How To Make Music A Useful Part Of Your Life Again

Beat The Obsession, Take Back Control & Use Music To Focus

Niklas Göke
Nov 3, 2017 · 15 min read
If you’re listening to music right now, please, press pause.The following is a musical without sound in three acts.Act I:   The Fight That Turned Into A War
Act II: Compulsive Listening On The Rise
Act III: Give Up Power, Take Back Control

On 17th of September 2016, I canceled my Spotify Premium subscription.
I wasn’t unhappy or couldn’t afford it any longer. I had been a raving customer for over three years. I wasn’t even sure why I did it at the time, but now I know:

I needed to stop using Spotify to save myself.


In August 1994, a CD of Sting’s album Ten Summoner’s Tales became the first ever purchase made on the internet, for $12.48 plus shipping. I can’t decide which part of that sentence is the hardest to believe today: that we had to ship music once, that it cost extra, or that anyone would pay $12.48 for a single album.

And yet, those things felt normal not that long ago. I’m only 26, but I still remember doing all of them. I would save some cash, go to a website and order CDs from my favorite bands. I had a clunky Discman, a space hogging CD rack, a big pair of headphones and a drawer full of hazardous double A batteries.

Remember how we struggled to get music into our lives? How we always longed for more? More selection, more access, more control.

Today, I want to show you not only how we got what we wanted, but why we never should have wanted it in the first place. Our greed has caused us to lose the thing we most desperately wanted: complete control over how, when & why we listen to music. We must get it back.

For most of us, music has transformed from a beautiful companion into an attention thief that’s always with us. If you’re not consciously selecting what you listen to, for what reason, and on which occasion, music only saps your concentration. Worse, even when we know it’s distracting us, we cannot take off our headphones. Music is a drug, literally.

The question we’re faced with is:

How do we stop music from overtaking our lives while still making room for it in a meaningful way?

All attempts at thorough answers have their roots in history and so does this one.

Act I: The Fight That Turned Into A War

In his book This Is Your Brain On Music, Daniel J. Levitin makes an argument that’s growing in popularity among the scientific community: music came before speech.

He rests his case on the work of Charles Darwin, who suggested since singing and dancing require you to be physically and mentally healthy, both could have acted as an early sign of sexual health. What’s more, if you had time for either, your food and shelter were likely taken care of, which made you a safe bet in terms of survival.

While prehistoric moms probably sang their babies to sleep and a 35,000 year old flute was found in Germany, much credit for music as an existential part of human culture goes to ancient Greece. There, theater rose as a form of entertainment with music and storytelling beginning to mix. Orpheus tamed Cerberus with his lyra around the first year of the Gregorian calendar, and exactly 2000 years later, so did a certain young wizard.

Technically, he was already asleep when they got there.

Even if we now slingshot all the way through biblical and medieval music, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical, I can’t help but notice: Long before we were angry at how expensive it was to own music, there was no owning music.

If you weren’t there to listen, you missed it. The earliest recordings stem from the 1850s and commercial radio only started in the 1920s, taking yet another 30 years to reach all countries. Thus, it wasn’t too long ago when someone heard the radio host play the same song twice and asked: “Why can’t I?”

That day, the fight for control over music began. Owning music had been beyond our grasp for thousands of years, but not much longer.

“Ah, music, a magic beyond all we do here!” — Albus Dumbledore

We Were All Soldiers

Vinyl LPs only took off in the 60s, which means in the short span of 50 years we blasted through at least seven major formats of storing and — finally — owning music. I was born in 1991 and I have used all of them. Like most people, I also stole music using all of them.

It started with the “Sharp 3-CD Rotary Disc Mini Component System” I got when I was 11. I would buy empty cassettes, record songs off the radio and get mad if the host ruined the intro or ending.

Technically, that wasn’t legal, but come on. Didn’t we all fight? Against how expensive it was to have a decent selection of music? For our right to music. For freedom! Or so we told ourselves.

Maybe you recorded songs on tape too. Or exchanged burned CDs. Or got a friend to put music on your mp3-player. Maybe the names Kazaa, BearShare, LimeWire and Napster sound familiar to you. Whatever you did, I’m pretty sure you did something. Something to rebel against the gatekeepers of music.

