Sunday, February 3, 2013

Music while you work

This post may seem to be a response to the one written recently by Seumas Gallacher on his excellent blog here but it wasn’t intended to be that way. I’ve actually been working on it for a couple of weeks at odd moments. Great minds think alike, Seumas, laddie.

Writers are visceral creatures.

They stalk the blank pages of boredom populating them with sprites of creative wonder whose sole objectives are to entertain and stimulate the reader.

However, as all scribblers know, sometimes they need a kick-start to get them in the mood. It’s well known how certain novelists sought inspiration in bottles; others have found that plunging into the depths of their own grief to be the fulcrum they need. Myself, I prefer other less harmful pursuits. My drug of choice is… music.

We have all been moved by music at one time or another: the stirring in the breast as we hear the opening notes of some great anthem; the watering eye, product of a lilting refrain; the uncontrollable foot tapping born of a syncopated rhythm; even the urge to wave a lighter in the air as our favourite band go melodic.

It’s all about emotion!

And so is writing.

That’s why they go so well together; the notes and the words waltzing majestically as black ink fills white spaces.


Care must be taken!

You see, when we writers use music as background to our task, we are really tricking our brains into simulating certain physiological responses. Yes I am going to get all-scientific on you…

What many call the lizard brain, the amygdala, hiding at the top of the spinal chord (sorry, that should have been ‘cord’) is the beastie responsible for handling all sensory input initially. As it crouches in crotchety comfort at the base of ze little grey cells, it has only one chore to perform, which it does exceedingly well – it’s a database lookup engine!

An example:

As the first notes of the ‘March of the Swiss Soldiers’ finale of Rossini's ‘William Tell Overture’ start to sound, my amygdala does a quick double-take and pulls up a reference to a bloke dressed all in white with a black kerchief, mounted on a white stallion, at full gallop, as the voice-over yells “Hi-Ho Silver! Away!” and dredges from my memory such enigmatic words as ‘ke-mo sah-bee’ and ‘tonto’ – although the latter is more useful because I live in Spain and here tonto means stupid. But as I said, it’s all about emotion. For younger readers, to seewhat am I talking about, click here

My amygdala doesn’t stop there. No, it associates these references with the past emotional experiences related to them. Was I happy or sad when I first heard them? Why does it do this? Well, basically its job is to decide if the sensory stimuli signify danger. Yes, this is our ‘fight or flight’ motor. If there is no immediate peril, Rossini’s staccato stream is passed on to the rest of the brain where more rational, analytical actions are taken as a result. Yet that first instant response is unavoidable.

Now there are those amongst you who will not experience the same response. Seumas, for example, may be more moved by George Seaton’s original ‘Hi-yo Silver’ in the original 1933 radio broadcast that started it all – I’m too young to remember that. And shortly, May 2013 I believe, millions will associate the Lone Ranger with a monochrome figure with a dead crow on its head.

Am I rambling again? No. What I’m pointing out, in my traditional long-winded way, is that all the emotional responses are unique to each individual.

Yet the emotion will be there.

So we need to take great care when writing with a musical background.

Writers infuse their words with emotion which tickle their readers’ amygdalae (?) as well. (You’re nobody until you’ve had your amygdalae tickled, Seumas!). I’ve said this often, though not so pseudo-scientifically. Now if the music we chose is going to condition our emotions, then the words we choose will also be conditioned - ergo, ipso-facto, quod erat demonstrandum etc. (bet you didn’t know I speak fluent Rubbish?).

Not sure what I mean?

Try a little experiment…

Play this on a loop on your PC and try writing a fast-paced action scene: a challenge

So take care in what you listen to when writing! It’ll tickle your amygdalae!

PS: Seumas: was that Jennifer Anniston at the end of the video wondering if she had gone into a funeral instead of a concert?

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