Words About Sounds: Books About Music

This summer, I got more particularly into music. Although I’ve always loved music (doesn’t everyone?), I feel like it’s one of those domains that’s difficult to attach to your identity if you don’t actively pursue it. This summer, I just read a bunch about it.

I’ve always gravitated towards anything sensory. Obviously, I love art in all forms. (I’m just in constant awe of talented, passionate people, and love to share about them when I can.)

It started because I loved reading about how pleasure works in the brain — in various domains — and how states of flow can tap into that. Flow via music can be achieved in so many different ways: playing it, dancing to it, listening to it. I’m dying to read this book on flow, curious about the science behind it, especially since it’s popped up in so many of my summer reads. A Natural History of the Senses is also the first book on my list for when I have room in my budget again (yikes.)

It feels so lucky that we can enhance our experiences just by knowing more about them. Like, even just reading all these musical books has infinitely expanded my capacity to appreciate listening to a song, and I adore everything about finding time for music in my day. Out of everything I did in my summer, learning more about how music works was one of the most valuable.

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As I’ve thought about escapism, that’s taken various forms. I’ve always loved finding my escape through reading, but I’ve also become more attuned to the transcendent experience of just sitting in your car late at night, listening to a song. How you go to another place in your head. (Did you know that we derive so much of our daily pleasure from daydreams?) That’s partly why music can be so integral to the power of our experiences. For one, songs can capture memories so easily — hence, some being banned from my summer playlists —and for another, they’re just engineered in ways that stimulate our minds in just the right ways.

The books that became part of that unintentional musical series will no doubt appear on the blog in various forms over the coming weeks and months, because they contributed so much to how I think about music now.

Both in what I was doing all summer (dancing) and my latest reading kick (psychology of art/aesthetics), that topic fit perfectly.

I’ve always been around music, because I’ve always played instruments. In college, particularly, practicing guitar or piano was a good way to enter a state of flow. It’s also proven that progress makes human beings consistently happier than anything else, so chipping away at a new song is one of my favorite ways to fumble. Even if I am butchering a rendition of a beloved song, it just feels good.

I spent a lot of my summer driving from city to city. One playlist, a ten-hour drive, still not tired. But for me, especially after some of the musical criticism I read this summer, the same song could unfurl in a dozen different ways and I took a lot of joy from picking it apart for ages. I can occupy myself for awhile.

Part of the reason I got even more interested in how music worked was that I was constantly around it. If you want to know which songs are going to blow up, go to a dance studio. Choreographers are often attuned to big breaks before the rest of the general public. Additionally, a lot of the dancers spanned multiple spheres, singing and acting as side gigs.

Getting back into dance again — especially as deeply as I went this summer, the dance world consuming most of my time and travel — made me realize how much of it I’d misinterpreted growing up. I was used to cranking out routines for recital, perfecting it so everyone followed the same timing. Tricks. Synchronicity. Performing further away from the audience.

Now, the landscape is so different: performing for the camera, infusing the moves with your own flair, choreography as “more of a suggestion.” There’s more musicality and style. Much more focus on Instagram. While I have plenty more to talk about on that front — and you can stalk my favorite dancers and choreographers here — I realized ultimately that my favorite dancers were all fantastic listeners. They punctuated well; they anticipated beats masterfully. I’d never seen dance as so much of a language.

I was inundated in classes where we talked about texture and pockets and riffs, where you could see the application of those concepts so immediately. (That immediate gratification, paired with the slow-and-steady improvement of more long term skills, was an addictive combination. My parents had to drag me away from the Millennium location in Nashville.)

Having had those experiences, and getting a much fuller and richer experience of what dancing could do with a song, I’ve been more intrigued than ever by how we interpret music. How it affects our culture. How our bodies absorb it. Below are some of my favorite reads on the subject — individual reviews to come soon.

