The Reality Institute

Why-to listen to music:

Cross-posted at Entropy Magazine, but edited and changed since its original publication.

I’m hard pressed to think of a person who doesn’t like music.  It’s been around since the beginning and it comes in all forms in all cultures so there’s got to be a reason for it.  Maybe we should dissect the process of the first time you listen to a song:

The very first thing you might do when listening to a song you’ve never heard before is decide whether you like it or not.  This seems to be a backwards thing to do, but it’s basically what everyone does.  Rather than digest the material, think about it for a bit, you impulsively decide whether it’s even worth listening to in the first place.  After a song passes the threshold of tolerability, you may or may not “get into it”, which is essentially a way of saying “feel the rhythm and melody” of a song.  Then, you might listen to the lyrics and decide whether they resonate with you, have a complex meaning, or what-have-you.  If they do, you might analyze the song’s meaning.  If not, or if there are no lyrics, you might move on to the structure of the music itself: the layers of instrumentation and the various patterns of sound.  Does the song have a mood and what is it, even if it’s a mood of neutrality?

Finally, you might consider the song’s context, which really isn’t a “finally” at all because the layers of context disperse endlessly into the ether of life.  Some examples of a song’s context are:

  • the song’s relation to the band’s history (how their style’s changed over time, how band members’ lives have changed)
  • the musical genre’s history (the change of West African music to blues to jazz to rock ‘n’ roll with all sorts of variations and vibrations throughout all of those indiscrete genre changes)
  • the political or social implications of a song’s existence in the moment that you’re listening to it or at the time of its initial creation (the forced migration of a large group of people to work tirelessly in the harshest of physical and emotional circumstances with only their indigenous cultural practices to carry them through the ordeal and, as that culture transformed with a gradual assimilation into the dominant society, the music transformed giving rise to new forms of music and new forms of rebellion against the dominant society, as evidenced in rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop

Why-to consider the political or social implications of a song’s existence in the moment that you are listening to it or at the time of its initial creation:

Listening to music can be a method of relaxation for a lot of people, but, at times, relaxation can be difficult to achieve upon consideration of the political or social implications of a song’s existence.  

There’s been a lot of suffering in life and there continues to be a lot.  So, when thinking about any type of thing, your mind might get drawn to some of the more negative causes of a given thing’s manifestation.  Though such negative thinking might seem counterproductive, it can actually be seen as an ethical necessity in the pursuit of activities.  For instance, you could listen to blues for the sound of the singer’s wailing and dwell on the existential implications of the music [that we all suffer and feel lonely], but you might overlook the history of profound physical and psychological suffering that the blues singer might be referring to in regards to a very specific portion of the human population: enslaved people and their descendants.   

Why-to examine the current state of the penal system:

Living in the United States, considered by some as one of the most important countries on the planet Earth, I’m often bewildered by the state of the U.S. justice system and think that “justice system” often feels like a misnomer. This country, the wealthiest in the world, has the highest prison population of any with over 2 million people currently locked up. The overwhelming number of inmates are imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses and are made up of people of color, who are also often poor. Even though white and black individuals commit drug offenses at comparable rates, black people are more often convicted and receive much harsher sentences.

In addition to the already inhumane conditions of the typical jail cell, roughly 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners are housed in solitary confinement per year, where they are forced to spend 23 hours alone in a windowless room measuring between 6 x 9 to 8 x 10 feet in size. Clearly a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 4th amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment, solitary confinement causes severe emotional and physical harm to those subjected to it.

While in prison, inmates are often made to perform manual labor, sewing clothes or even cutting down trees and putting out fires. In what might be a surprising fact for those unaware of the U.S. penal system, roughly 30 percent of California’s firefighters are prison inmates that earn between 70 cents and $1.60 per day performing work for the Department of Natural Resources. In Louisiana, about 20 or more prisoners can be found in the state Capitol and 15 or so work in the Governor’s Mansion, which bears a striking resemblance to the plantation homes of the antebellum South.

Altogether, these facts suggest that, though some people in the United States would like to think that slavery has long since been eradicated, the practice continues to persist. Really, if one cared to examine the thriving prison industry more closely, the similarities between slavery and the U.S. penal system would become so evident that it would almost seem like prisons were actively trying to continue and uphold the practice of slavery. As if to make the point as obviously as possible, Louisiana State Penitentiary was built on over 28 miles of former slave plantation and its prisoners even grow and pick cotton.

