De-Virginizing Our Ears: Will Listening Ever Be The Same??

Remember the first time you heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, or the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, when you heard the voice of a great singer–say, Pavarotti, when you first heard the weeping of Jacqueline Du Pré’s cello in the the Elgar Concerto, or the swelling of Rachmaninov’s orchestra in the 18th Variation from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini?  Do you remember how you felt, how the music, the sonorities, the frequencies, and the sensations affected your emotions, seeped into your psyche, and dug themselves in your guts?

Several years ago, while I was in still in University, I took a course on “Listening to Music,” which isn’t what it sounds like…a chronological survey of Classical Music.  Classical Music yes, but not the typical barrage of “hits” that are usually offered to music majors for credit.  This was an upper level PhD course that focused on the cognitive differences between hearing and listening.  Although I’ve taken many music courses in my lifetime, this one particularly stuck with me and has been the focus of my thoughts for the last while.

Hearing something for the first time–and for me, especially, hearing a singer for the first time–is like opening Pandora’s box.  In many cases, it becomes an addiction.  You just can’t get enough of that sound, nor can you find a way to get as close to it as you’d like.  These are defining moments for musicians and aficionados.  For some, these are the moments that change our lives and direct us down a path from which we’ll never stray: the pursuit of musical excellence, if that is even attainable.

This type of “hearing” is what I call the “Virgin Experience:” that first moment of illumination, of discovery..and in some cases self-discovery that remains with us indefinitely.  While this moment is precious, desired, and even cherished, it is also a big downer because while we experience the magnificence of something new, we realize that we will never again experience this moment.  We’ll never hear this music or this voice in the same way again.  We are de-virginized.

And, what happens after this “de-virginzing?” Well, this is where that university course came into play.  Much of the literature we read focused on the dichotomy of listening and hearing.  While actually classifying the two as different, the puzzle became how to recreate for ones’ self that moment of “awe: that unknowingness, that sense of being lost in the music for the first time and not knowing where it was going to take you.  Many times, I have attempted to recreate that moment for myself.  It is difficult, especially when listening to pieces that I’ve studied intently or voices I’ve listened to a million times over.  On an aside and in regard to the voice, I found it much easier to recreate this sensation with singers because the instrument is human.  It is impossible to listen to Pavarotti or Gigli, or Tebaldi, Callas, or Cigna, without having a sense of awe over the greatness of their human instrument.  Instrumental music, however, poses a problem.

In an attempt to confront this difficulty, I related our hearing and listening to music to how other forms of art are observed.  Music creates a difficulty that is different from literature, for example.  When we read a novel, we rarely go back again and again to revisit it…sometimes 100 times or more (that is not to say that we don’t revisit Dante or Shakespeare or other magnificent literary works; we do, but not on the repetitive scale that we do with music).  The repeated act of listening to music affects the element of surprise and imagination that is often necessary in order to truly comprehend a work of art.  In the same way, we can look at an artwork, say the “Cenacolo” or Michelangelo’s Moses and see something new each time we observe it, but essentially the element of surprise is lacking because we can only experience the “virgin” viewing once.

So, what do we do? What would it take to recreate the initial experience we had?  Can we?  The answer lies in the difference between listening and hearing, and it is a vast difference. The first time we hear a voice or a piece of music we are in fact “hearing” it.”  Every other time after that, we are listening to something we have already heard.  In his book “The Power of Sound:  How to be Healthy and Productive Using Music and Sound, Joshua Leeds makes an important distinction: the difference between a psychological and neurological perception.  For example, a song or melody associated with childhood, a teen-age romance, or some peak emotional experience, creates a memory-based psychological reaction. There is also a physiological reaction.  He writes, “Slightly detune tones can cause brain waves to speed up or slow down, for instance. Additionally, sound tracks that are filtered and gated–a sophisticated engineering process–create a random sonic event.  This triggers an active listening response and thus tonifies the auditory mechanism, including the tiny muscles of the middle ear[…] Thanks to research on the neurological component of sound, a growing school of thought, values the examination of both neurological and psychological effects of resonance on the human body.

After considering Leed’s ideas, I recalled when I was 15 years old and my high-school music teacher played us the trio from Der Rosenkavalier for the first time.  I remember having no idea where the meandering harmonies and melody were headed, but when Strauss’ magnificent buildup to that unexpected moment of complete release occurred, I remember having to sit straight on the floor because I could no longer stand up.  The music, the voices, the harmonies, had not only affected my mind and my soul, but physically affected my body, too.  Now, when I listen to the Rosenkavalier Trio, I remember that moment more than anything and how I felt.  Do I still feel weak in the knees?  Absolutely, but the problem is that now that I EXPECT that moment and expectation, once you really know a piece of music well, is what mars the surprise element.

In the end, I suppose what all this means is that we cannot truly recreate that virgin experience, but that we should always look forward to hearing new things for the first time because those moments are sacred.  It also means that as musicians, singers, or music lovers, we have come to know many of these works intimately and that is a good thing.  As long as we recall what we felt when we had that initial, un-recreatable moment, we can understand what the composer intended the listener to experience;  just that: the moment that music or melody first hits you, in your unknowing state, filled with surprise, awe, and mystery.  When we listen to it afterwards, for years to come, that first “hearing” may come to mean more than all the hundreds of times we’ve heard it and will continue to hear it in our future.

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