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A Selection of Musical Books

Guitar Zero discussed that, as well as various ways to improve your musical habits. It gets a little repetitive, so it got harder to read as I got further along, but I adored the useful ways to get better at practicing. (I’m a sporadic player, and I really should be more consistent about working on my instruments!)

This Is Your Brain on Music was perhaps the most comprehensive, and occasionally exhaustive, overview. The musical jargon could be a lot at times, so I worked my way through it slowly. But I loved it. It’s the best for understanding how music affects the brain, and it’s written by a guy who literally can tell the difference between various types of tape that a recording studio uses just by the way the music sounds. It also pays attention to the different formats in which we listen — like how headphones have changed our music taste. Absolutely riveting.

The Song Machine was an engrossing look into how the music industry worked, and how we’re receptive to certain patterns and similarities. For anyone bemoaning how all modern music sounds the same, I’d encourage you to give it a shot!

Every Song Ever could be pedantic — massive words, obscure concepts, a little too much abstract criticism — but completely changed the way that I listen to music. The concepts I hold in my mind when I do. The book covers twenty different ways to listen and afterwards, I could genuinely listen to the same song dozens of times and find new aspects to appreciate.

Absolutely on Music was a gem. Haruki Marukami had some wise conversation with a renowned composer, and their discussions were well-balanced. It’s a read that pays tribute and respect to an important figure Seiji Ozawa, and they cover a range of topics related to music and creativity. It’s rooted in specific songs, referencing particular moments and choices.

I’m excited to fully review each of these in time, but love being able to share them as an overview for those interested in music, art, or why we love the things we love. I relished my time with these books.

Rationality, Kindness, and Emotion

Several of my favorite books are ones that allow me to distance myself from emotional experiences — to view immersive experiences through a very particular, logical lens that helps me to understand them. I think that’s especially helpful to couple with the empathetic and reflective properties of fiction — mirror neurons firing when you read about characters undergoing certain conflicts or joys. (Part of why I’m not reading fiction right now: I feel like I could use a little less of that!)

It’s always tempting to feel as though there’s some grand secret to living well that you just haven’t found yet, and exploring various options through books is a nice way to discover it. I love to read about the brain in a misguided attempt to understand it, and here are some of the gems I’ve found lately.


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Novel: How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett | Goodreads
Release Date: March 17, 2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format: eBook
Source: Library

A new theory of how the brain constructs emotions that could revolutionize psychology, health care, law enforcement, and our understanding of the human mind.

Emotions feel automatic, like uncontrollable reactions to things we think and experience. Scientists have long supported this assumption by claiming that emotions are hardwired in the body or the brain. Today, however, the science of emotion is in the midst of a revolution on par with the discovery of relativity in physics and natural selection in biology—ans this paradigm shift has far-reaching implications for us all.

Leading the charge is psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, whose theory of emotion is driving a deeper understanding of the mind and brain, and shedding new light on what it means to be human. Her research overturns the widely held belief that emotions are housed in different parts of the brain and are universally expressed and recognized. Instead, she has shown that emotion is constructed in the moment, by core systems that interact across the whole brain, aided by a lifetime of learning. This new theory means that you play a much greater role in your emotional life than you ever thought. Its repercussions are already shaking the foundations not only of psychology but also of medicine, the legal system, child-rearing, meditation, and even airport security.

Why do emotions feel automatic? Does rational thought really control emotion? How does emotion affect disease? How can you make your children more emotionally intelligent? How Emotions Are Made answers these questions and many more, revealing the latest research and intriguing practical applications of the new science of emotion, mind, and brain.

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain surprised me. I’d expected it to have a formula: this is how happiness works, this is how sadness works, etc,. Instead, it argued that emotions are subjective, specific, and arising from circumstances. Part of the reason we feel emotion is that we’re constantly predicting where our lives will go next. It sounds basic, but it’s not. How Emotions Are Made is more theoretical than breaking down the neuroscience of emotion, which isn’t exactly what the synopsis indicates, but an interesting perspective that’s well-written and gave me food for thought.


