Music As Perception

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(Birds over the parking lot at Ikea.)

Music has many practical uses, among them: it organizes us into communities, soundtracks our rituals and every day routines, accompanies our films, sells our products, and so on.

But perhaps music’s most fundamental purpose is perceptual: music exercises our attention this way and that, stretching our body-minds in multiple dimensions, urging us to feel as we think and think as we feel, to hear emotions in the sounds, inherent rhythms in the rhythms, traces of harmonies in the melodies, making us wonder how it is exactly that foreground and background interpenetrate so. When it’s firing on all cylinders, music is like a virtual workout for our senses.

Each week as I plow through new releases on Spotify—and I do mean plow: sometimes I only last fifteen seconds with a new piece of music (sigh)—I think about what keeps my attention in music. At the risk of circular reasoning, I would say that what keeps my attention is music that makes considerable perceptual demands. Specifically, I like music that is not necessarily difficult but nevertheless creates some kind of perceptual magic. This isn’t magic in a mystical sense, but in the sense described by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde in their book, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions: magic as a practice that orients our attention in controlled ways, “creating ‘frames’ or windows of space to localize where and what we attend to” (66). (Read more about their book here.) 

As I listen to new music I’m hoping to hear a track that creates a unique frame for my attention, something that enchants and makes me go, Oh, what’s this? How does that work? What’s going on? I move through the micro-style of the moment (e.g. double-time hip hop hi hats, EDM-esque breakdowns, hyper-tuned vocals), the most streamed releases of the week, the re-issues, the new classical interpretations, and the endless new spins on established pop and rock and classical moves. I listen while waiting, trying to be patient, trying to take in more than fifteen seconds, hoping to hear something that works on me like a magician’s baffling sleight of hand.

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