Music and Repetition

Who doesn't love repetition?
A few years ago, I had an awakening to the fact that I no longer enjoyed music. I don't spend much time in cars anymore, which is where I listened to most music as a kid, and when I'm home and doing chores, I listen exclusively to talk radio. 

When I first started in my career in writing and publishing, I spent a lot of time working on page layouts and entering copy editing corrections that other people marked. Those two skills take a lot of visual concentration, but for me at least, it didn't require my whole brain. I often would say that I liked taking a break from writing and editing to do page layouts and enter corrections because I could turn off the side of my brain that did the hard work. Once your eyes know what to do, your fingers automate a lot of the job at hand on the keyboard. When you're really good at laying out pages, you can have entire conversations while doing it. 

And that's when I used to listen to music.

I loved Nick Harcourt on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic. He finds undiscovered artists and gives them airplay, mixed with forgotten or little-known avant garde music from the 1960s or 1980s. He'd play the occasional bluegrass song or an old folk tune from another country. 

I tuned in with a ravenous appetite for whatever was new to my ears. Sometimes I chased artists I heard, bought their albums or listened to more songs I could find online. As long as I could listen with that big piece of my brain free from difficult work tasks, I was an active listener, deconstructing what I heard, thinking about whether I liked it and why on the spot.

The Day the Music Died
Then, gradually, I moved toward more spoken podcasts and talk radio. My job progressed and I started writing more original content, researching articles I was writing, and working more closely with authors as their editor. There were still some tasks that I could do while listening to spoken words, but I couldn't do it to music--at least not new music. I started to find music distracting whenever I had to drive (which I was doing less, and then not as experienced and automated with it as I had been in the past), and eventually, it bothered me as a passenger, too.

People asked what kind of music I liked or what new bands' work I had explored recently (because I used to be a font of this kind of information), and I'd admit, "You know, I don't really listen to music anymore." Some people didn't understand. They thought I was trying to be intentionally weird. And I'd say, "No really. I don't know what happened, but it's physically difficult for me to listen to music and I don't really enjoy it anymore."

The Road Trip
In 2008, some friends of mine and I drove to Boston for a short road trip. It's a four-hour drive from New York. One of my friends in the car is from a family that listened to music pretty much non-stop. Her father was a lawyer in the music industry, and her siblings were much older than she, which all made for incredible exposure to different kinds of music.

But mostly, she knew pop songs. You know how there are pop songs from 25 years ago that you think you know every word of, and then when you hear it and try to sing along, there are a few verses that you don't know at all, or some phrase in the chorus that you aren't totally sure you know what's being said? She knew all those words. She could stop singing, back up in the lyrics, and recite them one word at a time. And she was always dead right. 

I don't have nearly that same memory recall, but I do know my fair share of Top 40 from the 1970s and 1980s in particular. 

So on this Boston road trip, we dialed into any radio station we could find playing 70s, 80s, and 90s songs. I almost always knew the song within the first few notes and could sing along to almost all of them. And it wasn't distracting.

I didn't think much about that experience until a couple of months ago when some construction was going on at the building where I work. A couple of interior contractors were putting up new walls and changing the floor plan of the space directly adjacent to where I sit. They worked the same hours I did, and they brought a radio with them.

And they set it to a station playing 70s, 80s, and 90s pop.

In my job now, I write or research information for stories more than 75 percent of the day. It takes almost all my mental focus. The other 25 percent of the time, I'm logging and tracking data and resizing images, which, similar to page layout, are tasks I can do while listening to podcasts or having another conversation. When I write, though, I have to have silence.

Or so I thought.

Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
There was simply no escaping the radio, but it played songs I knew by heart. And I liked it. I liked hearing "Gloria" twice a day every day for two weeks. I liked hearing Michael Jackson songs that I hadn't heard in years and could still lip-sync.

Lately, I've been giving music a chance again, but with the new-found knowledge that at this point in my life and with my lifestyle, I need stuff I already know. No more new music. It takes too much concentration and isn't enjoyable. 

I've been writing a lot about some childhood stuff, and it reminded me that my brother, sister, and father listened to Paul Simon's Graceland over and over and over again after it came out in 1986. My mom had divorced my father, and he took a new job in Rhode Island. He'd drive to Long Island to take us up to his place for a weekend, and we'd listen to Graceland the whole time, over and over again.

If you didn't know, kids love repetition. Except for my brother, we were all old enough to have outgrown the real love of repetition, that phase when kids repeat the same three or four words over and over and over, ad infinitum. We weren't that bad. But I think really everyone likes repetition of some kind. I think it's human nature. And I think it's also partly why we like music. Popular music is structured. It repeats sounds and rhythms and notes and words. 

A copy of Graceland now lives on my smartphone and my home computer. It's never far from reach.  I even have a copy on disc for the eight-hour drive I will be doing right after Christmas. 

If you don't know Graceland, have a listen to "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes." And pay attention to how many pieces in that song repeat.