Reading Music — [Two Tiers of Learning: Information & Ethics]
Whatever You Learn, Learn It to Play It
[ this article originally appeared here ]
Part One: Why Do You Read & Learn?
Generically, there seems to be two different reasons:
First, to gather information.
We want to learn. We want to be informed. We want the pleasure of taking in something new or something helpful or something inspiring. In this purpose of reading and learning, it is comparable to a form of entertainment.
But the other reason people read is what happens when you read sheet music.
At my wedding, we had some intricate piano pieces that we wanted played by the artist & composer Yiruma. The pianist who was performing for us, who is also my spouse’s uncle, shows up to the rehearsal and, as we were about to begin going through all of the content, we asked him, “Were you able to figure out the music?” We had sent him some sheet music that we found and made sure that he had access to the audio tracks so that he could familiarize himself with the pieces. The assumption was that he would have poured over that material and been completely prepared.
So we were a little concerned when we asked that question and he responded,
“Oh, I haven’t looked at it yet, but I’m sure it will be fine.”
Now, immediately, this sounds like laziness…he didn’t take our request to perform beautiful music at this incredibly important event seriously. We assumed this was going to be, at worst, a bland melodic recital style event and, at best, he would scratch out something close to our request. But then, something unexpected happened.
As we walked away from him with the anxiety that our ceremony would be ruined, he sits down at the piano, takes a second to look at the notes and the flow of the song, and, without ever hearing the piece before, we are immediately caught off guard as we turn in shock to hear him play the song better than I had ever heard it played before.
Reading music and reading for information can be quite different.
Because you don’t read music to learn the notes. You don’t read a composition sheet to understand the music theory or instrumentation in your head. Normally, you read music for one reason only:
To play it.
The second reason to read or learn, then, would be:
The difference being that learning for information stays in your head.
Learning for ethics moves from your head to your hands.
Part Two: Learning To Manifest How We Live
This purpose of learning is meant to inform how you live; which begins with the gathering of information, but involves a second tier. Internalizing the information is simply a medium to produce the intended end of further developing what you actually do with that information. Gathering information is seen as the mode to the actual goal which is manifesting that information in how you live.
Also known as an ethic.
A pop-culture reference to this might be “book smart” versus “street smart” which is a decent attempt to articulate the difference between intelligence and wisdom. In its truest form, this is what philosophy, especially the ancient philosophies, are about. You might hear the word “eudaimonia” thrown around because this is what the goal of philosophical learning was: Discovering the answers to how we should live in the world around us. The goal was a flourishing existence that, further and further, made the world look like it was meant to be. Learning was vastly important, maybe even more than it is now, because that wisdom allowed you to live more healthily, more effectively, and more intentionally. The wise person took in and internalized knowledge about the world with the purpose of producing a lived ethic.
How ought we live our lives?
This was why you would learn.
This may be compared to the consumption of wine and the difference between a wine tasting and actually enjoying wine. I’m not a historian and have no hard evidence for this, but I suppose that most of history has not been too preoccupied with wine tastings; it seems like a rather new development. The fact that you would just taste the product and then spit it out and, therefore, waste a craft and a resource, doesn’t seem to fit with the frugal mentally that most human beings have been concerned with in order to survive. Similarly, I assume that it would only be in a culture of comfort and privilege that information would be viewed as a luxury that can just be enjoyed on its own and then discarded without moving it to produce the result it was intended to produce. This might explain how learning would evolve from the means by which you more vibrantly navigate the world to a product to be enjoyed with no ramifications beyond your intake.
While I understand that you spit out the wine as to not become inebriated which would affect your judgment for the next wine up to taste, the metaphor of not internalizing the content starkly reveals how we now approach both reading and learning. There is a culture of discussing wine glasses and which stem and shape is better for which type of wine, which glass is best for a certain temperature to bring out the flavor. There are tasting notes and discussions on quality. We debate and theorize and smell and this has become the endgame for consuming wine.
While knowing and understanding these details may be beneficial to consumption, the disconnect allows the wine to stay in the realm of the abstract and produces only information. A wine tasting is an act of entertainment — similarly to how gathering information for the sake of gathering information is more in the realm of entertainment than ethic.
This detachment from a more real, tangible effect is seemingly comparable to, and even a microcosm of, our current relationship with reading and learning.
Our culture is so inoculated with intelligence and IQ’s and endlessly consuming the plethora of information available to us and it seems like we need to emphasize the ancient perspective of learning. We have made it acceptable to only be concerned about the first tier of learning and, it is my sense, that we need to recover the second tier. We need to begin emphasizing the endgame of our learning producing a lived ethic. Otherwise, we will continue to wander around with lots of content and with no inclination to have that content impact the world we are bringing forth.
Do you read & learn for information or for ethics?
Are you satisfied with the first tier and the conglomeration of material?
Or does your learning start with your head, but then move to your hands?
Does your learning lead, not to you just knowing more things, but to playing the song?
My hope would be that the content we consume would not just be left as the words and images from books and articles and information to take up abstract, mental space, but that it would be like sheet music; where the knowledge ends with wisdom.
Where the information gets manifested and we live differently, more intentionally, and more healthily as human beings because it is a direct consequence of our purpose of learning in the first place.
So as you read and as you learn, keep asking the question:
“What does this piece sound like in my life?
What am I going to do with this information so that its ends in a song being played?”
Whatever you learn,
learn it to play it.
I’m working on discovering how to “Become More Human”
If you’re interested, I’d be happy to share what I’m finding to help craft how you live, too. You can find more here: