Saturday, April 09, 2005


The Sump Pump of the Mind

In today's Guardian, Lawrence Norfolk examines what music writers listen to while they write:

You tune in and out, not listening and then listening again, or seeming to (seeming to yourself, that is). Music is the thing that allows you to fool yourself you are working, that you are not "failing to come up with something". Something has to fill those dustbowl moments (and minutes, and hours). Against the sterility of over-focused concentration, music maintains a certain level of attention, functioning as a sump into which unproductive brain power can be drained off.

The topic interests me for purely selfish reasons; I mean, nobody asks what car mechanics listen to while they work... Though I'm guessing it involves a lots of Thin Lizzy and frequent Clear Channel station identifications.

Anyway, not addressed in his article are two rather more prosaic reasons. In my case, I have tinnitus -- a condition I didn't help much by spending a decade in bands, drumming next to bass rigs -- and the ringing means I actually find it uncomfortable to work in a quiet room. Also, and perhaps more applicable to most other writers, there's the simple fact that if you're in noisy neighborhood or building, the predictable flow of music helps blot out the random noise of the outside world.

I can't quite buy into Norfolk's idea that relation between writing and rock music is somehow key to this:

The question "Why music?" remains. Why not have the TV on? Or the radio? The answer depends, I believe, on the fact that writers have a peculiarly vexed relationship with music in general, and with rock music in particular.

Well... no. Why music? Because I can focus with someone singing in my ear -- but not with someone talking in it. My wild guess is that it's because language and music processing are distinct cognitive activities, and so they don't interfere with each other.

Maybe that's why I also find that music with indecipherable lyrics is particularly useful -- lately, I've been writing a lot to the Swedish band Dungen, and I don't what the hell they're going on about...

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