How to listen to music - Part II
This is the second part of a series about upgrading the software
that came with your head (maker's original equipment, so to speak): The processes of attention to sound that make music more enjoyable, full of meaning and emotional impact. This is not about music appreciation. The art of listening to symphonies vs pop music as taught in college courses is not what this column is about. There certainly is value in learning about the structure of music so one can do music appreciation but that's beyond today's scope.

Rather, I want to talk about the interaction of attention, imagination, set, setting and whole-body listening. It is based on research in experimental and clinical hypnosis, shamanic healing work and the nature of sound itself. The techniques described have been taught by the author for years at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur/CA as part of a month-long professional hypnosis and self-hypnosis training program, and at workshops in New Mexico through UNM Medical School, Seed Open University and as a consultant.

The Nature of Sound
While smell is our most primitive and powerful sense (linked to the Limbic system and our most primitive brain functions), sound has the power to completely entertain our attention. The use of the drum as the main source of tribal communication is worldwide and sound, even in our current age of video communication, drives the meaning of movies through soundtracks and ambient environments.

Listening is an innate skill but it can be developed profoundly by both musicians (those who create sound patterns for enjoyment) and by listeners (those who decode sound patterns for enjoyment). Listening to music to understand its structure, composition or accuracy to a source of sound is not what we're about today. Those are valuable skills but more in the realm of what musicians, audio reviewers or music students may pay attention to.

We want to elucidate how you can listen to music to maximize various kinds of enjoyment of the sound, let it give you meaning and creative stimulation and let it affect you emotionally and physically. Such listening can have powerful benefits for your mind, your body and your spirit. When you begin to listen to music, the first thing to consider is your setting and intention. Listening to music while driving is different from listening at a concert or at party. Listening with headphones and your eyes closed is different from listening to a powerful audio system and dancing to the music.

The audio input can be filtered by your brain in many ways. First is the issue of what input you give priority to. If you have to pay attention to something else why you are listening ( i.e. other cars, homework, the kids etc) your listening attention is not maximized. This is still okay though since the conscious brain has 7 plus or minus two attention channels, known as the magic number in cognitive brain research. Most people can pay attention to 5-9 attention channels (think of them like TV channels) but imagine trying to watch 9 separate monitors: the information gets scrambled.

Do you actually pay attention to sound when you listen to music? Listening with only one channel (sound) is difficult but trainable. Closing your eyes increases the dominance of sound in your brain's processing power exponentially. This is because visual stimulation diffuses sound representation in the brain. Listening to a movie soundtrack with your eyes closed is a very different experience than hearing it while watching. Before you listen to a sound source, can you get comfortable internally and externally? Take off your shoes, loosen your belt, get physically relaxed. Don't let your physical kinesthetic sense distract you. Are you hungry or thirsty? Take care of that first, too. Be ready to surrender to the sound.

Tuning your ears
This may sound elementary to some but have you cleaned out your ears lately? Users of in-the-ear-canal headphones (now top-rated as audiophile headphones) know that wax build-up can clog the phones' drivers and act as a bad filter. Clean 'em with a Q -tip, not your ball point pen and perhaps even have a deep cleaning done by a proper physician.

Some listeners, especially those with a Shamanic or Grateful Dead background, know that certain herbs, potions and foods enhance hearing. If you are partial to that experience, you can enhance your audio sensitivity in that way as well. (Of course don't do anything illegal, immoral, unethical or fattening.) Don't overdo it either for if you make yourself sleepy, driven by internal visions or paranoid projections, you won't listen to the music with maximum openness.

Listening with synesthesia and meaning
Humans have an overriding tendency to give meaning and purpose to input stimulation. If you have someone watch a moving light in a ganzfield -- a diffuse black background -- they will attribute purpose and motivation to the lights. "That light is chasing the other light, it's hungry or lonely." It is the same with sound. You can let the sound form patterns, let the patterns come together to form a gestalt and have that come together to tell you a story. Different instruments can become different voices or aspects of yourself. If you listen in this way, the individual instruments, tracks or voices disappear into a new sound track that's is in your mind and psychological rather than auditory in nature. Listening to Deuter's lovely album Land of Enchantment -- written as tone poems to the enchanting New Mexican landscapes according to the liner notes -- clients often hear the guitars, synthesizers and bells but then have experiences of hiking, traveling and climbing mountains and relate those to their life journeys in hypnosis sessions.

