The day is August 18th, 1969. A dwindling crowd remains after an endless night of music at a farm outside Bethel, New York. After a long and full lineup of music all weekend long, only one artist is left to play at Woodstock.
Jimi Hendrix and his band began playing somewhere around 8:30 that morning. They played some of his hits with added space room for improvisation and general jamming.
But what most people remember about this set wasn’t one of his hits. It was a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
In his version of the US national anthem, Hendrix utilized something known as feedback. Feedback is when some fraction of a signal from some output is fed back into part of the input of that signal. When it happens in a musical or audio setting, it often creates deafening shrieks and unpleasant sounds, sending hearers to cover their ears and yell at an unknown person, “turn it off!”.
When Hendrix used feedback, though, it was intentional, and it was part of the melody and part of the timbre. He used feedback as a tool rather than something he had to work around or avoid.
But it’s a delicate balance between using feedback to create music and creating a cacophony of screeches. Even when a guitarist uses feedback creatively, as a listener, you still have to learn that it’s intended to sound that way. It’s still hard to listen to. There is always that inclination to wonder, “is this correct?” and start looking around to ensure the guitarist on stage or the AV guy in the back doesn’t look frustrated about what is happening.
The same is true for feedback in our workplaces and on our teams. Feedback can be hard to listen to.
It’s Often Loud
Have you ever been in a packed room where everyone is talking? Everyone keeps getting louder and louder, trying to talk over everyone else. Before long, no one can hear anyone anymore, and people start to leave. Even if you went to see your favorite band play your favorite song, it wouldn’t sound good if the volume was too loud.
Feedback can be the same; it’s often hard to hear because it’s “loud.” Direct feedback — even when true — can be too much to hear. We’d rather put our hands over our ears…