Thought Music

Idea Clef, c. 2008 by clix of (click for original)What’s the deal with music, anyway?

Why does listening to music feel so much different from listening to anything else? Why does certain music make it easier to work — and certain music make it so much harder?

I’m not talking about coarse basics like volume, or instrumental-versus-vocal music. Apply enough volume, after all, and ANY music becomes mere (or not so mere) noise. No, I’m wondering about subtleties: rhythm, pace, melody, “feel.”

For the rest of this post, if you’d like, feel free to select one of the following three audio streams as your soundtrack. (Or leave them playing in this browser window or tab while you use another to go on doing something else.) They’re all instrumental. And there’s one for each of three genres: classical, jazz, and “post-rock,” a genre I myself wouldn’t have named (which probably just proves that I know nothing consequential about music).

Note: I also tacked on a bonus track; in the course of building this post, I couldn’t stop thinking of this number. It’s much longer than the others, though — 20+ minutes instead of only around six.

Choose Your Soundtrack:

First, classical: This is from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #1 in D Major (“Titan”), the end of the first movement: Immer sehr gemächlich (Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic).

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Next selection, jazz: This is Miles Davis’s “‘Round Midnight.” (Find it, among other places, on the Discover Miles Davis collection.)

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Finally, “post-rock”: The selection is “Welcome, Ghosts,” by Explosions in the Sky (from 2007’s All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone).

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Woolgathering on all the above…

In the last couple of weeks, I read something by some author (I think) to the effect that he doesn’t listen to music while he’s working. Got that? He doesn’t work in silence, and he doesn’t listen to music. Instead, he listens to NPR. Talk radio.

This would drive me mildly insane.

Many times I will shut off the music altogether, especially when its rhythm clashes with the pace of whatever I’m writing — or when I don’t want to lose the thread, need to concentrate especially hard, or am just on a roll. But when I’m writing, I simply cannot listen to music with a vocal component.

(Correction: I can’t listen to music with an English-language vocal component. The reason for this will come clear when you remember that English is my only language. For an example of “vocal music which doesn’t sound vocal,” see the audio feed accompanying this post.)

Now, among all the many varieties of instrumental music available, I’ve got two favorites to write to — classical and jazz. (I also sometimes fall back on two other options: folk/country, and the limited examples of rock or pop(-related) music which include no vocals at all. The selection from Explosions in the Sky, above, falls into this latter category.) When I’m editing, for some reason — or when I’m at work, or working on a blog post — the preference is a huge list of oldies and pop, including, yes, vocals as well as instrumentals. (The little statistics bar in my music player says the entire playlist is over 14 hours long.) I don’t generally mix genres in my thought-music playlists: either jazz or classical, not both.

Depending on my mood, though, I will either shuffle the list or (less often) play it sequentially: one album from start to finish, then another from start to finish, and so on. In shuffle mode, a movement from a Mahler symphony might follow a Mozart concerto, for instance.

Whatever the playlist or shuffle/sequential choice, though, or whatever the genre(s), as I asked at the outset: what IS it about music which our central nervous systems respond to, which makes us more (or less) productive, creative, happy, peaceful, agitated?

Let’s start with this: “musicist” Laurence O’Donnell reports, in an article titled “Music and the Brain”:

Mozart’s music and baroque music, with a 60 beats per minute beat pattern, activate the left and right brain. The simultaneous left and right brain action maximizes learning and retention of information. The information being studied activates the left brain while the music activates the right brain…

…A renowned Bulgarian psychologist, Dr. George Lozanov, designed a way to teach foreign languages in a fraction of the normal learning time. Using his system, students could learn up to one half of the vocabulary and phrases for the whole school term (which amounts to almost 1,000 words or phrases) in one day… Dr. Lozanov’s system involved using certain classical music pieces from the baroque period which have around a 60 beats per minute pattern. He has proven that foreign languages can be learned with 85-100% efficiency in only thirty days by using these baroque pieces. His students had a recall accuracy rate of almost 100% even after not reviewing the material for four years.

Hmm, sixty beats per minute… where else have I heard that figure? Of course there are 60 seconds in a minute but gee, I’m sure I’m thinking of something else—

Oh, that’s right: it’s at the low end of the normal pulse rate for a healthy adult. Coincidence? Naaaaah.

Then from Dr. Ellen Weber’s “Brain Leaders and Learners” site, here’s a list of various sorts of music and what sorts of mental activity they seem to help:

Gregorian chant creates quiet in our minds and can reduce stress.

Slower Baroque music, such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi or Corelli, can create mentally stimulating environments for creativity and new innovations.

Classical music, such as Haydn and Mozart, often improves concentration and memory when played in the background.

Romantic music, such as Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky , Chopin and Liszt, enhances our senses and increases a sense of sympathy and love.

[For the record, by the way, Beethoven is categorized — per Wikipedia — as “a crucial figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western classical music.” So the effects of his music, presumably, would combine elements of the preceding two categories.]

