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Monday, 28 November 2016


"Without music, life would be a mistake" - Friedrich Nietzsche.

You’d think by now it would have ceased to surprise me, but if anything it just baffles me more these days: Why does music work? And, since I agree with Friedrich up there, why the hell does messing about with sound even matter, let alone matter so much to me? It’s as if its very presence in modern life is a constant reminder that the human world is not fundamentally based on rationality, but strange half-understood emotional impulses and ritualised behaviour. I mean it makes no sense does it? Why should the manipulation of tonal vibrations and rhythms be so powerful and beloved, to point its everywhere in society and the people who make it can be so prized and idolised?

That said, I know for many it’s really never much more than wallpaper to hum or dance to. I even struggle to explain it to people in my life, who hear me noodling around, once again, with this or that instrument or piece of machinery for no apparent end; or listen uncomprehendingly to maybe a minute from one of the dozens of hours of odd and jarringly disparate constructions I have spent so many days crafting... and say “that’s nice dear” or shrug “s’alright I 'spose”. I’ve accepted I have to say it’s a hobby, as if it simply occupies a place in my life like rollerblading or playing Pokemon Go. Of course, it is a hobby, it is, but...

I am nearly 40, long past the teenage tribalism of music-as-fashion-identity, long past any desire to get up on stage and strut my stuff, long past any dream of turning it into a career ­– all of this is virtually irrelevant now. Many of my contemporaries, even those who were seriously into their music, have to some extent left it partially behind by this stage, putting away the proverbial toys in the proverbial attic, while their listening has not gone much beyond what they loved when they were 25.

And yet, now, at the start of middle age, dicking about with noise and finding stuff to listen to is as utterly vital to me as ever, if not in resurgence. So what is this all about, if not an early midlife crisis?


One of the reasons I value music so much now, as opposed to when I was 17, is for its therapeutic quality. That's more important now, with the stresses and strains of "adulting", than it was back then, when I was basically just dreaming of being a rock star. I seriously cannot recommend enough what a wonderful thing it is to be able to play an instrument, what a balm it is in the face of world-closing-in stress and black-fug-of-the-soul gloom.

Of course, on the one hand it is an expressive release to channel your feelings through your fingers and have it feedback into your ears – and songwriting has in the past acted as a very precise way of articulating what I was feeling and why, all wrapped up in a finely honed and quite pretty package, like spewing your thoughts out in a letter and analysing and refining them until you’re satisfied. It is satisfying and very cathartic, and you have a little proud gem of a creation to show for your troubles, to keep (and perhaps later cringe at) for all eternity.

But on another level just playing for just yourself is a kind of mindfulness, to use the parlance of our times. I love the fact that picking up an instrument and playing, for no particular end other than to enjoy it, puts you in a state of concentration that has nothing to do with work or practical worries, the pressures of the world, the current state of your bank balance or relationships, or whatever. For half an hour or so you are only concerned with producing a pleasing or interesting sound, and nothing outside of that matters. It’s the act of being-through-playing – it’s damn Zen, dammit, and I constantly forget just how much it clears my head and makes me feel better, bringing at least some degree of calm and content for a moment, along with the thankful knowledge that there is more to life than my current anxious obsessions – there is this too.

And if anyone is any doubt of how deeply playing an instrument can impact on your mental state, take a look at this shizz; or this.

For these reasons I would encourage anyone thinking of taking up an instrument to do it just for themselves – don’t worry about how good you are or how much you need to practice, just dabble in a meditative way on a regular basis and you will slowly find you can do more and more. Approach it not as work, but as exploring and playing.


Without a doubt one of the central elements to my relationship with music is play – it’s not lost on me that getting a new piece of kit to play about with is about the only thing that gives me the same feeling as an adult as getting Lego when I was kid. Pieces of musical gear are big boys toys, yes, and I’m completely unrepentant about that. Again this works on lots of levels.

At the most basic there is the actual moulding and finessing of raw sound. With something like a synthesiser you can approach it in two ways – as an instrument to play, yes, but also as a straight sound-manipulation machine. I tell you, getting your hands on a proper synthesiser is like being handed a fresh piece of shiny, glittery Play Doh which you can kneed and sculpt to your heart’s content until you’ve got something ace. You can tweak away until a boring off-the-peg noise turns into something huge, or achingly atmospheric, or one type of sound completely changes into another – and then save it out and start all over again. Something similar can be said of messing about with effects pedals or recording techniques. It’s great fun, fascinating and exciting.

Then you can take up the instrument as an instrument and just noodle around in the therapeutic way described above, testing and exploring what accents, chords, rhythms and melodies you can coax from it, and when you hit on something that sounds good, keep doing it – the next thing you know you have pretty passage or wonderful riff that you can develop further... and before you know it you’re on your way to writing something. And all the time, you’re learning, practising, improving.

