Have you ever repeated a word, any word, over and over again, until you forget what its meaning is and all that is left in your consciousness is this completely arbitrary sound? It could be a word you use every day. And then suddenly you stand still and realize how wonderfully strange it is that a weird sound like ‘horse’ or ‘chair’ got to carry a very useful and specific meaning.

What is listening to music? It is such an everyday phenomenon, that one would forget to ask what is actually going on while we listen. Turns out, not all listening is created equal.

Let’s begin with the bare physical facts. There are sound waves, floating around in the air. Our ears catch those, and then we hear music.

Or noise. Here is a little problem: the physical facts of hearing are the same for any sound, be it music or noise. If we were able to see the physical matter of sound, then just from seeing those waves we wouldn’t be able to determine if those particular waves will be perceived as music or as noise. Sound waves don’t have those labels attached to them. The difference is determined within our consciousness.

Music equals physical sound waves plus something in the consciousness of the listener.

What’s the ‘something’ in the equation?

Imagine a concert situation. A string quartet plays Mozart. Some people in the audience will be listening closely, be moved by the music, breathe with the music, see images appearing in their imagination, have emotions welling up.

Other people might be just sitting it out, waiting for the intermission.

There is listening and listening: ‘engaged’ listening as well as merely hearing, and an entire spectrum of different qualities of listening in between. What’s important though, is that probably, in this concert, all concertgoers will agree that it is music they’re hearing, not just noise.

Imagine now a concert with a modernist program, a composition consisting entirely of sirens and motor sounds.

This time, will the listeners unanimously agree that, yes, this is music? Quite possibly, they won’t. The composer thinks he wrote music. Probably the performers think they’re playing music. A couple of seasoned followers of contemporary music will agree that it’s music. But lots of other people, even if they normally are what we called engaged listeners, might have to admit that all they hear are sirens and motor sounds. They don’t hear the music in the noise.

So back to the equation of what music is. All listeners are presented with the exact same physical sound waves. But apparently, some listeners do the ‘something’ that comes from the consciousness of the listener, and others don’t. Some listeners have a musical experience, others don’t.

Yet, some of those latter listeners might persist. They keep listening to the works of this particular composer and his contemporaries over and over again. They could read a book or ask someone to tell them what to listen for. And one year later they might agree: that concert they went to last year, it was a piece of music after all. Back then they just weren’t yet able to perceive it as such.

What’s important here is: some sound waves get the something from our consciousness attached to it, and others don’t, but we can learn to do the something with sounds that didn’t trigger that process before. Then we say we have learned to listen to a certain kind of music.

Music can carry an infinite variety of meanings for us. That meaning wasn’t there in the physical sound. The sound is carrying meaning because our consciousness gave those sounds meaning to carry.

That’s why I think the question ‘what is listening to music?’ is an interesting one. And if we can answer it, what will that mean for our understanding of perception in general?

And when we know how we give meaning to sound waves, can we give it to other things too? Can we cultivate it?

Can we learn to have more meaning?

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