The power of fire in the palm of your hand.

Without realizing it, we were all soldiers on a mission. Until in 2001, general Steve Jobs stepped on that stage and gave us “a thousand songs in our pocket.” For the first time ever, music was available in an easy-to-use, lasting, portable, 24/7 access format at scale.

Finally! Music got the front-row seat in our lives we always wanted it to have, and we paid for its ticket. Lurking in its shadow, embedded in the very device that was supposed to save us, the virus sat. Waiting to infect us.

With a single stroke of genius, Steve Jobs ended the fight, but started a war.

“It will go down in history as a turning point for the music industry.” — Steve Jobs, talking about the iPod


Act II: Compulsive Listening On The Rise

Jobs was right, but he put the words in the wrong order. It was a turning point for the music industry, except it was also the thing going down. And it took us right with it.

When I got an iPod Mini for Christmas in 2004, I did exactly what Jobs suggested: I put my entire music library in my pocket. Immediately, the virus awoke. The name of the virus is compulsive listening.

You may be familiar with the term compulsive consumption, which describes spending behavior similar to that of a gambling addict, binge eater or alcoholic. On a global scale, we call it consumerism.

“The pursuit of the ‘good life’ through practices of what is known as consumerism has become one of the dominant global social forces, cutting across differences of religion, class, gender, ethnicity and nationality.” — Paul James in Globalization and Culture

Compulsive listening is consumerism with our ears.

It’s a trend that’s just as universal and it tears music out of the once meaningful place it had in our lives. Right now, I see eight people around me. Six listening to music. People on the train, people in the street, people in their cars. All listening to music, all the time.

We don’t listen to feel, we listen to function. It’s not “music on, world off” it’s “music off, life off.” We need stimulus. Background noise. Distraction. Something to nurse us through the misery of our day.

There are three reasons the virus has made it this far.

Closer

It took the radio 38 years to reach 50 million users. The iPod needed four.

Faster, faster!

We’re adopting new technologies faster and faster, because the internet helps them spread and a lot of them start out free. But neither is a compelling argument why we should. We adopt because we can, not because it makes sense.

It wasn’t practical to take my Discman everywhere and believe me, I tried. The iPod changed that. And when I brought that with me almost everywhere, the iPhone then made sure I literally had music locked and loaded 24/7.

With each new device, music came closer, eventually never leaving our side.

Cheaper

Music used to be expensive. It was expensive to make, expensive to sell, expensive to buy, store, transport and listen to. None of those things are expensive any longer. At least they don’t have to be.

With the advent of the iTunes Music Store in 2003, one by one, these barriers have fallen and enabled compulsive listening to thrive. Industry revenues peaked shortly before and fell 40% after, reaching their all-time low in 2014.

Music industry revenue in the US, 1990–2016.

The recent uptick in streaming revenue, a ray of light for musicians, is the last nail in our coffin. Streaming music not just made it available seamlessly across all of our devices, it also gave us the best price: free.

I signed up for Spotify in 2012. Since then, I not only kept music apps as close as my wallet, but opening them didn’t hurt one bit. Of course, like any good addict, I did the former anyway, just 9 months later.

But if you’re willing to listen to the occasional ad, you can get a high-quality fix of your favorite drug, free of charge. Always.

Longer

Music consumption is at an all-time high and it keeps us high, all the time. With more than 32 hours of pure listening time each week, that’s just four hours shy of how much we work.

From The Nielsen Report.

In fact, much of our time is spent doing both. When Chris Coyier polled his readers, half of over 20,000 people said they always listen to music at work. Throw in ‘sometimes’ and the number goes to 92%.

Once again, technology is what enables us to do this in the first place. With an average battery life of around 8 hours and growing, music isn’t just free and always around, you can also press play and never pause. Of course 75% of us also charge at least once a day.

And while music isn’t exactly multi-tasking, whether it helps you focus depends heavily on what you’re listening to. That’s because music, as The School of Life remarked:

“Music is there to take us beyond the everyday, to transcend the ordinary and survey ourselves from a lofty height. Music reconnects us with our instinctual bodily selves when reason, logic and discipline are in danger of crushing us.”

