the spirit and the mind
To begin with a little caveat lector, I’m not sure what I intend to get out of sharing these rather personal details. This blog is no longer purely a travel diary but a place to share my opinions and thoughts that crop up. But in the year and a half since I started writing this, it’s helped me in a lot of ways. I feel like my writing and photography have both gotten better, as well as a sense of organization, narrative, and design. And it’s a good way to explore thoughts and ideas, regardless of whether anyone reads it or not. Apparently people do, and I’ve been able to both keep in touch with relatives and old friends and even make some new friends from it.
So this is one of those posts where I take a self-centered ramble. I’ve finally decided to explain my complicated relationship with music, and hopefully open up a dialogue. I think it’s because I’ve been working on some research lately for which I’m using the Gold-MSI, a great questionnaire that scores your musicality, controlling for musical training, genre preference, singing ability, etc. The materials are all open access and I encourage anyone interested to go take a look.
One of the questions (to be rated on a Likert scale from “completely agree” to “completely disagree”) is “Music is a kind of addiction for me–I couldn’t live without it.” It has really gotten me thinking. Remember that awful variation on Would You Rather where you have to choose between losing your hearing or your sight? I’ve always chosen sight, and people seem confused by that. Yes, it would make life very difficult, but to lose music, at least for me, is to lose the meaning of life entirely.
But back to the Gold-MSI. I’ve never had an addictive personality. I’ve always been able to take one or two bites of the brownie, say no to one more potato chip, choose carrot sticks over candy bars. I never saw the point of smoking, and just the thought of a hangover is enough to keep any drinks to a minimum. I don’t say this to brag: in fact, I think I’ve got the easy end of the stick as far as that kind of thing is concerned.
But in one way I can actually understand addicts, because that’s how I feel about music. I realized this only recently, and it’s a bit embarrassing to admit. I don’t feel that I appreciate arts in the way you’re “supposed” to. When I experience the arts, I don’t just look or listen or read: I consume them. I read books out of order: the endings first, then parts of the middles, then the beginning, then after the end I go back and read the beginning again. Even on one page I don’t read from left to right: sometimes I’ll read the right page first, or skip a few paragraphs, read the last sentences and then go back and read the ones in the middle, and then read my favorite ones again. It’s less a telling of a story than a putting together of puzzle pieces, turning some of the pieces over again in my mind because of the simple pleasure of reading them, not necessarily for the content. Yes, I was that child who read the backs of shampoo bottles and cereal boxes at the grocery store.
I’m the same way about visual art. I’m embarrassing in a museum because I can spend hours looking at one piece, not for necessarily what it’s worth–and I haven’t taken enough art history classes to know enough anyway–but to see the lines, how the colors border each other and blend, the individual brushstrokes and imagining the movements and flicks of the wrist that created them. And then I’ll skip whole rooms that just don’t interest me, regardless of who made them or how important they’re supposed to be.
But I think music is the worst. I started music lessons quite late for a “trained musician” (although I try not to put musical labels on myself; I’ve spent too much time in both worlds to really be comfortable calling myself either a musician or a non-musician) and immediately music grew from something that had entertained and calmed me into this overgrown monster of power over my mental state. I remember almost every piece I’ve ever played, back to Sawmill Creek and Morning Mood and All Through the Night from the red Pearson Standard of Excellence Book 1, the latter a simplification of the Welsh folk song Ar Hyd y Nos which I played as a solo on the clarinet in the sixth grade. I can still play many of them from memory, after not having touched an instrument for over two years.
This hiatus from playing was a kind of experiment I put on to simmer and then pushed to the back of my mind. I only have a B.A. in music performance, which in itself was an accident as a result of auditioning for a scholarship and being offered a position in the music department. In high school music was my thing, but I always wanted to be a scientist, so since graduating from high school I haven’t been sure what music still wants with me. That’s how it feels, at least, like a monster tugging at the edges of my mind.
Like an addict, I’ve sworn it off, detoxed, tried replacing it with other things, but I keep coming back for a new high. Sometimes I use it to block out the world. I’ll put a single song on repeat and listen for hours, sometimes days, until it’s not words or notes or even music anymore, but a primal sensory experience of sound and color. Often I’ll avoid it entirely because I know as soon as I dip my toes in again it will be the same rabid consumption, binging and not even waiting till one song is over before going on to the next, unable to concentrate on anything else. If it were whiskey, or cigarettes, if someone found me in a stupor of heroin or even chocolate ice cream, people would say I had a serious problem. Somehow it being art makes it okay, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
There have been a lot of studies showing that music can have the same effect on the brain as food, sex, and drugs, and I wonder if seeking out music that gives you frisson, that feeling of musical shivers, is a side effect of getting hooked. At one moment of working on this post, I have four Youtube tabs open, to Le nozze di Figaro (the whole opera, paused 49 minutes in), a full collection of Bach orchestral suites (Jordi Savall, paused after the overture to the 3rd suite), a live recording of the Celtic rock band Tempest playing the ever-catchy folk song Byker Hill, and the Zelenka trio sonata V (Zefiro ensemble, loading) while trying desperately to finish a recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnole (my own youth ensemble from 2006–we had some incredible violinists that year). I wonder if you can overdose on music, or if so much stimulation can be bad for the ears?
