Version 1 Published in, The Australian Music Teacher Magazine, vol 6, #5 (1998)

Most people don't listen to music, they simply react. This is the basis of popular music. Ask any devotee of some popular band or group what the music is about and you will hear incomprehensible burbling or something about the lyrics, which, of course, has nothing to do with "the music" at all. The idea that there might be some structure to the music like tonality or harmonic sequences presented would ellicit silence and the blankest of looks.

Part of this amusical syndrome is a symptom of what is laughably called the educational system of the United States, whose wardens have now pretty much decided that the arts are a superfluous luxury.

Anybody reading this is painfully aware of all this and its dire consequences, so I won't belabor the point. The question I want to address is, given what music is, how does one listen to what is, in fact, there? How can one characterize the "state of listening"?

I will bet that a musician listening to music will exhibit a pronouced theta wave pattern in an EEG; for non musicians it should be either nothing or or an alpha wave state.

It is an apparently widely unknown tautology, that the arts are NOT, in their full being, immediately accessible and intuitively obvious to the untutored and insensitized senses.

All art is a system of relations that connects perceptions in a way that very specifically outside the everyday experience. The photographer captures the ordinary in a nonordinary way by capturing or framing relations that the inattentive would miss. This aspect of nonordinariness is one of virtues of the arts, that of expanding the repertoire of processes of mind that we call thought. This expanding and expanded state is a source of pleasure, another virtue. The crass and immediate manipulation of feelings in the name of art, without the interventions of attention and thought is precisely nonart.

The subject, however, is musical art, because that's the one I know best. First, I'd like to say a few words about what distinguishes music from the other arts. Music is the most abstract art. It represents nothing but itself, regardless of the names that may be put to various pieces and regardless of the existence of so called "programme music". Without its own internal selfcontained and autoreferetial structure, it is nothing; programs and names appended to it are nothing but unwanted and obfuscatory dung smeared upon it.

For most musicians, myself included, music has a pronounced visual aspect with properties of shape, color, texture, dimension, density, and can be seen/heard/felt internally with no external stimulus. Most conductors can look at a score and produce in their minds an ideal performance with all these attributes, not having to bother about practical matters like the essentially unstable design of the French Horn. Music is almost by its very abstract nature synaesthetic.

I remember my first year at college and going to recitals and concerts. To my joyful amazement, at every one I found the first row filled with the mathematics faculty, and the second filled with the physics faculty. I felt a certain rightness about this and since then I've observed that mathematicians and physicists, particularly those of the theoretical type had an inordinate love, appreciation and knowledge of music. Many were, in fact, also musicians. Anybody interested in such matters knows that Einstein was a violinist, and not a bad one as rumors might have it. Contrary to mythology, he was also a very good mathematician, as anyone who has read his early papers on Brownian motion can attest. Edward Teller is a pianist who could negotiate the Sonatas of Beethoven; not a mean talent as anyone who plays them knows.

One thing that physics, mathematics amd music all share is a high degree of subtle abstract thinking. Learning and engagement of this type of mental process in any one area is a positive influence on the same type of process in the other two. To be fluent in all three is a happy union.

So what is it like, to listen to a fugue of Bach?
This is polyphonic music with between 2 and 6 seprate and distinct voices (melodies, if I must) which fit together vertically in such a way as to form dramatic harmonic progressions. It is not unlike listening to 2 to 6 people all speaking in conversation at the same time on a given subject. One hears and understands their individual meanings, where any two or more are in some kind of agreement and similarly where they are in disagreement, and also about which they are in agreement or disagreement.

Very clearly "listening" is the same as "hearing" about as much as "thinking" is the same as "feeling". Turning on a radio and doing something else is NOT listening, it is also not paying attention to what you are doing. Listening is about paying attention, and doing so in an intense and complicated way; it is a very active and participatory process, often accompanied by physical stillness. But, the purpose of art is not to sooth you into complacency; it is not to make you feel, or not feel; it is not to dull your mind or put you to sleep. It is to enhace your inner life, expand you mind, increase your abilities of awareness and perception. No wonder it's considered a luxury in governmental circles. Pablo Picasso once said, "Art should bristle with razor blades." It should indeed.

To listen to music is not to surrender to it, but rather to engage its forms on its own terms as well as one's own; to anticipate and participate in its own logical unfolding and be delighted by being wrong.

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Created: September 1997
Last Updated: November 8, 2001
Last Updated: May 27, 2011