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


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.

Playing Along

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When I’m composing I’m almost always playing along with something that’s already sounding. Pop musicians often begin with a groove, but since I don’t make beat music (at the moment) I often begin with free improvisation at the keyboard. I’m searching for something—a chord, a bit of melody—that I haven’t exactly heard before. I’m searching for something novel, yet at the same time familiar enough to recall musics I already like. There’s also some ventriloquizing going on: it sometimes feels as if I’m pretending to be someone else whose music I might enjoy!

At some point this improvisation becomes a part that stands on its own—material from which to derive other parts or against which I can keep improvising. Now I shift modes from searcher to observer, listening to the improvised part as if surveying a map spread out in front of me, noticing routes and topographies that weren’t apparent when I was on the ground, in the thicket. As the improvised part plays, I play along like a one-way jam session. It’s one-way because the initial part can’t react to my playing along, which is a good thing because something needs to remain constant at this stage. I try out different kinds of playing along: harmonizing like a good group singer (hit those thirds and tenths—nice!), providing rhythmic accompaniment, staying out of the way, finding the holes here and there, and exploring going against the harmonic grain (that’s not C major anymore, it’s A minor!). For the most part mostly I listen while playing to see if I can figure out what, if anything, that initial part needs to make it more than itself.

It may sound strange, but even though the composition process has just begun here I’m already considering whether or not my initial improvisation is complete on its own. I’m assuming a lot, specifically 1) the possibility that what I’ve begun with is already enough and not in need of any playing along with, and 2) that finishing things through minimal means is preferable to finishing them through maximal means. As I listen, observing the music, I notice details of its form, tempo, mood, and go-to gestures. The improvisation has already boxed me in somewhat, but maybe it also offers ways to get out? Playing along to the music is like making multiple attempts to figure out how to make the most of the details I’m noticing.

There are also pragmatic considerations as I play along. I try out different sounds to hear how they go with what I started with: there are resonant and dry sounds, fat and thin sounds, sharp and rounded sounds, hollow and solid sounds, clean and dirty-muffled sounds, and so on. I’ll play the same part over and over again while trying out different sounds (and unbeknownst to me, solidify the part I’m playing because I’m too busy evaluating one timbre after another). Trying out different sounds can lead to either revelation (this bowed kalimba is perfect!) or a sense that I’ve lost track of playing along’s most important function, which is to meaningfully interact with what is already sounding. And so the process unfolds as I listen to and play along with the improvisation and try out various sounds.

At some point—sometimes it’s days or weeks or months later—I start hearing things in the initial improvisation that were never apparent at the time I did it. I start hearing the musical thread—the lines of musical thinking—that I was following as I aimed for this note and missed it by a semitone, or jumped for a dramatic deep chord and hit upon something partly wrong yet still adequately cool. Now I hear those moments as signposts that can anchor a piece. The moments are rich in information about destinations, and so are the notes leading up to and away from those moments. Now I’m hearing the flow of what I was trying to say my first time around.

Speaking of hearing flow, it might surprise you to hear that composers don’t necessarily think about music in technical terms. You might have noticed that I haven’t dwelled on keys or scales, and the reason for this is that this isn’t how I think at an instrument. (Does a painter think consciously about the color blue except insofar as blue conveys a certain kind of energy and mood? How do musicians “think” at their instruments?) An acquaintance in school who was a composer once came up to me after I had played a vibraphone piece and observed, “you must really like Dorian [mode].” At that moment I realized that I had composed the piece not upon my knowledge of modes but around the vibraphone’s shapes and limitations (e.g. its lowest note is an F). My acquaintance’s observation wasn’t entirely wrong, but it wasn’t right either. Instead of keys and scales, one can think about the flows of moments, drama, destinations, and hand shapes. The potentials of these elements become clearer when I’m playing along and trying to understand the improvisation that began the process. That’s what playing along is: a way to understand what someone else—or yourself, a while ago—is doing and then fitting into that to amplify it.




Long Tail Listening


In music, we pay a lot of attention to the onset of sounds—the point at which the sound begins its audible life. The onset of a sound is its attack point where the stick hits the drum, the bow grabs the string, the finger presses the key, and so on. From a sound’s attack we can surmise quite a bit about how the musician is doing, time- and dynamics- and timbre-wise: Are they playing in time? Are they playing loud or soft? What is the quality of sound they’re making?

