Pop music ruins your brain, but so does contemporary classical pap

“What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music?” —Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

As you may have guessed from the aforementioned quote and the title of this post, I agree partially with this post on Jane Friedman’s blog by Porter Anderson: pop music will ruin your brain, and you should remove it from your writing studio posthaste. However, I think the concept of switching out your tired top-40 pop for contemporary classical music is, in a word, ridiculous.

Contemporary classical music is no more “brainy” than pop. Sure, it’s a boon to writers in that it is often lyric-free, but if that’s all you’re looking for in a radio station, you may as well tune your computer to the Adult Contemporary station and listen to Muzak interpretations of “Close to You” all day long. After all, who could ever get tired of that song?

Anderson’s argument is that contemporary classical music is somehow more inspiring to your writing because it’s more complicated, causing your brain to wander different mental paths, instead of the same ruts that’ve been worn into your grey matter by listening to Lady Gaga on repeat. While I certainly believe that traditional classical music is far more conducive to writing than “Paparazzi” is, and I happen to be listening to a great classical station from Italy called Venice Classic Radio as I write this, I don’t for a second try to tell myself it’s because classical music is “more complicated,” which seems to imply that I, as a listener, am instantly made smarter (and a better writer!) simply by listening to this song rather than that one.

Preposterous.

I listen to classical music because it has no lyrics to distract me from my writing. I prefer Venice Classic Radio because they provide a wide assortment of composers from a variety of time periods and sub-genres within the classical domain, which usually means I’ve never heard the piece before and therefore have no presumptions about its mood, theme or meaning. (Unlike, say, listening to the classical pieces used in Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies cartoons.) But I also listen to a lot of other types of lyric-free music, which are equally inspiring for me, because I happen to also enjoy techno and electronica, jazz, blues, and so forth.

There’s no great mystery here: writers should avoid listening to music with lyrics if they want to avoid writing about the same things the musician is singing about. And if they’re trying to steal ideas from somewhere, they should at least learn to steal from less well-known vocals that will be instantly Googled and reported as plagiarism.

In short, I think Anderson’s suggestion that contemporary classical music (and, in particular, the pap he recommends in the post) is absurd. I could name you half a dozen contemporary classical artists right now that are far more impressive, avant-garde and “intelligent” right now, but since I’m not trying to impress you with my mp3 collection, I’ll just drop one gem into your pipe for you to smoke: Hauschka.

Remember, kids: you’re no musical genius simply for listening to Mozart, so get over yourself and your musical pretensions and just listen to something that inspires you, in whatever genre that may be. (Unless you’re as accomplished a musician, composer, music journalist and conductor as Hans von Bülow, in which case you’re totally allowed to go around telling musicians that their tone sounds like “roast-beef gravy running through a sewer.”)

3 Responses
  1. Ardal Powell says:

    On the “preposterous” notion that “I, as a listener, am instantly made smarter” by one sort of music rather than another, see Silvia Bencivelli’s Why We Like Music, just published, at http://whywelikemusic.info/ .

  2. Thanks for the link, Ardal, but I’m not sure which part of her book you’re referring to, as most of her research (at least from the info made available on her website) seems to indicate that MUSICIANS are made smarter by listening to music, not “ordinary” people. It also seems to rely fairly heavily on research that uses classical music, which then doesn’t accurately represent the idea that classical music ITSELF makes you smarter (vs, say, pop music, since it hasn’t been studied). Assuming you’ve actually read the book, could you clarify your position at all?

  3. […] pop music “ruin” your brain? That seems a little extreme, but the days that I listen to music (pop or otherwise) for long […]