Thinking About How Musicians Think When Playing: Music As Sensory Enhancement And Heightening

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Getting at how musicians think while they’re playing—what they think about, where their thinking goes and how it interfaces with the sounds they make and hear—seems like a tall task of understanding, a challenge like asking a tennis or soccer player: what was going through your mind when you played that shot/when you scored that goal? The player looks at you quizzically and says something about just going for it, being in the moment, being in the zone, I knew I had to stay on the focused, and reacting to the game. Playing music feels like a similar flow of instincts in motion: a performance can unfold without you knowing exactly how—either while doing it, or even afterwards when reflecting on (and listening to) it. These are my favorite moments: when it’s as if the music just happened.

In an article I keep returning to, “Notes for a phenomenology of musical performance” (1999), the philosopher Arnold Berleant develops a musical phenomenology from the standpoint of the performer to make the case for a metaphysics rather than psychology of experience. Berleant’s aim is the big picture: to understand the nature of the “perceptual condition” (75) that playing music induces. This condition is the result of the performer coming to music from music’s inside, “from within.” Berleant says that “the performance situation catapults a musician into a rare and unusual condition, one that reveals the basic features of experience with eloquent directness” (ibid.). In this condition, the performer has an experience that feels free “from the usual overlay of cultural and philosophical presuppositions that nearly always obstruct our awareness” (ibid.). If you’ve ever been caught up in the flow of playing music, these descriptions make sense. When the music is flowing, you feel like you have a direct connection to it and it to you, as if your interiorities have fused.

What is it like being on the inside of this experience of playing music? Berleant says that the most striking thing about it is how it somehow transforms the perceptual domains of our sensory experience engaged when we play music (i.e. hearing, seeing, touching, remembering and free associating) “from their ordinary state” by which maybe he means that these domains interpenetrate in new ways. “It is as if” Berleant says, “one were entering an immensely extended space, a space that is both fluid and temporal” (ibid.). Here is another image that makes sense: the musician inhabits a phenomenal space that defies both spatial constraints and the limitations of clock time. This brings to mind an example: maybe you’re playing piano, but feel your world extending beyond the keyboard and the ten-minute improvisation. How, you ask yourself, can playing the keyboard give rise to such a sensation? Your feelings seem to quickly become omni-relational, like antennae reaching far and wide for connections. “Phenomenal space” says Berleant, “is experienced not only as spatial but equally as dynamic and temporal” (ibid.). Berleant seems to be saying that when we play music we inhabit a virtual space that is at once fluid, spatial, dynamic, and temporal. It’s in this way music can feel 4-D.

Berleant wonders what kind of knowledge is offered by performance and being on the inside of music’s spatial, dynamic, and temporal fluidities. His answer is that the point of our bodily (or “somatic”) involvement with playing music “is the enhancement of sensory awareness” and “heightening of perception” (ibid.). This enhancement and heightening are primarily felt, not thought (which recalls Wallace Stevens’ line from his poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier” [1923]: “music is feeling, not sound”), connecting to the sounds by paralleling “in its shape and nuances the processual unfolding of the music” (ibid.). Berleant concludes that music is “neither argument nor proof” (78). Instead, its credibility—its reason for being—is carried by how it enhances and heightens our senses. Music, that 4-D, omni-relational enhancer and heightener, “speaks to us in a strange and distant tongue” (ibid.), which is why, to return to my initial question, it’s a tall task to get at what musicians are thinking about when they’re playing.

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