Tag Archives: Consciousness

Theory and Practice

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theory and practice in music are often portrayed as opposing modes of discernment. Theory is viewed as abstract, analytical and remote from the musical moment. Its tools and methods distill a work to its elemental components and provide the mechanical framework for a piece’s construction; but they hardly account (or attempt to account) for music’s affections or aesthetics. At its most austere, theory becomes what seventeenth-century philosopher Marin Mersenne conceived it to be: the reduction of music to the movement of air. Opponents of this approach, like social critic Morris Berman, point to its apparent spiritlessness. For them, music is a happening, existing to be heard and felt, not dissected or diagnosed.

If we take the extremes of either position, then listening and analysis are two unrelated activities. True, the theorist rarely dwells on the effects of a piece while examining it under the microscope. And the listener rarely ponders specific properties that are stimulating a musical response. However, theory and practice are not as distant as we might presume. Not only are they aspects of the same phenomenon—music—they also address companion human needs for order and wonder.

The combination of formal design and amorphous impact is at the root of music’s appeal. Though features such as pitch, timbre, duration and harmony are susceptible to meticulous examination, their cumulative effect cannot be accurately predicated, precisely measured or empirically determined. It is at the same time science and art.

Mathematician and polymath Jacob Bronowski made a related observation in his influential book, The Identity of Man (1965). Using science and poetry as contrasting pathways of human inquiry, Bronowski explained that while scientific imagination seeks to resolve ambiguities by conducting decisive tests between alternatives, artistic imagination encourages divergent paths without deciding for one or the other. Science is miserly, weeding out the proliferation of new ideas; art is generous, exploiting the vastness of ambiguities. For Bronowski, these two trajectories of the imaginative process—narrowing and expanding—form the basis of human consciousness.

It is intriguing that both avenues exist simultaneously in music. A musical selection is receptive to the scientific approach of the theorist, who separates, labels and quantifies its basic materials. But it is also open-ended, inviting subjective reactions and creative interpretations. These modes of engagement can appear mutually exclusive and certainly call upon different devices and frames of mind. Yet, when we apply Bronowski’s insights, it becomes clear that theory and practice satisfy the concurrent and fundamental human needs for certainty and possibility. Science and art merge in music, enriching the entirety of consciousness.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Consciousness, Cognition and Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion published over a decade ago includes two conflicting articles on the nature of spiritual awareness. The first, by Robert A. Emmons, argues for what he terms “spiritual intelligence.” The second, by John D. Mayer, challenges Emmons’s formulation, replacing it with “spiritual consciousness.” More than a semantic squabble, their contrasting approaches address whether or not spirituality should be viewed as a form of cognitive activity or as an enigmatic element of consciousness.

Emmons offers a five-part definition of spiritual intelligence: (1) the capacity for transcendence; (2) the ability to enter into heightened states; (3) the ability to find sacredness in relationships and everyday actions; (4) the ability to use spiritual resources to solve problems; (5) the capacity for virtuous behavior. The problem with this list, in Mayer’s view, is its reliance on “ability” and “capacity”—language ordinarily reserved for discussions of mental aptitude and high-level reasoning. In classical discourse, abstract thought is the first hallmark and foremost attribute of intelligence. It involves executing various kinds of mental transformations, such as identifying patterns, generalizing information, registering similarities, contrasting dissimilarities and performing other regulated cognitive functions. From Mayer’s perspective, forcing spirituality into this limiting arena of cognition is more indicative of a desire to raise the prestige of spirituality than an accurate representation of what it entails.

As a corrective, Mayer modifies Emmons’s intelligence model to convey what psychologists call “structuring” or “developing” consciousness. He removes spirituality from the realm of reasoning and places it in the mysterious territory of consciousness, where it resides as a phenomenon distinct from rational systems of thought and an activity grounded in mechanisms of an intuitive, rather than cerebral, kind. He rephrases Emmons’s characteristics thus: (1) attending to the unity of the world and transcending one’s existence; (2) consciously entering into heightened states; (3) attending to the sacred in relationships and everyday actions; (4) structuring consciousness so that life problems are seen in light of ultimate concerns; (5) desiring to act in a virtuous way (italics from the original). These are processes, as opposed to mental exercises, and give preference to sensations—attending, altering, entering, desiring, etc.—over logic and reasoning.

To be sure, cognition can and usually does play a supporting role in spirituality. Religious stories, mythologies, doctrines, customs and interpretations provide language with which to frame the experience. These conceptions may be rehearsed beforehand, recalled during the act, or reflected upon afterward. But such discernment is ultimately separate from the experience itself. Indeed, the main reason spiritual pursuits elicit feelings of transcendence is because they are, at root, non-rational or supra-rational. They exist apart from ordinary mental states. Thus, argues Mayer, spiritual consciousness should not be confused with intelligence, where abstract thought reigns supreme, and should instead be embraced as a distinct way of knowing, where sensations are processed as meaning-giving and life-changing currents.

Such extra-mental awareness is commonly instigated and sustained through music. The naturalness with which music lends itself to this undertaking has made it a staple of spiritual practices worldwide. To paraphrase English theater critic Jeremy Collier (1650-1726), exposure to musical sounds activates passions that destroy reason. Stated more positively, if we allow ourselves to succumb to and be absorbed in musical stimuli, we can reach a level and category of consciousness discrete from the usual modes of cognition.

This does not mean that all music or all musical contexts are equally conducive to spirituality or will promote that end with equal effect. Nor is it always possible to keep the brain’s interpretive functions and critical faculties sufficiently in abeyance to be fully exposed to musical inducements. But the extent to which music is used in public devotion, private meditation, and other spiritual praxes proves its potency as a vehicle for transcendence. More importantly, it demonstrates an inherent distinction between mental processing and spiritual consciousness, without depreciating the latter. Spirituality may not be intelligence, but it is indispensable just the same.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.