Music is terrible and it will ruin you

Like most of us, the second I wake up in the morning, I reorient to who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing here as my mind charges into a stream of problem-solving, anxiety-based strategizing, and hope-infused planning. Such is the human condition. But music, the wise ones say, offers a spiritual break from all that noise. The thinking goes that musical flow not only offers respite from the nagging narratives of daily consciousness, but a portal into the ineffable. In the words of jazz piano guru Kenny Werner, music has a spiritual purpose, and it is here on the planet to help “release us from the tyranny of conscious thought.” Countless books proclaim that we can develop mastery over not only an instrument, but also life itself, through music. But while all of this sounds beautiful, music-making actually requires a lot of concentrated, and even chaotic, mental activity; if anything, it might cause more “monkey mind” than cure it. After much consideration, I have come to wonder if the gurus are lying. Maybe music is in fact terrible for our mental health.

After years of holding the expectation over my practice that it be continually epiphanic, or at least, always deeply meaningful, I have come to wonder if the notion that music be relaxing and transcendent may actually cause more harm than good. Or if nothing else it may add a mental layer rather than burning one away.

If music is supposed to be transcendent, then any musical activity that wades into the pedestrian territory of ego-driven competition or mistakes or anxious rumination becomes “lesser.” And now we are a lowly tool of our lizard brain, our musical fumbling mere evidence we are straying from our evolution as enlightened beings. Down that cold road, the idea of music as spiritual transcendence becomes only a tool of judgment. Our artistic practice only another reason to flog ourselves. And I don’t think that’s what musical practice or spiritual practice wants from us.

Is music really a type of meditation?

A quote from Kenny Werner, who does not believe that music is terrible.

So let’s look more closely at this idea that “music is meditation.”

Basically, the ancient gurus and the modern neuroscientists all agree that our brains work better if we train them on only one task at a time. Sans expert insight, though, this is really common sense. Any task you endeavor to do will be done better if you can manage to focus (and congrats to you, because that is no easy feat in the age of distraction and information overload). A less reactive, more receptive mind simply completes tasks more efficiently and with less aggravation. Whether those tasks are doing the dishes, driving cross-country, or doing a step workout in your living room.

Really, practicing scales, for example, is no more transcendent than mowing the lawn. It is simply a repetitive action done with concentration. It builds muscle memory and dexterity. It’s boring. That’s why no one wants to do scales.

But we like to elevate some boring activities in our lives by imbuing them with special qualities. So, to trick our mind into wanting to do scales, we tell ourselves that they are the ticket to enlightenment. The first step towards preparing ourselves for inspired states of musical “flow.” When really they just make us better at playing music, which sometimes flows, but often takes a lot of determined work.

Sure, music practice could be generalized to be a type of “meditative” practice – but no more than any activity. Music can be somewhat “meditative,” but it is not the same as meditation. Its essential “function” may be to “release” us from the tyranny of conscious thought, but no more than peeling an orange.

Is songwriting mystical, or compulsive?

Nick Cave talks about the enchantment of that moment when first catching the inspiration from a new song, when the song is in control. I, too, enjoy indulging in the romantic notion of the muses bequeathing us with an otherworldly, ego-smashing visit that humbles us to the mysteries of the Universe.

But I feel like the music always has control – whether I’ve intended to sit down and finish a song, or I’m just living my life. Sometimes, music is even kind of like the guy who crashed on the couch one night and doesn’t pick up on it that he’s worn out his welcome. But he knows that even if I try to create rules and structure around his visits, ultimately he gets a free pass, unlimited entry into my brain, at any hour of the day or night. He knows that my brain has no boundaries whatsoever, that the second my ears perk, all the stage lights go on, the curtains go up, and it’s showtime. In fact, when I’m lying in bed, mind reeling, sleep taunting but avoiding me, it is almost always because music is looping relentlessly in my mind. Sometimes the music is in the background, and the mundane worries and tedious storylines are in the foreground, but either way, the music is always there.

