Music – Expressing What Cannot Be Said

“If Music is a Place — then Jazz is the City, Folk is the Wilderness, Rock is the Road, Classical is a Temple.” ― Vera Nazarian

Realistically speaking, my exposure to music began in an odd way.  In the late 1940s my parents had a “radio and recording record player” which survived into the 1960s when I went off to college.  Its uniqueness involved a turntable with two arms: one for playback of 33 1/3 rpm records, and another heavier arm which was used with blank discs to cut a direct recording of a “live event.”  Since it was the size of a large piece of furniture, the “live event” usually consisted of a group of friends reading lines from a short script of a murder mystery or comedy piece.  It had to be short because the disc got full very quickly.  It took a great deal of effort to set the system up, much rehearsal time for the group to get their lines right, and it only made one disc.  It rapidly gave way to charades.

But its other capability lasted for years. My mother would play music often, enjoying the sounds of Glenn Miller’s orchestra (I still have the original 33 1/3 recordings), and “The Chocolate Soldier,” which I learned was a 1941 film and light opera (but at my age then, not my thing, love story with soprano warbling).

My breakthrough, or revelation, came at age 11 after we visited the Grand Canyon and rode the mules down to Phantom Ranch (yes, I was underage, but close enough to being 12).  Soon after getting home I came across a 45 rpm set of the Grand Canyon Suite.  Never heard of it, never heard of the composer, but, clearly, I had to have it. It was eye opening, evoking visual memories of the Canyon and the ride down to the Colorado River and the Ranch. And the thunderstorms.  And my father getting bit by one of the mules.

The five sides of that three record set remained a favorite.  My only set, played repeatedly.  Until the day I left the records sitting on the little 45 rpm player in the sun, and the heat softened, distorted and ruined one of the discs.  S**t.

The bonus revelation was the sixth side. That was Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico.  With that music came visions that were not memories.  I was hooked.

So when our local grocery store ran a promotion for Classical Music, spend something like $25 and get the week’s 33 1/3 classical disc for free (or $1, I forget which), I joined my mother for the weekly grocery run and politicked for the newest promotion disc.

I built a reasonable collection.  I learned that there was a lot of stuff out there, greatly extending my concept of what “classical” meant, but that “promotional grocery store offerings,” while being pretty good, were stripped of the names of the conductor and orchestra (that’s why they were free or $1 rather than the going $4-$5. This was a long time ago).

I also discovered that certain pieces were very calming and soothing and very beneficial when I had to study, much more beneficial than others (e.g., one’s first exposure to 12 tone music, or any rock and roll).  So my having a background of classical music became a cherished norm.  Oddly enough, it greatly aided my ability to focus under certain circumstances (such as now, as I am writing this).

So it was with a certain joy that this past week I received a Quartz Obsession piece on Listening to music at work.  Ever since Muzak became a “thing” (i.e., elevator music), there’s been music at work. (In 1953 Muzak was wired into the White House; perhaps that’s what started some things…).

This at least reaffirmed for us that all music is not created equal.  One size does not fit all (especially in the elevator), but for each of us there are no doubt specific, task-targeted benefits.  Some like their music for “relaxation,” while others mentioned “concentration.”  On the low end of the spectrum were those who mentioned “enjoyment.”

Interestingly, 63% of doctors and nurses indicate they listen to music in the operating room.  This was not a surprise to me as I had direct evidence of this (no, not when I was under the knife, but when someone else was.  I once was calling a consultant and was patched through into his operating room.  Needless to say, I made that conversation very short).

Even more interesting is that 49% of doctors indicate they listen to rock in the operating room.  (I am sorry, but if I ever need brain surgery, I want a doctor who does not claim multitasking as a strong point while listening to rock while I’m under the knife.)

I’m not just sayin’ this.  Research reported in the article shows that while music helps with repetitive tasks that require focus and not much higher-level cognitive attention (i.e., not my brain surgery), listening to music is indeed multi-tasking and any cognitive resources expended on listening to or understanding lyrics won’t be available for the work.

Also mentioned is research that indicated, “Complex managerial tasks are probably best performed in silence.”  (For the good order, I did not play music or use Muzak when managing; only at home when trying to recover from said managing).

A further insight is that, “The outcome of relaxation, reflection, and pausing won’t be captured in minute-to-minute productivity metrics.  In moments of extreme focus, our attention beams outward, toward the problem, rather than insights.”

It’s clear that, if we are going to listen to music most of the time, we should match our tunes to our tasks, create our playlists to be task specific.

On the outward focus, my oldest son used to listen to “Eye of the Tiger” before every wrestling match; he does triathlons now and no doubt has his select playlist.  Most athletes prepare with their own personal playlist.

The inner focus is what resonates deeply with me (there is an intended pun here); a resonance that seems to involve holding two things in the mind at the same time.  “For a cognitive boost, pick music that doesn’t have lyrics, especially if your task is word-related.”

Ironically, there is indeed an apparent connection with puns, at least according to a recent article by Ephrat Livni in Quartz,

“Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit.  Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time,” (James Geary, author of Wit’s End, quoted in the Livni’s article).

While I’d also like to believe A. D. Posey, “The power of classical music turns my words into fire,” what happens for me is that classical music settles subconsciously while simultaneously opening up pathways that permit words and thoughts to mix together smoothly and more effectively.

At least that’s what I think.  The output may be judged more harshly.

About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
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