Image: Clayton Shonkwiler

While discussing what would or would not be permitted in their Kallipolis, the hypothetical philosopher’s state, Plato and Socrates decided that music should for the most part be banished altogether. Today, music can accompany you at every single moment of your life: YouTube is full of classical concerts and playlists for sleeping, running, waking up, falling asleep; and for your baby, dog, cat, and reptile.This week, I wanted to see if we could prove the old Greeks wrong, and show that music has a role to play in study. There’s enough “classical music for studying” playlists online to sink a penteconter, so I picked one at random and got to work. The following is an account of my experience.

Study: that shale track up the mountain of knowledge, an uncharted ridge that metamorphoses into wrong turns, dead ends, sudden drops. Sometimes it’s easier to head back to the cabins of the foothills, with their warm log fires and simple comforts—to climb into bed with a cup of tea and an intravenous cable drip of Judge Judy, close the curtains and pretend nothing else exists or mattered anyway. We’ll try for the summit again in the morning! But no more. Procrastination has had its hold on me for too long. Hell, I even started writing for a classical music magazine to put off researching a master’s thesis. I need guidance. We may thank the heavens then for Mozart in the 21st century, for this three-hour continuum of his music for study and concentration. My Sherpa to the summits of wisdom, there to guide my hand past the follies of Facebook scrolling, the dark corners of encroaching meme-worlds, and endless, almost manic, obsessive-compulsive vacuuming of my flat. Mozart, be my guide!

YouTube video

Is he wearing Beats headphones?

Things start off well. The Concerto for Two Pianos in E-Flat Major, K. 365—steady, but sparse enough to get some real thinking done in between. I pick up a book as incomprehensible as any I might own, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, and get stuck in. Things are ropey at first; attention is a balancing act, and I find mine tipping toward the music, following its dynamic game, the delicate ascensions of its melody…Did somebody just cough? That was definitely a cough. Markedly distinct from my housemate’s chronic variety, the chesty timbre and intensity of which I’ve become all too accustomed, and to which I am now partially immune. No, there’s a cough in this recording, but it’s not all bad. I’m not the type to tut or turn my head at the more afflicted members of a concert audience—I can deal with this. I start reading a paragraph for perhaps the third time—I can deal with this—and the following 15 minutes go fairly well. I stop caring about what Mozart is doing—the child prodigy relegated to the background music of a small apartment on the city’s most-polluted street—my own headspace occupied by questions of how to stage an anthropological study of the space in front of ATM machines, or whatever the hell it is I’m supposed to be reading.

But then I begin to falter: “Is any of this information useful?” I ask myself. “Is this of any use to people using ATM machines, to anybody who isn’t already so deep in the quicksand of goalless academia that they not only don’t see a way out, but fail to see the tragedy of their own predicament?” And I’ve gone off course: No, it’s the Mozart I should be focused on—that’s the real bread and butter of everyday life, that’s relatable, I bet they played his 10th all the time down the mines. I’ll learn more listening to that. My attention is piqued by the switch, and I realize I’ve been looking out of the window for some time, the book face-down on my sofa. But less than relaxing, the music begins to instill a kind of deja-entendu. I hear the cough again—exactly the same, kind of double-barreled and reverberant—but then, some moments later, a sneeze so percussive it is barely distinguishable from the music. But this, too, I’ve already heard. I check YouTube on my laptop, and I’m only 20 minutes into a three-hour video. I skip forward 10 minutes. It starts to dawn on me that this is not a playlist of classical music, nor is it even a single concerto. It’s a single movement on repeat. I quickly do the math—any concern with the book dies at this moment—the andante movement of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos is around nine minutes long, which means I’ve unwittingly set out to listen to it over 20 times without respite, the coughs and sneezes included.

Last year, M. J. Grant wrote about music and torture in VAN—it was a topic I wish I’d thought of first, and one I’d rather not plagiarize. But circumstance forces me to do just that; I had agreed to listen to this video in its entirety, and while this might not be a piece about music as torture per se, it is shaping up to be an empirical account. When does music cross the line into torture? As the gravity of my current situation hits, I realize that the answer to that question will occur to me very soon. Far from an aid to studying, I find myself embroiled in a mental conflict with the music as I try to get back to my book—it pervades the very subjectivity of my being, its repetition screams in my ears, its violence knows no bounds and it holds me in stasis—torn between it and the words on the page as I fight to keep focused on the work at hand.

Starting to question the sanity of this entire undertaking, I decide that the comment section of the video might make a good barometer as to whether or not I was still compos mentis—tap into the hive mind, find solace in the collective procrastinatory pursuit of sharing one’s own inane opinions with the world.

“It’s funny that Mozart has earphones,” reads one of the top comments, and my whole world comes crashing down. I scroll frantically back to the video and stare into the young composer’s eyes, which communicate an unspoken sadness and sense of defeat at his modern-day headphone coronation. What have they done to me? The loop starts again and I begin to panic. As my eyes trace the screen for reassurance, they land on a second comment: “Drink when someone coughs in the background.” Not so much words on a screen as they are an imperative cutting through the endless Piano-Cough-Concerto, a moment of clarity in that E-Flat Major fog. I scurry through it to the kitchen to grab a rocks-glass and a bottle of bourbon. A fight between my flatmate and his girlfriend is erupting outside, but in my compromised state it feels like war has broken out, and I make a dash back to the torture chamber, into which the entirety of my world is compressed. I take refuge in melancholia, attached to and reliving the initial traumatic event of that recorded cough ad infinitum. I hit the bottle.

It’s difficult to put words to what then ensues: the alcohol’s numbing effect courses to my corporeal extremities, and I can no longer turn the pages. Shell-shocked, the unending tracheal assaults within the “Mozart Classical Music for Studying” video sound like distant murmurs. Time has passed. I scroll through the comment section for signs of life from my fellow comrades—nobody seems to be getting much work done. I check my watch and look down at my book. Five pages in two and a half hours. ¶