the Sensurround gimmick itself - my brief research shows that there were reports of it cracking ribs and sternums. Sensible to the sternum, indeed. Also, there were only four films released using the effect - Earthquake (1974), Midway (1976), Rollercoaster (1977), and the theatrical release of Battlestar Galactica (1979). The "To shake the womb when it should" line evokes an earthquake, though could probably be applied to any of the films. Slightly deeper research shows the closest any of these films' release dates came to Jaws or Jaws II in the US was Galactica, which came out in May, 1979 three months before Jaws' re-release.


Given the proclivity of the giants to be so creative, and thus not limited to using real words as the rest of us are, I've always thought the lyric was "Sense-able to ear and sternum", meaning one could sense it not only by hearing it, but by feeling it in your chest. -BigJohn

Ditto that -- this was always my interpretation as well. -Veloso

The first definition of sensible is usually something like "perceptible by the senses or by the mind" - the word is still used in this way, it's not utterly archaic or anything. From this meaning came the idea of acting with an awareness of what's going on around you, and thence to "acting sensibly", the sense with which we're most familiar. I think TMBG probably just read a lot, and know stuff about words. - Viveka


What's the coal mine part about?
The Steelhead Coal Mine disaster occurred in July of 1975, at the same time that Jaws was first released.

The lyric on the S-E-X-X-Y EP is "Sensible to hidden sternum" and not "Sensible to ear and sternum."

~Christina Miller, May 2006


The Johns were in their teens for the events discussed in the song, so I don't think it is autobiographical.

Don't forget that a key line in this song is "and the world first spoke to me in Sensurround" - the story about how the narrator's mom went to see a movie where Sensurround was being used tells us that it was the first time he heard something outside of his mom's womb. As for the whole "differently formed" part of the song, I don't suspect that the narrator is literally deformed. When decoding Linnell's lyrics, you have to remember to keep an open mind - the "differently formed" part just means that if it weren't for Sensurround, his senses would have developed differently. Maybe he's trying to tell us it's a GOOD thing that he was exposed to something sensible to ear and sternum at such an early age. When I think of this song, I think of a boy who developed an ear for music because his senses were triggered while he was still in the womb. His strong senses could be a Linnell metaphor for the way he views the world differently - more beautifully - because he uses all of his senses to view it. This appreciation of the world on a level that only the narrator can understand would definitely set the bright tone that the song reflects. The song's about the beauty of life, and how something as unnatural as a cheesy 70s movie theater effect could make something as big as life seem so wonderful - at least that's what I've always thought. Anyone care to comment? -Mike


This is a song about babies and the mythical baby mind, like No Answer. TMBG can never go wrong with songs about babies. More songs about babies! More songs about babies! Songs about children they are really good at too. More songs about children and babies, TMBG!

Please get help! --Nehushtan 17:50, 19 August 2008 (UTC)

I've convinced myself that the final verse concerns the narrator's anticipation of 'being born'. As mentioned previously, "If I could swim under the water/Without having to breathe" refers to being in the womb. To me, following "the trail to the ocean floor" indicates navigating through the birth canal and out into the world. The final line, of course, reveals what awaits him: "I think I know what there'd be/Down there waiting for me/Sensurround". --Salt-Man Z 17:16, 23 February 2007 (UTC)

I agree, but I think it's more like a baby only being able to recognize Sensurround, and thinking that that is how the whole world is, like, the world itself is Sensurround.


Before I read the wiki, I thought the line was "And I'd be differently flawed."

Either way, I don't think the narrator is saying he's a worse person for his pre-birth experience, or even a better person. Just different. From an early age, something mundane influenced him in a unique way.

(If his mother had seen Jaws, would he be scared of violins?)


I really like this song, and I think I've come to realize why.

It's about awakening to your inner geekiness.

Sort of like The Statue Got Me High, the narrator sees something that deeply changes him inside. The image of him being in his mother's womb and the line "And the world first spoke to me in Sensurround" could be taken to mean he wasn't complete as a person and his life lacked meaning until he saw the movie and felt the sound.

An Analysis of the Lyrics to "Sensurround" by TMBG[edit]

An Analysis of the Lyrics to "Sensurround" by They Might Be Giants

Richard C. August

Independent Work

March 27, 2010

As with many recordings by "They Might Be Giants," whose core members are John Linnell and John Flansburgh, this song appears on several different compact discs. To cite merely one of these would be unfair, so I have chosen to cite the website where the lyrics were located. Any inaccuracies in these lyrics are that website's responsibility.

