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.
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.
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.