It appears that, in these days of turmoil and anxiety, while
recklessly and heedlessly pursuing my vocation, I have been unduly stressing you
all out. Mea culpa. Also, I should apologize for doing it in Latin. Bad form.
The reason for my rather late apology is the
epiphany I had while reading the paper last week. While in transit
from Indianapolis to Champaign, I stopped in a small town and picked
up a small newspaper to go with my side of fries. The opinion
columnist had written about stress in the age of recession, and
illustrated one of her points with a discussion of a famous
laboratory experiment involving rats and electric shocks. There are
probably, at this writing, a number of students in the sciences who,
on the basis of the good old days, would like to major in rats and
electric shocks, and are displeased to note that things are being
done differently these days. I hope so, anyway.
Anyhow, the rats were divided into teams, and the
first group received warning signals before the shocks were
administered, while the second got no such preamble. The second
group developed stomach ulcers of greater size than the first,
which led the scientists to conclude that not being able to predict
the onset of such scientific outbursts was stressing the second
group of rats out more. Ergo, predictability makes life easier to
Which is why, predictably, my mind went to music,
and to the fact that most popular forms of music are eminently
predictable, being made up of vast amounts of repetition, whereas
the styles in which I specialize, most of them lumped under the
umbrella term classical or jazz, are not so predictable, because
once a composer or improviser has said the same musical thing a few
times, he or she decides to go and say something else, often for
what the listener may feel is a very long time.
There are various ways to combat this anxiety
producing tendency. One is to listen to the piece enough times that
you become thoroughly familiar with the contents--assuming
recordings are available and you have one. Or you can go to a lot of
recitals. One year I noticed that every pianist who came through
town was playing the same Beethoven sonata on his or her program. I
imagine a dedicated concertgoer could get that piece memorized by
the end of the season at that rate. Then there would be no
surprises, even in a piece a half hour long. Even in a piece by
Beethoven. The man does like sudden changes in volume, after all.
Essentially, you are reducing a long complex
piece of music to the same kind of narcoleptic that a popular piece
provides by this strategy. But your mind does have to work harder.
The average piece on the radio these days has about 10 seconds of
different musical information in it, with the rest being repetition.
That means you can shut off your brain pretty fast and have a
stressless good time not having to adapt to anything new. I wonder
if anyone has done a study relating classical music to the risk of
Alzheimer's. My guess would be that it helps fend off the disease,
since it helps keep the brain limber. How many other secrets
to the good life are available to those whose brains function at
higher baud rates?
But if you really want to eliminate stress,
you'll have to enter into a kind of conversation with the music. It
might seem like the long way, but then, memorizing every piece of
music you ever want to know can't be much shorter. By learning the
ways in which music is put together, you'll have a pretty good sense
of what to expect, and what is really a surprise. Not having any way
to understand a stream of notes other than that they sound pretty
means pretty much everything is going to be a surprise. That would
be the goldfish approach to classical music. Goldfish are said to
have about a three second memory, so they can swim around the same
bowl endlessly and not get bored. 'Hey!' they say with glee. 'What a
fascinating rock formation. I hadn't noticed that before. Hey...'
There are a lot of things to come to know about
this. There are as many approaches to music as there are composers.
Many more, even. But there are common tendencies. Grammars,
spellings, rhetorical flourishes, three-point sermons. You can, for
instance, have a pretty good idea when you hear certain chords what
chord is coming next. Or what melodic fragment or rhythmic idea is
likely to follow. You can learn to anticipate important places of
repetition and learn to cherish variety more and more. If you'd like
a hand in this, I'm starting a series of ear-opening experiences in
which I'll take a piece of music and discuss things to listen for.
Building on such experiences means your ears will learn how to deal
with music much the same way they deal with English. You certainly
don't know every word of this essay, nor are you planning to
memorize it. You don't need to. You know what I'm saying and you can
boil it down to its essentials.
However, this presupposes that you want to make a
sustained effort, much the same way that people who write music in
this genre make a sustained effort to create their music. If you
don't, I guess all I can do is apologize for making your life so
complicated. But I imagine most of you to whom this really applies
have stopped reading this blog a long time ago. For the rest, all I
can promise is an adventure. These things seem very basic for me,
but they may be a shock to you. Recently I've been reminded of this
by posts on the internet expressing: 1) surprise that musical style
has actually evolved over time and 2) the thrilling epiphany
that composers don't just string notes together until they get tired
of it, but actually plan their compositions. I'll do what I can to
make these notions seem not quite so bizarre. You can
questions. I'll do my best to answer them.