Online Class Discussion #9 is open for comments April 3-9. The rubric I’ll be using to grade your participation and a description of these assignments is available here.
In class this week, we’re talking about how music is used in religious settings and rituals. One of the things that makes those religious experiences powerful and moving—beyond practitioners’ faith in their religion—is the fact that music can make us feel like we’re in touch with something bigger than ourselves, something otherworldly and often spiritual.
The idea of music having the ability to create transcendent experiences—something beyond the typical human experience, that lifts you out of the physical world and in which you feel a connection with God, the universe, or something equally cosmic—is something that’s found in many different musical styles around the world, so it’s a fitting final topic for our last online discussion this semester.
Think about a time when you were doing something—anything—and you looked at your clock/watch/phone and realized several hours had passed in what felt like the blink of an eye. Likely whatever you were doing was something that was mentally engrossing, it held your attention, it was enjoyable, it wasn’t so easy that you became bored (and at the same time it was challenging but not frustrating), and it was rewarding in and of itself rather than something you do to make someone else happy (the word for this kind of intrinsically rewarding experience is autotelic).
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who has studied the ways in which people experience what he calls “flow” while doing activities that meet these criteria: talking to an interesting conversation partner, reading a book, looking at art, playing chess, immersion in religious rituals, athletic competition. Even though these are wildly different activities, they all produce flow, a unique kind of positive sensation for the person engaged in them: they stop thinking about themselves in a self-conscious way and no longer have a running inner monologue, they focus on the activity at hand and ignore other distractions, they lose track of time, they feel as if their decisions or actions are inspired or guided rather than having to directly make them happen (like they’re at one with what they’re doing), they’re often aware that their brain feels different while they’re doing this activity (that the feeling the activity produces is special), and overall they feel really, really good because of the activity. Flow is a heightened state of consciousness (meaning it’s not a mental state that you feel at most points in the day and you have to do something to gain access to it). (Csikszentmihalyi has also done an interesting TEDtalk about how you can use the concept of flow to lead a happier life).
Side note: “Heightened state of consciousness” is not the same as “mood” or “emotion.” Cognitively speaking, “normal” mental states consist of our brain functions throughout the day: having a perception, experiencing a sensation, having a recollection, or thinking about something. There are also mental states in which people are not wholly conscious and experience no emotions, such as pathological states like mania, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and catatonia; and emotion-less dissociative states like daydreaming, hypnotic trance, and deep meditation. A heightened mental state is a more intense version of a “normal” mental state in which sensations and perceptions are experienced more intensely and vividly.
Flow isn’t an idea that Csikszentmihalyi invented, and he’s not the only one who’s studied it. Frank Putnam and Karen Nesbitt Shanor (1999) call it a “peak experience” or “Nirvana,” and when they describe it the emphasize the peaceful, euphoric feeling that people describe.
“Peak experience states are rewarding because they enable us to just be. It is not as if they are a means to another end. They are the end. The individual does not feel the need to seek something beyond the experience. There is only the wish to be able to re-experience such a state when it has faded.”
—Frank Putnam and Karen Nesbitt Shanor, “States of Consciousness from Infancy to Nirvana,” in The Emerging Mind, ed. Shanor (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999), p. 71
Flow is an enticing feeling. It’s something that I experience on stage performing, at home practicing, while writing, while in front of you guys in the classroom (sometimes!), while cooking, and while having a stimulating discussion with someone whom I find interesting. As a result, these are some of my favorite things to do—they’re enjoyable while they’re happening, they leave me feeling great, and they’re more vivid and inspiring than other things I have to do in my day-to-day life. In turn, I try to do these things as much as possible, since I know that they can put me in a mental state that other activities can’t.
Let’s look at some examples of how people use music to control their mental states and create a flow experience.
The shakuhachi is a Japanese flute made out of bamboo. One of the traditional uses of this instrument was by monks in the Fuke-shū sect of Zen Buddhism. Practitioners of this faith work to achieve an ideal mental state they refer to as Zen, which they describe as a physical transformation or sensation similar to that described by musicians of other traditions (and non-musicians that Csikszenmihalyi has studied): loss of ego, transcendence of individuality, weightlessness, time dilation, attentional focus, mental clarity, intense pleasure, and a transformed sense of self. The experience is not necessarily a religious one, but most practitioners do describe a sense of communing with or coming into contact with timeless, universal knowledge (through the ironically impermanent medium of sound) and emerging transformed for the better.
