Music to Play By

Music has the ability to evoke a long lost memory from our distant pasts or change our emotional state for better or worse. A rough sketch of our very essence could drawn from the music we’ve listened to throughout our lives. It’s literally a part of every human’s existence. In fact, it’s hard to escape music. Music, having the ability to sway our emotional state, can be a useful tool when it comes to chess. Music as a chess tool? I know, that might not make a great deal of sense at the moment but read further and you’ll understand the idea!

Let’ start with the concept that music can alter our emotional state. For some individuals, that altered emotional state can drive them into a kinetic frenzy. Watch a group of people dancing at a club that plays techno music. The dancers literally pulsate to the rhythms, becoming one with the others on the dance floor as well as the DJ. For other individuals, a specific song or genre of music can bring them to tears or complete joy. The point to be taken here is that music can alter one’s emotional state and having the ability to change one’s emotional state can be of benefit to the process of thinking. There’s a reason that certain songs are played at sporting events and that reason is to pump people up, raising their excitement levels to new heights. It’s a method employed to drive a large group of people into a specific state of mind that, in turn, pumps up the sports teams playing in the stadium. What does this have to do with chess?

Prior to sitting down and playing a serious game of chess, the onus or burden is on you to get yourself focused. The ability to focus is a learned skill. While some individuals have a greater natural ability to hone in or focus on the task at at, they still have to further develop their natural abilities. One thing I have my students do before playing tournaments is to create a play list of songs they can listen to on their cellphones and tablets (using headphones) prior to sitting down at the chessboard. The only requirement is that the songs do a couple of things for the listener.

First, the songs have to take my students to a place they can clearly visualize, in great detail. I have one student that plays a song that, in the mind’s eye, takes him to specific street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When he listens to that song, he can close his eyes and see the tiniest details of the street scene. With each listen prior to playing, I ask him to hone in on another detail, one previously unnoticed. This forces him to focus on this imaginary scene, looking for that elusive detail he missed the last time around. His mind clears of all other thoughts and focuses in order to find another hidden detail within the scene. I have all my students follow this procedure so they can remove the unnecessary thoughts that clutter their minds which allows them to focus on the task at hand, a game of chess. Visualization, using music to guide you, can help you develop your focusing skills. It’s also the most enjoyable way to exercise the mind in this way.

The other important aspect of using music as a training tool is that a song can really get you pumped up. This being the case, I have my students listen to the one song that gets them pumped up and ready for battle. Its the same idea as the music played at sports stadiums during big games, songs that get you excited and ready for the challenge ahead. My Students listen to their “fight song” before their “focusing song” and then afterwards, listen additional songs that evoke focus and excitement.

Each play list is specifically tailored for the individual and no two play lists are exactly alike. I don’t ever tell my students what to listen to (truth be told, I’d rather not have them listen to anything I’ve recorded because I suspect my songs would have the opposite effect, not to mention they all come with a parental warning label). All I do is give them the parameters of what the play list should do and they take it from there. However, to get them to the point where they’re choosing the correct music, I carefully go over the instructions as to what the music should do, emotionally and mentally speaking. You’d be surprised at some of the choices this youngsters make. There’s nothing funnier than an eleven year old listening to Wagner and then The Ramones!

Try this out but make sure to adhere to the parameters mentioned above. A little music can go a long way towards preparing you for taking on tasks, both those on the chessboard and those in your day to day lives. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I know one of the two players doesn’t use music as part of his program!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).