We spend a lot of time consuming culture. But we rarely stop to think about how to improve that experience. By learning just a little bit about the things you already like doing, you could enjoy culture more.
One of the purest moments of joy I’ve had recently was listening to a song I’ve heard 1,000 times before. You’ll have heard it before too: September, by Earth, Wind & Fire1. It’s obviously a great song, but it didn’t make me that happy the previous 999 times. Why is that?
Obviously we appreciate things differently on different days, depending on what mood we’re in. And what mood we’re in is affected by a million different other things. But this wasn’t just because I was in a good mood.
No – the reason listening to September was so thrilling that time was because I’d come to appreciate it more, by listening to a 55-minute episode of the Strong Songs podcast all about the song.
The presenter, Kirk Hamilton, does an excellent dissection of the track, telling you how they layer on the different sounds to create a ‘wall’, how the vocals are so high they stop being proper words, and how the trumpet is so difficult it makes you wonder whether they’re going to be able to hold it each time you listen. I’ve listened to September a few times since, and it’s like listening to a different song – a much better one – than the one I knew before.
Now, Strong Songs is a fantastic podcast, and you should subscribe. But it’s not the only thing that can have that effect.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed how understanding something in a different way helps me enjoy it more.
From wine to walking tours
I’ll give you some examples.
I did a wine-tasting tour of Stellenbosch, South Africa, and enjoyed the wine there like I was someone who doesn’t just swill lager most of the time.
I watched The Defiant Ones and went back to listen to The Chronic and Doggystyle, which are more evocative when you can imagine more of the places and the people, and how they were made.
I did a tour of tequila distilleries in Tequila, Mexico, and learnt that tequila isn’t just for when a friend makes you do a shot, or you want to block out your emotions.
I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and now have a new lens through which to see cities I visit.
I usually hate cooking, but spent a little time learning to make Shakshouka, and actually chose to make it for myself a few times.
I did a walking tour of Riga which covered the architecture, and enjoyed spotting the Art Nouveau buildings during the rest of my time there.
Isn’t that just saying ‘culture is good’?
OK, people have known about the benefits of culture for a long time. Saying ‘we should get into culture more deeply’ isn’t new, and it’s arguably a bit snobby3.
But I’m not saying everyone needs to become much more educated in high culture. Or to consume a particular type over another. Or even consume more ‘culture’ in general.
Only that by learning a tiny bit more about the things you already enjoy, you might get more out of them.
Consume slightly less, but slightly deeper
None of the things above made me much more ‘cultured’, in the sense of knowing a lot more about the topics. I didn’t make notes, or even try to remember what I was learning during any of the experiences.
At best, I would recognise a few things of what I’ve already learned if I went through them again. I certainly couldn’t describe enough from each of the things to write a decent article on them, or even add much to a conversation.
But that’s not really my point. If you want to get more enjoyment from some culture, you only need to learn enough to see it in a different way.
There’s clearly a big difference between how I appreciate music, and how someone who can actually play a note appreciates it. But there was a noticeable difference between how I appreciated September after listening to that podcast, and how I’d appreciated it all the other times I’d heard it. And all it took was a podcast, which I enjoyed listening to anyway.
I didn’t have to learn how to play any of the song. I certainly didn’t have to learn all about the history of music up to that point. All it took was listening to someone more knowledgeable than me talking about it. It needn’t feel like going back to school.
How to do this systematically
Thankfully, learning just a little more about culture is so much easier than it was even 15 years ago.
There’s more material on YouTube than you could ever consume, millions of self-paced courses online, podcasts for every conceivable niche, and interesting people you can follow on social media.
You don’t even need to leave your house.
- If you’re into music, listen to some podcasts about how people make music 👩🎤.
- If you enjoy wine, watch a YouTube video about wine tasting 🍷.
- If you read a lot of fiction, read about your favourite author’s writing process ✍️.
- If you like taking photographs, do a course in photography basics 📸4.
- If you go on lots of walks, learn a little about the local flora and fauna, or about urban planning if you live in a city 🏛.
- If you enjoy film, watch the director’s cut of your favourite movie, or read an introductory film studies textbook 🎞.
Isn’t it a lot of work?
Reading a 2,000 word essay on how a Netflix series gets made is harder than binge-watching the episodes. There’s definitely a time and a place for the latter.
But if and when you have the energy, perhaps every 20th episode, consider the essay.
If you’re anything like me, you spend a big chunk of your free time consuming culture in various forms: books and articles, TV, podcasts, eating and drinking, going on walks, taking photographs. Swapping just a fraction of this time for learning about those things could make a big difference to how you enjoy them.
The effect compounds
Over time, the bits of knowledge you acquire about these things will add up to more than the sum of their parts. Even if you’re not trying to systematically learn more.
To go back to the original example, I might hear a similar trumpet sound in another song to the one I learnt about in September.
After doing a few walking tours around Europe, I might notice different perspectives on World War II.
A podcast about how some artists create quickly, whereas others iterate over time, made me better able to appreciate how the song Hallelujah was written, but also the difference between how Dr Dre tweaks things over time, whereas Eminem recorded Lose Yourself in a few minutes.
By comparing across different learning experiences, your knowledge compounds over time. Unless you stop working or sleeping, there’s only so much more culture you can consume, whereas there’s practically no limit to the amount you can learn about it.
So if you want to get more out of your cultural life, consider consuming a little less, and learning a little bit more.