On Music

Music is so absurdly good. I can, and have, gone without, when there was need, but I’d listen all the time if it didn’t interfere with understanding people. Music can deepen a depression or pull you out of one, depending on what you decide to listen to and your internal narrative.

I’ve decided I’m not going to shy away from talking about narrative. If it’s not strictly the twenty-four karat gold truth, that we are stories telling ourselves to ourselves is a very useful fake framework. I think of fake frameworks as something like…

Imagine a rickety scaffold. Not a nice steel structure, made in a factory, with precision tolerances and proof of crush tests, no. This is more like a bamboo structure, lashed together with braided vine rope. Think something Robinson Crusoe might build. And you can see people standing on it, and using it to access things that would otherwise be out of reach. They finish their work and it’s your turn. You climb up and it shifts a little under your weight, it creaks as you move around, and you know you don’t want to trust it, not the way you could trust steelwork. Impermanent and unreliable as it is, though… there are places you can’t reach without scaffolding and we don’t always have steel ones available.

Back to music and narrative – if your depressed thoughts tend towards rumination, looping around the same ideas when you’re depressed, sad music will tend to hold you down. It reinforces what you’re already thinking and feeling, and becomes one more thing keeping you in that state. If you don’t have the rumination trait, however, sad music is like a friend commiserating with you. You’re not alone, and it’s not so bad.

Upbeat, confident music can make you feel better, or if you’re already feeling good, on top of the world. Admittedly, this can be dangerous too – I would predict that some amount of unforced errors leading to car wrecks have this kind of music involved; you get really into it, the universe is with you, you can do anything. Like weave through traffic at 85 mile per hour. Maybe you even can do so, but try to remember that everyone thinks they’re an above average driver, and they can’t all be right.

I’ve heard music called an accident of evolution, and I don’t buy it. Music is complicated, and it’s universal across the species. Some of the oldest artifacts we have are bone flutes our ancestors made. Traits like that, they don’t happen in a vacuum. I think the mechanism has a purpose, and it’s for communication. I suspect it’s what we used before language, conveying emotional states, building rapport, holding the tribe together, and even keeping some degree of history, in stories that were patterns of states. Songs can tell stories without words, simply in how they make you feel, and this is particularly true when you’re part of a tribe, where you share almost all of your context with the musician.

You even process music in the same general areas as language. It’s a deeply woven part of us as a species, and it’s beautiful and glorious.

It’s also used against you, at times. Think about car commercials, or presidential campaigns, using music to touch your system one and get you on their side before your reasoning mind gets involved, so that it gets involved on their side, rationalizing why you should be for them. They’re out to hijack you, and if you aren’t aware of it, they’ll have an easy time of it.

Pay attention to what people are pushing at you (and into you!) with the music they frame themselves with. Personally, I always have headphones in when I’m in supermarkets with music. I don’t want to be hijacked. My narrative belongs to me, and is not up for commercial renegotiation. Be mindful of the language whispered in your ears, and treat it as friend or foe accordingly, but always, always, be mindful. You can be certain that whatever commercial provider is playing it was, when they picked it.