Why Thinkers Should Think About Music

The holiday season is a season of music. We hear a specific version of a certain song and might immediately recall childhood memories with stunning clarity and completeness. In an era when homes have access to sophisticated sound systems and immediate access to almost any music that has ever been recorded, the art of Christmas caroling, as far as I can tell, has mostly gone away. But I remember last year being in a restaurant during the Christmas season and enjoying a local adult choir singing carols. It felt unifying and basic, as if it were a pause in our era of personal digital devices and on-demand entertainment.

The other reason the holiday season can be a season of music is that we don’t spend our time the same way we do the rest of the year. While often hectic, the holiday season can afford us time to experience new music and “stretch” our ears. I don’t regularly listen to classical music, a form of music that places demands upon a listener that the normal three minute popular songs do not. And so my annual intake of orchestral music is heavily skewed toward Tchiakovsky’s Nutcracker Suite or Handel’s Messiah during the month of December. The season, in this way, presents us with opportunity.

If I were forced to articulate my belief in the divine in a single word, it would be “music”. Kurt Vonnegut evidently felt the same way:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:

– Kurt Vonnegut

I had music on my mind recently, and so enjoyed the timing of this great blog post from the incomparable Maria Popova (her weekly Brain Pickings blog is read by all sorts of influential people like Bill Gates). Among the quotes from great writers on the subject of music – like the one from Kurt Vonnegut above – was this gem from a letter to a friend written by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay:

I can whistle almost the whole of the Fifth Symphony, all four movements, and with it I have solaced many a whining hour to sleep. It answers all my questions, the noble, mighty thing, it is “green pastures and still waters” to my soul. Indeed, without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principle of geometry.

My favorite part of that was “…I could get it back if I had the guts”.  Many of us have some basic musical training, or if not, then some interest in a particular form of music. No matter how dormant, perhaps the holiday season might be time to stretch your ears – and your brain – with something new.

You might say “but my musical skills are horrible, and according to those who love me I can’t carry a tune in a bucket”. Fair enough. But don’t outsource all music or poetry to the pros.

There is ample scientific evidence that music helps children’s brains develop, and helps our own brains focus. (I pause here to acknowledge, in the construction of that last sentence, that I’m making an implicit assumption that you are NOT a child. If you are a child, thank you for reading my blog and sorry about the federal debt).

I have recently started using brain.fm for short naps and extended “Deep Work” working sessions. It is less “music” than it is a passive, musically-based method for stimulating your brain for the activity you want to succeed at. From their website:

We are combining music with auditory neuroscience to produce an innovative non-invasive digital therapy application for consumers.

We believe music is a vastly underestimated tool for therapy and mental performance. With brain.fm we embark on changing the world’s perception of music

So whether you’re a secular saint, a celebrant of the Festival of Lights, a person who tries to “honour Christmas in (your) heart“, or something else entirely, perhaps the next few weeks will afford you opportunities to turn off the screens and turn on some music.

Bonus points if you sing along, no matter how badly.

Good luck!