HEARING:

OUR CONDITIONED RESPONSES TO MUSIC

 

1983 The Anstendig Institute

 

Our responses to music are very much as conditioned as those of the famous Pavlov dog. A bell was rung every time that dog was fed. After a while, the dog's responses became so conditioned to associating hunger and food with the sound of the bell that it salivated whenever it heard the bell.

First impressions determine the way most people will hear the expressive content of a given piece of music for the rest of their lives. Once we have experienced certain emotional reactions, most of us will always mentally and physically anticipate those same emotions as soon as that music begins. This anticipation of what we are accustomed to experience keeps us from objectively hearing the true content of a performance that is different from the way we already know the piece.

Sound is a progression from the past through the present to the future. Since it generally follows patterns that we are familiar with, most of us are in the habit of anticipating the next (future) sounds before they occur instead of just following them as they happen in the present. In music, the patterns that have already played make us expect and already create the coming sound event in our minds before it happens. This mental construction then clashes with what actually takes place, if the reality is different from what we have anticipated and built up in our minds. Of course, the whole process happens nearly instantaneously.1

Music expresses emotions. Emotions are physical experiences determined by the physical attitude of the body and the internal state of its vibrating organs. If one anticipates a certain emotional content, one automatically assumes a subconsciously-directed, physical attitude corresponding to that emotion. In music, for example, when one listens to a familiar piece, one subconsciously prepares oneself mentally and physically in advance of each of the various moods and expressions that one is used to hearing in that piece. If the actual emotional content of a performance differs from what one is anticipating, one will not be able to experience the expressed emotion because one's body and mind will already be primed for the anticipated emotion. At best, one will hear a mixture of the two emotions, but more likely one will hear the anticipated emotion in an unsatisfying manner. Either way, one will dislike the performance, even if it is an excellent one that is closer to the composer's own wishes than the way one is used to hearing that music. Thus, while familiarity allows one to hear the music better, it is a two-edged sword in that it can ingrain and condition one to a misinterpreted performance as well as to a correct one.

Changing ingrained wrong ways of hearing familiar music is often a difficult process. The key is the ability to relax and let the music "fall on one's ears" without anticipating it. For some, changing the way they hear familiar music may only be possible through the use of physical and mental relaxing techniques and long exposure to a performance that reflects the composer's intentions.

The next steps for the listener are to develop the ability to concentrate over long periods of time and to cultivate personal refinement and delicacy. Composers have to possess extraordinary powers of concentration. They must be able to concentrate on all the notes of a complex musical piece without playing it aloud. They must also be able to sustain their concentration unflaggingly over long periods of time, i.e., over the entire length of a long composition that may consist of many movements. They must also have the ability to achieve extraordinary stillness, calmness, and refinement of body. Otherwise their bodies would disturb the steadiness of their concentration and stand in the way of their perceiving subtle expressive-emotional nuances. The composer is in a very special meditative-contemplative state in the moments when he has his actual inspiration...when he hears in his mind the sound of the music he will write and oversees (conceives) the entire shape of the composition. This physical state lies at the utmost extreme of the possibilities of physical refinement, demanding near-total stillness and relaxation of muscular tensions. It follows that a performance that reflects the composer's intentions places similar demands of physical refinement and discipline on the listener.

The same holds true for the interpretive artist. When studying the score, if the performer wants to get back to the character of the composer's original inspiration, he must achieve a similarly refined state of being. Otherwise he will never experience the same emotional content as that intended by the composer. He will experience at best an emotion that is similar to but coarser in quality than that of the composer or, more usually, when contemplating the written notes, he will experience a completely different, wrong emotion that the composer never intended and for which the harmonic construction of the music was not intended. But this emotion will be ingrained in the performer as a conditioned response to that music. It will be his interpretation of that music and he will have difficulty hearing it any other way.

Few interpreters are capable of attaining and sustaining as physically fine a state as that of the true composer during his moments of inspiration. Since they are more likely to misunderstand and misinterpret the musical composition in relation to their own coarser physically and mentally ingrained idiosyncrasies, their performances are apt to be closer in refinement and subtlety to the less refined emotional quality of the general public. Because those performances are closer to their own physical qualities, many people will respond more readily to the coarser misinterpretation than to an interpretation that takes place at a level of refinement of nuance corresponding to the composer's sensitive state. This is tragic, because the purpose of art is to uplift the audience into higher, more refined levels of experience than are possible in everyday life.

The fact that most people respond more readily to misinterpreted and vulgarly played performances by no means condones those performances nor does it reflect on the audience. Most members of the regular audience understand that they cannot truly trust their judgment of the quality of a musical performance. They want to experience something of a finer quality than they are capable of recognizing. For this purpose, they look to the experts, the critics and the professionals, for guidance. But, since those people are usually musicians themselves, they usually suffer even more than the inexperienced layman from a lack of objectivity and will more often miss the point of a performance and dislike it because it is different from their own usual experience.

The inexperienced layman may think that someone trained in music would have less of a problem hearing it objectively. But that is often not true. It is all but impossible for a musician who has studied and learned a piece of music wrong to change his thinking and reacting to that music. The musician learns the music in relation to his own ingrained physical state, conditioned physical responses to sound, and idiosyncratic manner of reading and reacting to a printed musical score. The true musician first learns a work from the musical score itself, not by listening to someone else's live or recorded performance. Therefore, every stage of his introduction to that music, including his means of hearing it, is conditioned by his own being. It is, in fact, exceptional emotional flexibility, physical refinement, and the ability to remain physically neutral that differentiates the great performers who are able to perceive the composer's intentions from most musicians.2 The layman hears someone else's performance as his source of the music without having to learn and produce it through his own body. He is also not burdened with the set opinions and attitudes towards the music that the musician inevitably develops. Thus, the non-musician should not feel disadvantaged in evaluating differing performances of music. He need only first learn how to relax and not anticipate the music and then develop his sense of discrimination in evaluating his emotional experiences. The musician has to change the totality of his way of thinking and reacting to music in general.

That we have become conditioned to misinterpreted performances characterizes the present state of the musical arts, not only in live but also in recorded performances. Recordings have made conditions worse because important failings in sound reproduction distort the expressive content. One becomes conditioned to hearing the distorted emotional contents even when a performance is true to the composer's expressive intentions. To correct the problems of sound reproduction, all recordings must be equalized and played back on high quality equipment.3

Since the layman cannot trust the experts, he has no other recourse than to develop and rely on his own sensitivities. No one who wants to reach the higher level possibilities of musical (and other artistic) experience is spared the necessity to refine himself and develop his own sensitivities. The refined, physically disciplined, non-expert listener most probably has a better chance of recognizing and experiencing more examples of the highest levels of interpretation than the experts, because he is not burdened by his own preconceived ideas.

 

1 The problem of anticipating and actually hearing what is in one's own mind also exists in communication among people. People often hear the emotional tone that they expect from a person, even if it is not present in that person's voice and often understand words that were in their own mind instead of what was actually said.

2 This does not refer to a new breed of stick-to-the-written-page type of performer (especially conductors), who hide a lack of interpretive insight behind the claim to be returning to the composer's real intentions by carefully following every written indication in the score. Most composers give only the barest possible interpretive indications (usually only tempo and dynamics). Real musical interpretation involves doing what is not written in the score, which means knowing what the expressive content should be and achieving it in performance. The "literal" performer tries to follow everything on the page because he really does not know what the true expressive content should be.

3 This is explained in The Anstendig Institute's papers on sound reproduction and acoustics.

 

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.