Time for Change – Enhance Your Musical Perception

Nov 29, 2023 | Welcome Column

I saw a fascinating episode of Nova recently where they showed how we actually take in the world around us. Using instruments that show exactly where focus is at a given second, they showed that much of what we think we “see” is an illusion – filled in by our brains based on we saw seconds before.

Humans and animals alike, to survive, have to survey the world around us every waking moment, and rely on what we detect. But there’s too much data, so our brains zero in on changes and the static parts of world fade to background, with constant updates every few seconds. If wanted to take in, and process the 180+ degree visual field in one instant, our brains couldn’t keep up. Instead, we constantly scan our world for changes.

A very simple example is, you walk into a room where’s a bad odor. At first, you’re overwhelmed by it, and then, if it stays the same, your perception of it fades quickly until you can no longer smell it. If you move your head from side to side (a very natural way to update your sampling of sounds, smells and sights), you’ll detect it longer.

This is the key to enjoying the arts, which for us usually involves sight and sound. A beautiful painting or a great piece of music is such a departure from our aural/visual background clutter, that we respond – immediately, viscerally.

Great artists build into their art, either intentionally or deliberately, elements to keep the stimulation and prolong the reaction. A great painting draws your eye to different parts of the composition, and a great piece of music has dynamic changes in melody or emphasis.

Further, musicians can build attention-holding dynamics over a longer period of time with a cascade of pleasing changes – in the song arrangement, in the structure of the solos and singing within the songs, and even with the song selection within the set. Every aspect can be compelling if takes the listener for a ride.

I have seen and heard bands that failed to take advantage of this. Pure technical prowess is interesting at first, but once you’ve heard that ripping guitar soloist or the banjo blizzard, it can fade from notice, maybe quicker than you think. If the band’s set is 100% rip-roaring, it becomes background din, and your senses (doing their job!) will start scanning the environment for something else.

On the other hand, sometimes, a lazy, easygoing jam by lantern light is just what the doctor ordered – save the stimulation for another time.

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