However, most of the time, staying in the realm of reason is exactly our job. Persisting through the uncomfortable pressure is what’s required of us, but we can’t do it when we’re constantly floating on cloud nine.

Intermission

Technology may have activated the compulsive listening virus, but there’s one more thing without which it never could have hacked our immune systems: us. The real reason for the fall of music lies in human nature.

All the talk about music being a drug? It’s true.

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” — Bob Marley

The Truth: Our Brains Never Stood A Chance

We’ve all been to a wedding. Or funeral. Or big sporting event. If you’ve ever teared up to a classic tune or gotten goosebumps when the anthem resounds, you’ve witnessed the ballistic brain power of music. Going back to This Is Your Brain On Music, Levitin explains:

“Listening to music starts with subcortical (below-the-cortex) structures — the cochlear nuclei, the brain stem, the cerebellum — and then moves up to auditory cortices on both sides of the brain.”

The oldest part of your brain is the part that reacts first. It’s in charge of your emotions and reflexes. From there, music cascades to every region of the brain we know exists. And it goes right for your dopamine switch.

“Music uses the same reward pathways as food, drug and sexual pleasure,” Levitin finds in a study. Valorie Salimpoor, who studied music’s impact on the brain at McGill University, confirms:

“Peaks of ANS activity that reflect the experience of the most intense emotional moments are associated with dopamine release in the NAcc. This region has been implicated in the euphoric component of psychostimulants such as cocaine.”

Interestingly, this reaction is already triggered when we merely anticipate our favorite songs, not just while we listen. So whether we’re compulsively listening to music or thinking about music, Apple got what it wanted:

We never stop playing.

The official slogan of Apple Music.

Over the past two decades, we have seen a slow rise in our power over music, that coincides with a hard fall of those, who make it for us. The price we paid for that power is control. And as in politics, power without control is the enemy of freedom.

Music isn’t quite as bad as cocaine, of course. Since it’s dopamine created by our own body, not an external substance, Salimpoor says it’s “not necessarily a bad addiction that’s going to destroy your life.”

But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?

Standing At The Edge

On that sunny September day last year, as I unsuspectingly walked into the kitchen, I saw my roommate. Just sitting there, eating. No music. No video. No TV show and no talking.

I just stood there, watching him. In that moment it finally hit me:

“I am way too dependent on music.”

Looking back, I can see many indicators. Like the times I cooked with headphones on. Or almost got hit in traffic. The times when I wished for music during exams or listened while talking to other people.

I love music from the bottom of my heart. Most of us do. But I learned something that day: Even the brightest love can turn into a festering virus if you obsess about it too much.

It had to stop. I — had to stop. Or I would regret it forever.

“None but ourselves can free our minds.” — Bob Marley


Act III: Give Up Power, Take Back Control

Maybe you’re standing at a cliff too. Maybe you’re not quite as close to the edge as I was. The lesson I brought back from it will serve you nonetheless:

Give up power and you can take back control.

The day I saw my roommate being nothing but present, I decided to take a walk without music. Wow. I was floored. I felt so…there. Present. Connected, not numb. I listened, just to listen. And whatever music the world was playing, it was beautiful. Even without headphones and without sound.

I’ve taken a lot of walks since.

Music is a wonderful gift. It’s our gateway into the universe. But if that gateway is ever-present and always open, its tempting allure will destroy us. The ironic, cruel twist is that we never lost control. It’s rested with us all the way, from when we paid Sting to send us a single CD to the all-access pass that is Spotify. We can close the gateway whenever we want. As long as we don’t close it entirely, if we leave it open just a crack, we can always go back.

When I returned from my walk, I canceled my Spotify Premium subscription. I beat the virus. I stopped paying to distract myself. What I imagined as a worst-case scenario turned out to be a condition I didn’t have to fear.

The music industry once throve because it forced us to decide on a small selection. That selection was never our enemy. It was our friend. Music was useful because it was part of our down time. We sat in our chairs, on our beds and on the grass — and we’d just listen.

Today the music industry wants us to be addicted to music, listening 24/7. The big players depend on our infection with the compulsive listening virus. The only way to get it out of our system is to give up some of our power.

