Preconception as a Limit to Listening

As a species, our ability to preconceive has allowed us considerable success in our survival.  This skill depends upon a highly sophisticated use of pattern recognition and, subsequently, pattern prediction.  What probably started off as a somewhat mythical re-cognition – a feeling of again – evolved into a highly complex knowledge of, not only cyclical variants of large scale events (like seasons) but, minutia of complex behavioral systems. (Remember, the intent here is to talk about music.  A proper discussion of the crumbling of this ability – vis a vis Fukushima, climate change, and an infinite growth economy based on finite fossil fuels – will have to be relegated to someone else’s blog.)   So… though our species now has the ability to hurl a spacecraft into the tail of a comet careening through the cosmos at unimaginable speed, most of the population is completely dumbfounded by free jazz.  The reason for this?  The two principles are working at cross purposes.  It is the very ability to preconceive that disallows us the pleasure of enjoying much of the creativity in the field of modern music.

Think about it:  if your favorite Dave Matthews song were suddenly interrupted by an interlude consisting of Bagpipe, Banjo, Accordion, and a Tuvan throat singer, your preconceived notion  of  how that song was supposed to unfold would be severely disappointed.  The question is, however, how does this same process unfold in a song you’ve never heard?  Usually if the deviation is slight enough –  an unexpected bridge or chorus, a chord change that came out of the blue – it has the potential to delight us or at least engage our attention.  In 99.9% of those examples, however, the variation still fits somehow within the paradigm provided by our Western upbringing – that “unexpected” chord is still harmonically “correct”.   Now, granted, these are incredibly sweeping generalizations, but the spirit of the argument is this: we expect certain patterns from the music we listen to, and these expectations have the potential to prevent us from being fully engaged in an experience of Listening.  We end up disliking a whole genre of music simply due to the fact that we’ve never been provided any guidance in opening our skills of listening.  As David Stubbs says in his book “Fear of Music”, almost anyone can go to a museum and appreciate something as abstract as a Jackson Pollack painting, but a very small percentage of the population can sit down and enjoy (much less have heard of) a Stockhausen concert.

I am by no means recommending that anyone try and rid themselves of their preconceptions, not only do I think this impossible (unless aided by a kindly psychotropic substance) but, in the long run, unhelpful.  I see the “problem” as more of an opportunity – a portal into an awareness of the lenses through which we view music (and subsequently the world).  What I have found, personally, through continuously opening my ears to new music, is that my paradigmatic assumptions have not only broadened, but have actually shifted.  I no longer listen to music in the way that I did even five years ago.  The task could perhaps be paraphrased as this: instead of listening with one’s mind, we listen through the mind. We don’t try to go into some sort of magical trance state and bypass the rational mind, but we engage the rational mind in examining itself!  Our species has evolved into a state of consciousness that is self-reflective – we know that we think and can think about how we think.  Music has the potential to deepen our awareness of ourselves, into how we feel, how we think, and how we view the world.  It has the potential to reveal our paradigmatic assumptions and allow us to move past them.

By deeply engaging with our experience of music, there is the possibility of transcendence.  By reframing the statement “I don’t like that!” with a question or two: “How did that not meet my expectation of what music is supposed to be?” “How did I arrive at that expectation?” “Where do I draw the line as to what is music and what isn’t music?”: we may begin to extend the boundary of our aesthetic values and at the same time learn about ourselves and what informs our decisions about the world.  Even if the end result is that, dammit, those bagpipes just don’t belong in that Dave Matthews song, our knowledge of ourselves can only make the world a better place.