Just recently, in a familiar bout of insomnia, I had just finally gotten into a good, comfy nook in my ergonomic pillow that was supposed to change my life, I was starting to relax and about to fall back to sleep….and then BAM! The idea to cover a Kate Bush song popped into my head, and then my mind was in rehearsal mode; “I’ll do the verses an octave lower…or no, maybe I’ll change the key…how does the second verse go? I think I’ll just change the key and do the verses lower..” All of these sudden plans churned against the backdrop of endless scratching of out of order needle drops into whichever part of the song I was thinking about.

My psychiatrist doesn’t have a term for this condition. Pop culture says “earworms” happen when you’re trying to learn a song, so I suppose my worms are always working.

In any case, if “meditation” is about cultivating a quiet, inner spaciousness, I don’t quite buy it that music is the ticket.

The bro with the beer in his hand

Really, all music wants is for us to play it. It doesn’t matter if you’re rusty, self-conscious, you came in late on the bridge, or any of that. Music is a bro with a beer in its hand, a simple individual with simple goals. It just wants to be played. Also, it doesn’t care if your mind is focused or not. It will determinedly wind its way through torrents of distraction, nipping you in the ear with an unrelenting hook from a pop song you don’t even like, looping you into mental rehearsals of parts you are memorizing for an upcoming rehearsal, even when you’re trying to take a break. And especially if you’re trying to sleep.

My rest, my mental health – all of it is sacrificed for this music to have itself heard. (Turning finished into completed songs and recordings, however, is of course another tangled matter.) It’s not the pillow, it’s not the light from the full moon or the street lamp, it’s my damn brain, and the music in it. That’s where all the trouble comes from.

Lest I seem ungrateful for all the inspiration, let me assure you I am not. Often enough, it is those midnight sessions – when I am yanked from sleep, fumbling for the phone to make a voice memo or groping at the light switch and some paper to write something down – that yield most of my songs. And I’m always happy to offer gifts to the Goddess of music when she appears, even if I might have too much of a sleep hangover the subsequent days to function in daily life. I suppose I’ve just gotten less sentimental about all of it. It doesn’t often feel like a gift from the gods, but a job requirement.

And, yes, if you noticed that I just rejected the idea of music as transcendent while also positioning it as its own mystical being, almost a deity, then yes, I also see the contradiction. And I’m not going to resolve it for any of us. (Get it? Har.) Perhaps the question, really, is how to engage with what we do in a way that is light to the touch but deeply present. Sometimes we can bring that to music, but I disagree that it is necessarily music that brings that to us. Music just wants to play. You can view it as music playing through us if you want it to sound more mystical, I suppose. But just remember, music is somewhere between an ineffable cosmic force and a bro with a beer in its hand. More of a trickster deity than anything else.

Music just wants to play.

The Life of a Court Jester in Medieval Europe demonstrating that music has always been terrible. Getty Images.

In my own ridiculous life, I don’t know which came first, an unquiet mind or music. Perhaps it was an overactive mind that needs to ‘work out’ in a particular way that lends itself well to music, which is why I lighted upon music as a preteen and never let go. Or, playing music from a young age begot an ongoing appetite for relentless mental activity, a type of inner restlessness that can only be satisfied by playing or writing music.

And lest you say, “Oh Kela, you’re just too in your head! You just need to dance more, get into your body!” I do dance, almost every damn day in fact, and that is no solution. My brain latches onto songs from the dance floor (or, the living room as dance floor, as it were) and has trouble letting its tentacles unhook from those songs, too. Long after my body has stopped moving, my inner DJ keeps the grooves going in my head. The hookier the jams, the harder it is for my brain to let go of them.

Music is simply a bone for the brain to chew on.

