Anxiety and Musical Form

My gf asked me why I don’t blog about having anxiety. There’s a few reasons I haven’t mentioned it much of late. Part of the reason for this is that while it shapes a certain amount of my experience, I absolutely do not want it to become a point of identity. Partly, I’d rather talk about things that are more interesting, like music. (There’s nothing quite so boring as other people’s health problems.) And maybe most importantly, I’m embarrassed about it.
But yeah, something about my fight-or-flight response is not working correctly and I get panic attacks.
I’m going to get a referral for CBT – cognitive behavioural therapy, which has been shown to be effective. I kind of know what leads to them. If I’m stressed or not eating right or especially if I’m short on sleep, I’m much more likely to get them. I read some place that they normally last about half an hour and I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know that if I wait and take deep breaths, they tend to go away.
In case you’ve never had a panic attack, (lucky you), I shall attempt to describe it. For me, it is what it sounds like, a sudden stab of panic. You know when you go out and you’re nearly to the tube station and think, ‘oh my god, did I leave the stove on?!’ It’s like that, but I tend to think maybe I have cancer or something. While one can turn around and go home and check if they’ve forgotten a pan of beans bubbling away, one can’t do that with a sudden fear of dread disease. So I try to talk myself out of it, but can get into a loop: ‘I’m fine because of X. But what about Y?’ Repeat for several minutes. This is very annoying. Especially when I know I’m in a loop. I know I’m being irrational. But I can’t seem to shake it. Because what about Y??! And maybe it just goes away quietly, or maybe I start shaking and phone NHS Direct.
What sets these off? Sometimes it’s because something is actually wrong with me. And, indeed, when I said I phone NHS Direct, this is actually not entirely true – I have a stone in one of my spit glands. It hurts occasionally and once in a great while, it blocks something and swells a bit. Eventually, somebody is going to remove it. But anyway, one day, before it was x-rayed, my neck swelled slightly and I saw it in the mirror and went into a panic. Sure, the dentist said he thought it was probably a stone, but what if it’s actually a terrible infection that’s spread to something important in my neck before it turns into blood poisoning or gets into my brain and might kill me by morning. (‘I’m fine because if I had a horrible infection, I would have a fever. But what about my swollen neck?’ Repeat for several minutes.) It was a Friday evening, so I phoned NHS Direct and they said it sounded like something that might happen with a spit gland stone and if it hadn’t gone down by Monday morning, I should ring my dentist. This was exactly the calm reassurance I wanted from the NHS. (God bless the NHS.) Then, unexpectedly, they started reading a list of diseases that might be associated with swollen necks. Glandular fever. (Mononucleosis to Americans.) ‘No, I already had that.’ Mumps. ‘I’m vaccinated.’ Meningitis. ‘Doesn’t that usually have a fever?’ I was starting to get alarmed. The woman on the phone was starting to get annoyed. She just had a script to read through (I guess so nobody can say they weren’t warned?) and didn’t want to be interrupted. Lupus. ‘Wait, what? How do I know if I have lupus??’ I hadn’t even considered this possibility. The woman sighed in an irritated manner. I have not rung the NHS Direct since.
Most often what sets off a panic attack is that I’m trying to ignore some emotion I’m having. Something has upset me. I don’t want to deal with it. I tell myself I’m fine and carry on. And then: ‘Wait, what if that cat I just pet has rabies?’ Sometimes, I can identify what emotion or thought I’m trying to nullify and go deal with it and be fine. Often it’s just some really small erasure. Very often, I’m not even aware that I’m doing it. Some part of my brain has intercepted my experience and tried to overwrite it and I haven’t even noticed. This is what I hope CBT can help with, since I really want to stop doing that. I mean, I don’t like having negative emotions, but they’re vastly preferrable to panic attacks.
Also, these erased emotions are sometimes important ones, but often are fairly small. So let’s say I’ve read something that reminds me of LGBT-phobia in schools and its affecting and I just don’t feel like thinking about that at the moment, so there’s an erasure. ‘What if that friendly cat is actually rabid?’ I try to ignore the thought, so there’s another avoidance. ‘I am feeling panicked about this cat and this is stupid, so I must try to hide it or else everyone will know I’m crazy.’ And thus something small builds.

Musical Forms

I did my undergraduate music education sort of the wrong way around. I didn’t expect to want to get a degree in it, so I started by taking all the upper division classes and seminars because they were most interesting. So I learned about how John Cage rejected all the old way of doing things that were not useful any more in the 20th century. Music theory is a old and unneeded! I accepted this at face value. (Never mind how a lot of minimalists, who I loved, worked a lot with harmony.) Then, after I decided I wanted to get a music degree, I had to take all the first year classes in counterpoint, history and all of this stuff I had already rejected. I insisted that John Cage had said it was useless. My teachers disagreed, but since they were the same ones who had told me a few months earlier that this was the stuff of the past, I felt their position was somewhat weakened. Anyway, I graduated, having learned as little traditional stuff as possible.
It wasn’t long after graduation that I became aware that perhaps I had been overzealous in my embracing of Cagean values. I wanted to write something harmonic, but all I actually knew how to do were chorales and I didn’t even know most of the rules for them. How to structure anything was a mystery. I know that forms existed and they had names, but what those meant, I had no idea.
I got to grad school (a decade ago) and somebody commented that everything I wrote was in sonata form. I had no idea. Maybe I should mix this up a bit more? I didn’t know any other forms.
Obviously the thing to do about this gap in my knowledge was to feel deep shame and attempt to hide it. So rather than read a book or ask a teacher, I just hoped nobody noticed how I was nowhere near good enough to actually be qualified to be in an MA program. (To be fair, I was REALLY busy trying to learn every other thing that everybody around me already seemed to know.)
At some point, I finally learned that while there are named forms that exist, form is arbitrary. It’s just any structure you can use to make sense of things. It can sometimes be implied by the material, or it can be decided in advance. Some Cage pieces are all about form. They are vessels into which you can pour any material and the structure somehow causes the material to sound better. Forms are like that. I don’t feel worried about them any more and while my classical vocabulary is still a bit lacking, I’m not overly concerned about this. Anyway, since I moved to England, I don’t even know note names any more, so not knowing how to organise a minuet is somewhat less important than not being able to remember the duration of a semi-quaver or a minim.
If you are hoping for some insight: The important thing to remember about structures is that they fix musical problems. This is how to write a piece of music: Put your material into a structure, then get the ending perfect, then get the beginning nice, then do the middle bits. Then write some glue to hold everything together. If your middle section is supposed to be 5 minutes long but is getting dull by minute three, you can either make it shorter or subdivide it – so instead of being one long thing, it’s got an ABA or ABC structure within it, so it moves between related ideas. That is to say, add some stuff.
As I recall, Cage didn’t talk much about the importance of structure directly, but he implied the hell out of it. Lecture on Nothing is nothing but structure. This is much more vital than the ‘ignore harmony’ that I first got from my youthful introduction. I was over-eager to be freed from a prison I’d never even been in. But aren’t we all? Especially when we’re young.

What’s the Connection?

This post is in AB form, with a small coda.

Published by

Charles Céleste Hutchins

Supercolliding since 2003

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