Last week I spoke to the Midnight Runners community on the MR Instagram TV channel (transcript here or watch on Insta TV here) about innovating under isolation. There were some interesting questions sent in from the viewers – one in particular was about my relationship with music while away on a long field expedition. I was really pleased that this question got asked because this is something I’ve thought about a lot and experimented with over many expeditions and periods of isolation, and music has become something that I actively use as an optimization tool or coping strategy when I am going to be away for a long time.

Something perhaps surprising is that music is a more powerful tool when it is used sparingly. I have found that rationing music is useful in at least four ways:

1) Music can be used as a reward for achieving some task during the day. It is a luxury that I save for some special moment, or a carrot I can use to motivate myself to be better during the day. When music is abundant and freely available it becomes less of a treat and becomes a less effective motivator.

2) Maintaining the potency of music by rationing access means it retains its power as a mood modulator. This means it can be used as an emergency pull-cord to help smooth out some mental humps.

3) Rationing music takes discipline, and self-discipline is a critical tool for making the most of time in isolation. It is also a skill that needs to be trained like a muscle. Rationing music is a simple disciplinary task that helps maintain mental agility and sharpness, and offers a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day.

4) Scarcity of music enables it to enhance the special moments. There will be strong emotional moments through any extended period away from home. Music can help to amplify the good ones and cement them into memory.

5) Silence is valuable. Isolation often offers an opportunity to experience something closer to silence than is available in normal life. This could be objective quiet, or internal quiet. Either way, constantly distracting the mind with music has an opportunity cost associated with it insofar as the mind could otherwise settle into a new quiet normal that could be quite transformative (see Webcast 5 here for more on this).

I like to ration myself to two songs per day. This is usually entirely self-imposed since there is almost always an option to charge a phone or ipod device either through mains power, solar panels, power packs, generator etc, and these devices now have several gigabytes of  storage space standard, so there is no technical reason why I couldn’t listen to an effectively unlimited selection of music almost constantly. However, in my experience the benefits of rationing music on an expedition are great enough that it has become my standard practice. I know there will be times I’ll need it, and in those times it has more power when it has been rationed. It has great power as a motivating carrot, or withholding it can be a powerful motivating stick.

The second part of the question was what kind of music I listen to while away somewhere remote. I put time into carefully selecting what music I take with me on a trip, and I have learned that the best strategy is to prioritise heavy or energetic music and to avoid anything with any sentimentality. For me, the entire Metallica discography from Kill em All to Black Album plus Death Magnetic goes in non-negotiably along with at least one Slayer album – these are my go-to’s. Some psychadelia along the lines of King Gizzard, Moon Duo or Wooden Shjips. Electronica along the lines of Chemical Brothers, Squarepusher, Cosmosis. Then, I think it’s also good to take some new music to form new connections with on a long trip. I particularly associate a 2017 trip to northern Greenland with Hannah Peel’s Particles in Space, and a recent trip to Antarctica with Metallica’s Death Magnetic because I listened to them several times and often with some memorable connection like being the first things I listened to after dealing with some crisis in camp or as a reward after some minor triumph. I also find it important not to take music that has strong connections with people, places or experiences that I’m likely to miss while I’m away. No good comes from that – just homesickness and the danger of feeling overwhelmed by the isolation time still to spend. Much better to have music that lifts you up and emphasises feelings of motivation, power, competence.

I think this is transferable to other challenges such as the corona-virus lockdown too. Saving music as a reward to enjoy at the end of the day, or using it strategically and with discipline might help to stay strong and effective in these unusual and uncomfortable conditions.

One final point about music – it can be used to communicate an experience as well as managing it. A few years ago the amazing musician Hannah Peel composed new music to communicate the experience of living on the Greenland Ice Sheet based on my footage and images. You can see it here.

Interested to hear other people’s thoughts, experiences and recommendations on this!

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