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An Essay on Ways of Listening

Date: 1st January 2014

An Essay on Ways of Listening

Modern Experimental Psychology has given us many insights into just how the human mind works and, among these, two are of very considerable importance to music lovers and anyone who takes listening seriously.

First of all, psychologists have discovered that our brain does not simply record the incoming nerve pulses from our sense organs in a passive way but rather it combines these sensory inputs with our memory and other cognitive systems to create an interpretation of just what is going on in the world around us. In other words our perception of the world is a construction created by our brain based upon current sensory inputs and our past experience. This is easy to demonstrate. When listening to a piece of music it is not the separate notes that we normally perceive; rather our immediate experience is of an integrated musical event in which we hear tunes, harmonies and a whole host of other dynamic auditory effects, all of which our brain merges together to enable us to hear, not isolated sounds, but a single over-arching musical event. Further, recent work carried out by neuropsychologists has shown clearly that, whenever we perceive anything, our emotional systems always operate in tandem with the other more ‘rational’ cognitive systems. As a result listening to music is often a very deeply emotional experience – yet again adding to our feeling that we are hearing a single integrated piece of music.

The Psychologist’s second important conclusion is that there are at least two radically different ‘types’ of conscious experience, although whether these are the result of two quite separate cognitive systems or merely different aspects of the same one remains a subject of considerable debate. The first and most common form of consciousness is also the most commonsense one – our awareness of ‘self’ in the immediate present. This is the state in which most of us exist most of the time. It has been called Phenomenal Consciousness and is believed to be a far older form of consciousness than the second type – Self-reflexive Consciousness. This latter type usually has a longer time frame than Phenomenal Consciousness (by the time we think about ‘now’ it has gone!) and enables us to look back over what has already happened and reflect upon it.

It has even been suggested that the Arts – Science schism is underpinned by these two types of consciousness with artistic activity being driven by Phenomenal Conscious experience and scientific endeavour being an expression of Self-reflexive Consciousness.

Why, then, are these two psychological discoveries so important for us music lovers?

First of all, the constructive nature of our brains means that we are constantly searching for pattern and order in the chaotic mass of sensory signals fired to our brains from our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and other sense organs, Thus it is quite difficult NOT to hear a set of notes as an integrated piece of music. Indeed, some modern composers have deliberately set about trying to break this tendency to impose pattern on the world by breaking the rules of western music in order to make it difficult for the brain to find any order.

Then, the primacy of Phenomenal Consciousness reinforces this ‘imposition of pattern’ effect by ensuring that our initial state of consciousness simply allows things to happen without question. If we want to take a more analytical approach to our perceived world, then we need to switch to the more questioning Self-reflexive mode.

Throughout the history of hi-fi there has been much debate about the relative importance of objective measurements, when designing systems, compared with subjective listening experience. Much of this debate is sterile. The simple fact is that any deviation from perfection in the measurement of the critical characteristics of an audio system means that the systems is going to sub-optimise performance. The better the measurements on these important factors, the higher the potential for the system to produce an accurate rendition of the original performance.

However, most of the time when we listen to a piece of music we now know that we will almost certainly do so with our brain operating in an integrative fashion and with our listening experience set to Phenomenal Consciousness mode. As a result we experience a continuous and ‘holistic’ piece of music. However, some listeners can switch their brains to the Self-reflexive modality and, by so doing, enable themselves to focus on the individual components of the listening experience – including specific aspects of the sound reproduction itself – in effect, they are listening NOT to the MUSIC but to the SYSTEM! No longer do they hear Beethoven’s 5th or a Rhianna track; now their attention is focused on the quality of bass and treble notes, the speed and timing of the system and the level of distortion in the reproduced sounds.

Is one type of listening more important – or even more ‘legitimate’ – than the other? No, of course not. To enjoy great music we need to have a holistic view of the world and that means letting our brain ‘act naturally’ by operating in its default integrative state in Phenomenal Consciousness mode. On the other hand, if you want to assess subjectively the ‘accuracy’ of any hi-fi system then we need to make the greater effort to switch our brain into the less natural Self-reflexive mode, the more analytical way of examining the world.

So, in summary, great hi-fi systems do need great measured performance. We can then critically ‘listen to’ the effects of this on sound quality by adopting the analytical Self-reflexive Consciousness mode. But to experience that wonderful feeling of being transported by great music, great performance and great playback, then JUST ACT NATURALLY!