“Every art cuts away whole areas of human experience to focus our attention on a selected few elements. Then you can see those elements as you never have before. Painting cuts away sound and words so you can see better, music cuts away words and vision so you can hear better.” ~ Robert Olen Butler, from Alleys of Eden
We tend to respect and admire the development of musical performance skills while overlooking the benefits of cultivating a bit of discipline and training of our ability to listen.
By default, most of us have developed a stunning and sophisticated repertoire for blocking out the world around us. We allocate the bulk of our attention inwardly toward the stories playing out in our minds.
It’s as if we have each been cast as the star of our own private reality show that broadcasts around the clock on our own exclusive, internal cable network. Even when you find yourself sitting in the audience at a concert, doesn’t it often seem like you are the central character and that the others in the audience—even the performers on stage—are all extras?
Instead of seeing this as a flaw to obsess about, we can instead begin to explore the elements of this personal narrative. With consistent practice over time, we can become intimately familiar with its various component parts and less caught up in its content. We can even gain insight into the tendency to emphasize the most dramatic elements and ignore the subtle ones. Paradoxically, the more familiar we become with the flow of our thoughts and feelings, the more directly and completely we experience the objective world around us.
At any given moment, we have a limited amount of attention to spend. Just being clear about what we are noticing can begin to change ordinary experience in simple yet profound ways. Listening to music offers a compelling doorway into this perspective. When we focus on one or more aspects of listening, we strengthen our ability to concentrate. When we explore music as an opportunity to cultivate attention, we also strengthen the ability to hear the musicality within the ordinary sounds we encounter in daily life. With consistent practice over time, we can even begin to experience the sense of wonder which sparks the human impulse to create music in the first place.
A Complete Experience of Listening
Explore this strategy from the beginning to end of a piece of music.
Restrict the main focus of your attention to listening to sounds around you and to verbal thinking. There will almost certainly be additional stimulus in the background (visual activity, mental images, pleasant or unpleasant physical sensations, and sensations in the body that seem to be emotional in nature). There is no need to wrestle with any of these or to try to suppress them in any way. To the best of your ability, allow them to operate in the background while your primary attention rests on external or internal sounds.
Whenever you become aware that your primary attention has become focused on one of these background activities, gently bring it back to listening.
Let your attention drift and wander freely within the acoustic space around you as well as in the space where verbal thinking seems to be take place. This internal space varies for each individual. Not being completely sure if you are identifying it properly is a significant part of the process of becoming more familiar with it. We give musicians time to find their way into virtuosity, right? Give yourself time to become more intimately familiar with where verbal (and visual) thinking occurs.
Every few seconds, try to be as clear as possible whether you are listening to external sounds or internal sounds. Then just hang out with the activity of sound that you’ve noticed. Savor it. External sounds and verbal thinking count equally in this exercise. Try not to prefer one over the other. There is no need to try to suppress thinking. Get acquainted with it as internal sound. What matters is that you bring some effort to noticing where your attention is and whether it is focused externally (OUT) or inwardly (IN).
You can support this process by using mental labels to help clarify and aim your attention. If you notice that your attention is resting on the activity of sounds around you, you can say to yourself in a soft, mentally whispered voice: OUT. If you notice that your attention is resting on the activity of internal conversations, you can say to yourself in a soft, mentally whispered voice: IN.
That’s it! Just keep going until the end of the song and enjoy. Take breaks between practice periods as needed then try again.
You might also want to explore some of these alternative strategies:
- Expand your exploration to include external visual stimuli as OUT and mental images as IN.
- Cover the entire acoustic space around you with gentle, even awareness. Restrict your primary attentional focus to external sounds and silence, gently bringing your attention back to this space as many times as needed.
- Cover the internal talk space with gentle, even awareness. Restrict your primary attentional focus to internal sounds and silence, gently bringing your attention back to this space as many times as needed.
- Pick one instrument to notice letting the other instruments move into the background. See if you can stay with the sound activity of this one instrument, gently bringing your attention back to it as many times as you need to during the span of one musical selection. You can repeat this option again selecting a different instrument to work with.
- When noticing internal or external sounds, see if you can stay with a phrase from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. Listen for the rests between phrases and the commas in the sentences of your verbal thoughts. Listen to the silence between phrases for as long as they last.
- You can alternatively drop the emphasis on listening and switch to noticing any responses in the body to the activity of the music. The body becomes the primary focus of attention. Let listening move to the background, like pebbles or raindrops falling into a pond. Observe these reactions within the body as splashes and ripples. These physical sensations might be flavored with restfulness or with emotional flavors. No need to analyze. Just observe the sensations as you would savor a massage.
- "How to Listen to Music: A Vintage Guide to the 7 Essential Skills," Maria Popova writing about Elliot Schwartz's Music: Ways of Listening, Brain Pickings, April 12, 1012
- "The Transformative Power of Classical Music," TED Talk by Benjamin Zander, February 2008
- Touch the Sound, a documentary featuring percussionist Evelyn Glennie
- Musical Language, Radiolab (Season 2/Episode 2, September 24, 2007)
- Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher
- The 3 Biggest Myths About Meditation Music by Julianna Raye
- "This Is Your Brain on Silence," by Daniel A. Gross, Nautilus