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The Lost Art of Listening to Music

By Don Robertson

An article published in Sonflowers Magazine, May/July 1980

     In the world today, very few of us stop to consider what music is and what kind of effect it has upon our lives. Yet, thanks to our technology, people are consuming music in larger quantities than has ever before been possible, and this growing intrusion of electronic music – music reproduced electronically by such means as radio and TV – is taking place practically unnoticed. Moving about in a world of electronic sounds, bombarded with music at home and at work, while shopping and travelling, people take music for granted, as if it were a natural function of every environment; very few people have thought about the effect that this music has upon them physically, mentally, or spiritually.
     Music, all too often considered to be a frivolous pastime or a harmless amusement, is actually a powerful force that can affect living things dramatically. Even though these effects are not as immediately noticeable to most people as the effects produced by more physically obvious phenomena, the ability of music to affect us can easily be demonstrated. Its effect upon the body is obvious, as a strong beat usually creates an instantaneous reaction. Studies have shown that a series of unaccented pulses played to a group of subjects caused the majority to respond physically by toe- or finger-tapping or some other bodily movement. Music also affects the emotions, causing a change in a person’s mood, and it affects the mind, altering a listener’s mental state. In short, music affects the whole man.
     Think about the separate effects that a movie and a stage drama produce. You will probably agree that while watching a movie, you feel and identify with the action much more intimately and intensely than while watching a play. This should be apparent as you look around at an audience in a movie theater during scenes of heightened tension and drama; few stage plays can create the complete captivation and absorption of a movie, an effect largely due to the soundtrack. This is why, with very few exceptions, every movie produced has used music as a background. The music molds and shapes emotions, creating inward responses to the action that is taking place on the screen.
     The ability that music has to transform the inner life was no mystery to the teachers and philosophers of old, who knew that music could produce changes within a person that might be either beneficial or harmful Because music could be used to obtain such positive results as healing, strengthening of character, and divine attunement, it became one of the primary subjects taught in the schools of ancient Greece. Plato believed that certain music strengthened the inner core of man himself:

“Rhythm and harmony penetrate to the inner recesses of the soul, take powerful hold there, and impose order upon it, making it orderly.”

     He also taught that the music of any nation contributed to its overall condition, and that by changing a musical scale only slightly, the foundation of that nation could be undermined. This teaching was also common to the Chinese, who at one time imposed rigid laws that allowed only the music of the pure pentatonic (five-note natural) scale – the most harmonious of all scales – to be performed.[1]

[1] In the key of C major, the notes are C, D, E, G, A

The Effects of Today’s Music

     That music can have harmful as well as beneficial effects is as true today as it was in ancient times. Music that creates joy, stability, strength of character, love, exaltation, and purity is positive in effect, while music that creates hate, fear, suspense, anger, inertia and confusion is negative. Knowing this, you might ask yourself: “Who would willingly listen to that has a negative effect?” The answer to this question is that millions of people unknowingly listen to many hours of negative music each week in its role as background music for the nightly TV shows that dwell on suspense and violence. Without negative music to accompany them, these shows would be almost emotionally impotent.
     This negative music is an offshoot of what is called “contemporary classical music” that came into being early in the twentieth century, when some composers began turning away from the natural harmonic basis of music – the harmony inherent in all of nature and the basis of all growth, goodness and love. A music that does not conform to the natural laws of harmony produces a vibration that is not in accord with higher principles. The fact will always remain that in Creation, for our learning and our use, there are two opposite polarities inherent in all things, including music.
     Harmonious vibration is positive, constructive and healing, while disharmonious vibration has the opposite effect. When you feel good, your body – a force field of billions of tiny vibrating cells – vibrates harmoniously; when you don’t feel good, your body vibrates in inharmonious patterns. The vibrational patterns created with sound by the music cause your body to vibrate in resonance with these patterns and to take on a similar vibrational pattern, depending on how much you are yielding to the music.

Some Studies and Experiments

     The fact that music has particular negative and positive effects can be demonstrated in many ways. In addition to the interesting experiments that have demonstrated the positive and negative effects of music upon plants, the field of musical psychology has yielded some valuable studies. For example, a study was conducted in the 1920s in which the response from 20,000 people who had been asked to listen to a variety of selected musical recordings were collected and analyzed. Results showed that these musical selections produced changes of mood, and that these changes of mood were nearly alike for most of the subjects. In other words, each musical selection had a similar emotional effect upon most of the listeners; one piece made them feel sad, another happy, another angry, and so on.
     The key to understanding the effect of music is in knowing that music produces the same vibrational effect every time that it is played, according to its rhythmic and harmonic structure. But people are often affected differently each time they hear the same piece of music because their receptivity to the music is different at different times. Also, different people are often affected differently by the same music. Their receptivity could be the result of built-in cultural and social influences that have been acquired since their childhood, or by emotional moods and physical states that affect the mind.
     Therefore, music should be categorized by the kind of effect that it has, a better method than adhering to the standard classifications where everything is neatly packaged under various labels such as rock, jazz, country, disco, classical, soul, and so on. These inappropriate designations tell us little about the true nature of the music, and the kinds of effects that it creates, but they do help in identifying the type of music genre in a general nature.

