Music is a master key to our emotional experiences. A familiar melody, a scrap of lyric or a cherished album can prompt a flood of memories and sensations, while the right song can capture the essence of the moment as it happens. By keeping a journal of your listening habits, preferences, practice habits (for those who cross over from listener to musician) or particularly moving musical experiences, you can enrich your recollections and strengthen your emotional memory of the times and places you pass through, the people you encounter along the way or even various past versions of yourself. Intertwined or in parallel with a standard journal of events and thoughts, music-journaling can build in trapdoors leading back to colors and shades of feeling that would otherwise be lost or faded.
Where to Start
For those already keeping a journal, a good place to start is simply to note in passing what you have been listening to. What song was playing when you drove to work? Did you happen to bring along a particular tape or CD to listen to at work while you performed other tasks? What sort of music was playing at the restaurant where you went for lunch? What kind of mood did it set?
Here is an example from my own journal:
Time to check in. I spent the better part of the work day entering verification forms into the database. Listened to The Joy of Molybdenum by Trey Gunn Band and part of Traffic's Mr. Fantasy. Electronica-tinged futuristic instrumental rock vs. classic, organic psychedelia. Listened to Metallica's ... And Justice for All on the expressway (up loud!). Road rage music. Nobody dared cut me off on the exit ramp today. I called the phone company and got put on hold. I was trapped for 15 minutes with a maddening soundtrack of light jazz.
If you recognize a moment when a memory or emotion comes up in the course of your listening choice, write it down. The more you track what you listen to in the context of your experience, the more prompts and triggers you'll have to feed your journaling process later when you look back and reread previous entries:
Listened to the reissue disc of the Who's Live at Leeds today, and it took me back to the first time I heard it on vinyl in C's dorm room on his cheap turntable and how surprised and shocked I was at how good it was. Entwhistle was one brutal bass player. It even brought back the smoky smell of the brown carpet remnants C dragged in from a trash bin somewhere, along with that tan easy chair. It was really the beginning of our friendship and the whole crazy saga of the next year. Who knew? I can feel how naive and young we were. A bunch of extremely hairy young dudes. The whole world seemed new, and we could go anywhere and do anything. I think that was also the first time I met B. Also very hairy, and quite smelly. He had some crazy stories. ...
You can also record whatever thoughts, memories and feelings come to you when you hear a random song in the course of your day:
While driving home from work I flipped on the local "classic rock" station, and they were playing Pearl Jam's Alive. I can't believe this is classic rock already. It brought back a vivid memory of early 1992, when C and B and I roamed a series of house parties. The "grunge" trend was peaking. At this one house, in the basement, we stood around in disbelief while the host played Alive on endless repeat, and everybody in the house sang along to every word, stopping only when the disc skipped and then picking up again as if nothing had happened. They were singing along when we arrived and were still doing it half an hour later when we finished our beer and left, having spoken to nobody.
For More Active Listeners
If you are an avid listener and buyer of music, you could begin a journal that tracks your listening habits and experiences in more detail. One option is to simply list everything you listen to on a daily basis. A close friend of mine listed every album he listened to from beginning to end each day. After a year he was able to look back and chart his musical tastes as they shifted over several months from alternative rock to jazz. Another idea is to simply create a songbook of your favorite lyrics—perhaps with comments or additional journaling on why these words affect you.
You can go further and compile your own archive of album reviews, detailing your reactions and the pros and cons of the music. Over time, your reviews will give you a picture of the relationship you develop with a piece of music, as well as the development of your tastes and skill as a listener:
John Coltrane—Giant Steps: I listened to this several times before, but it didn't really click with me until this evening. I had to make a run to the store, and it was snowing steadily. Thick wet snowflakes. For whatever reason, the music perfectly fit the snowy scene. Trane's sax tone was comforting and warm, even while careening over those crazy chord progressions. And he somehow had this knack for taking jazz chords and deploying them in a way that doesn't come off as smarmy or loungey—or unpleasantly dissonant. Wonder how he did that?
Trey Gunn—Third Star: I've usually tried to keep this album in the background while I did something else, but it keeps demanding my attention. It definitely requires active listening, and is not the sort of thing to listen to at a party. This is music to listen to closely while alone or with a few close friends. (Unlike the Filthy McNasty album—I hated it until I heard it at C's party, and then it made perfect sense. Go figure.) Anyway, this album has a very mellow Middle Eastern sort of feel. Polyrhythmic melody lines weaving in and out of each other and the percussion. The Warr Guitar sort of pops with each note and distorts in such a way that it has a flutey kind of quality.
What kind of creative journals do you keep? Do you keep volumes dedicated to a particular topic, theme, hobby or pursuit? We want to hear about your creative theme-journal ideas.
There are a lot of journaling possibilities for those of you who are already musicians, or are thinking about moving from just listening to actually making music. And a good place to start is with a journal that tracks your progress in daily practice sessions. A practice journal can tell you a lot about the quality of your practice experience, the quantity and type of things you are practicing and the development of your musicianship:
For repertoire, I ran through the first three sections of my parts to Bicycling to Afghanistan. For the second section, string noise is a big issue since my left hand jumps around the fingerboard a lot on the low, wound strings. I'm trying to cultivate a relaxed release that gets my fingertips completely clear of the string before I shift to the next position. I can almost get it. This will take some work. I still don't have the complicated third section worked into my muscle memory yet. I slowed the metronome way down and studied the operation of my fingers for particular transitions. Oh, yeah, and I made sure to listen.
I can tell my practice is getting more efficient. I spent an hour on guitar and got a tremendous amount of quality work done. I used to noodle around and waste a lot of time. This same amount of work used to take several hours. The quality of my attention has gotten better.
For practicing musicians who also perform in public, either professionally or on an amateur basis, there is a lot to be gained from keeping journal accounts documenting your experiences in live performance or recording situations. If you have a difficult time during a performance, keeping a journal of the problems as they arise can later help you to pinpoint the patterns or situations that create them. Using that insight for preparation and planning in the future could then help you have a more positive musical experience.
Tonight's gig was surreal. We really need to watch it so that we don't blow ourselves out during sound check. Once again, it came home to me that a sound check bears no relationship to what happens once the set "officially" begins. Our best playing tonight definitely happened during the soundcheck. We really rocked. The wait staff and bartenders got our best, but things were really off once the real set started. My hands felt shaky. I couldn't figure out why my guitar was so loud during the first tune, and then I realized I had forgotten to put my earplugs in. It seemed like D wasn't listening during the first few improvised sections. He just seemed to barrel along, and I got really upset. I won't know until later after I've listened to M's recording from out in the audience whether this came across in the music or if it was just my imagination. The only positive point for me was during the outro of the fourth tune when we get ambient and spooky. It had some kind of power that it doesn't usually have. The audience was dead quiet for that one. Then came the technical difficulties. ...
No matter where you are on the spectrum, from music appreciation to performance, try incorporating music-journaling into your love of music. It can enhance your understanding of who you are—and who you were. It can allow you to recall moments you otherwise might not remember. Most of all, it can enrich your experience of the present and help you appreciate life as it is lived. Enjoy.
From the October 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.