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  • Writer's pictureGuy G. Gorman

I'm Stupid When I Listen to Popular Music

This isn't some diatribe against the evils of popular music. I love pop music. I even like the candy-coated confections that melt in your ear and disappear from memory as soon as the next song comes on the radio.

No, I want to comment on something I've noticed about popular music and its possible connection to a HUGE challenge in the human condition.

I'm stupid when I listen to popular music:

I can't concentrate on work.

It can even be hard to maintain a conversation.

This doesn't happen to me when I listen to classical music. In fact, as a teacher I loved to listen to classical music as I went about my grading and clerical chores. That how I became a fan of Clara Schumann.

Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Schubert, et al. helped me to concentrate longer and with more inspiration on my least favorite aspects of teaching.

I tried listening to Jimmy Reed, the Rolling Stones, Little Steven's Underground Garage, or my friend, Mike Pell's podcasts, but I couldn't last for more than a minute or two. No work got done.

I find popular music helpful as I do work that requires very little thought: routine tasks around the house and yard or moving boxes and furniture and things for example.

Now a lot of people DO work with popular music playing. I don't know how they do it. I would be interested in finding out what's going in in their minds while they listen and work. I have a guess. It may relate closely to what I'm about to discuss.

Popular vs. Classical

Before I go any further, maybe I should come up with a very loose definition of classical vs. popular. First of all, it's not a strict classical/popular dichotomy. I have a hard time concentrating while listening to opera. But it's not strictly vocal vs. instrumental either. Instrumental rock like the Ventures also distracts me. So more accurately it's probably music with vocals and/or a steady beat that I'm talking about. That universe includes rock, folk, polka, country, dance, electronica. . .and opera. I'm just going to use "popular music" as a shorthand because it's easy.

Our Biggest Problem?

I think that the greatest challenge we face as human beings is silencing the "It" as Madeline L'Engle called it in A Wrinkle in Time . The "It" is the voice of fear, sadness, anger, inadequacy. It is the constant cacophony of negative thoughts that echos in our minds. It is our daily internal litany of traumatic, painful memories and regrets.

I've come to believe that "It" is the cause of alcoholism, smoking, drug abuse, and other detrimental forms of escapism. The drugs deaden the mind , help one to forget and/or make one feel capable of overcoming one's problems for a short period.

I think that the difference between a schizophrenic and a so-called normal person is that the "It" is exaggerated for the schizophrenic, so much so that the "It" becomes disembodied. The doctor's prescription is very similar in approach to the alcoholic's imbibing. Anyone who's ever seen someone on anti-psychotic drugs knows what I'm talking about.

The problem, of course, with the drug-based method is that it wears off. Often the side effects are detrimental, even deadly.

How Music Helps

Popular music serves a similar function: it silences the negative mental broadcast. It diverts our attention. Happy songs lift our spirits above the mental din. Sad songs help us get the emphasis off of us; we're not alone in our suffering. Heavy Metal or Rap makes us feel powerful, able to defeat our problems.

Think of how often we play music to improve our mood. On bad or stressful days, we sometimes turn the music up loud. I've known people who were going through hard times; some were dealing with mental illness. They blasted the music so that it resounded throughout the whole neighborhood. If I could have tuned into their mental broadcasts, I'm sure the "It" was up at around 90 decibels. Their stereos were louder.

And what about those workers or students who listen to music on the job? I wouldn't be surprised if it helped them to concentrate by steering their thoughts away from daily concerns.

One Weapon in Our Arsenals

The beauty of popular music is that it has no side effects.

Like all other highs, though, it wears off. Negative lyrical subject matter doesn't help one to stay happy either.

Am I saying that popular music is the "opiate of the masses"?

If used incorrectly, maybe. If you listen to music and leave it that, you be caught in a Metallica rocks!/Life sucks! cycle or something similar.

But I think music is a very valuable weapon in the battle against the "It." It lifts our spirits. It's easier to maintain a level of happiness than to rise to a new, higher level. Once we're there, we can use positive affirmations and faith in the power of love and all that's good to help us in the fight to be happy and worry-free.

Happiness requires spiritual discipline. Discipline sounds harsh, restrictive. Maybe technique is a better word. Proper technique helps us to be better at what we want to do. Developing technique requires work, practice, and, oh, that "D" word again. Think about dancing or playing an instrument. Once you've got the technique down, physical repetitions to turns into something beautiful: dance or music. Sports analogy: It sure feels good to hit a golf ball once you've perfected your swing. Proper technique makes an activity more fun.

And what's more fun that listening to Pharrell Williams' "Happy" and then realizing indeed that "Happiness is the truth"?!

Spiritual Resources (By no means an exhaustive list):

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