The Silence and the Noise

I found myself listening to Metallica’s …And Justice For All album after I finished a long day of meetings. The noise acts as a kind of palette-cleanser for the brain, blocking out much of everything else until my brain has had a chance to put everything back in order. Ironically, the loud, metal music actually quiets my mind.

Whenever I listen to that album, it brings to mind physics. In my senior year of high school, I took A.P. physics with a fabulous teacher, one of the best I had in high school. Our physics homework was nothing to sneeze at and it sometimes could take a couple of hours to complete. Whenever I tackled that homework, I always had my Walkman headphones on my ears, and Metallica’s …And Justice For All cassette in the player. I always did my physics homework listening to that album and today, I can’t think of the album without seeing a physics textbook in front of me, and a message notebook page filed with pencil scratches. The music, the noise, had a similar effect as it does after a long day of meetings. It cleared my mind and allowed me to focus on the problem at hand with no other distractions.

I did alright in A.P. physics (indeed, I entered college as a physics major), but looking back, I think I might have done even better if I’d been allowed to listen to …And Justice For All during the tests.

Your author, listening to ...And Justice For All </em>really loudly while he writes this.
Your author, listening to …And Justice For All really loudly while he writes this.

At work, when I am trying to solve a particularly difficult coding problem, I often put on a loud album. It has the effect of blocking out everything else and concentrating my focus the problem at hand. It really is a strange, magnifying effect. Often, I never actually hear the music. It acts as the pillow under the sheets so that my mind can wander off and take care of whatever business is at hand and no one’s the wiser. In a way, this is frustrating. I like the music and want to listen to it, but that isn’t the reason I’ve got it on.

When it comes to writing, and especially writing fiction, I need silence. I’ve tried listening to music now and then, but when I am writing and listen to a loud album, it clears my head of everything, including the voices that whisper the story to me. I find this fascinating. The same thing that clears my mind to solve physics problems, blocks creativity when I try to write stories. Very rarely, I’ll find a song that I can write to, that puts me in just the right mood I need to complete a scene. In these cases, I will play the same song over and over and over until the scene is complete. Most of the time, however, when I write I need silence.

When I am writing nonfiction, I can tolerate music a little more, but I still prefer silence. There are exceptions. When I sat down to write this post, I put on the …And Justice For All album, and I managed to write the whole thing listening to the album. Can you tell?

If you’ve ever wondered how long it take me to write 600 word post, I have a pretty good measurement for you. It took exactly the first two-and-a-half songs of the album for me to complete this: all of “Blackened”; all of the lengthy “…And Justice For All”; and a little over half of “Eye of the Beholder.”

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