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Novel: Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley | Goodreads
Release Date: February 11, 2014
Publisher: Knopf
Format: eBook
Source: Library

You are a mind reader, born with an extraordinary ability to understand what others think, feel, believe, want, and know. It’s a sixth sense you use every day, in every personal and professional relationship you have. At its best, this ability allows you to achieve the most important goal in almost any life: connecting, deeply and intimately and honestly, to other human beings. At its worst, it is a source of misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict, leading to damaged relationships and broken dreams.

How good are you at knowing the minds of others? How well can you guess what others think of you, know who really likes you, or tell when someone is lying? How well do you really understand the minds of those closest to you, from your spouse to your kids to your best friends? Do you really know what your coworkers, employees, competitors, or clients want?

In this illuminating exploration of one of the great mysteries of the human mind, University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley introduces us to what scientists have learned about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet—other people—and the surprising mistakes we so routinely make. Why are we sometimes blind to the minds of others, treating them like objects or animals? Why do we sometimes talk to our cars, or the stars, as if there is a mind that can hear us? Why do we so routinely believe that others think, feel, and want what we do when, in fact, they do not? And why do we believe we understand our spouses, family, and friends so much better than we actually do? Mindwise will not turn other people into open books, but it will give you the wisdom to revolutionize how you think about them—and yourself.

Like many of the other books I’ve read this summer, Mindwise focuses on cognitive biases. All the flawed ways in which we think we know what’s really going on, but are just playing into the circumstances and (incomplete) cues around us. Similarly to How Emotions Are Made, Mindwise doesn’t so much attempt to break down the science so much as presenting a perspective that we’re so, so wrong when we assume we know what others think. The bottom line? You can’t, but that doesn’t keep us from trying. Mindwise focused on the addictiveness of the idea of knowing others without hearing their backstories, thoughts, and spending a lot of time with them. It talked about the unbalanced standards we use to judge others without applying the same to ourselves. And it talks about fostering empathy through genuine equivalency. It was a little hard to get through — plain at times — but an excellent check for when we assume we know others without taking the time to actually listen to them. (The bottom line, especially considering the misunderstanding associated with living our lives online, is to just ask others and to listen to what they tell you.)


Novel: On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor | Goodreads
Release Date: May 26, 2009
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Format: eBook
Source: Library

Kindness is the foundation of the world’s great religions and most-enduring philosophies. Why, then, does being kind feel so dangerous? If we crave kindness with such intensity, why is it a pleasure we often deny ourselves? And why—despite our longing—are we often suspicious when we are on the receiving end of it?

In this brilliant book, the eminent psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor examine the pleasures and perils of kindness. Modern people have been taught to perceive ourselves as fundamentally antagonistic to one another, our motives self-seeking. Drawing on intellectual history, literature, psychoanalysis, and contemporary social theory, this book explains how and why we have chosen loneliness over connection. On Kindness argues that a life lived in instinctive, sympathetic identification with others is the one we should allow ourselves to live.

Bursting with often shocking insight, this brief and essential book will return to its readers what Marcus Aurelius declared was mankind’s “greatest delight”: the intense satisfactions of generosity and compassion.

I love to read about empathy and kindness -- a reminder to always try and be a better person than I am. Plus, the rewards system behind kindness (a very Franny and Zooey-induced question of, is it actually selfless if it makes me feel good?) has always intrigued me. Any rational study of emotion does. I link to this speech on my listening page, but George Saunders’s “Congratulations, by the way” speech is one of my favorite reminders. I don’t think the world has gotten less kind — as some theorists speculate — but I do think it’s a constant choice. Reading this philosophical POV was a unique perspective I hadn’t considered: about kindness as a survival-oriented, unconscious, and evolutionary mechanism. While Phillips got Freudian REALLY quickly, On Kindness was a thorough, digestible read I’m grateful to have added to my list.


