Music is an incredibly easy and accessible way to experience flow, and there are a variety of ways to do so. Simply listening to music helps organize the mind and reduce psychic entropy, while making music is not only enjoyable but requires incredible complexity in learning how to produce harmonious sounds. Like the mastery of any complex skill, making music also helps strengthen the self.
“Listening to music wards off boredom and anxiety, and when seriously attended to, it can induce flow experiences. . . .It is not the hearing that improves life, it is the listening. We hear music, but we rarely listen to it, and few could have ever been in flow as a result of it.
As with anything else, to enjoy music one must pay attention to it. To the extent that recording technology makes music too accessible, and therefore taken for granted, it can reduce our ability to derive enjoyment from it. Before the advent of sound recording, a live musical performance retained some of the awe that music engendered when it was still entirely immersed in religious rituals. . . . One approached the event with heightened expectations, with the awareness that one had to pay close attention because the performance was unique and not to be repeated again.
The audiences at today’s live performances . . . continue to partake in some degree in these ritual elements; there are few other occasions at which large numbers of people witness the same event together, think and feel the same things, and process the same information. . . The very conditions of live performance help focus attention on the music, and therefore make it more likely that flow will result at a concert than when one is listening to reproduced sound. . . .[Yet] any sound can be a source of enjoyment if attended to properly. . . even the intervals of silence between sounds, if listened to closely, can be exhilarating.
Those who make the most of the potential for enjoyment inherent in music . . . have strategies for turning the experience into flow. They begin by setting aside specific hours for listening. When the time comes, they deepen concentration by dousing the lights, by sitting in a favorite chair, or by following some other ritual that will focus attention. They plan carefully the selection to be played, and formulate specific goals for the session to come.
Listening to music usually starts as a sensory experience. At this stage, one responds to the qualities of sound that induce the pleasant physical reactions that are genetically wired into our nervous system. . . . We are particularly sensitive to the rhythm of the drums or the bass . . . which some contend is supposed to remind the listener of the mother’s throbbing heart first heard in the womb.
The next level of challenge music presents is the analogic mode of listening. In this stage, one develops the skill to evoke feelings and images based on the patterns of sound.
The most complex stage of music listening is the analytic one. In this mode attention shifts to the structural elements of music, instead of the sensory or narrative ones. Listening skills at this level involve the ability to recognize the order underlying the work, and the means by which the harmony was achieved. They include the ability to evaluate critically the performance and the acoustics; to compare the piece with earlier and later pieces of the same composer, or with the work of other composers writing at the same time; and to compare the orchestra, conductor, or band with their own earlier and later performances, or with the interpretation of others. . . . Having set such goals, a listener becomes an active experience that provides constant feedback (e.g. ‘von Karajan has slowed down,’ ‘the Berlin brasses are sharper but less mellow’). As one develops analytic listening skills, the opportunities to enjoy music increase geometrically. “ (109-111)
If we really want to go deep into flow, we can try making music for ourselves and experience even greater rewards than we would from listening alone. There is a connection between the ability to create harmony in sound and the more general and abstract harmony that underlies the kind of social order we call a civilization. “Mindful of that connection, Plato believed that children should be taught music before anything else; in learning to pay attention to graceful rhythms and harmonies their whole consciousness would become ordered.
Our culture seems to have been placing a decreasing emphasis on exposing young children to music skills. Whenever cuts are to be made in a school’s budget, courses in music (as well as art and physical education) are the first to be eliminated. It is discouraging how these three basic skills, so important for improving the quality of life, are generally considered to be superfluous in the current educational climate. Deprived of serious exposure to music, children grow into teenagers who make up for their early deprivation by investing inordinate amounts of psychic energy into their own music. They form rock groups, buy tapes and records, and generally become captives of a subculture that does not offer many opportunities for making consciousness more complex. Even when children are taught music, the usual problem often arises: too much emphasis is placed on how they perform, and too little on what they experience. Parents who push their children to excel at the violin are generally not interested in whether the children are actually enjoying the playing; they want the child to perform well enough to attract attention, to win prizes, and to end up on the stage of Carnegie Hall. By doing so, they succeed in perverting music into the opposite of what it was designed to be: they turn it into a source of psychic disorder. Parental expectations for musical behavior often create great stress, and sometimes a complete breakdown. - (111-112)
Just remember, music is meant to be enjoyed. And although learning to play an instrument is easiest while young, it is really never too late to start!
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