People who play the shakuhachi use the instrument as a means to achieve Zen (players call it suizen, or Zen that comes from blowing). Making a sound on the instrument at all is a difficult task (required intense concentration, one of Csikszentmihalyi’s criteria for flow), and players focus on controlling gradual, subtle changes in the quality of sound they make. Through years of study, they become more in tune with their bodies, become more intimately aware of the feeling of air moving through the instrument, and become more sensitive listeners—the control and awareness they develop are all ways to get closer to a Zen state of mind. Shakuhachi players regard suizen not as a momentary occurrence, instantaneous revelation, or passing goal, but rather as an ongoing process or lifestyle because it causes a permanent transformation of the self.
“The biggest joy of all to be found in the shakuhachi, however, is in the actual playing. To describe it to someone who doesn’t play the shakuhachi is almost impossible, even more so when he plays no musical instrument at all. For example, how would a bird explain to a human how it feels to fly? With that in mind, I shall try to describe my feelings while playing any musical instrument. There are times, rare indeed, when I’m playing along, and suddenly it seems that I’m not playing at all. That is, everything seems to go on automatic. My fingers continue to move, my lips adjust themselves properly, but my conscious self seems to be sitting to the side watching it happen, listening to the music with extreme pleasure. And maybe once or twice during the five years I have played the shakuhachi, even the consciousness of the listener seemed to disappear. Everything disappeared. All that remained was the music of the shakuhachi. Pure, timeless and eternal. How does it feel to fly?”
—Riley Lee, “An American looks at the shakuhachi of Japan: 1 April 1986,” in The Annals of The International Shakuhachi Society, Vol. 1, ed. Dan Mayers, p. 114
This is a kind of music that isn’t intended for any audience—it doesn’t matter if anyone else is around to hear the sounds of the instrument (or even if the sounds are any good!). The purpose of playing is for the shakuhachi player himself (women didn’t traditionally play this instrument) to enter into a heightened mental state and return to the real world a better, more enlightened person. As an added bonus, for those who happen to be listening, the sounds are beautiful, as well!
Remember how we’ve defined “melody” in class as usually being the highest, most prominent line in a piece of music? This next musical tradition, gamelan, is a good example of why we have to say “usually” in that definition. The highest, most active, most prominent thing you hear in a gamelan piece isn’t the melody—it’s just an elaboration or decorated version of the melody.
Gamelan is a percussion ensemble from Indonesia (islands of Java and Bali). The music is constructed out of hypnotic cycles of repetition, with the largest gong marking the beginning of each melodic pattern. Playing gamelan music is an act of group meditation: no instrumental part plays the complete melody—it requires all the parts interlocking to make the music happen—and everyone is locked in mentally and musically to what the other members of the group are doing.
In contrast with shakuhachi music, in gamelan both the players and the audience can have a deep, spiritual experience (a heightened mental state), because anyone who understands how the music is constructed can enter into it and leave themselves behind. This point of entry is the lagu batin (“inner melody”), which is the real melody of the piece, and the special thing in this kind of music is that you never hear this melody out loud in the real world. The inner melody only exists as a feeling shared by everyone involved in the musical experience. Each player focuses on it and mentally travels inward (instead of thinking about the surface) to find the musical “truth,” and the experience of traveling inward, of leaving one’s conscious self behind by becoming ever more deeply engrossed in the music and the music-making process produces a heightened mental state.
In this video, the dancers’ movements are generally slow, because they’re listening to the fundamental pulse of the music (just like the musicians are), not the fast sub-divisions that are played on top. The highest instruments (gambang, bonang) play elaborate and rhythmically fast lines; the leader of the ensemble (who acts like a conductor) plays one of these instruments. Middle instruments (slenthem) play simpler, relaxed lines that form the basic skeleton of the piece. The lowest instruments (saron, gong) play even fewer notes that are more structural, marking the beginning and end of rhythmic cycles. Drums (kendhang) add rhythmic clarity and often improvise new rhythmic ideas. Some gamelan ensembles include non-percussion instruments (flutes: suling, string instruments: rebab, female singers called pesindhèn) that play an improvised version of the slenthems’ melody. – All of this vocabulary is just to acknowledge that every kind of music around the world has as much going on behind-the-scenes or under-the-hood as Western classical music, and musicians everywhere develop vocabulary to talk about what they do with specificity, precision, and respect.
Other flow examples from the wide world of music
Instances of people becoming another version of themselves because of music are widespread and common across the musical world. In Sufi Islam, practitioners seek out religious ecstasy with the help of music. (Some sects of Islam forbid music entirely, others use sounds that an outsider might consider to be music but practitioners do not, and others, like Sufis, use music extensively). Dervishes perform a whirling dance while focusing on the music being played and their connection to God that allows them to enter a trance (a heightened mental state) and feel closer to God and the center of the universe.
Attendees at a rave, too, use music (in addition to controlled substances) to feel a heightened sense of euphoria, connection with the people around them, or other non-religious spirituality.