I got really involved in historical performance practices in college, and that’s what I focused my music degree in, but when I went off to London for my Master’s, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself or my instruments. I became a sort of music groupie for the early music crowd for a while, and for the most part I was happy with it, even if it sometimes meant the “real musicians” would take pains to distance themselves from me and my humble B.A.
It was in itself a kind of identity crisis. My music friends would be shocked to learn I was studying cognitive science, and my science friends are still sometimes surprised that I have a degree in music (I tend to assume everybody knows, and bust out weird music trivia on occasion).
I remember being supremely uncomfortable being introduced to respected musicians as an “oboist,” and having to explain that I was part of their world but as an imposter, a double agent, someone who knew their secrets but who belonged to another world separate from the drama and politics of music. I felt like people were incredibly suspicious of me, but looking back, I think I was most suspicious of myself. I never felt like I deserved to use up their valuable time in masterclasses and at festivals. At the same time, the addict didn’t care. I played their instruments and their music, took their lessons and hung onto every word. Important people knew who I was and said positive things about my playing. I soaked it up.
But then a few things happened that shook my confidence in myself and more, in my music. I couldn’t bear to listen to anything Classical, especially Mozart and early Beethoven, and even now its effect on me isn’t what it was before. I only listened to baroque and earlier if I really wanted to have a meltdown, or to hurry along one that was already in progress, like sweating out a fever. I just avoided thinking about it at all for a while because there was a decision to be made, and I didn’t like either option. I thought about giving up music entirely, selling my instruments and completely turning my back on the music world. The thought still makes me feel sick. But the alternative wasn’t any better: to reclaim my music, to make the investment of time and money worthwhile, to face up to my fears and the people who told me I didn’t have the music in me. So I just didn’t make a decision at all, and for two years I waited for the terror to dull.
I’m only now getting back into it, and it’s hard, a lot like learning to use a broken bone again once it’s healed. For a while you’re paranoid of overtaxing it, breaking it again, not sure how it even works anymore. It gives me the same kind of anxiety I get from riding roller coasters or visiting the Immigration office.
But it’s a chronic condition, I think, and I can’t avoid it. Music is everywhere. It’s in my head, in my movies and my supermarkets, it’s in the buskers on the street playing my frisson music, and it’s even in my science. I realized a long time ago that I couldn’t be a professional musician, perhaps because I wasn’t good enough, but mostly because I couldn’t force myself to play for other people. I love orchestral playing and chamber ensembles, but I’ve always hated concertos. I like to have my 5 minutes of fame, thanks. I don’t need 20. Arias are perfect for that. Just enough time to shine out and make people wonder what that is, and then blending back into the anonymous sea of concert black. Concertos are just asking for things to go wrong, and I’ve never heard a perfect performance, even by people who are held up as the paragon of musical virtuosity. I’ve heard my heroes stumble and fumble fingerings, frack notes, quack notes, splash out of tune, get lost in the fugue, drop things during performance, crack reeds, and even stop and start over entirely. No one is perfect.
But it’s just that sense of judgment of the performer that turns me off of professional music. It becomes a commodity, something to be bought and sold. When you put all of yourself into music, as you should, it’s inevitable that you sell yourself. It’s not automatically a bad thing; I sell myself in my science. When I design an experiment, when I write an article. I’m selling my ideas that I have put all of myself into. But the music addict is selfish, and not willing to share.
I’m not sure what makes a good musician. I’ve seen what happens when musicians see their music as just a product, as a day job like any other. And I’ve seen what happens when it takes over their lives, to the expense of food, sleep, and relationships. Music can be a dangerous drug, so I’m satisfied to be a knowledgeable recreational user. I’m satisfied to keep it to myself and a small group of trusted friends. I do sometimes miss the exhilaration of it taking over my life, and the intoxicating feeling of playing in an orchestra or losing an afternoon to one phrase played over and over and over and over….
But I think out of all of this I’ve learned patience and the realization that if something is needed in your life, the universe will find a way of making sure you know that. I loved music enough to let it go, and instead of the dainty butterfly in the old metaphor, it’s come back like a friendly monster, big and clumsy and excitable. It’s not music’s fault, after all, that humans have such a strong reaction to it. Maybe this is the real reason I’m drawn to study cognition over art: music, like most things in life, is all in our minds, and the mind that creates music is the real mystery.