Listening to Music

     To truly appreciate music, it is necessary to learn to listen. There is a great difference between hearing music and listening to music, and those who have never consciously trained their listening facilities are more than likely only hearing music in a superficial way, receiving a fraction of music’s gift. Most people don’t listen to music because their normal musical content is with recorded electronic music that is playing somewhere in the background, accompanying shopping, house-cleaning, talking, driving, and other such activities, and only a minimum of their attention is focused upon it.
     Music of a particular kind – unobtrusive, simple, consonant, without drama – can be very effective when it is used as a background for other activities; its use in hospitals and homes or wherever the vibration of an environment needs uplifting or quieting is highly recommended, as long as it is not played all the time. Studies have shown that the beneficial effects of music diminish after a few hours of continuous playing. The Muzak Corporation[1] found that a maximum of two and one-half to three hours of music during any eight-hours of music during any eight-hour working period gave the most beneficial results as far as the well-being and efficiency of factory workers was concerned, and experiments with the effects of music upon plants have shown that continuous subjection of plants to music causes them to deteriorate.
     When music becomes the sole activity occupying one’s attention, listening truly takes place. Music then becomes a foreground, and we treat it with the same respect that we treat an interesting and engrossing book, devoting our attention to it and it alone. As it is necessary to learn to read, so is it also necessary to learn to listen, a skill which requires paying attention to the music to the exclusion of all else, as in a meditation. It is necessary to release all thoughts and worries and allow the body to become relaxed. Then if you let yourself flow with the sound, the power that positive, beneficial music evokes will cleanse and heal you, and will lift your consciousness higher. Have you ever experienced this kind of contact with music?
     Here is how you can learn to listen: Turn out all lights, close your eyes, and relax comfortably. If you have a good pair of stereo headphones, make use of them, as they are an excellent aid in listening. Once you have begun to relax, let the music flow and take over as you let go and forget your worldly problems and affairs. If thoughts manage to keep on interfering, concentrate upon relaxing, even if you must forget about trying to listen to the music, until a full relaxation is accomplished. If after trying that you are still unable to lose yourself in the music, try the trick of following the melodic line mentally, carefully distinguishing the up and down movement, and make a mental note of the various instruments that you hear. Do this for about ten minutes, saying to yourself: “These are the horns.. now the melody is rising higher and higher..” and so on. What you are doing is directing your mind to receive the impressions of the music, much like directing your eyes to see something by turning your head and then taking mental notes of what is taking place. If after ten minutes you still find it difficult to concentrate, discontinue trying, as it may be best to conduct your listening session at another time when you are more in tune. Perhaps after listening to some appropriate music in the background for an hour or so while you do something else you will be better prepared.

[1] Muzak is an American brand of background music played in retail stores and other public establishments. The name has been in use since 1934, and has been owned by a division or subsidiary of one or another company ever since. (Wikipedia)

Healing Music

     Our culture has produced some highly spiritual, beneficial, and healing music, but much of this music lies obscured in the large “classical” repertory.
     Josquin Des Prés (c.1450-1521), Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), Orlando di Lasso (c.1532-1594), Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474), Jacob Gallus aka Jakob Handl (1550-1591), and Giovanni Palestrina (c.1525-1594) were all very great composers who wrote music to supplement the Gregorian chanting of the Roman liturgy, yet their music is scarcely known in the world today. Having lived before the time of Bach their music is often considered archaic. This attitude is purely illusory because music is recreated each time it is performed; great music will never grow old because it expresses the laws and reality of that which is beyond our physical world. It is timeless. If people call this music archaic it is because they are not used to its style, just as music from an unknown culture is easily branded as foreign and strange. It must be taken into consideration that it was only during the latter part of the nineteenth century that the magnificent music of J.S. Bach gained any foothold with the public, and still to this day it is far above the understanding of most people. Music that predates Bach is basically still waiting to be discovered.
     More recent times have brought us the composers Richard Wagner, César Franck, and Alexander Scriabin. They composed music relating to higher states of consciousness and much of their music is spiritual, beneficial, and healing. Since Wagner’s youth, his creative goal was to unite the poetic and the musical in a form of art that would be elevating to man. His work stands as one of the highest achievements in art. Scriabin, greatly influenced by Wagner, continued in the same direction, working with sound as a means of spiritual upliftment and discovery. However, it must be warned that in some of his music, he also explored the dark side, and so discretion is advised. Franck’s best music is unknown today, his great works, such as his opera Ghiselle, his oratorio Les Béatitudes and most of his early works have not been recorded and are never performed. This humble and highly spiritual soul – also influenced by Wagner – was strongly attuned to the heart.
    With these composers, classical music reached a climax. Then, during the first decades of the twentieth century, classical music, as well as art, lapsed into a long period where the bizarre and grotesque were glorified. This period seems to be ending now as new music is emerging. This new music has no stock label yet; some of it is meditative, some expanding. It is a music that concentrates on the healing, beneficial aspect. The classical music of North India has had a great influence on this now-emerging music. One of the main centers for this new music is in Germany, spear-headed by Klaus Schulze, a young musician/composer who uses electronic synthesizers; Chaitanya Deuter, a German living in Poona, India at the ashram of Bhagwan Shree Ragneesh; and Peter Michael Hamel, a German composer and the author of a book called Through Music to the Self.