Sweeping and swinging

I'm heading to my desk to work when I detour by the stereo and put on a CD. Why not a little musical accompaniment to the work day? One of the joys of working at home is being able to listen to music, as loud as you want, while you tickle the ivories of the computer keyboard.

I choose Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, one of the new swing bands, and set it to play. Then it's off to my desk to focus, crank out some words, meet some deadlines.

About the time Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is swinging into "You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three Tonight," I find myself in the far end of the house, gathering dirty laundry, dancing about in my sock feet like an idiot. The computer screen sits blank. The laundry is getting done, sure, but how did this happen? I'm in the wrong room, doing the wrong job.

You could blame this on a genetic lack of concentration, and you might be right, but I fault the music. Wrong tempo for writing. Too lively, with all those stuttering saxophones and jumping horns. I had to get up and move, bounce around. Getting distracted by the music led me away from my desk to the laundry room and, before you know it, all over the house, searching up dirty socks.

John Milton wrote, "Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie." I don't think he was referring to housework, but the shoe fits. Certain rhythms move us. Whether it's a drumbeat stirring something primitive within us or weeping strings welling up within our chests, music affects our brains and nervous systems. This is fine if we're talking tapping your toe to the rhythm, it's something else if you're doing the conga by yourself.

The right music can actually help you focus. Studies show that studying math while listening to certain classical music improves test scores. Teens love to study with the radio blaring, though it's more likely to be Marilyn Manson than Mozart. Look around your standard office, and you'll find lots of people wearing headphones, both to give a rhythm to their day and to seal them off from ringing telephones and yammering workmates. I went to a dentist one time who let me listen to Bruce Springsteen on headphones while pumping me full of laughing gas. This was in San Francisco. Say no more.

Working alone at home, you can give your whole day a soundtrack. The trick is to match the music with the task at hand. You want something with the right tempo for your day, something not too distracting, something familiar so you can sing along when you're idle, but can tune it out when you need to concentrate.

I'm partial to the blues, and find it appropriate to many household tasks. What could be a better accompaniment to sweeping, for instance, than Muddy Waters singing "Dust My Broom?" What could make you want to bustle about the house more than the lively "Juke" by Little Walter?
But the blues are not for everybody, including my wife. She prefers country music, and I've learned to bustle to Alan Jackson or Brooks and Dunn when she's around. "King of the Road" has got some line about brooms in it, and the characters in country songs tend to make you feel good about yourself. No matter what kind of drudgery you're facing, at least your Mama hasn't been hit by a train.

Boogie woogie and rockabilly are great for rhythmic work like chopping or dusting. Slightly more up-tempo than the rate you might want to work, but why not get it over with in a hurry? Just watch your fingers with that knife.

Instrumental music seems to be good for writing. No words to distract you but your own. But CDs work better than the radio. Those classical disc jockeys with their somnolent voices can sink you right into a depression.

Here's when you know the music's just right: when the CD hisses to a stop and you realize you haven't heard it. It was playing the whole time, but your concentration was so intense, the music wasn't registering with your conscious thoughts. That's the flow, that inner stream of creativity and motivation, and it's the sweetest music of all.

No comments: