The pragmatism of music

In order to achieve efficiency, I try to question and optimize everything I can. And music is not an exception. The problem is that everyone is constantly using it, so it’s difficult to think objectively about the topic. I have attempted everything. I have tested the effect of several genres, sometimes only one, sometimes a mix of them. Even for long periods of time, I didn’t listen anything at all. After studying behaviourism and my last experiencies, I expose in this article what I think the best use of music is.

The effects of music

When you listen to music, your organism responds. The kind of reaction will be determined by your background, or being more concrete, by your contingencies. That’s why classical music is stimulating for some people and boring for others. Your past experiencies will determine your orientations, usually called “your likes”. At the same time, new experiencies can produce different orientations.

However, can we talk about objective effects of music, independently from the environment? This is a difficult question, because there will always be external factors that could influence the process. In my bookshelf there’s a book titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, by Oliver Sacks. I have not read it yet, but I know that it has examples of the satisfactory use of music to help some patients with their recovering. As we can see, it’s complicated.

I don’t know if music has an objective meaning; probably not. Mathematics and music, like everything else, are connected, and classical music has a lot to say about it. Nevertheless, the particular sounds of a piece of music can be turned into symbols, symbols that represent something. Under specific reinforcement contingencies, we can produce a large variety of positive, negative or even neutral behaviours associated with those symbols. In some cases, music can be considered noise, meaning no reinforcement at all, but I will not cover that case.

Now, let’s assume that music is a reinforcement factor in a given context. If we don’t pay enough attention, our behaviour will be oriented in a particular way, or even worse, we can develop a necessity of music for doing specific tasks. Elite athletes don’t listen to music while they’re training, because they need the input of the sounds produced by their bodies; for example, if you don’t hear your breathe, you can’t correct it.

I don’t care about feelings or emotions on this topic. What I’m stressing is the suitability of music to see if we are using the music for our purposes or music is disturbing our performance. For example, I tried to program while listening power metal (Helloween, Rhapsody), and while the productivity is good, after two or three days I feel exhausted. Soundtracks have a similar effect. Only classical seems to be acceptable in the long term, but I discovered that the best thing is to program without music, in the night, listening exclusively to the sound of the keys being pressed. Unless you are a musician or you want to be deleited by music itself, the best option is to go without it.

Use and misuse of music

In general terms, I’m convinced that music must be taken as separately as we take a movie. You can enjoy it, sure, but not when you are doing something else. Multi-tasking is not good for our health and performance. There are many situations where our activity is so automatic that music is a good option: while walking, while travelling, while cleaning, while eating… As long as you don’t abuse, of course. Just occasionally. Having said that, I want to cover three cases: music as a mitigation of pain and noise, music as a dependency and music as entertainment.

Sometimes, there’s noise that makes concentration difficult. Music can be superposed to it, so you don’t perform as you would like, but at least better than with the noise. The same happens with physical or psychological pain. One of the reasons to run with music is because of the pain; it’s a good option for casual runners, but not if you want to run seriously. Music can increase the intensity of an emotion, so it’s good to be prudent when listening sad music, for example. In summary, music can be used as a temporary solution against negative factors of ourselves and our environment.

On the other hand, we can be conditioned to have the necessity of listening to music to perform some tasks. This is problematic, because we not only submit to the effects of it, but perform bad in our activity, not allowing us to improve faster. In this case, music acts as some kind of “doping”. You can think it’s worth it, but in the long run, the best way is to work without it. Chess players don’t listen to music while playing for a reason.

The last case is the most common, and the one I hate the most too… Music as entertainment. In the current world, there’s a lot to learn and a lot to do. But we condition young people to waste their time, stalling the development of their brains, with not just music, but very simple and in some cases offensive music. Let’s be honest about this. Most people don’t enjoy music as the public of a live orchestra. They use music to kill their time because of their anxious boredom.

The final conclusion of all this can be summarized in using music as a tool to help ourselves under negative situations. If you want to learn something, or improve your skills, don’t use music. If you want to do something very easy and automatic to you, you can use music to enjoy the moment. If you want to enjoy music itself, go after high quality works and focus on it. And please, don’t waste your time on entertainment, whether it’s music or not; the present world has a lot to offer, so use your time wisely!

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Director of Mekadimo.