Either way, I don’t fully buy it anymore that music is unilaterally “good” for the mind or the brain. If nothing else, it is definitely a type of complex mental activity, which, if anything, should be complimented and counteracted by actual meditation practice. In the evening after deciding it is time to rest, when I can feel the next loop of a song I was just practicing coming around again, I will often force myself into the bathtub and press play on a chill meditation app. Because, whether I feel enlightened afterwards or not, an auditory background does seem to be necessary to make at least one or two of the cylinders stop moving.

Maybe even if my mom never started me on piano lessons when I was seven, and if my dad never started showing me the endless looping phrases of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring on guitar when I was eleven, my brain would still have developed to be the Labrador puppy on meth that it is today. And I suppose if that’s the case, it is nice to have music around, to give my brain a bone to chew on.

Space is the Place

As part of the notoriously laborious process of moving to New York–which I brought upon myself voluntarily, with no job or major life reason other than to “try the New York thing,” as one of my NY veteran friends put it–I had to change my mailing address. This sounds like a fairly commonplace moving chore, but in NY, it becomes a colossal ordeal.

One day I had to visit the post office to try to track down a very important piece of mail that I had overnighted from Portland, Oregon, to my new address in Brooklyn. My new roommate on the New York end hadn’t seen it yet, and offered to go to the Flatbush post office — but if at all possible, asked if I could check on the Portland side before she did that. (I would later find out the reason for her hesitation, as the Flatbush Post Office is so comically awful I can’t believe there hasn’t been a tragi-comic horror film based on the premise of waiting in that Never Ending Line and trying to track down packages that Never Were Delivered. It is a situation so unrelentingly bad that citizens actually write their senators about it– including me, eventually. I ended up receiving a cordial, boilerplate response via email from Chuck Schumer’s office well after I had left NY to return to the West Coast–“the NY boomerang,” as another NY veteran friend put it.)

But back to that envelope.  The envelope in question contained my rental application and lease for my new New York landlord, and therefore, every single possible documentation of my Important Personal and Financial Information (New York landlords stop just short of requiring you to sign away the life of your firstborn before they will even process your application). Now, all my Personal Financial Shit was apparently just floating out there in the world, somewhere between the post office in Portland, Oregon, and a mailbox in Brooklyn, New York.

I was tense, maybe even verging on frantic.

I pulled into the USPS parking lot—or tried to, but I was blocked by an idling car. A mother and daughter were piling out and fussing with an inordinate number of layers of bags and coats and personal items, delaying the process of them getting out of the car as their friend idled and waited. And as I idled, and waited.

SPACE IS THE PLACEBe patient, I thought to myself. Breathe for a second.

The mother and daughter finally shut the car door, but just as I put my foot on the gas to pull in,  I saw a wallet and another persona litem lying on the pavement.

I honked, but they didn’t hear as they were making their way towards the post office entryway. I honked again, and waved. The mother looked back, confused, before tentatively coming back towards the lot to see what I was pointing towards.

Finally she saw, ran forward to scoop up her things and shot me a huge, beautiful, gracious smile, and called out, “Thank you so much! Thank you!!”

In my short but meaningful time in New York, these types of interactions became one my favorite things about that big, sensory-overwhelming metropolis (although this incident was in Portland, that little aggravation-turned-humans-helping-one-another felt like a primer for both the logistical complexity of my upcoming new city and the way in which leaning on my surrounding humanity would continually help counterbalance my stress tipping point). In a densely-packed city like New York, you are constantly called to remember the humanity and the immediacy of other people’s existence. On the subway when someone cuts their finger and ten people reach into their bags to fish around for a band-aid; in the extraordinary lines at Trader Joe’s or, of course, the post office, we are reminded how we can each influence each other in such profound but seemingly tiny ways.

Back at the post office in Portland, in my isolation chamber also known as a car, I pulled in to my long-sought for parking space, feeling a smidge better about life and humanity in general. I went inside, and claimed my spot in the long-ish line (a post office line I would come to appreciate as small town and friendly in comparison to what awaited me at the Flatbush post office in my new neighborhood, every time a package or piece of mail went missing–which was frequent.)