But what happens after a sound’s onset point of attack is equally revealing. With some instruments, such as strings or winds, a sound’s attack is the beginning of a longer sustaining that must be maintained over time through continuous bowing or breathing. Other instruments, such as percussion, produce sounds that for the most part are attack-focused: you hit the drum and its sound disappears almost immediately after it has sounded. The only way to sustain a sound on a percussion instrument is to rapidly repeat it in the form of some sort of roll. Of course, some percussion instruments like cymbals and gongs have a more sustaining sound, but they are still attack-focused.

This situation encourages the percussionist to be a long tail listener who tracks what happens after the attack point of the sound as it either disappears immediately or else gradually diminishes to nothing. Long tail listening is about focusing on what happens next: strike a marimba note and it vanishes after a half second; strike a gong and it decays into silence over a half-minute. Either way, long tail listening shifts your attention to the effects of what you just hit, not the hitting itself, as if you’re learning to be your own GPS machine, using your location in time to look back at what just transpired to understand where you are now and where you’re going. In this way, long tail listening encourages us to slow down our music making: as we hear backwards we have time to feel the effects of those onset points of attack now gone that would otherwise have passed by unnoticed.

Resonant Thoughts: On Simon Critchley’s “What We Think About When We Think About Soccer” (2017)


On phenomenology:

Phenomenology is the attempt “to get close, as close as possible, to the grain, texture, and existential matrix of experience as it is given, and to allow words to echo that experience in a way that might allow us to see it in a new light, under a changed aspect” (17).

On rhythm:

“The rhythm of football is…a legato, a smooth, emerging and subtle flow of time. Football is about shifts in the experience of time. These are shifts in the intensities of experience, when time is revealed—when that moment of moments occurs—to be something malleable, plastic, and elastic” (28).

Resonant Thoughts: Arnold Berleant’s “Notes For A Phenomenology Of Musical Performance” (1999)


“The performer necessarily comes at the music from within…Most often the performance situation catapults a musician into a rare and unusual condition, one that reveals the basic features of experience with eloquent directness, free, at least to some extent, from the usual overlay of cultural and philosophical presuppositions that nearly always obstruct our awareness. What is this perceptual condition like?”

– Arnold Berleant, “Notes For A Phenomenology Of Musical Performance”,
Philosophy of Music Education Review, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall, 1999), p. 75.

Resonant Thoughts: Thomas Clifton’s “Music As Heard” (1983)


“The theoretical act involves ‘observing the self observing the music’ (37).

“The logic and sense of music are different from the logic of propositions” (71-72).

“Before becoming a cultural artifact, a style,
or an object of study, music is a presence” (80).

“But to inhabit the world of music, it is necessary to be able to identify that world and refer to it, not its representative. And the only way to refer to it is by reflecting on it as a phenomenal object which one’s abilities recognize to be expressive” (298).



In my current work of performing music, perhaps the most useful “secret” for maintaining a high standard of playing is my ability to reset. In my life outside of music, there are very few occasions in need of resetting—at home, there’s pressing the small button on the kitchen thermometer, or unplugging the cable modem now and then so it can find the signal. The resetting I do at the show is similar to this, but a tad more involved. In a nutshell, when I reset I pretend—suspend disbelief—that this show is the first show. Even though I have memories of thousands of previous shows, this show is the first and last of its kind, and so worth paying close attention to. Paying close attention makes it more interesting because it makes it a game of noticing details. Phenomenologists might describe my stance using the term bracketing—a way of setting off the here and now of immediate experience from everything else that might be beckoning for my attention. To reset is to re-consider the details of this performance one more time without past experience getting in the way. To reset is to be a (trained) beginner (again).

I had this thought about reset just as I was picking up some mallets and standing there, waiting to play. I thought about how for the audience this was their first time at the performance and their first time encountering my sounds (somewhere in the overall mix of sounds and sights clamoring for their attention). I thought about how extraneous, non-musical claptrap that had gradually infiltrated my consciousness over the years—tiny stories about the music, gossip via and about fellow musicians, workplace politics (oh the drama!)—is of zero use in the moment of performance. Zero. I thought about how powerful it feels to have a “higher” gear I can kick into to silence that cognitive noise by resetting, over and over again. In that moment I don’t measure my experience by the number of shows I have already played (in the thousands, in any case), or by the lessons I have stowed away (few, in any case) that I can recycle and reapply. The cleanest way to (re)encounter the moment is to let go of my assumptions about it and attend to its unfolding, just like this, in this way, right now. When you keep things empty, they remain fresh and full of potential. And then the music started and I began to play.