How to listen to music - Part I
An exciting debate continues in the audiophile world regarding the merits of tweaks to expensive high-end audio systems. These debates are useful and important because they point at one of the key processes of musical enjoyment: How the listener listens.

With a background in psychophysiology, clinical hypnosis, techno-shamanism and African drumming, my perspective on listening, feeling and experiencing music is half in the scientific world and half in the world of the ecstatic music listener/ participant. After all, the final frontier of the musical listening experience is in what happens to the brain, between the ears, as music vibrations flow in through not only the ears but the whole body. All drummers know that they have to listen with their body, especially their hands, to really hear the beat!

Most of the time, humans live in a world of mostly projected experience and associate with the external world through their cognitive filters. In studies of basic psychophysiology going back a hundred years or more, German researchers found that in a simple listening field of tones, listeners will hallucinate tones almost half the time where none are present! They called this experiment vexier versuchen or 'ghost sound'.

On the other hand, experienced users of psychedelics, shamanic journeyers, meditators and people trained in biofeedback know that they can allow synesthesia in music to occur, leading to audio vibrations becoming a multi-modal experience in all the senses, including touch, taste, visualizations, hearing and smell. What goes in is not what goes on in the listener's body-mind.

This is a critical difference to learn: the art of listening to what is really there versus the art of listening with emotional involvement and cross-sensory enhancements. Musicians often need to listen to what is really there in order to accurately create and join musical language. Listeners often want to 'trip out' to the music and have emotional and imaginative responses.

Somewhere in the middle, we have audiophiles trying to determine how tweaks might enhance the performance of their expensive high-end audio systems. If you can't tell the difference between technology and its effect on your system output on one hand and the perceptional filters you are using to create internal personalized tweaks to the music on the other, you can't make accurate decisions about the value of hardware-based listening enhancements!

As an expert teacher of hypnosis, self-hypnosis and other forms of cognitive self-control, I know from both clinical and experimental studies that all the senses are extremely malleable by suggestion. In medicine, we call this the hypnotic placebo effect. If you believe a tweak will be effective -- whether it is a new digital chip placed on a CD player or a new magic salve placed on a wound -- over 50% of the effect of the 'improvement' will be caused by expectation alone. If you add to that the effect of suggestion and any hypnotizability in the subject, the cognitive modification of the signal caused by this combination is often as high or higher than 80% of the improvements in clinical studies. This is far from subtle. Even drugs such as powerful opiates can be simulated at this level by expectation which is suggestion fueled by imagination.

This effect is not always problematic. In fact, it can be exploited to promote healing by wise physicians, counselors or audio salesmen trying to enhance the value of a product. It only becomes problematic when you are trying to discover the simple facts about a medicine, a product, a technological improvement or a tweak.

In advanced hypnosis sessions, clients can listen to a piece of music and actually not hear the sounds. They can be directed to experience the music as a story telling their future, depicting their potential or their inner romantic landscape. This is a wonderful experience and happens almost as much on cheap consumer audio systems off the shelf as it does on high-end systems. However, there is another type of listening magic that all audiophiles know and seek: This is the goose bump experience of a
synergistic high-end system that produces music so clear and vibrant that the listener hears the musical energy rather than the sound and instantly experiences synesthesia, an emotional connection to the music. This happens all the time for new listeners on my Apogee Diva/Krell Reference super audio system and on my bi-amped tube headphone system with Grado RS1s or Sennheiser 650s. It even happens on an I-pod matched with a good small amplifier and ear-canal headphones.

There is an old piece of audiophile advice worth repeating here: Listen to the music, not to the system. We spend much time tweaking our systems to hear improvements and listen to the noise instead of the signal. We often pay attention to the tones instead of the instruments, to the sounds instead of the meaning contained in the musical communications. There is no one sound to a piece of music. It can be heard in an infinite number of ways, which hold little semblance to the physical properties of the source or received signal. Music, like most of the art world, is a projective test to our imagination, emotions and attention.

How you pay attention to music, how you listen to it makes all the difference to your experience of it. The cheapest upgrade to your audio world may be a session of self hypnosis training, which depending on the person may be used to either make you more dreamy and synesthethic, or to wake up and really listen to what is there by turning off the usual perceptional filters and distractive mental activities.

But technology does matter too and upgrade tweaks can be fabulous. My addition of the Musical Fidelity tube buffer improved my Apogee Divas' bass response far beyond the cost of the $400 box. But the most elaborate and cheapest tweaks are your listening skills. After all, you have the most powerful audio processing system in the world in your brain and body. It's been upgraded for a 100,000 years if you believe in evolution. If you don't believe in evolution, that's still ok - you were gifted at birth with the perfect system. Anyway you put it, you need to consider your ears the final component in the audio chain, from source to full experience.

The set of tweaks available to upgrade one's listening skills are beyond the scope of this first article to go into in more detail. They include, however, such matters as how to pay attention to sound; how to use breathing to smooth out one's listening response; how to literally clean out the eardrums especially for ear-canal phone fans; how to literally increase the size of one's ears; how to use the imagination to create multi-sensory listening versus how to shut off the imagination and be in analytical listening mode; how to go into a musically driven trance versus how to stay out of a suggestive trance and become more objective about one's observations (reviewers and prospective customers of high-end audio may want to know that one well). Shamans know that ritual, ceremony and special teas, herbs or postures may enhance listening skills. As they say, don't try these at home -:)

All of this does not denigrate the value of upgrading audio hardware for improved listening experiences. My Apogee Diva/Krell system clearly outperforms my car radio. But by knowing how to listen to my car radio, I can experience better audio in my vehicle than if I hadn't learned these skills. Also, I'm less likely to be tricked into buying upgrades that are based on pure suggestion, scientistic techno-foolishness and thin veneer instead of real technological improvements.

Hundreds of years ago, the Mayans and Aztecs invented the first high-end audio systems. They are now called Peruvian Whistling Vessels and they produce a startling experience when you have eight people blow these in a circle. They are not instruments of tone but of a white light of sound experience in which the sound meditates you and takes you into another realm. Pictures of these and their story is available at, the web site of my sound quest fellow shaman Don Juan Wright who makes these vessels from molds of the originals discovered by archeologists.

The sound that comes from these vessels is incredible. Overtones create interactive patterns that clear your hearing so that after a period of blowing into them, the sound of the real world is clearer and cleaner. They cannot be recorded either. The experience has to do with how the audible vibrations and physical vibrations through your jaw combine. To an outside observer, these complex whistles sound like a bad cheap toy. To someone playing in the circle, they are mystical, powerful and unbelievable. The sound is high-end: it's as real as sound gets. The circle of eight vessels produces an amplification of the effects over blowing just one vessel. They interact with each other in inexplicable ways. Hidden from the Spanish conquistadors in burial pits, no written instructions were ever found on how to use these vessels. Many ended up in museums identified as water containers, completely missing their psychoacoustic active properties.These vessels taught their participants how to listen to the sound currents of the world. Today, we still need such training.
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.