The Last Reads of the Summer
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The end of the summer is worth savoring. Sleeping in too late (my body’s still mad at me for all that I put it through this summer), spending time with the family, soaking up the sunshine while I can. The weather won’t vary too much in Lexington, but I miss constant, blaring sun.

I’m fully planning on building in time to read during the school year, since I’m taking my time back. (I’m so excited to curl up on my gorgeous porch — such a porch girl — at night with the string lights and some music and tea. Such a happy atmosphere.) But I still definitely feel the pressure to pick the “right” books to read before I lose my sense of having time. I let myself relax so much more in the summers, although my days probably look pretty similar.

There are some topics during the school year that I’ve made a commitment to reading about monthly, just because they’re helpful to brush up on and actively remember.

TOPICS I’VE LOVED

  1. Cognitive biases & unconscious influences — Some of my most rewarding reads this summer were about the flaws in our decision-making and perception of reality. All the psychology books in the world won’t get me to stop thinking about ways I can improve, but reading scientific overviews of why we physically can’t control a lot of the situations we find ourselves in gave me a lot of peace this summer! Additionally, they’re really good for developing empathy and understanding other people, which I think is always helpful to keep in mind. It’s just helpful to be humbled by all that we don’t know at a given time.

  2. Place and spatiality — I’m a huge location girl. My environment influences so much of my mood at a given time. There are places where I thrive, and places that I don’t. Especially as an entering senior (terrifying!), I place a lot of importance on where I’ll end up and which factors lead me to that decision. I’m also interested, on an aesthetic level, in spatiality, physical awareness, how we move, all of that.

  3. Character and kindness — One of the most important speeches I’ve ever read is George Saunders’s comments on failures of kindness. It’s easy to get caught up in the craziness of life and forget how we should treat other people, but it’s always refreshing and grounding to be reassured that kindness should always be our #1 priority! The books and stories I read about its development are always hopeful and important to me.

  4. Digital minimalismAs I talked about in a post earlier this week, I took a break from my phone this summer and loved it. I had so much more time, and appreciated my complete presence at any given moment. Phones aren’t evil, and screens don’t ruin you, but I enjoy having a consistent reminder of the way they can provoke unhealthy habits.

Some of these reads reflect those themes while other branch out into other topics I wanted to cover before the home stretch. Without further ado, here are some of my final picks!

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I'm excited to read about social networks and how we all influence each other, especially going into my final year with a tight-knit community at school.


I’m in the thick of this read right now and have already underlined at least on every page. It’s a smart, concise overview of the decision-making errors we most often fall prey to.


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So many people have told me they loved this read. I’m partway through, and enjoying it so much. I loved surfing this summer, and reading about others’ reverence for water.


What are y’all reading?

You'll spend eleven years of your life on your phone.
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Novel: Irresistible by Adam Alter | Goodreads
Release Date: March 7, 2017
Publisher: Penguin Press
Format: eBook
Source: Library

Buy it here.

Welcome to the age of behavioral addiction—an age in which half of the American population is addicted to at least one behavior. We obsess over our emails, Instagram likes, and Facebook feeds; we binge on TV episodes and YouTube videos; we work longer hours each year; and we spend an average of three hours each day using our smartphones. Half of us would rather suffer a broken bone than a broken phone, and Millennial kids spend so much time in front of screens that they struggle to interact with real, live humans.

In this revolutionary book, Adam Alter, a professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, tracks the rise of behavioral addiction, and explains why so many of today's products are irresistible. Though these miraculous products melt the miles that separate people across the globe, their extraordinary and sometimes damaging magnetism is no accident. The companies that design these products tweak them over time until they become almost impossible to resist.

By reverse engineering behavioral addiction, Alter explains how we can harness addictive products for the good—to improve how we communicate with each other, spend and save our money, and set boundaries between work and play—and how we can mitigate their most damaging effects on our well-being, and the health and happiness of our children.