SENSURROUND

When I was only a zygote I still remember the time When there was nothing to know or to think about Except the sound of my mind And the sound from outside

Sensurround Down at the bottom Sensible to ear and sternum And the world first spoke to me in Sensurround

If Mom had known she was expecting She might have gone to see Jaws Instead of picking the film where the sound effects Came right up through the floor And I'd be differently formed

Sensurround Down at the bottom Sensible to ear and sternum And the world first spoke to me in Sensurround

Accidentally in a coal mine It was found When they accidentally dug too far down And found the Sensurround

I still don't know who conceived it Or where they got the idea But there it was in the aisle by the exit sign A woofer covered in wood To shake the world when it should

Sensurround Down at the bottom Sensible to ear and sternum Made the fakeness realistic When the action went ballistic One degree shy of sadistic And the world first spoke to me in Sensurround

If I could swim under the water Without having to breathe If I could follow the trail to the ocean floor I think I know what there'd be Down there waiting for me

Sensurround Down at the bottom Sensible to ear and sternum Made the fakeness realistic When the action went ballistic One degree shy of sadistic And the world first spoke to me in Sensurround

(http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/SenSurround-lyrics-They-Might-Be-Giants/433EE865427EDE49482568B100335009, retrieved on March 27, 2010).

"When I was only a zygote..." Zygotes are formed in a mother's womb at the post-blastocystic stage of fertilization. No part of the human's hearing system has been formed at that point, so hearing is impossible; this is especially true since the brain has not been formed as yet at that stage. The brain and hearing are formed at the fetal stages.

The word "zygote" is chosen because it matches the lyrical flow pattern of the song. However, when The Johns were fetuses, they heard the inner sounds of their mothers' wombs, so they could remember when they first opened their eyes inside their mothers' wombs and heard the sounds inside.

"Sensurround/Down at the bottom/Sensible to ear and sternum/And the world first spoke to me in Sensurround." In a normal birth, the fetus is delivered with the head down through the birth canal. With the birth canal being at the bottom of a woman's torso, this makes sense. Sensibility to ear and sternum is also highly possible, as hearing occurs not only through the ears and auditory canals, but also through a human's bones. When Ludwig van Beethoven was going deaf at approximately the time of the first performance of his Fifth Symphony, the best way he could hear his music was by removing his shoes and enabling sounds to travel through his bones to his audio canal; unfortunately, at his Ninth Symphony, sound was too garbled for him to hear anything at all.

In 1979, an electronics company called JS&A developed a portable AM/FM radio, engineered primarily for skiers, called the "Bone Fone." It was designed to be worn as a scarf, with the rectangular cloth covered speakers on either side of the STERNUM. According to JS&A's advertisement, the "Bone Fone" was invented by an engineer who loved to ski but found holding a transistor radio inconvenient, so after he invented that radio and draped it over his clavicles, he turned it on and found the sound was incredible, resonating through his bones all the way to his inner ear. (Modern Mechanix, retrieved on March 27, 2010 from http://blog.modernmechanix.com/2007/04/25/bone-fone/)

I personally tried the "Bone Fone" at a local electronics store at the time, and found its makers' claims to be reasonable. The only issue that kept that radio from popularity was its prohibitive $69.95 retail price. The sound was high quality, indeed.

"And the world first spoke to me in Sensurround." In the late 1970s, Universal Studios developed Sensurround as an audio enhancement for theater venues. It was a collaborative effort between Universal, Cerwin-Vega (who developed the conical speakers required for the system), BGW Systems (for amplifiers), and RCA (for improvements to film optical soundtracks to enable deep bass ranging from 10 to 25 Hz at a dynamic range of 86 dB, causing the deep rumble of the sub-bass to be felt as well as heard, but also enabling 35mm prints of Sensurround films to be audibly superior to 70mm magnetic tracks of the time).

The only films to be released in Sensurround were "Earthquake" (1974), "Midway" (1976), "Rollercoaster" (1977), and "Saga of a Star World" (1978). (Wikipedia, retrieved on March 27, 2010 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensurround)

"If Mom had known what she was expecting..." John Flansburgh was born on May 6, 1960. John Linnell was born on June 12, 1959. Therefore it is impossible that either of their mothers could have watched any of the Sensurround films while these men were still in their mothers' wombs.

