Whatevering to a different drummer

21 May

“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.” ~ Lao Tzu

In many ways, I function better with a soundtrack.

Almost from the moment I first climbed behind the wheel of a car (okay, after I gained enough competency to fool the state of Wisconsin into giving me a piece of plastic with my name and photo on it), I noticed that I am a better driver when there’s music playing. In silence, I think too hard about what I’m doing. I tense up. I start making stupid little mistakes; nothing life-threatening.

In a moment of mind-numbing boredom at my first ever temp job almost a year ago, I started matching the rhythm of my data entry to the beat of Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter”:

(I love that Christmas display!)

The gal who sat across from me laughed at my typing in time with the music on my headphones, but I found that several things happened. The days went faster when I entertained myself thus; I was more relaxed, so I made fewer mistakes; and I kept up a steadier pace, rather than tiring bursts of frenetic activity. I’ve resumed this behavior at my current temp gig, with no observations of annoyance from my two officemates; but then, all three of us spend most of the day wearing headphones. My absolute favorite tempo-marking song right now is Axis of Awesome’s “Four Chord Song”:

Between commute (I do very little driving these days, but who wants to listen to bus babble?), data entry, dancing around doing chores before the Housemates get home, etc., there won’t be much mystery to my eventual hearing loss: I spend most of my day in headphones.

So why does music make me better at data entry and driving? Well, I have a theory… okay, an hypothesis.

Picture this: you’re driving along when your passenger asks you to explain precisely what you’re doing, step-by-step. Where is your foot? How much pressure is it applying to the pedal? Did you glance in your mirrors? When do you turn the wheel? How far? Better check the mirrors again! Oh dear, the red lights on the back of that car in front just turned on; what does that mean? What do you do? Move your foot to another pedal? How hard do you press that one? Are we going to crash?!

Ahem.

Just before you ejected your passenger from your moving vehicle, you probably noticed that driving had become much more difficult the moment you started really thinking about it. Like you were a spotty 15-year-old again, haltingly coasting through that abandoned parking lot.

When we learn how to do anything (driving, playing an instrument, tying shoelaces) really well and can perform the actions fluidly and automatically, it’s because the unconscious mind has taken over responsibility for the activity. When we start thinking about the precise steps involved, we’re engaging the conscious mind and interrupting the learned automatic pattern. Thus, we start fumbling and feeling uncertain.

My hypothesis is that music causes just enough distraction to keep my conscious mind out of the way. Not completely disengaged, but occupied enough to let the unconscious take care of the “busy work” of the task smoothly and effectively. This idea is strengthened by the fact that there are certain times when I have to switch off music completely or play something without any lyrics. I find it too distracting when I need to fully utilize my thinking brain for editing, writing (even now, as I type), or in particularly heavy traffic.

Plus it’s just fun. Moving in time with the music and even silently lip syncing helps the work day pass so much more pleasantly. There seems to be a consensus in Society that adults must always be serious, even dour; especially at work. And yet psychologists have proven that we need play in our lives for better mental health; even as adults, it boosts mood and creativity… why not visibly enjoy some music? Certainly we shouldn’t disturb others (and if anyone at the office were to speak up, I’d certainly dial back my mild physical expressions of whatever I’m listening to), so I’m not suggesting everyone on the bus burst into individual songs. It’d be cacophonous. But where came this idea that we must sit absolutely still and not even tap our toes?

I’ve been really lucky to work so many places that were okay with the staff wearing headphones and providing their own soundtrack. Maybe if wider Society gave us more permission to bop and groove a bit, others would find their own performance improved as I have.

Music was meant to evoke emotion and movement. Sitting still, to my mind, misses the point.

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