Buy

I got rather obsessed with Adam Alter over the summer, because I devoured his nonfiction. His topics were engaging, and his content pinpointed human behaviors that permeate every aspect of our daily lives. What could be more relevant?

The book itself was delightful and alarming. Alter discusses behavior addiction with such dexterity, and the digital sphere in such depth. It’s not patronizing at all, but rather just curious and illuminating. He does a thorough job cramming in studies and information, while the book itself is fluid and fun to read.

Some of the statistics were absolutely staggering to me, like this one: we’ll spend eleven years of our lives on our phones. Eleven years. (On average, this computes to about three times an hour.)

For students below those of us graduating now, it’s even more.

I don’t demonize technology. For me, it’s connected me to a world of people and interests that I never would have discovered elsewhere — but I also don’t use it socially as much. It’s always felt connected to the curatorial qualities of running my blog, and I’m also enormously picky about photos of myself and others that I put up.

I took a digital detox for mostly personal reasons, but it was helpful. My world felt too small; it was a fear I’d had in the fall that was ultimately confirmed by the winter. Social media can be great in expanding my worldview but at times, it just intensifies it instead. Feeling that, I took a step back for the summer, wanting to just turn my phone off and disappear. 

Later in the summer, there were unexpected benefits, like freshly evaluating my online presence before trying to get a job, and just getting a break from the small town bubble that exists during most of my year. When I’m physically away from school, I prefer to be mentally away as well.

It was the summer of being a terrible communicator, and it was glorious. I had so much time. I was so untethered to any aspects of my identity, because nothing was codified. I got to be much more serendipitous and relaxed without feeling pressured to keep up with anyone or convey any of my experiences to anyone else.

The phone issue isn’t a new one — I read How to Break Up with Your Phone in January and enjoyed the dissection of how addictive technology is — but I always like to check myself. I wouldn’t say I’m any better or worse than anyone my age in how long I spend on my devices in a given day, but I do prioritize nature and get frustrated if I spend too long cooped up, so I try and keep afloat. Stay aware, even if I can’t always act on it as effectively as I’d like.

According to Tristan Harris, a “design ethicist,” the problem isn’t that people lack willpower; it’s that “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”

One of the reasons this piqued my interest is because of watching people interact with others, especially the middle school girls I mentor, who struggle a bit more to have real world interactions that they can’t quantify in terms of likes. They refer to texts, absent of gestures and intonations that convey nuance. One of the studies discussed in the book talks about how young students will refer to conversations to others as if they occurred face-to-face, not recognizing that virtual interactions lack many of the visual and unconscious cues we use to interpret others, meaning that we’re more likely than ever to misinterpret everything. (A fact made more intense by a recent read I loved about our failures of memory.)

Online interactions aren’t just different from real-world interactions; they’re measurably worse. Humans learn empathy and understanding by watching how their actions affect other people. Empathy can’t flourish without immediate feedback, and it’s a very slow-developing skill. One analysis of seventy-two studies found that empathy has declined among college students between 1979 and 2009.

Most of us dislike being so dependent on our phones, but refer to them out of habit. Irresistible stresses habit formation and behavioral addiction throughout the book.

Human behavior is driven in part by a succession of reflexive cost-benefit calculations that determine whether an act will be performed once, twice, a hundred times, or not at all. When the benefits overwhelm the costs, it’s hard not to perform the act over and over again, particularly when it strikes just the right neurological notes. A like on Facebook and Instagram strikes one of those notes.

I’ve always been a poster rather than a scroller, although I — like most my age — do participate in it a lot. This summer, I loved being completely offline. I only checked my phone to pay rent or update my parents on my (changing) locations. While I wouldn’t say I was exclusively in the moment — still listening and reading often, which has a similar effect of taking me outside of myself — I had a lot more free time and a lot of time to reflect.

Almost everyone — according to Irresistible — guesses their screen use in a given day to be about 50% too low. And young adulthood is when behavioral addictions are most likely to form, because of their soothing effects on our psychological needs.