When I got to the Portland post office counter, I explained my situation: “I sent something overnight on Wednesday and it didn’t get there on Thursday. Is there any way to track it?”

“Do you have the receipt or the tracking number?”

“No.” I had completely forgotten everything about everything and thrown all my receipts away on Wednesday afternoon. “I lost it,” I lied, trying to recover some sense of being a grown adult.

“There’s no way to find it if we don’t have that tracking number.”

My chest started getting tight. “Well, what happens to overnight mail if it doesn’t get where it was sent to?”

The post office lady, seeming to relish the opportunity to unleash the terror of terrible hypothetical disasters on a fellow citizen, proceeded to list off Every Single Possible Worst Case Scenario: “There are just so many hands it passes through. It could have been stolen. It could have fallen off a cart and gotten kicked in a gutter without anyone even noticing. It could have gone to the wrong address….”

She gave me the number for Consumer Affairs, an office which was right down the hall but which was only available for telephone service, not walk-ins. I could see through the frosted glass window on the door that there was someone in there, but I wasn’t allowed to approach the door and knock. It would have been more natural for me to take this all as an opportunity to make a stink and get indignant about this as an example of all the bureaucratic bullshit the post office does that doesn’t make any sense.

But instead, I breathed. I noticed the very slightest relaxation of my shoulders and neck. Thanks to meditation and yoga practice, this tiny rerouting of a stress response meant I didn’t get tense at a moment when I normally would.

I sat down and called Consumer Affairs (the office I was standing right in front of and not allowed to speak to in person). After several rings–I could see the shadow behind the frosted glass sitting there immobile as the phone rang nearby–I explained my situation to the next clerk. Very quickly, we determined the cause of the mix up: I had bought a first class envelope, not a prepaid overnight envelope.

“Overnight is like twenty dollars,” she explained. I had paid about $1.50.

Feeling just barely like an adult now, and one who knows nothing about anything, I nonetheless breathed a sigh of relief. I still didn’t have the assurance that my mail was where it needed to be (I would have had to pay twenty dollars for that assurance). But at least I knew it was all just a goof (my goof). Now I knew that most likely that my envelope was just on its way, and would arrive in about three days.

Again, at any one of those points in my little post office adventure, I could have gotten fussy, desperate, impatient, and mean. I could have defaulted to the entitled, crabby, and supremely self-interested manner of conducting ourselves that we learn, by default, in a highly individualist, gratification-oriented society.

And believe me, it is not in my nature to be patient and wise in these situations. I have burst into tears at the car mechanic and boiled over in frustration as telephone clerks at the bank transfer me from one office to another like a raging hot potato. In fact, regardless of how many service jobs I’ve done and the presumed empathy for their plight that I should have developed, dealing with crappy customer service, or ineffective channels of communication in the face of bureaucratic nonsense, is an area of Adult Life that a part of me will always object to and struggle with.

My only way around this stuff is meditation practice. I didn’t start to sit with the intention to be more kind—I started practice to get a handle on depression/anxiety/insomnia issues, all of which sitting practice has helped with.

But after you fill up your own tank for a while I guess you start to have some to spill over with. Your practice becomes the benefit of those around you (at least in the sense that there is now an absence of ickiness being inflicted on them that they don’t even know about), and you get the added bonus of others reflecting that benefit back to you. Meditation doesn’t make life all flowers and unicorns; it takes away your latent expectation that life should be all flowers and unicorns.

You can not always get your way, experience things that are bullshit and don’t make sense, and still feel basically okay. Even good. Like an adult!

Practicing patience, non-attachment, and the ethic of kindness that arises out of that means that instead of feeling like an entitled individualist constantly at war with circumstance, you feel peacefully—or at least slightly less aggressively—yoked to the world around you. Each of those moments where we find space instead of falling into a negative reactive pattern is a tiny yield in the cosmic bank account. All of those old patterns of reaction, and defense, and armament, can change—if you leave room for space.