September 25, 2003
More on Solitaire and music listening – and another Micklethwait's law

Natalie Solent doesn't have a commenting system, so I will (rather ungratefully) correct her here. She very kindly refers in passing to a piece I did about "half listening" (her phrase) to music. She goes on to talk about how I and Steven Den Beste (Natalie offers no link to a particular posting by him) "try to tease out why exactly people can half-listen to some music but not other music". This may have been what Den Beste was writing about, but I was writing about what activities can be combined with listening to any music, not "half" but almost completely, and what can't. Solitaire can be combined with listening to music perfectly, was my central point.

In my earlier post I did an afterthought update, but I still didn't get it right. I said that Solitaire has the psychological effect of causing you to listen to the music, and that it creates a kind of psychological barrier to any distractions. The Solitaire blocks out Third Party notions that might take your mind off the music. I now realise from alert introspection that this is wrong. It is perfectly possible (a) to be doing Solitaire, (b) to have music on but not to be listening to it, at all, because (c) one is thinking about something else. What Solitaire does is physically, in the external world, reduce the chances of such distraction from the music. You can't play Solitaire and simultaneously get wrapped up in a book, because your hands cannot physically pick up the book and open it if they are occupied with Solitaire. Your eyes can't look away from the screen. So you don't read, because you can't. The internal workings of the brain have nothing to do with it. But it is perfectly possible to just think of something else, and go awandering mentally. After a spell of doing exactly this I realised that the Solitaire thing had to be clarified yet again.

So: to sum up. Solitaire combines extraordinarily well with listening to music. You go into an automatic Solitaire trance, just like an automatic driving a car on a dull motorway trance, which enables another part of your brain, the more conscious part, to give full conscious attention to something like music, which is not competing with the same bits of your nervous system. But Solitaire doesn't guarantee concentration. It merely alters the odds in its favour.

As for the type of music my whole point was that while Solitairing I was able to listen carefully to a rather trivial Beethoven piano sonata, but while doing a blog posting, I completely ignored the Hammerklavier Sonata. That's not the music making the difference. It's what else I was doing.

Nevertheless, I am genuinely grateful and flattered by Natalie's reference to this stuff about Solitaire. It obviously, pun intended, struck a chord. It was a good piece. Too bad it has been so chaotically presented, in what amounts now to three separate postings.

There's another Micklethwait's law: the better the idea, the more chaotic will be the manner in which you present it. This sounds like merely a particular application of Murphy's law. But Murphy's (otherwise known as Sod's) laws are about how purely random events will go against you. This inverse ratio between quality of concept and clarity of expression has a cause, namely that when you get hold of an interesting and new idea (a) you haven't lived with it long enough to get it throughly organised in your head, and (b) if you know it's an interesting idea you are liable to get excited, and that deranges your presentation even more. My Solitaire stuff was not afflicted by (b) because frankly I didn't think anyone would give it a second thought. But it was affected by (a). I hadn't ever said it before, so my first attempt to say it was a muddle. And perhaps I should add (c) I was still thinking it through, even after I had started to express the idea.

End of posting sign-off joke: the second half of the above paragraph was also afflicted by the very law which it attempts to describe. Hah!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:19 PM
Category: Classical musicThis and that