HEARING: THE PROBLEMS OF CONCENTRATION
THE USE OF MUSIC TO DEVELOP ONE'S POWERS OF CONCENTRATION
©1983 The Anstendig Institute
Hearing perceptively demands the ability to concentrate undistractedly. But what is concentration and what does one concentrate on? Concentration is a steady flow of something(s)) in one's consciousness. Life, reduced to its lowest common denominators, consists of the polarities, time and space. Since one cannot concentrate on time, one obviously must concentrate on some kind of space.
Most people think of space as something that we perceive with our eyes. But, as sound is vibrating space, we also hear space. In real life, there are practically no isolated sounds. Most sounds are part of a longer progression of sounds that, in its entirety, conveys an experience or a meaning. Each separate sound in a sentence or a melody, for example, would convey no meaning or experience by itself. It follows that to be able to perceive anything meaningful which sound can convey, one has to be able to concentrate over at least some length of time. One's powers of concentration are especially important in experiencing the expressive-emotional aspects of sound, especially those of music. Single, isolated sounds sometimes convey meanings. But the full possibilities of experience that sounds, particularly those of music, can convey, can only be achieved as progressions of sounds over extended periods of time. Obviously, the longer one can concentrate the more possibilities there will be for sounds to affect one.
But length of concentration is not the only aspect of concentration that determines a person's ability to derive experience or meaning from sounds.1 The quality of one's concentration and one's ability to resist-distractions also determines one's hearing ability. By the "quality" of a person's concentration is meant how steadily, evenly, and intensely a person can concentrate unflaggingly over a period of time.
It has been known for some time that people in our society are losing their ability to concentrate over an appreciable span of time. Some studies have claimed that most people can only concentrate for seven minutes, a time span which corresponds to the amount of time between commercials on television programs. In reality, most people cannot keep their concentration steady over those whole seven minutes. Their minds wander in and out of whatever is supposedly occupying their attention. The fact is that most people cannot even concentrate steadily over the short time-span of a single melody or sentence without the quality of their concentration fluctuating. They lose the intensity of their concentration, their mind goes blank, their attention wanders, or they are distracted by visual or other sensory stimuli. Keeping their mind focused on anything is a struggle.
If anyone doubts the above claims, put on a recording and try to concentrate unflaggingly, with the same intensity, through the whole span of each melody. Or think of a melody you know well. ("Three Blind Mice., for example). Try to hear it in your mind and try to concentrate steadily and evenly through the whole length of the melody. In either case, if your are honest-, you will probably find that the intensity of your concentration is uneven, and that it is difficult to keep your mind directed (focused) steadily on the melody. You will find that your mind tends to wander and that your concentration fluctuates in intensity. You tend to be distracted either by extraneous thoughts or by your surroundings.
The greatest problem of concentrating is the avoidance of distractions. But most people think of distractions as things outside of themselves that usurp their attention when, in reality, they themselves are their own biggest distraction. It is our bodies and our minds that distract us the most and keep us from being able to concentrate. The reason most people cannot sustain strong, steady concentration is that their bodies and minds are unstill and unquiet. Their concentration is impaired by the physical distractions of their own blinking, sighing, fidgeting, itching, coughing, and other sensations and by the mental distractions of various thoughts and mental impulses that they cannot put out of their minds.
