Music and Consciousness

RelaxationMusicGlobal1by Earl Vickers

“On a river of sound
Thru the mirror go round, round
I thought I could feel
Music touching my soul
Something warm, sudden cold
The spirit dance was unfolding.”

  – John Lennon, “#9 Dream”

Music has a way of interacting with consciousness. For listeners, one’s state of mind may alter what one hears, and vice versa. For performers, the two-way interaction between mind and music becomes a real-time feedback loop, especially when multiple performers engage in extreme improvisation.

Just as people sometimes self-medicate for conditions such as depression, they also use music to self-regulate their emotional states. Conversely, the music that pops unbidden into your head can be an indicator of your emotional state, a window into the soul revealing content of which you may not have been consciously aware. In Lisa Tucker’s debut novel, The Song Reader, one of the main characters earns money by analyzing and decoding the songs that are stuck in her client’s heads. Along similar lines, Tracy Ullman’s psychotherapist character on Ally McBeal recommends that Ally discover her theme song as a step toward locating her errant mental health.

While music is commonly intended to affect the listener’s mood, compositions have also been designed specifically for the purpose of altering the listener’s consciousness. Indeed, entire musical genres (acid rock, trance, rave, etc.) have explored the interplay between mind and music.

Consciousness consists of a wide continuum of mental states, constantly changing in direction and focus. Music, like mind, is ephemeral, mercurial, always in motion, often flitting from one insubstantial thought to the next. Sometimes a single phrase can be evocative of a certain mental state. For example, in the Beatles song “A Day in the Life,” the wordless vocals following the phrase “somebody spoke, and I went into a dream” evoke an image of someone falling into a dream or trance state.

This article will explore the interactions between mind and music, including a number of techniques for using sound to interact with the listener’s consciousness.

Dreams and Dreaming

Music inspired by dreams [sound example by Earl Vickers] often has an strangely dreamlike quality and is sometimes felt to have special personal value.

“Dream songs, as we shall see in the next chapter, were particularly important in American Indian life. The dream songs received during the all-important adolescent vision quest became the dreamer’s personal refrain. They were used throughout his life at stressful times (for example, war parties) and were also used to evoke the power of his own personal spirit. This is readily understandable as a function of the dream songs’ strong emotional power for the dreamer.” [Garfield, p. 53.]

While dreams are an unreliable source of musical material and are quite likely to be forgotten upon awakening (as was part of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”), with practice, musical dreams can occur more frequently and perhaps be remembered better.



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