11 FEBRUARY 2022

Now & Forever

Choosing what to listen to, memory fragments and marginal cost of replication

Just like the adage ‘you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with’, music is another form that can be quite insightful into who we are. What we listen to, what we choose to allow to be said to ourselves, turns out to be a strong psychological determinant in how we think.

Here is what I mean.

An explicit example of this is in the act of listening to particular genres of music to fit a particular mood or intent. I find myself listening to more upbeat music when feeling down, classical music when in need of some inspiration and jazz for winding down at the end of the day — most of us know that this just works, even if the why is not so obvious. One of the things about music that is really interesting to me are the choices of words within lyrics as they, more often than not, slip easily through the ear canals unnoticed when masked with an engaging rhythm or a catchy beat.

Through my own personal journey, I have come to empirically learn about how powerful words can be — the specific language we use with ourselves, with those around us and what others around us choose to use.

Recently, I got to learn more about someone who put these empirical experiences into words. His name is Trevor Moawad, an elite sports psychologist, who spoke to Tom Bilyeu on his Impact Theory podcast. Through his work, he found that he needed to build a system that would help great athletes become even better and he noticed that the biggest pains they were facing across the board was negativity and negative thinking.

One known strategy against this is to develop ‘positive thinking’, through tactics like affirmations and visualisations, but he makes the point that this is a high bar to reach and advanced skills to develop.

He then explored the other end of the spectrum and found that verbally expressing negative thoughts out loud was ten times worse than thinking it, which was a finding reinforced by Christine Porath’s work, that negative thinking was four to seven times more powerful than positivity.

… Chances are that managers and organisations are missing a potentially devastating expense: de-energizers. Over the past decade we’ve studied the effects of negative or de-energising ties, defined as enduring, recurring set of negative judgments, feelings and behavioural intentions towards another person. While de-energising ties may represent a relatively small proportion of ties, they have a disproportionately potent effect on individuals, other employees and teams within organisations de-energising relationships can result in blocked opportunities, decreased motivation and even organisational isolation.

— Christine Porath, Andrew Parker and Alexandra Gerbasi in
‘The Effects of De-energising Ties in Organisations and How to Manage Them

He went on to share the tactical advice of simply choosing not to say ‘stupid things out loud’ — even though it is very normal never to have a shortage of negative thoughts floating around in the mind.

My key takeaway from all of the above is this: to mentally hold onto the worrying, stress or anxiety is bad enough, let alone verbalising it and conjuring it into reality, which only serves to reinforce these elements that are not nourishing to me or anyone else who might be listening.

Memory fragments

Another element of music that is interesting is its capacity to store specific memories and then enable recall at any point later down the track.

One particular instance that has happened for me is with the album ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’ by Drake. The fragments it evokes are from 2015 when I was backpacking through Europe with my brother.

As I sit here writing this out, the album is softly playing in the background and even today, the same memories come flooding back in — as if there’s a ‘save’ file somewhere that gets accessed and replayed.

There are very specific fragments (I use fragments purposefully because the visuals are not very coherent and almost look like individualised snapshots of time) of the both of us travelling in an underground subway, withholding the excitement of waiting for the album to drop followed by the many hopeful attempts to stream the very first song while the train was moving through the tunnels.

In hindsight, I do not think the particular location or activities really matter, acting just as fillers for context. Instead, it is the music, the album, that stands at the core, the before and after details are just the peripherals leading to and from it.

Through these highly subjective experiences, the music becomes almost like a personal possession of sorts. The objective quality of the music does not really seem to matter, whether it has been determined to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by public consensus in the many years that have passed since the original release date — these do not tarnish the subjective value of the moments that continue to persist over time as memory fragments.

Marginal cost of replication

Illustration by Andrew Yu

From the perspective of the artist creating the music in the first place, it is highly improbable for him to predict that his work could have led to such a deep and lasting impression on another person.

What is interesting to consider is the scale at which the catalysing effect of music can reach. The artist creates once and distributes across infinite time and space at zero marginal cost of replication. The album catalysed a memory fragment at the time of its 2015 original release date, but the exact same music has remained ever ready for playback up to today and into the future. The album catalysed a memory fragment for me at that particular underground subway station, but someone else in a completely different geographical location could have had a similar experience.

Leveraged distribution across both time and space.

Nothing existed before the album, unfathomable pathways of consequence exists after its creation. It is probably not right to credit the artist fully for all that happens after the release of his work, after all the creation and persistence of particular memories are extremely subjective, but it is not marginal either.

I will leave you with the following questions:

What are you listening to?
Who are you listening to?
Are you aware?

If not, start paying closer attention.
Look beneath the façade, the rhythms and the beats.
Who are you becoming?

Did you know that in almost every language in the world, people fall in love? Nobody rises up into it.

- Luke Burgis in ‘Wanting’