The exact suggestion I use with client/students goes like this: "As you listen to the music, your eyes will close and you will begin to listen in a special way. Let the world be far away and let the sound create an inner landscape in which each instrument flows with the others and together they have your full attention. As your breathing slows down, breathe from your belly and let the sound begin to have colors, let the colors have textures, let the textures have motion and let the experience begin to tell you a story. The story is different for each person and has no beginning or end. Let your breathing relax and get deeper as the sound begins to help you go on a journey into yourself and helps you discover meaning and purpose in your life and what's important for you. You don't need to try hard at all - let the music flow like water through your experience. Continue to surrender to the music."

Through such practice, listeners develop synesthesia i.e. cross-sensory stimulation. Sound becomes color, internal color imagery takes on motion and kinesthetic textures, textures acquire form and become connected to memory and imagination. Scenes from the past, present or future become connected in the client's internal movie that has emotion, meaning and purpose for them.

Deuter's classic gold record Ecstasy, recorded many years ago in Germany, is an ideal source for these kinds of journeys since the music models an out-of-body journey from corporeal reality to flying into the spirit world. It never sounds the same when listened to with the above principles. I would sometimes play it six or seven times a day for consecutive clients and they (and I) would hear it differently every time. It never got boring because it became a tranceformational tool to listen to the subject's inner soundscape, not the music itself. Clients in hypnosis sessions would often experience amnesia to the music itself. They projected into the sound their own needs, fantasies, goals etc.

Listening with the body
The drum and didgeridoo are two of our most ancient instruments. Both connect listening not merely through our ears but our whole bodies. The sound spectra of these tribal instruments connect with our visceral listening abilities through frequencies which are easily felt, not just heard. As an African drummer (my teacher was Baba Olatunji, the late great drum ambassador from Senegal) I learned to listen with my hands. Thinking about the music and trying to play it by listening with my ears was not the best way to learn or perform. We can similarly involve our whole bodies when listening to excellent sound systems that have sufficient subsonic bass and lower midrange clarity and emphasis. The Shamanic band Kan'nal from Guatemala for example features fabulous lead didgeridoo and drumming to ground the body into their musical experience.

At a recent show in San Francisco by Simon Posford of the English post-Pink Floyd group Shpongle, a quadraphonic PA system produced so much
accurate bass that there was spot in the center of the room where one could literally get a sonic massage and luxuriate in full-body listening. Similarly, I recently set up a high-end version of this experience using the new B&W 803S speakers with improved lower midrange and bass drivers and a fast-acting B&W 675 subwoofer for the subsonic region. The sub was turned down way low so you couldn't ever hear it, just feel it. The system was so incredible but bucking our Editor's current trend to downsize -- and as a usual believer in more is better -- I made the mistake of hanging out at my local B&W dealer to ponder the possibilities of the new diamond tweeter technology in their monitor series.

The revelations of sound patterns forming gestalts were startling. The B&W 802D monitors were like the "Hubble telescope of sound" to me as a sound shaman. I could hear, see and feel whole new patterns of sacred geometry in the music that were simply unavailable before. It was like discovering a whole new galaxy of patterns in what was the smudge of light in the back of the picture. Shpongle's new album Nothing Lasts... but Nothing is Lost becomes a visual and kinesthethic kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, textures, tales - cartoon music for adults so compelling you see the cartoons on your inner video monitor! It is a new kind of music but requires good-enough gear to really appreciate Simon Posfor and Raja Ram's sonic achievements in the mixing studio.

Having recently refinanced my house, I suggested to my dear wife Chance -- luckily also a shamanic healer and sound gestalt seeker -- that perhaps she would like some new diamonds? She became excited so I took her to the sound gallery to hear the new B&W diamonds. Although she was a wee bit disappointed she couldn't wear them, she also immediately went into a musical trance when listening to them for the first time and admitted "I can understand why you couldn't live without them after having this experience." She still holds out hope for a different type of diamonds but she concurred with deflecting part of the refinancing proceeds toward the sound quest. Hence now my new sound studio contains the B&W 802D monitors.

This system gives the listener a complete body massage with the sound, resulting in listening with the ears, solar plexus and feet - indeed, it massages all the chakras!. Almost every recording is a new revelation.

Special commercial sound systems such as the Betar Chamber have been created by using drivers imbedded in massage tables (unfortunately with Bose drivers of minimal visceral impact). There's high-decibel PA systems surrounding listeners in a circle as in rave discos. The use of high-end audio equipment for an "audio massage" is quite an interesting and clinically useful new phenomenon.