You don’t need to cancel your access to your streaming service to do that. But it’d be a strong statement if you cut the headphone cord on purpose. Whether you choose to make such a statement or not, I’d like to present you with the alternatives I’ve been using ever since.

These tools will give you back control over consuming music by limiting your selection. They’ve made me feel more calm, present and continue to help me focus. The first leads to mindfulness, calm, joy and happiness. The second and third help you use music to be more productive.

1. Conscious Listening

If compulsive listening is the virus, then conscious listening is the antidote. It’s not so much about listening to less music, but about changing the way you listen. Deliberately choose songs. Select the right tracks for the right occasion.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Carve out time solely dedicated to music. Pick an album, lie on your bed and just listen. Take it all in.
  • Go to the occasional concert. Show up for your artist. I never went to a Linkin Park concert and now, one of my heroes is dead. It’s one of the top 3 regrets of my life.
  • Listen to the sound the world makes. Sit in a café or take a walk in the park. Hear the birds. Collect noises. Explore the city with your ears.
  • Tune in to your mood and pick a song that fits. Listen to it from beginning to end. Pay attention to the lyrics. What does the singer tell you?
  • Find new sounds in your favorite songs. What background noises are there? What instruments do they use you haven’t noticed? You can find new magic in 20 year old songs. You just have to look for it.

2. ListenOnRepeat

Two ways music can enhance productivity are for repetitive tasks and when its relaxing, low-complexity, background music. In essence, you want the same pattern of sound, so the brain can get used to it. ListenOnRepeat is a great way to do this.

Browser extension here.

This tool loops any song you find on Youtube or through their interface. There are three ways to trigger it:

1. Add ‘repeat’ after the word ‘youtube’ in any Youtube URL and hit Enter.

2. Go to listenonrepeat.com and search for a song directly.

3. Install the Chrome browser extension, then click the little loop button in your extension bar on any Youtube video.

According to science, good songs are slow to medium pace instrumentals at 60–80 beats per minute, such as classical music, certain electronic music and movie or video game soundtracks. Bad songs are those with lots of rhythm changes and complex, fast lyrics. A hard rock rap crossover isn’t ideal, for example.

Combine this with a Pomodoro timer and you get solid blocks of focused work. You can even listen to music during breaks in order to induce mind-wandering and be more creative, Donald M. Rattner, AIA suggests.

Note: An alternative is SoundCloud, which comes with a 'repeat' button in its control bar on the bottom of the screen. However, while it's great for looping songs from independent artists, it just keeps playing random tracks if you don't set it to loop. That’s great for discovering new music, but it’s also massively distracting if not done on purpose.

3. Noisli

Some people say they need their TV to be on to be able to fall asleep or that they find the sound of their ceiling fan soothing. What they’re referring to is called white noise in science. While there is little evidence of its general benefit to thinking and memory, Rattner says it may help in the ideation phase of solving a problem:

“At 70db, it’s just loud enough to keep us from concentrating so intensely on the problem that we slip into a predominantly convergent mindset, but the sound isn’t so overwhelming as to completely distract us from our task.”

Basically, silence or monotonous sound keeps your thinking in a tunnel, while moderate levels of noise put it on the highway. You see all the lanes you could drive on, but you can’t pull a 180 either. 70db is the equivalent of a coffee shop or noisy restaurant.

A reference table Rattner made.

The perfect tool to create this noise level exactly the way you want it is Noisli.

Simply open the website, click on all the elements you want to add to your mix and adjust the volume for each one. Some options are rain, a thunder storm, wind, leaves blowing, flowing water, a crackling fire and a fan. You can also use their presets and save your own if you set up an account.

In addition, if you install the Chrome Browser extension, you can access the mixes you saved anywhere. It even comes with a built-in Pomodoro timer.


The Curtain Falls

Friedrich Nietzsche said “without music, life would be a mistake.” He is absolutely, undeniably right. But so is the inverse:

Music without life is also a mistake.

Maybe one that’s even worse. We don’t want to find out and we don’t have to. All it takes is that every once in a while, you press pause.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Niklas Göke

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I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. I also publish daily micro-blogs to help you live a balanced life: https://emptyyourcup.substack.com

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.