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.

DEAR JONI

It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan of Joni Mitchell. More like devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning. I even had a dream once where Joni, my mom, and my grandmother and I were all sitting in a circle talking, and Joni turned and looked at me, like, “What are you up to in your life?”; though I’ve never even been in a room with her, she is family to me, connected through that silver cord of sound that can link the heart and thoughts of one person to another across time and space. 

I still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, which for the most part had the real tunings she used for each song. I never looked back. 

Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”

Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilities for a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.

Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums Clouds, For the Roses, Court & Spark, and Miles of Aisles: each album an entire world to get lost within. In addition to the distinct musical sound, there was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics: her frank account of multiple love affairs, her independence, her politics, her commentary on the various pop culture movements and the cultural revolutions of the times. None of this is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, whether in the 70’s or today.

Of course, I didn’t understand all of it as a preteen, and today when I hear any of it, but when I hear any of those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses,” “Blue, “A Case of You,” (it’s too long a list)–I can’t hear any of them without crying at some point. The video of that brilliant “Clouds” performance from her 2000 tribute concert is for some reason not playing from YouTube, but you can watch it on her website: https://www.jonimitchell.com/library/video.cfm?id=7; if you’re built like me, it’ll be waterworks within about four seconds as she walks onstage, before she even starts singing. 

This is music that stays with you and grows with you over a lifetime, and it points us to the whole point of music in the first place: connecting with something beyond the mundane, materialistic, ego-driven goals of the everyday world (and, definitely, beyond the falsified world of social media stats, most of which are just another form of advertising these days as they’re all paid and have long since stopped representing anything “organic” or “authentic” about people’s relationship to their audience, anyway). Music is about plugging into our souls, and for any generation who wants to listen, Joni has the cord and the outlet.  

Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.

Please also visit Joni’s website and deep dive into the excellent gallery they offer including all the lyrics and artwork that accompany each of these albums: https://www.jonimitchell.com/music/

Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had. As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday back to standard and then back into my slack tunings too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities. This is the offbeat but enriching musical path that Joni pointed to, like the Hermit holding the lamp on the darkened woods: it may not buy you much purchase with the masses, but it takes you to a real place in your own spirit.

Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant. First, Joni never had the slew of pop tart radio hits of the bigger rock bands — but music aficionados aren’t supposed to be charmed too much by popularity stats, so to me it has always felt like there are other cultural reasons she didn’t get the recognition she deserved. Some people have argued her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then), which led people to exclude her as a pariah amongst women in some generally sexist way; her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture. 

As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni also suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality (which is part of why she’s great). 

Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.

Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015
Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015

Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved.

Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that worships profitable carbon copies. Though there is an entire generation of musicians today who have never heard of her, amidst the glut of navel-gazing self-promotion, obsession with metrics, and surface-level swim on offer in today’s music world, Joni represents everything that we need right now: heart, mind, musical chops, poetry, an I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what’s-popular mindset, and most importantly, something to say.