Movement and Sound: Whole-body involvement
There is another way to involve your whole body in the listening process: Get up & dance. Dancing transmits the aural input from your ears to your muscles, bones and whole body. Its what my anthropologist/psychologist friend Dr. Brad Keeney who parties with the African Kalahari bushmen calls shaking out the spirits. This kind of dance does not need a dance teacher. Simply let the music move you with abandon. Let your arms and legs become biofeedback devices which move with the music. Dance the story hidden in the music instead of just sitting there. For a real thrill, do this blindfolded with a spotter. This type of shamanic dancing is theorized to mimic the production of certain brain chemicals which induce vision. It is used by trancedance teachers worldwide with electronic, shamanic and dance music that evokes archetypes of spirit travel. Wilbert Alix, contemporary Shaman [below], bases his excellent innovative workshops on these principles. Involve your other senses by burning incense, using aromatherapy candles and using ceremony to create sacred space in which you are open to visions, ancestral visits and musical magic. Enethogenic from 3D Vision Studios in France is excellent music for such shamanic dancing as is Ott's album Blumencraft.

The basic techniques described above are not difficult to use and will change your relationship with music from a passive listener to an active participant. They are powerful techniques which can open you up to the emotional messages in the music and the inner journey you need to take. You are probably doing them on a basic level already, by tapping your feet or fingers or having a free association or memory flash while listening to music. By doing them deliberately and with intent, you enter a whole new brave world of using music to explore your inner realities.

The wonderful world of mobile high-end audio
Recent improvements in high-end audio for portable music reproduction have made small systems powerful tools for such music exploration. Using my iPod, my new Emmeline SR-71 battery-powered cigarette-pack sized headphone amplifier and Grado RS1 headphones connected by high-end KimberKable, I can take high-end audio with me into my
garden, on a hike into the wilderness, a high desert adventure or just wander about my house in musical trance. For slightly over a kilobuck, one can pursue the audio experience and impact of speaker-based systems costing far more. Because of the immediacy and power of this headphone system, it rivals my big B&W system in emotional impact and tranceability.

The SR-71 portable amplifier is simply superb in transforming the excellent output of the iPod into weight, bearing and musicality that almost instantly translates into synesthesia and physical motion by anyone wearing the rig. It has better dynamics than my previous standard, the HeadRoom Cosmic, and it's is smaller and pocketable. HeadRoom, to be fair, has recently upgraded their cosmic electronics module and claims serious improvement. It is amusing to invite a friend to listen to this miniature rig, watch them smile a d immediately begin to move, sway and or dance, close their eyes and be transported into another reality. It's like that scene in Beetlejuice where Tim Burton gets all the conservative diners to dance the Lambada. Its true high-end audio that feels hardwired into your brain. In fact, using in-ear 'phones such as Etymotics or Shures is even more so. Using such systems on an airplane is flying while you're flying. You forget where you are and what you are doing and don't care how long the flight is. Of course using such a system while driving a car would be dangerous and you might end up somewhere besides where you wanted to be, never mind jeopardizing other drivers.

Listening for relaxation, tuning the bodymind and health
Another use of special listening techniques is to improve your health through relaxation and neural integration of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (i.e. adrenalin-based vs. vegetative-based systems like after a good meal) to induce special states of attention useful also for peak performance in sports and business. Special attention systems such as Autogenic -- developed by the German Medical Research over fifty years of refinement -- uses self- talk auto-suggestive rituals to tune the nervous system. Autogenics is now used worldwide by Olympic sports psychologists and peak performance trainers. I commissioned German gold-record winning composer and performer Anugama to write a sound track for the Autogenics self hypnosis routine by hypnotizing him, teaching him Autogenics and telling him to create a soundscape to get to that place with only sound. He successfully did it and the results are available on my tape Hypnoautogenic Training. One side features vocal hypnotic training, the other pure music training. Learning how to listen during these special "medical meditations" will be the subject of a third installment entitled "How to listen for maximum health and peak performance."
Biographicals: DrBlue (Dr. Norm Katz) has a Ph.D. in experimental and clinical psychology but hasn't let that get in the way of the music. He does behavioral consulting and peak performance training for musicians, athletes and those who want to improve their lives. He loves his role as a techno shaman, combining knowledge of psychoacoustics, technology, medical research and a pursuit of joy and transcendence through music, sound and community celebrations. He is always up for the latest tweak investigation and based out of New Mexico. DrBlue is currently busy preparing for the annual 3sidedwhole regional Burningman festival In the Rio Puerco wildness May 20, 21 and 22, which features live music, workshops on how to listen to music and huge fire art.