Impressionist music, such as Debussy, Faure and Ravel, can unlock dreamlike images that put us in touch with our unconscious thoughts and belief systems.

Jazz, blues, soul or calypso music can uplift and inspire us, releasing deep joy or even deep sadness, conveying wit and affirming our common humanity.

Salsa, rhumba, merengue and any form of South American music sets our hearts racing, gets us moving, both relaxing us and awakening us at the same time.

Big band, Top 40 and country music engage our emotions and comfort us.

Rock music, from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones, stirs passion and activity, and so can release daily tensions. Rock can also mask pain and cover up unpleasant noises. It also has the power to create dissonance, stress or physical pain if we are not in the mood for energizing.

Ambient or New Age music such as Stephen Halpern and Brian Eno has no dominant rhythm, so it elongates the sense of space and time, inducing a state of relaxed alertness.

Heavy metal and hip-hop music excites our nervous system, and sometimes leads us into acting out dynamic behavior and self-expression.

Religious and sacred music such as hymns and gospel moves us to feel grounded in the moment, and leads to deep peace and spiritual awareness. Sacred music often helps us to transcend pain.

Thus, to the extent that your own nervous system fits into a “normal” curve, you should be able to design a playlist based on the work at hand. You might want to stay away from headbanging music, though — and not just because the word “headbanging” just plain-old sounds like it’s got nothing to do with “thought music.” As Musicouch’s “Music and the Mind” reports (emphasis mine):

A study done by a high school student involving lab mice demonstrated the affects of music on the brain. First, the mice ran through a maze in approximately ten minutes. The mice were separated into two groups. The student played classical music to one group and heavy metal to the other group for about ten hours each day. After three weeks, the mice were made to run the maze again. The mice exposed to classical music made it through in about one minute and thirty seconds. The heavy metal group took a whole thirty minutes! David Merrell, the student doing the experiment said, “I had to cut my project short because all the hard-rock mice killed each other. None of the classical mice did that.”

Wonder if these choices are different for other creative types than for writers? Mirko Humbert of the Designer Daily blog recently asked the blunt yes-or-no question: “Should we listen to music while working?”

In this case, the answers didn’t come from brain researchers. Rather, after first including some links to other designers’ posts on the matter, he sought input from various “productivity experts.” One of these experts seemed to be talking through his hat, unless I’ve grossly misread the response; this is the long, “rational” reply, concluding that music is absolutely one of the worst accompaniments to creative thinking:

Is listening to music when doing creative work a good thing?
Yes, if it’s a physical activity that is largely carried out and controlled by the subconscious.
No, if it’s a thought based activity that is largely carried out and controlled by the conscious.

(That expert recommends “a most excellent book on how music affects your brain: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.” Before rushing off to buy a copy, though, read the Amazon reviews — which are many, and mostly favorable. Don’t concentrate on the positive ones, however. Read the one-star reviews, nearly all of which take Levitin to task for basing his conclusions on misunderstandings and/or misinformation.)

If you’re really interested in how visual-arts designers’ views on the subject compare to writers’, be sure to read the comments on the Designer Daily post, too — and follow up the other links in the body of the post.

I’m still not sure I get it, not after reading any of the above, and not after consulting any of the other zillion blogs and Web sites with opinions and research on the subject. (To take one example: Why does a trumpet just sound right in a given piece of music, to a listener or to a composer, for that matter, while a harmonica sounds completely goofy?) And Lord knows, I have no intention of tampering with my listening habits while working.

My high-school physics teacher gave us an almost impossible assignment once: he asked us to define the term “length,” without using mere synonyms such as “distance.” And then there was the old Bill Cosby standup-comedy album called Why Is There Air?

Evidently, Why Is There Music? falls into the same category of ultimately unanswerable questions (at least for those of us without MRI and CT-scan devices at our disposal). We just have to live it.


Bonus track: Miles Davis again, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” from 1970’s insanely great Bitches Brew. I cannot tell you how much I love this track. When I first got the album, thirty-some years ago — that was about when I first tried seriously to do something with writing. It was the soundtrack for a lot of early stories.

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  1. Great site – and what a wonderful reminder to play music in the background as we prepare for the big holiday celebration! Thanks too the the link – so glad it helped me to discover your rich site! Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. ellen: Thanks so much for the comment, the compliment — and of course, for the post at YOUR site which helped me understand all this. Not to imply that I actually DO understand it, of course. :)

  3. You might be interested in this–

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. marta: Happy Thanksgiving yourself! (Belatedly — although I guess I could make it timely by wishing you a Happy day after Thanksgiving!)

    The RadioLab program was a perfect complement to this post. Can’t believe you remembered it, apparently out of thin air 2-1/2 years later!

  5. One of my favorite poems about the ineffable benefits of music is by Rilke. I’m considering it for Poetry Friday next week, so I’ll explain later. :)

  6. Jules: Dang — you mean I have to keep reading 7-Imp? Sigh… If I must, I must!


  1. […] in RAMH‘s history, a post here covered what I always think of as “thought music”: music to listen to while doing […]

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