Finally, you can take these sounds, these passages and put them together like ingredients in a pot and see how they cook, as it were – one of the most satisfying things for me is the moment when, having roughly planned out the structure of a song and tried a few different things together, you actually record a few elements layered over each other and then play it back – and, if it works, suddenly it’s more than the sum of its parts; you’ve created something bigger and with more emotional guts and punch than the simple handful of riffs and noises you started with. It's sheer joy.

At every stage you are exploring and playing, checking what you can do and what works, learning and then doing it all again – it keeps your “inner child” alive and it’s got to be good for the plasticity of the brain.

*A note of caution with this approach, though, is that it probably explains a lot as to why I never attempted a music-related career or became seriously good at any one instrument – I may wish I could play piano properly but I was always much more interested in messing about with studio gear, doing bonkers, non-linear things with instruments and putting together songs, than I ever was with learning to read music and practising scales in any systematic way. I never wanted it to be work.


The older I get the more fascinated and awed I am with the raw stuff of music. For my money it’s the most direct and immediately affecting of the arts, but also one of the most abstract – even though I now know a lot about the tricks, techniques and building blocks of the stuff, there is still so much to learn.

It still seems like utter alchemy how the simple pairing of two or three or four notes, or the contrast of one chord changing to another, or just a tiny shift up or down the scale against a droning root note, can have such an immediate and visceral effect on the emotions. You can evoke the whole range of responses, from sadness to joy to unease to warmth to rage to surprise to surging triumphalism, by a simple shift of the fingers, by changing tensions on groups of strings or the size of resonant chambers – and the effect it has is mind boggling, sheer magic. The same can be said of the sounds themselves, different textures, timbres and resonant frequencies, along with rhythms and tempos.

Why it is so utterly effective at mood manipulation is mysterious, but certainly has something to do with innate responses – such as the (probably) in-born discomfort and alarm at discordant or sudden sounds, related to danger or the crying of an infant, say... or the soothing effect of the mother’s heart beat in the womb, maybe. Certainly the preference for sonic harmony seems to be a universal trait.

Other responses are learnt, particularly the pairing of certain instrument sounds with the time and place they were most used (note everything with a Fender Rhodes electric piano in it immediately sounds like the 1970s) or the pairing of songs with what was happening in your life at the time (an otherwise cheesy ballad can attain deeply affecting grand pathos forevermore if it was on the radio when you split up with a childhood sweetheart or lost a beloved pet, for example).

What’s more, these relatively straightforward responses can then be played with and built upon in ever more complex ways, so you can find yourself enjoying uncomfortable discord if used in the right context, to evoke pleasingly empathetic anguish, righteous anger, or anarchic spirit; or re-imagining a familiar chord progression, melody, or band sound into something new and different, while still riffing on the emotions the original version provoked.

All of this combines to mean certain genres – instrument combinations, styles of playing, song structures, production techniques and other musical tropes and ticks – can be massively evocative of whole worlds. You can be transported to a baroque-period German cathedral, or an English seaside ballroom in the 1930s, or a San Francisco jazz club in the 1950s or a sticky-floored gig in Manchester in 1979, or downtown New York at the same time, or somewhere on a Polynesian island at an indeterminate time in the past, or even THE FUTURE, but how it looked in the 1980s. The sound tells a story, and an immersive one, and that’s a large part of its appeal.

It’s got to be said there is a degree of escapism about this, as there is with a lot of art – but also, as with a lot of art, it reminds you there is so much more to the human world and human history than your own time and place and everyday obsessions. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your bureaucracy.


It is a wonder that music (or art in general) exists at all and continues to hold such an unquenchable fascination and central place in human society, I suppose. On the surface it would seem there is little rational about it, no obvious practical purpose. But then again, through the abstract manipulation of sound we can represent the world in metaphor and powerfully communicate things we struggle to articulate in words alone.

We like to think our actions are motivated by reason and logic but that, to me, has always seemed like a laughable pretence; no, the world and people’s activity is made up of an impenetrably complex web of innate and learnt reactions and gut drives, constantly pinging off each other and feeding back again and again until it’s hard to see what is what. The rational is but a thin veneer on the top, like glib lyrics sung over a minor masterpiece.

Music is perhaps an abstract metaphor for all of this activity, the complexity of the world in microcosm: Endlessly adaptable, infinitely complex in its history and interplay, expressing and provoking the full spectrum of mood, and modes of being. Spanning all human history and culture, it is a mirror of us – and of life itself. I’m not sure what we would be if we took it away.