In many respects, substance addictions and behavioral addictions are very similar. They activate the same brain regions, and they’re fueled by some of the same basic human needs: social engagement and social support, mental stimulation, and a sense of effectiveness. Strip people of these needs and they’re more likely to develop addictions to both substances and behaviors.

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I’m almost finished reading The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World, which focuses on the sort of alternative reality generated by your virtual world — the landscape you enter when you open an app, the mental picture in your mind when you’re texting someone. I’ve always been interested in spatial awareness, as I’m a person heavily influenced by my environment and physical surroundings. Reading philosophy about digital spatiality was fascinating and accurate. Whenever you pick up your phone in the middle of a conversation with someone, you’re essentially leaving your body and existing in that fourth dimension. (It gets a little trippy, but bear with me.)

That concept was shown in a study Alter references in which pairs are studied. Couples, friends, strangers. Even the presence of a phone was disruptive and distracting to how well people connected to each other.

Every pair bonded to some extent, but those who grew acquainted in the presence of the smartphone struggled to connect. They described the relationships that formed as lower in quality, and their partners as less empathetic and trustworthy. Phones are disruptive by their mere existence, even when they aren’t in active use. They’re distracting because they remind us of the world beyond the immediate conversation, and the only solution, the researchers wrote, is to remove them completely.

The book doesn’t only talk about smartphones or laptops, however; it also discusses the implications of fitness tracking and addiction, the neurological feedback loops in video games, and other technologies. I also loved particularly how Irresistible didn’t only focus on technology, but behavioral addiction as a whole, creating a valuable foundation of information about why we like what we like. (I’ve gotten really into reading about taste and pleasure this summer since I’m so fascinated by aesthetic appeal.) The book distinguishes between passions and addictions, between positives and negatives, acknowledging the nuance of technology’s benefits and downfalls.

Irresistible contains a lot of staggering statistics, like:

  • 70 percent of office emails are read within six seconds of arriving.

  • 42% of Americans have struggled with a behavioral addiction in the last 12 months.

  • About 95% of people charge their phones by their beds (and sleep quality has drastically declined because of that.)

  • Up to 59 percent of people say they’re dependent on social media sites and that their reliance on these sites ultimately makes them unhappy. Of that group, half say they need to check those sites at least once an hour.

I love to read statistics, because they solidify concepts in my head so effectively. I love to read about our relationships with the digital sphere because it’s such a huge part of my daily life as a young adult, and Irresistible is the most capable and influential read I’ve devoured so far on the subject. It’s well-written and persuasive without being preachy, and captures the nuances of technology with empathy and grace. Even now, scrolling through quotes, I have dozens that I want to include that will likely crop up later on the blog in additional reads about digital minimalism. For now, I’m missing my unconnected summer, conscious of how long I’m spending writing this blog post and staring at the screen.


The Summer in Books!

Hey y’all!

I’m currently writing this on the floor of a dance studio — which, admittedly, is where I’ve spent a majority of my summer. It’s been an absolute dream. Although my prevailing sentiment is that of simply needing more time, there’s never a perfect time to start sharing again.

I love the amount of memory imprinted on each of these books from my travels, and how interconnected they all ended up being to the summer that I had.

As you might notice, it’s pretty devoid of fiction because I’m on a nonfiction kick — and don’t totally feel like reading about many of the conflicts present in most of the fiction that I read! I’ll be back to that soon enough.

I was lucky enough to indulge a lot of my interests this summer, but always ground myself in what I read (although that’s a little different this summer too.) I’m going to go in-depth on many of the reads I mention now as I review and process them, but for now, here’s the overview of the top fifty.

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It doesn’t feel like there’s a particular theme to my reads — other than meaningful or vaguely existential! I went down rabbit holes for particular subjects. Water, musical psychology, urban planning, design, philosophies on kindness, digital minimalism, habits, silence. More on those topics in my next post — as well as links to each of these reads.

What books have y’all read this summer?

listsgrace smithComment