When I sit down in the morning to write, I choose a song and put it on repeat. Sometimes it’s classical, a song from one of my favourite soundtracks. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. A track by Ludovico Eunaudi. Other times, like this morning, it’s hip-hop. Something pacey from Eminem. Or something mellow from Logic. Or something smooth from Kendrick Lamar.
When I’m stuck, I close my eyes and listen. I let the rhythm of the song wash over me. Often, that’s all I need to figure out what I want to say. But occasionally, just listening isn’t enough. So I focus too. I’ll zone in on the words. Or I’ll pay attention to one particular element of the production. Perhaps the piano. Or the melody of the hook.
What I find is that if I focus on the beat, I don’t hear the words. If I focus on the lyrics, I can’t hear the beat. Concentrating on one element excludes all the others from my attention. Isn’t that interesting? I can hear the whole thing, but be unable to appreciate the individual elements. Or I can listen to the individual elements but miss out on the power of the whole.
This observation transfers to a few different areas.
When reading, I can pay attention to what the author is saying. The image and ideas they’re trying to communicate and conjure in my mind. Or I can focus on the constituent parts. The individual arguments and progression of each point. The turns of phrase and sentence structures he deploys.
When in conversation, the fastest way to lose the thread is to try and remember what they just said. It turns out that trying to remember what they said a few seconds ago makes it’s harder to hear what they’re saying right now.
Both the parts and the whole are important. Emphasising one obstructs your comprehension of the other. So emphasise both, at different times.
Spend some time on the whole, listening to the song, hearing what the person is saying, seeing how the system works. And spend some time listening to the beat, understanding how the person talks, figuring out how this part contributes to the overall structure.
Alternate between the parts and the whole. Don’t exclude one in favour of the other. Doing so gives you an incomplete picture.