David Bowie. Nina Simone. Pink Floyd. Fink. Joni Mitchell. Prince. Given a moment of reflection, any of these names have the power to provide us with a time travelling, sensory experience. Music seems to have always incorporated a transcendental component, one that allows listeners to detach from their present and re-anchor themselves in past experiences—it can trigger past joys as well as sorrows and ignite remembrance. Lyrics we never knew we knew have the power to bubble up to the surface, leaving us elated and breathless after shout-singing Prince’s Purple Rain at the top of our lungs. Hopefully when no one was looking.
Humanity has a longstanding, intricate relationship with experiencing music and liveness. The concert — with its layers of immediacy, presence and intimacy — feels built on the scaffolding of what John Dewey called the aesthetic experience. To feel, Dewey says, we need to be able to comprehend the elements of the experience as well as be allowed to drift through it. “An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, the storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience, in spite of the variation of its constituent parts.”
Pan flutes and poor decisions
The human connection to music is not an easily understood or explained one. Even more so, it seems to make little sense, seen from an evolutionary standpoint. Ostensibly, our Neanderthal ancestors weren’t dependent on music for their survival, not for procreation, nor for nourishment. Our historical relationship with music and music-making seems the ideal representation of how our survival as a species isn’t just tied to the mere survival of our bodies. Our apparent rootedness in music provides us with a different type of survival—a millennia-old plight for the survival of the spirit. It’s inspired us to create mythical stories around musical instruments like the Pan flute — the musical embodiment of Pan’s unrequited love and headiness — or tell tales of the irresistible call of the mermaids, that eventually lead us into damnation. It seems hyperbolical, but neuroscience comes to support our epically bad decisions. A slew of neuroscientists — and as of late, psychologists— have joined the attempt of philosophers and musicologists, to understand our connection to music.
Among them, Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, explores the neurological basis for musical enjoyment. In one study, Salimpoor noticed that when listening to deeply emotional music, individuals released dopamine, the pleasure chemical, not just when the music was playing, but also in anticipation of it. In addition, the experience of music affected the amygdala, an area concerned with processing emotions, as well as parts of the prefrontal cortex, areas dealing with abstract decision-making.
In a similar fashion, David Huron the author of Sweet Anticipation, attempted to unpack the ways in which psychological expectation plays a role in our experience of music. Why do we react to the promise of music the way we do? In Huron’s theory, the concert starts, long before our interaction with the musical content itself. This should seem appealingly commonsensical to concert-goers. Before the concert, our ability to imagine how a concert might be, plays an essential role in our motivation and our planning, it allows us to envision—to feel, more so than intellectualize—our reactions to it. This foreshadowing of the concert leads to a feeling of tension. For Huron, the way we imagine the experience begins to manifest in our bodies, before a single note was played: our attention becomes sharper, our senses keener. This psychological and corporeal build-up attempts to explain why we still react with surprise or frissons (or goosebumps) to a dissonant chord or a change of tempo in a song we’ve heard many times before.
On musicking presence
Could biology be all there is to it, though? Our experiences seem to suggest that while being out in the world, engaging with music, our understanding of it goes beyond our own bodies, or the musical content itself. Coming from a different area of expertise, Christopher Small, a cultural studies scholar, proposes that music needs to be understood not simply as a product meant to be consumed, or in relation to our own bodies. It also needs to be explored as something that happens between people and the contexts they move in. Bodies creating music need bodies authentically engaged in the experience of music.
Adopting this view asks for a deconstruction of the mythology surrounding music and its social practices. Through concerts, musicians and their audiences develop relationships that evolve beyond sounds and turn into learning experiences. The celebration of each other’s presence within this shared context brings together the teaching and learning in an act of social solidarity.
This became apparent in February 2016, while attending an experimental intimate concert organized by Low-Fi and Khora VR. During the concert, audience members were provided with headsets and asked to submerge themselves in virtual reality. While the process itself generated a sense of anticipation, its unraveling felt disengaging. One by one, audience members chose to remove themselves from virtual reality and tune into the physical sphere. Music, it seemed, asked for being there — it required a sense of presence rooted not only in our intellectual understanding, but also in our mere physicality. In extension, being present also meant being a body among bodies, a part of a community united by a shared appreciation of music.
Music, it seems, allows us to understand the world by bodily absorbing its meaning. It allows for moments of epiphany, without proposing a specific goal: there is nothing edifying in these moments. However, in a world oversaturated with information and interpretation, allowing ourselves to get lost in these moments of epiphany stops us from losing our sense or our remembrance of the physical dimension in our lives.
Pics taken from Mihaela Yordanova’s kick-ass videos. See them on the Low-Fi YouTube channel ⟶
- Dewey, J. (2005). Art as experience. New York: Berkley Publishing Group.
- Gumbrecht, H. U. (2004). Production of presence: what meaning cannot convey. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Huron, D. (2008). Sweet anticipation: music and the psychology of expectation. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
- Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Longo, G., Cooperstock, J. R., & Zatorre, R. J. (2009). The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal. PLoS ONE, 4(10), e7487. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0007487
- Small, C. (2010). Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening. Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press.