To meet the unending thirst of the growing U.S. prison industry, some states seem so desperate to execute inmates and free up space that they will invent new methods for doing so. Because pharmaceutical manufacturers have begun preventing prisons from using their medications for lethal injection, places like Texas and Arkansas have mixed up “drug cocktails” that put people through tremendous amounts of pain before they ultimately die. Witnesses have described prisoners having seizures, gasping for air, and violent coughing for prolonged periods of time before finally dying. Arizona was so desperate to free up room for more inmates before its execution drugs expired that the state pushed to execute eight people in 10 days, a rate not seen since the United States resumed killing prisoners in 1977.

It’s good then to know that music is often created for specific political or social purposes. Songs of protest often utilize the mnemonic properties of a catchy rhythm or melody to communicate a message that will ingrain itself more deeply into a listener’s head.  

Johnny Cash’s song “Man in Black”, for instance, protests the injustices suffered by the downtrodden in the United States, though the message could easily be applied to the downtrodden everywhere. Cash dresses in black when he performs as a reminder that the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, the aged, and members of military service are often facing intolerable hardships while other, luckier members of society, enjoy their “streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes”.  

An awareness of the history of any given song shouldn’t necessarily drive you away from it or from the enjoyment of it, but it might give you a broader understanding of the music you listen to.


  • the history of the Universe (a Big Bang happening or not happening with the cosmos spilling out of nothingness and eventually creating human life on a small blue and green planet in the Milky Way with that human life creating music for some reason)
  • your own personal history (the strong associations conjured up every time the album Marquee Moon by Television is played. It always reminds me of cruising the dirty streets of Los Angeles at night with the windows rolled down. And I first heard it with my best friend, Ben, on a road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, so there’s that memory associated with it, as well.  I remember him putting it on the car stereo for the first time and I was blown away.

Why-to like Marquee Moon:

The album begins boldly with “See No Evil”, which is an evocative title in itself as it alludes to either an inability to see evil on the part of the lyricist or a lack of evil in the world.  Or maybe it’s an instruction to the listener to stop seeing evil.  All of these ideas could potentially be highly controversial because many major belief systems and religions are founded on a firm distinction between good and evil, with good dictating how you should live your life and evil being what you should avoid.  With that distinction erased, the very basis on which a society is structured is called into doubt and, so, the order brought about by society’s rules may fall apart into chaos.  

Why-to structure a society on the basis of a distinction between good and evil:

Societies are complicated things.  By its very definition, a society is composed of more than a couple of human beings and each human being is made up of more than a few biological systems in addition to a wide variety of emotions and thoughts formed by complex personal histories embedded in complex social histories, which are in turn embedded in complex cosmological histories.  Rules, implicit or explicit, would then be a helpful way to make human life, despite all of the complexities, somewhat predictable.  

Because human beings, as well as many other organisms, experience pain, which can be seen as a negative sensation, and pleasure, which can be generally agreed to be positive in nature, concepts like “good” and “bad” could be interpreted as an almost organic development in human history.

Let’s imagine the dawn of human language.  In order for early human beings to communicate vital information to one another, such as whether or not something edible was life-sustaining or life-threatening, noises could be conjured up to represent those concepts. A good piece of fruit would be one that promoted survival and a bad piece of fruit would be one that thwarted it.  

From that, with all of the bloody wars, conquests, revolutions, and other forms of cultural and intellectual intermingling, human beings developed elaborate philosophies about the fundamental nature of goodness and badness. Though, ultimately, words like “good” and “evil” could help humans communicate very important ideas related to survival, whole societies would function in a somewhat organized manner if they had some general agreement as to what could be defined as good and evil.  

That isn’t to say that the more brutal and cold-hearted members of society didn’t take advantage of this system of symbols called language in order to receive more pleasure than pain.  In fact, one major reason to structure a society around concepts like good and evil would be for members of a society to control the whole thing, manipulating its structure for their benefit by using definitions of good and evil to direct goodness their way.

Why-to advocate direct current over alternating current:

Businessman and inventor, Thomas Edison, was known for going to great and questionable lengths to advocate the use of direct electric current for powering electronics in the 19th Century.  While the emerging technology of alternating current was just as capable, Edison refused to allow diversification into the electricity market so as to protect his great number of patents that relied on direct current. He even initiated a campaign in which he warned of the dangers of electrocution caused by alternating currents by electrocuting a circus elephant as a publicity stunt and claiming that it was as a result of using AC.  

