The Listening Experience
How to Listen to Music
©1983 Mark B. Anstendig
Listening is the act of directing one's attention to sound. To listen requires awareness (consciousness) and concentration (focus). The more aware and focused one becomes, the more detail (nuance) one hears in the listening experience.
Hearing is a passive sensation in that a person will register sounds automatically. Since sounds are omnipresent, we readily develop a habit of ignoring sounds even though we hear them. Normally, unless one is self-absorbed or distracted, sounds are continually perceived. In the presence of sounds, perceiving and/or recognizing sounds is to hear. These two aspects of hearing are the informational (mentally identifying, analyzing, and evaluating) and the experiential (the conscious, non-cognitive perception of sounds and the physical-emotional response to that stimuli). The two aspects are exclusive in that each one interferes with the other. What usually happens is that one switches from one mode to the other while hearing.
Listening is more than merely hearing. It requires the person to focus attention to what is being heard. In the listening experience, one must suspend the informational processing and open oneself to the sound-as-experience. This is the art of listening. The requisite self-disciplines are to passively hear (allow the sound to "fall on one's ears"), to remain physically relaxed yet poised, and to shut off the interior monologue.
The ears must register the sounds, but the body must reproduce the sounds as well. The body acts as a sounding board. We hear the vibrations of our own body after it has been caused to vibrate by the vibrations from the sound source. We cannot hear nuances that are finer than the vibrating of our own bodies. To reproduce the sounds sympathetically, the body must be kept in a relaxed yet poised posture. This can become a delicate state of sensitivity that is easily broken by restlessness or distractions that cause a disturbance in the calmness of one's body. The more relaxed the body becomes, the more sensitive one becomes, and the more aural detail one can become conscious of. The more focused one's attention is on the sounds-as-sounds, the more detail one will hear.
Other sensory inputs distract from the listening experience. In the case of classical music, it requires sustained, focused concentration to listen to single melodic lines and there is still the entire ongoing orchestral accompaniment. To direct one's attention to sight or other sensations is to detract from the quality of the sonic experience.
Besides the need to control and direct the mind and body, the art of listening also requires attention to the physical environment. The space the music takes place in, the source of the sound (live or recorded), and the interaction of the listener and the flow of the music are all important factors in the listening experience.
In a concert hall, everyone is physically vibrating together and the music takes place on the overriding vibration set up by the audience. Still the accoustics of a hall determines and limits the sonic quality of the music. Halls which exaggerate high frequencies and produce reverberation (overtones) severely handicap the possibility of higher musical experiences. Inappropriate audience response can destroy the magical spell of mood and atmosphere set up by the performance.
With a recording, one's body may be vibrating in a completely different manner (generally more coarsely) than the flow of the music on record. In the beginning, one hears the notes, but the expressive experience does not happen. The music has to work on the listener for a while before body and mind settle into the flow of the music and one begins to hear the expression of the music. Besides the acoustics of the room, the recording media and the playback through electronic equipment present their own inherent sonic degradation. In this case, unlike the concert hall, the listener has the possibility through sound equalization techniques to restore the balance of frequencies to that of the original, live sounds. The liablity of most recordings, however, is that the performance is irrevocably interrupted when the listener must change sides of the record; a feasible remedy is to have the performance recorded on a media that can play the entire performance without interruption. However, the media must be capable of reproducing the entire content of the original recording or the live event.
The art of listening requires these considerations. Music is the highest, most powerful, most overriding of all the arts. In the presence of music, all the other arts take on the character of the music, not vice versa. Music is capable of and can produce in us the finest, most delicate of possible human reactions. If the experiential phenomena produced by the musicians and in the bodies of the listeners were translated into physical measurements (evenness; the minute differences in volume that produce the expressive content; the mechanical precision in the coordination of the orchestra players' bodies; and, the minute vibrations of the listeners' bodies and ear drums), those measurements would equal, and in many ways surpass, anything possible in any field of science or engineering. A sensitive, well-trained human being, in a correctly relaxed and balanced physical state, is capable of more extraordinarily fine differentiation than any machines or measuring instruments available to science, including realms of phenomena that science has no means of measuring. It should be clear that any disturbing factors, however slight, can degrade a fine musical experience.
The purpose of the higher arts is to elevate the members of the audience into finer levels of being and experience. In the listening experience, to experience the music, one must be in a mental and physical state equal to the performance of the artists. One must become what one hears. This requires self-discipline and self-development. Since vibrational influences determine the quality of sensory perceptions and emotional experiences as well as one's sense of well-being, the problem in reaching one's potential is that of ensuring the presence of vibrational influences conducive to finer, more exquisite, more refining experiences. Music is the most potent vibrational environment and offers the greatest possibilities for developing personal sensitivity, refinement and range of emotional experiences. There is no other recourse than to develop and rely on your own sensitivities. No one who wants to reach the higher level possibilities of music and other artistic experience is spared the necessity to develop and refine their own sensitivities. The way is through the listening experience.
The ideas presented in this essay were compiled from several essays written by the institute on the topics of vibrations, sound reproduction, and the problem of hearing. Full discussions on these topics, each from a different perspective, are available from the institute free of charge.
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit research and educational institute that studies the vibrational influences in our environment, particularly those of sight and sound, and how they affect sensory perception. Its papers on sound reproduction, problems of focusing in photography, psychology of hearing and seeing, and erratic vibrational influences that affect our lives are widely distributed throughout the world. All are available free of charge.