"Instead of picking the sound effects... Made the fakeness realistic/When the action went ballistic/One degree shy of sadistic..." When Sensurround audio systems were installed in the over 300 theaters that were so equipped worldwide, and when a Sensurround film was shown, that venue could only show that film because audiences in other projection rooms were annoyed by the noise. Because the sound was so deep and so rumbling, especially when the action was very high, audience members became physically ill and nauseated; the theater buildings where they were shown also showed signs of deterioration and cracking. Mann's Chinese Theater owners also had to suspend netting underneath the ceiling so bits of plaster did not fall on the audience members. The head of the Chicago Building and Safety Department also demanded that Sensurround systems be removed or turned down to prevent structural damage. (Wikipedia, retrieved on March 27, 2010 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensurround).

This recalls the work of the electricity genius Nikola Tesla, without whose work we would not have the computer, the wall outlet, the radio, the microwave, improvements to street lights, and broadcasting. Mr. Tesla said in various reports that if he was contracted to implode a building he would not need explosives. Instead, all he would need to do is find the right audio frequency to collapse the building. Sensurround practically accomplished Tesla's goal for reduction of structural integrity by sound waves, even to the point of crumbling these buildings in an effort to "make the fakeness realistic," especially during showings of "Earthquake!"

"I still don't know who conceived it/Or where they got the idea/But there it was in the aisle by the exit sign/A woofer covered in wood/To shake the womb when it should." From Wikipedia: "Sensurround was a highly successful theatrical sound system. By 1976, when Midway opened, there were over 800 theaters with Sensurround capability in the USA. Worldwide, there were over 2000 Sensurround theaters. During the initial design of the system MCA figured it would be installed in a limited number of theaters across the USA—perhaps 30 in all—and that smaller theaters, or theaters in small towns, wouldn't want to bother with the installation or the loss of seating capacity necessitated by the large Sensurround horns. This was quickly disproved: Earthquake premiered with 17 Sensurround installations and by the end of its run over 400 theaters had shown the film in Sensurround. Midway opened with 300 Sensurround-equipped theaters. At first, MCA only rented Sensurround to theaters at a cost of $500 per week, but by the opening of Midway, theaters could purchase the systems outright and MCA had begun to ship the Model-M horns to theaters un-assembled. Theater owners also had the option of purchasing only the Cerwin-Vega drivers and horn cabinet blueprints, buying the wood and making the horn cabinets themselves. MCA made these changes due to the success of the system and because the shipping costs of the heavy Sensurround horns were becoming very expensive." (op. cit.) Wood was the only substance light enough and natural enough to work with the Sensurround horns to produce the deep, natural bass required. This is why most good 5.1 channel or now 7.1 channel Surround Sound systems use wood speaker cases for their subwoofers. Also, special inaudible audio tones were embedded in the audio tracks to turn the Sensurround woofers on and off.

"If I could swim under the water/Without having to breathe..." This is a direct reference to the trauma of birth. However, it is also a KNOWN FACT that the interior of the womb gives internal sounds, maternal low frequency sounds that are mostly felt and not heard. The baby also hears low frequency sounds of digestion, mother's heartbeat, movement of amniotic fluid, vowel sounds of speech, and music. (SoundScience, retrieved on March 27, 2010 from http://www.babysleepsystem.com/babysleep/inside.htm). Therefore, the sounds of a mother's womb and the sounds of the deep bass of a Sensurround theatre system are alike in that they consist mainly of low, deep, relaxing rumbling, but not in steady tones or frequencies. In the former case, they evoke a sense of relaxation and sleep. In the latter case, they are to enhance a sense of emergency due to danger.

Once again, the Johns of "They Might Be Giants" produce a verbal conundrum that compels us to analyze their lyrics and actually learn something from them. Frankly, I would like to hear the maternal womb sounds in Dolby ProLogic II with a good subwoofer, anyway, as I personally need to relax after a very long day, but I don't need to hear mother hurtling me through space or dropping me from a mile high into an ocean or sending me down a defunct rollercoaster damaged by a deranged man, much less rocking me in a far more frantic fashion as she runs for cover.

Bibliography:

They Might Be Giants. (2000-2010). Sensurround. Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/SenSurround-lyrics-They-Might-Be-Giants/433EE865427EDE49482568B100335009

Wikipedia. (2010). Sensurround. Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensurround.

Modern Mechanix. (1979). "Bone Fone" advertisement. Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://blog.modernmechanix.com/2007/04/25/bone-fone/


The reference to the ocean floor made me think the movie Mom went to see was The Poseidon Adventure... even though that one wasn't in Sensurround. But it was a typical disaster movie in the same vein as Earthquake and probably some people (maybe even John & John) thought it had been released in Sensurround (I know I did, before checking with GOOG). --Nehushtan (talk) 19:03, 8 April 2014 (EDT)