Saturday, April 13, 2013

I Can’t Hear You!

"...we would cry because of the intense beauty of the music, and nobody would have dreamed of disturbing the magic."
~ Ravi Shankar

Mage Music 48: Are You Listening?
Are you really listening?
Mage Music 48

I always recommend not actually looking at the videos that I link to in Mage Music.  I suggest only listening to them. That's what I do - I play YouTubes and DVDs without looking at the screen. I'm in it for the music, and music can't be perceived with eyes. 

Why does a musician so often close his eyes when in the deepest throes of musical passion?  It's because seeing interferes with the music experience.  If that's good enough for musicians like Jimmy Page, it's good enough for me.

The biology of perception
Hearing is so important that it develops even before a person is born.  Amniotic fluid is a good conductor of sound and a fetus can hear the mother’s heartbeat as early as the third or fourth month. Sounds can affect fetal heart rate, and research has shown that music can cause changes in metabolism in fetuses and babies. Some prospective parents, aware of this, play music to help their unborn child’s intellectual and emotional development. 

Of course there's nothing to see in the womb, so it's logical that eyes don't develop fully till after birth.  A baby is born only able to see things within about a 12" range - just enough to find a mother's nipple.  It takes a while before vision fully develops in a newborn - yet a baby can hear perfectly well right from the start. That's because hearing is crucial to development and survival of the individual and the species - and not just humans.

How important is it?  All this planet's complex organisms that have both eyes and ears evolved the ability to voluntarily close the eyes but not the ears. In other words, we have evolved a mechanism to choose not to see, but we haven't evolved one to choose to not hear.  There are eyelids, but not earlids. Hearing is such a fundamental sense that it is always on and we can hear under all kinds of circumstances, even sometimes while unconscious.  We can even receive sound through our bones.   

The parts of the brain involved with hearing are very closely connected with the parts involved with survival. The “reptile brain”, the limbic system, is the oldest part of the brain (in terms of evolution) and is the most primitive. It works on automatic responses, not intellectual decisions. That’s where emotions and immediate reaction to danger is handled, that’s where memory is processed.

And that's also is a big part of the brain that deals with music.

Visual illusion
To see or to hear, that is the question
Sound is so important to us and yet vision is such a brain-hog. Something like eighty to eighty five percent of our perception, learning, cognition and related activities are vision-oriented and involve parts of the brain that deal with conscious thought. When we see things, our brains fill in gaps of knowledge that then direct - and even overpower - the other senses and even our thinking. That’s why optical illusion can be so successful – our eyes can trick our brains into believing something is true that isn't. Even knowing that the bathroom floor in the image to the right is a trompe l’oeil (literally, fool the eye), we might hesitate at stepping onto it (click on image to enlarge).

If vision hogs the brain then we sometimes need to shut down visual input. That's when the eyelids come into play. For instance, people squint when trying to focus on an idea, or close their eyes when trying to identify something is by touch. That's why when people want to savor a sound, smell or taste - or increase the intensity of an experience like sex or music - the eyes so often are closed.
The sound of music
Sorry for putting that ear-worm in your brain - here's a link to a YouTube to make it go away (Down By The Seaside). Now that you've clicked on the link, I've got a bit of homework for you. Watch the video carefully. Read the lyrics. Look at the pictures. Now play it again and don't watch it. Close your eyes, sit back and listen. The second time around I promise you'll hear more. This is the way to hear music.

The ability to explore and share knowledge of the  fundamental nature of being and the world - the "metahuman" or "metaphysical" level of existence - is possible because of human language, which is sound based. But while language has brought humanity beyond itself,  it is still a human invention to communicate about reality as it relates to humans, that is, the finite. Music, on the other hand, connects to the infinite.

The Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), wrote the following: 
What we call music in our everyday language is only a miniature from that music or harmony of the whole universe which is working behind everything...   Music is not only life's greatest object, but it is life itself.
Or, as Hermann Hesse put it in his book The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi), the world is sound, a microcosm of the whole spiritual cosmos and thus music can reproduce the entire spiritual content of the world.

Music is too important not to hear fully.

Vision or music - but not both  
Basically, if you watch a video, the sensory distortion provided by the predominance of vision means that you are cutting off a significant percentage of your ability to hear the music. The sound waves still enter your ears and make your ear drums vibrate, your brain still receives the input from your inner ear, but the majority of your brain is involved with the signals that are being received visually.  In essence, your brain “ignores” most of the received auditory input. The part of the brain that that processes emotion – and the emotional interpretation of music – is barely engaged.

In other words, you aren't really hearing much of the music if you’re watching a music video.

And if you aren’t hearing the music, you’ll never get the Magick that's in it, will you?

Additional reading:
What Happens in the Brain to Make Music Rewarding?
"...the brain assigns value to music through the interaction of ancient dopaminergic reward circuitry, involved in reinforcing behaviours that are absolutely necessary for our survival such as eating and sex, with some of the most evolved regions of the brain, involved in advanced cognitive processes that are unique to humans.... The integrated activity of brain circuits involved in pattern recognition, prediction, and emotion allow us to experience music as an aesthetic or intellectual reward."


  1. How timely your discourse is! I just got my first flat screen big TV and have been engrossed in my music concert DVDs. Thanks for this reminder- really informative and interesting as always
    Regards Kimberley (all ears) Christie

    1. Just know when to focus on what, Kimberley - after all, focus is a big component of Magick!