People who attend concerts or listen to music can experience flow, too—as we saw in Online Discussion #3, listening can be just as active and mentally stimulating an experience as dancing or performing. For many lovers of classical music, especially, the feeling of liberation, of no longer having to be yourself, and of feeling a larger power at work (even if it’s not religious) is a big part of the draw and admiration for classical music. Judith Becker (2004) has explored this topic extensively and dubs people who seek out transcendental experiences with music “trancers,” comparing them to yogis and others who are able to control and alter their mental states at will.
Descriptions of classical music from the 19th century are a gold mine for juicy, transcendental musical experiences. People believed music could offer them entry into unseen worlds and composers tried to deliver. Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776–1822), like many other listeners, first felt a connection with things beyond himself when listening to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, and this feeling (even though he doesn’t use the same words as Csikszentmihalyi, since he’s not a 20th-century psychologist), implies that he’s had a flow experience.
“Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens up to us also the realm of the monstrous and the immeasurable. Burning flashes of light shoot through the deep night of this realm and we become aware of giant shadows that surge back and forth, driving us into narrower and narrower confines until they destroy us—but not the pain of that endless longing in which each joy that has climbed aloft in jubilant song sinks back and is swallowed up, and it is only in this pain, which consumes love, hope, and happiness but does not destroy them, which seeks to burst our breasts with a many-voices consonance of all the passions, that we live on, enchanted beholders of the supernatural!… Beethoven’s music sets in motion the lever of fear, of awe, of horror, of suffering, and wakens just that infinite longing which is the essence of romanticism…”
—E.T.A. Hoffmann, Beethoven’s Instrumental Music (1813)
Composers enter flow states, too. When he felt that his creative activity was flowing well and his concentration was high, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93), for example, described his ideal work habits in language that is almost assuredly an example of flow, a peak experience, or a heightened mental state. His account includes time dilation, attentional focus (“I forget everything”), loss of his own identity which is subsumed by another (“behave like a madman”), and a bodily reaction (“pulsing and quivering”):
“I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch ere one thought flows [into] another. In the midst of this magic process it frequently happens that some external interruption wakes me from my somnamubulistic state: a ring at the bell, the entrance of my servant… Dreadful are such interruptions. Sometimes they break the thread of inspiration for a considerable time, so that I have to seek it again, often in vain.”
—Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, letter to Nadezhda von Meck 17 February 1878 describing his experience writing Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
The science of flow
Music, like all disciplines, isn’t self-contained. It intersects with, abuts, and draws upon the other arts, sciences, mathematics, history, language, and sociology. To this discussion of transcendent experiences, music cognition, and the heightened mental state of flow let’s add physiology (pronounced fizzy-all-oh-gee), which is the study of how our bodies normally function: how our cells, biochemicals, and bodily systems all work together, react to the world around us, and keep us alive.
Physiology comes into play in music when we start thinking about how our bodies react to music: things happen when we like the sounds we’re hearing (our eyes dilate, our pulse changes, our body releases dopamine) — we have a physiological reaction to the music that’s involuntary, exciting, sometimes unexpected, and often enjoyable. Our bodies’ reactions help us understand if we want to hear something again (even if we don’t directly say to ourselves, “Wow, my cerebellum became quite active during that song; I’d better listen to it again!”) because we enjoy the way they feel, and we know that listening to music might be one of the only ways to feel those particular (enjoyable) feelings again.
In the following video, musician/researcher Deanna Choi at TEDxQueensU in 2012 (Canada) explains what happens to our bodies when we listen to music:
I enjoy the fact that such disparate kinds of music from all over the world and different points in time are connected by fundamental points of contact: the experience that people hope to get out of engaging with music. In all cases, people are describing gaining access to versions of themselves and secrets of the universe that would otherwise be unreachable, and it’s music that provides that access. Being able to experience a shade of that same sensation in my own life makes me feel even more connected to the wide range of people with whom I share the world.
Despite having a shared end goal, each of the kinds of music in this discussion reaches that goal through completely different means: music that’s meant to be played but not meant to be listened to, music that is an approximation of the music people feel inside of them, music that is meant to be danced to, and music that adheres to the traditional classical model we’ve seen throughout the semester. That’s the fundamental paradox of music for me: that the closer it brings us together, the more clearly it highlights our differences, and this is what makes us human.
Questions to get the conversation started:
- Describe a time that you had a flow experience: what were you doing that triggered it, and how did it feel?
- If physiological reactions are involuntary, why don’t we all enjoy the same music to the same degree?
- What kinds of music that can induce a flow-like state for you? What makes this heightened mental state possible for you (e.g., the sound or patterns of the music, the setting, accompanying activities)?