Andante (on-DON-tay) is a musical term that means “at a moderate walking speed.” Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Bach are just a few of the classical composers who walked in natural settings to be inspired to create some of the most enduring music in the world.
And curiously, that slow tempo of andante has been proven to be the speed needed to activate the creative center in the brain. Composers may not have known this intellectually, but they knew they were on to something when capturing their best ideas while outdoors.
capturing the creative muse
Walking is good for you – and for the creative mind as so many composers were fully aware of. Bach walked 250 miles to hear the greatest organist of his day, Buxtehude, give a concert. Wagner wandered onto trails in the Alps and orchestrated his walks most famously in Forest Murmurs from his opera Siegfried. Edward Elgar walked in every kind of weather saying he “heard the trees singing his music” and Benjamin Britten called his afternoon constitutionals, “composing walks.”
Ludovico Einaudi wrote music about specific walks. “I remember,” he says.”That in January 2018 I often went for long walks in the mountains, always following more or less the same trail.” His music Seven Days Walking is a kind of musical labyrinth that captures the subtleties of that experience, seemingly the same, but ever so slightly variable where he discovered new details each day.
Tchaikovsky became so obsessed with his daily walk, he superstitiously timed them to precisely two hours each day, believing if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortune would befall him. But we forgive his obsession upon hearing the carefree Serenade for Strings that feels like one of those perfect walking days, a mix of sunshine and a light, caressing breeze.
These composers walked to get ideas. They walked on purpose and in nature to access their muse. They walked to animate the creative juice they needed to compose some of the most beautiful music ever written.
In a recent study, researchers have discovered that the act of walking activates thinking. Scientists call it “impact-related retrograde: (backward-flowing) waves through the arteries that sync with the heart-rate and stride-rate to dynamically regulate blood circulation to the brain.” In other words, the foot strikes the ground sending minute pulses through the blood to the brain in time with our step.
Another study shows that moving at the speed of andante, “a slow walking tempo,” is precisely the right tempo to catch the creative muse.
This was proven by Nobel-prize winning scientist Daniel Kahneman. In his research, he found that fast power-walkers work the cardio-vascular system while people moving at the speed of andante activate the creative center in their brain.
Speed matters! Or maybe I should say, Lack of speed matters!
like a sound of nature
Morton Feldman and Gustav Mahler were morning people, composing early and after lunch walking for several hours with notebook at hand.
I feel deep kinship with the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 filled with birdcalls. He tells the performers to play “like a sound of nature.” The melody, which seems to emanate right from the trees and grasses themselves, is one he used as a song to words that describe so many walker’s transcendent experience.
I walked across the fields this morning,
Dew still hung on the grass,
The merry finch said to me:
You there, hey –
Good morning! Hey, you there!
Isn’t it a lovely world?
Tweet! Tweet! Bright and sweet!
O how I love the world!’
“people ought to saunter!”
Perhaps the most famous walker in all of music was Eric Satie. He lived six miles from Paris’ Montmartre district, where he set up his “office” in the local cafés and communed with the leading artists of the day.
He would purposely stay out so late that he would miss the last train home and be forced to walk all those miles. But he never rushed, and was said to take in whatever appeared before him with deep interest.
I imagine Satie and the great naturalist John Muir would have made good friends as Muir wrote he despised the term hike. “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’” You can hear in Satie’s unusual wandering beat and tempo that he was a saunterer of the highest order and happy to be so!
Composers knew that walking was good for them. What they didn’t know was that science totally backs this up. Walking is not separate from creativity. In fact walking is largely responsible for creativity. We may have very little in common with Satie or Tchaikovsky – but we do share this: moving our bodies – to the degree we are able – can open up the possibility of catching our own creative muse!