On a sort of individual level, distinguishing between good and bad is what allows you to make your decisions efficiently.  If you know that “robbing a bank” is bad, no matter what you based that reasoning on, you can streamline your decision-making process by simply pursuing activities that don’t include robbing a bank.  

Without conceptions of good and evil, however, the possibilities in life might become so numerous as to inhibit any ability to act.  

More importantly than the title of “See No Evil”, is the powerful way that the lead guitar riff ropes you in.  It’s throbbing almost.  When the second guitar hits the stage, you can tell that this isn’t simple rock ‘n’ roll, but beds of intricate instrumental arrangements that weave in and out of one another.  The songs continue with a consistency of style that gives the album a definite feel, a weight.  Tom Verlaine’s eerie voice and mysterious lyrics create an emotion reminiscent of late nights, times when you’re alone even with other people and the world becomes an uncanny place.  Along with the fast and powerful songs, you can hear slower, more delicate ballads such as “Guiding Light”, my personal favorite.  The title track is an obvious masterpiece due to its troubling tone, long solos, and overall length.  

Historically, the album is also very interesting.  It came at a time when bands were moving away from classical rock ‘n’ roll songs about love towards complicated riffs and beats and lyrics that had more existential overtones or social commentary.  Vocals became less about having a pleasing sound in favor of something that reflected the social malaise at the time.  The band had a few other albums, I think, but they are easily overshadowed by Marquee Moon. And, because Television leaned towards elaborate instrumentals and obscure lyrics as opposed to short, catchy songs [like “I Wanna be Sedated” by the Ramones], they never became all that popular.  

Personally, I feel a kinship with Tom Verlaine and the lyrics really resonate with me.

“Darling Darling

Do we part like the seas? The roaring shell…

The drifting of the leaves…

All intent

Remains unknown.

It’s time to sit up

Up on the throne.”

I don’t necessarily know what the words mean.  But there’s something about a song like “Guiding Light” – where you don’t know what life’s all about and it all seems so strange, but you know that it’s basically good.  The song makes you feel at ease even in the midst of an eternal loneliness.


  • or even the feeling that the music creates in you because, unarguably, the best thing about listening to music is how it courses through you, (converting your thoughts into musical notes of red, blue, and violet and strumming your neurons, your nerves, gradually replacing them with something a little more suited to the environment and encasing you in protective gear.  You can breathe a little easier in the thinning air and the staircase formed, though not entirely stable, is wholly reliable.  

Why-to travel to the Moon:

Up on the moon, there’s this air – or this decrease in gravity.  You can really fly up there, but you’ll never forget the ground, the thing that you continually bounce back down on and tells you that you’re going to want to go back up again.  And, man, it’s wild up there.  The stars, well, they’re closer to the Moon than they are to the Earth.  Down on the Earth, they’re nothin’ but bright pinholes.  On the Moon, you can make out the individual wisps of neon dust that fly off of the surfaces of stars.  There are swirls and, as you jump higher and as the weight of gravity is pulled off of you more and more, you can gain enough height to escape the Moon’s atmosphere and go off into space.  

Why-to travel to outer space:

That feeling you experienced on the Moon and that wonderful view you had of the Earth is multiplied exponentially out in space.  The lack of any gravity makes you feel like you’ve never lived before, like everything up until this point has been phony.  

People write about outer space a lot, but their descriptions are completely underwhelming in comparison to the actuality of being out there.  Out in the depths of space, you encounter permutations of life that will delight your senses.  Imagine a creature with semi-translucent skin that radiates a soft orange and pink light from its chest and emits a song that’s always right for the occasion directly from its consciousness into your own.  When you touch the creature, it feels like the mold on a fallen tree. When you smell the creature, it smells like the tulip fields of Holland.  When you finally hear the creature talk, it’s like a series of farts ranging in quality: airy farts, loud farts, and those little farts that sound like the barking of a dog.  Then, when you fart, the creature confuses your anus for your mouth and your mouth for your anus and assumes that everything you say is shit, but that everything you fart is perfectly reasonable.  

Imagine also the diverse landscapes that exist in outer space: planets with freezing tundra of purple frost, a planet coated in a mountain range made of shimmering crystals, another planet roiling with explosive gasses, and a laser planet.

Finally, out in space, you find life so intelligent that it answers all of your deepest questions, telling you exactly where life sprang from, where we’re all headed, and exactly how you should live.


All in all, music is really worth getting into.

But pursuing any activity that might be considered frivolous or counterproductive can distract you from activities that might better contribute to the progress of your society or species.

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