When Not to Turn It to 11

“The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and…”

“Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?”


“Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?”

“Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?”

“I don’t know.”

“Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?”

“Put it up to eleven.”

“Eleven. Exactly. One louder.”

“Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?”

“[pause] These go to eleven.”

This Is Spinal Tap

As a civilization we are preoccupied with going to 11. We first like to rank things (dining experiences; movies; potential sex partners) using some set of real numbers like 1-10 (inclusive); we then seek cases where the object in question is so illustrious as to exceed the arbitrary scale we just invented, perhaps due to outstanding salt prawns or because she hails from ‘Elevenessee’. Our species invented the ‘five-alarm chilli’, then the six-alarm chilli, and then, conceived in the darkest reaches of Flavour Mordor, the insidious eight-alarm chilli. (How much spicier is it? Three alarms.)

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is ‘not doing it’ and 10 is ‘just doing it’ I suspect Nike is currently holding somewhere around 12 or 13, which constitutes a year-over-year growth of 1.2 just do its.

I once read an article about how id Software’s publisher wanted them to fill their games with as many ’11 moments’ as possible. Always be turning it up to 11! More awesomewatts per second! Crank that funometer all the way up, and then crank it even more up! One gets the impression that as game designers we want the minds of our players to be exploding violently on some kind of perpetual basis.

Poster for Daikatana reading "John Romero's about to make you his bitch."

John Romero turns it up to 11

The joke, on a structural level, is that this line of thinking misapplies the concept of upper and lower-bounded scales to a problem better suited to the more general ideas of greater¬†and lesser. A guitar amplifier has a minimum gain (off) and a maximum gain (the loudest it will let you go), which is to say it has a range, yet the members of Spinal Tap have identified a critical deficiency in this device’s design: Over time, our ears become numb to the intensity of anything played at the same consistent volume. When something first gets loud it seems pretty loud, but if we listen to it for three minutes straight it will at some point stop seeming ‘loud’ and start seeming ‘the same’.¬†To be musical, therefore, it is necessary to let go of the absolute measure of volume and start dealing instead in ‘getting louder’ and ‘getting quieter’, employing something performers call dynamics (which is another word for ‘change’). This is why we characterize the passages of a song not by their decibel rating (our sensory apparatus is actually totally incapable of measuring that reliably anyway), but instead by when the song gets louder, when it gets quieter, and how much its volume changes relative to how loud it used to be.

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