Music and Perception

One of my favorite things about music is its capacity to sharpen and enrich our perceptions. Perhaps it’s the sensation of time that becomes most heightened during music performance and listening—and to me, time certainly is a sensation more than an immutable facet of external reality, so much so that it might be considered more akin to our other five senses.

Our continuous, processional experience of reality seems to be what creates the sensation of time, because the sensation of time is only engaged by the perception of change. Just as flying overnight to Europe provides a sense of time far removed from playing basketball or taking the subway, one of the reasons I enjoy listening to music is to have an experience of time outside of my ordinary awareness and cultural norms. The string quartets of Henryk Gorecki, for example, unfold with a very different sense of pacing than those of Haydn.

In Gorecki’s music, long periods of stasis are suddenly, seemingly arbitrarily shattered by vigorous passages of sustained rhythmic activity which strike me as both folk-like and grotesquely mechanical. Perhaps this is in part an expression of time perceived very differently than how citizens of a Western democracy experience it: long hours waiting in queues punctuated by repetitive physical labor, with little sensed connection between the two. John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit is another work which invites us to experience time in a manner that is far removed from both traditional listening experiences and traditional Western attitudes toward time—as a vast occurrence that surrounds us and is literally greater than us, in which we cannot hope to grasp the detail and interaction of parts as we would with a Bach fugue, but in which we move through something both elusive and eternal.

In the Hopi language, there is no past or future tense, yet the Hopi have employed two additional tenses which do account for time, albeit differently than English speakers do. Loosely translated, these tenses are “that which is already manifest” (including all that is and has been accessible to the senses), and “that which is becoming manifest” (including that which we might describe as “subjective experience” as well as the future). I’ve often tried to get my head around an unfamiliar but fascinating way of experiencing the world, but no readings or philosophizing could carry me closer than my first time listening to Hopi music from the Smithsonian Folkways anthology. The ability of music to transport us from of our own cultural frame of reference into an encounter with the Other continues to amaze me, and it’s one of the main factors that motivates my constant search for unfamiliar sounds and traditions.

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