Manuscript of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 47

Panic Attacks, Music Theory, and Learning to Be Mysterious

Right after graduating college I started getting panic attacks. At first I was shocked, hit by each surge of anxiety like someone wandering a subway tunnel he thought was abandoned. The attacks seemed unpredictable and without obvious causes — how was I to prepare for them?

One day I had an idea. I sat down and wrote the ‘panic attack list’: a list of all the physical events that occur during a panic attack in order. I provided instructions to myself on how to accurately reproduce a panic attack, as if casting an inevitable spell:

  • Your palms will start to tingle
  • Your chest will start to tighten
  • You feel lightheaded and your breathing hastens to compensate
  • You start to wonder if you might faint
  • Your face erupts in heat and sweat

And so on. Writing the list was in itself a cathartic act, and, incredibly, even though not the goal of the exercise, the panic attacks lessened and eventually dissipated (so far). It was a bit of unexpected magic — a written list that seemed to have immediate psychological effect, and yet of course who knows exactly what happened in my tumultuous psyche, as my sense of self and relationships were in constant flux.

‘Untitled’ by Agnes Martin (1912–2004)

I think I can say this much, however — writing down a list of ‘symptoms’ allowed me to accept the intrusion of a very unpleasant experience. It seems that a crucial element of having a panic attack is not wanting to have a panic attack (a natural inclination), and the resistance of anxiety is itself the definition of anxiety. So the list was a guiding voice that said, “Like it or not, this precise series of events might happen to you.” The process of going through each step diffused its strength, which actually was my level of internal resistance to the whole thing. Mysteries hold power over us. But through writing, and because panic attacks in my experience have a recurring sequence, this tortuous mystery was disarmed.

Looking back I see that this approach was foreshadowed by my years of studying music in college. I was a jazz performance major, and for four years (and many before that) I took music theory courses, wherein budding musicians learned the ‘rules’ — the theories derived from studying written music, dictating what musical components produced what musical effects. Music theory, among many other uses, allows us to recreate great music. At its basic level, music theory is a list: perform certain events in a certain order, and we have music. All we have to do is learn to read the list.

‘Untitled’ by Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944)

These rules, just like the ‘panic attack list,’ were extremely helpful. They transformed the mysteries of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven into coherent, reproducible parts in repetitive combinations, with the effect that the initial shock of brilliance gave way to empowering excavation. We mined the works of great artists for their tools, explaining each idiosyncratic flourish with our expanding theoretical language. Our new musical vocabulary, if we really understood it, gradually became incorporated in our own work. I loved music theory and still do; it irreversibly changed the way I think about and experience music.

The two examples above, ‘panic attack lists’ and music theory, show how language can help us. Where the use of language gets complicated, however, is when we take language to be the literal reality that it represents symbolically.

Words, thoughts, and concepts, we sometimes forget, are a component of reality, an arising within the flow of life, rather than a means of perfectly defining or capturing it. So often we are deceived by its functionality, and we imagine that language gives us impossible powers.

I saw this first hand. Over the years, I gradually mistook music theory for music. As an improviser in the jazz program, I approached the piano with a head full of ideas about music. When playing in a band, my inner narrative ran: ‘if they play that, I can play this and I already know it will sound interesting,’ or ‘over this chord it would be hip to play this scale, and work with the next chord too.’ My playing was heavy with analysis, strangled of life by my self-conscious desire to avoid mystery, my need to understand everything completely.

The eventual result was that I was better at playing rock music, because then I felt free. I didn’t care so much about theory; the stakes were lower, and the music arose by itself. Pianist Keith Jarrett, echoing the first line of the Tao Te Ching, reminds us of the mystery of music (from the first line of a speech from 2014): “Music is not something you can use words to describe.”

Sengai Gibon’s ‘Hotei (Budai) Pointing at the Moon’ (1750–1837)

There is a saying in Zen Buddhism, from 7th century monk Huineng: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

Language and thought are inextricable from our lives. In many ways, thoughts are the flow of life itself. We are changed by our ideas and discussions about things in the world in untold ways. But, nonetheless, the mysteries of experience persevere. A list of symptoms is not a panic attack. A list of musical rules is not music, and when we forget these things, we miss our own brilliance, our own expression.

Language can point to the experiences of life. To see the flow of life itself, however, we must move beyond language, right?

Here’s Keith Jarrett’s full speech from 2014,

and some info about Huineng.

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Ross J. Edwards

Ross J. Edwards

Brooklyn-based musician, administrator, seeker; pursuing a master's in philosophy at New School in NY.