There is an irony to the question of what distracts us the most, the body or the mind. The tendency is to place most emphasis on controlling the mind. Since the mind does the concentrating, the apparent logical assumption is that concentration is a purely mental discipline. But, in fact, the body controls the mind, and there can be no concentration without a calm, quiet, well-disciplined body. Everyone knows that when one is sick or obviously “out of sorts", one cannot satisfactorily carry on demanding mental pursuits. But few people realize that, even when they are well, the quality of their mental activity is determined by the state of their bodies.2
If the body is not strictly disciplined, it will continually obstruct concentration. In order to concentrate steadily and evenly, one's body has to be as still and calm as possible. Physical sensations must be minimized, or they will also distract. There are various techniques, both Eastern and Western, that develop the ability to concentrate by eliminating distractions and calming the body. These techniques are effective and worthwhile, but none of them eliminate the need for basic personal self-discipline. In fact, their mastery demands forcing oneself to be still while forcing oneself to ignore and not satisfy all physical impulses. If there is an itch, ignore it and do not scratch it. If the throat seems dry, let it be dry. If there is an urge to swallow, don't swallow. If one has to blink, one should pay particular attention to sustaining concentration while “it blinks”. This is the quickest way to calm the body.3
Similarly, the only way to develop the ability to concentrate is by concentrating. Calming one's mind and eliminating distracting or upsetting thoughts is a prerequisite, without which concentration is impossible. Unfortunately, once one has calmed one's mind by calming the body, concentration does not follow automatically. One must still develop the ability to concentrate. Everyone knows that it is possible to be looking directly at something without "seeing" it (without being consciously aware of it) and to be amidst sounds, including music, without hearing them. It is possible for people to not hear well, even though their hearing tests out very well. They may have perfect hearing in the sense of loudness, but they do not have the ability to concentrate on the sounds. It is just as possible for someone who is hard-of-hearing to hear more than a person with normal hearing, if the hard-of-hearing person can concentrate well and has the ability to notice and take in that which he is able to hear.
There are no short-cuts in developing one's powers of concentration. The more one forces oneself to concentrate on something, the better one is able to concentrate. Concentration is an acquired discipline that has to be practiced and made into a habit. Practice is not enough, or one will only be aware of things when one remembers to direct one's attention to them. And the point of developing concentration is not the act of concentration itself. It is to be able to be more aware of things.
Music is the ideal object upon which to practice concentrating as there is always more to be aware of than one is capable of noticing. We have limited consciousnesses. Most of us can only concentrate on one thing at a time. "Gifted" people can concentrate simultaneously on more than one thing, but even they are limited in the number of things they can take in at the same time. In music there are the notes, and there is the expression with which the notes are played. That already is two things to be aware of, and being aware of the notes by no means assures that one will be aware of the expression (many musicians with perfect pitch are inexpressive and vice versa). In addition, music usually consists of more than one note playing at the same time. In fact, music usually consists of many different melodic lines playing at the same time, and each line often has its own expression. Thus, in music, there is always more to hear than the average person is able to hear, which makes it ideal for expanding one's powers of concentration.
Besides offering an opportunity to develop one's ability to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, music is an object of concentration by which one can easily observe the length, the quality, and the focus of one's mind. For example, because their minds wander, most people experience music as vague memories of the more extraordinary, more exciting moments that attract their flagging attention back to the music. Haydn's famous "Surprise” Symphony uses a loud chord to startle the listeners, whom he knew would be losing concentration, to bring their minds back to the music. But the attention-getting passages are over by the time the distracted listener realizes that he has not been listening attentively. He is left only with an awareness that he has missed something.
Music has one more aspect that enhances its use in learning to concentrate: it is also entertaining. It is capable of attracting and keeping one's attention, which makes an otherwise dull, boring discipline pleasant.
The development of one's ability to concentrate adds immeasurably to one's experience of fine music. There is a difference in the experience of great music when one concentrates steadily through the whole piece. It should now be evident that the disciplines necessary to be able to concentrate involve perfecting many aspects of one's person, including physical steadiness and the ability to remain still, in addition to developing one's mental abilities. All of these personal improvements make a big difference because the finest music contains information of the most delicate and subtly refined nature which even the most refined people cannot perceive unless they are perfectly still. Whoever has not been perfectly still and calm, both mentally and physically, while concentrating through the entire length of such fine music, has missed mankind's finest, most rewarding possibilities of experience.
1 A discussion of what is meant by "experience" can be found in our paper, "Hearing; The Informational and the Experiential".
2 The Anstendig Institute strongly recommends its papers on the affects of extraneous influences around us to anyone interested in improving the quality and reliability of his mental pursuits as well as activities that involve fine physical work.
The well-known "Autogenic Training" of Johannes Schulz
emphasizes the understanding that the body is a machine that functions
separately from our minds and continues in its habitual functions whether or
not we consciously direct it. Autogenic Training employs auto-suggestive word
formulations using the word "its that are based on this idea. "am
atmet mich, nicht ich atme, es atmet
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate the vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide the research and explanations that are necessary for an understanding of how we see and hear.