THE CRUCIAL ROLE OF THE QUALITY OF THE MUSIC
IN OUR LIVES
©1983 The Anstendig Institute
Music is an essential part of life. Few could live without it. But the importance of the quality of music is not understood. The physical qualities of music affect human functioning in such important areas as psychological reaction, sensory perception, and health and well-being. Recorded sound has been flawed and incapable of reproducing the expressive qualities of music for nearly a century. As a result, live musical performance and the preservation of traditions have deteriorated. Finest quality music has refining capabilities, but few people have access to it.
The human body is extremely sensitive to the quality of all vibrations, particularly those of sound. Like the transducer of a microphone, the body absorbs the vibrations around it, vibrates in sympathy with them, and takes on their characteristics. The result is a combination of the rhythmic qualities of the source of the external vibrations and the innate rhythmic qualities of its own internal vibrating.
The body contains many vibrating organs (heart, intestines, stomach, lungs, etc.). Each vibrates at its own frequency, but in synchronization with the others. These separate, different rhythmic vibrations combine to create one overriding bodily rhythm which varies among people in that it can be coarser or finer in the sense of more or less smooth, even, and regular. This interaction of the speed and rhythms of the various vibrating organs is flexible. It is influenced by, and adjusts itself to, the rhythms and qualities of the surrounding vibrational environment. Therefore, the same person's body can be vibrating coarsely or finely at different periods of the day, depending on its surrounding influences and its own state of tension or relaxation.
It is the manner in which the body is vibrating that determines and sets the limits of sensory perception and emotional experience. The delicacy and refinement of what can be felt, tasted, smelled, heard, or seen is limited by the refinement of the body. If the body is vibrating coarsely the perceptions will be limited to that coarseness as will all voluntary and involuntary muscular movements.
Music is the most potent of all normally encountered vibrational influences. When music is playing, it is only possible to move in relation to that music. One either consciously or unconsciously moves with it or against it. Also, its expressive qualities actively influence one's emotional state.
When listening to a recording that has a diffused, unfocused sound quality and erratic irregularities of rhythm, one's body will exhibit those characteristics in its own internal rhythm and will continue to vibrate in that erratic manner even after the performance is over. Voluntary movements will also reflect the erratic rhythms in their speed, jerkiness, imprecision, etc. However, with a performance of finest vibrational quality, the internal rhythms of the body will take on the finer harmony and smoothness both in the vibrating of each separate organ and in the synchronization of the organs to each other. Voluntary movements will also be smoother and more flowing. Such a finely-vibrating state will be accompanied by a distinct feeling of well-being while the more erratic physical state will be accompanied by one of the myriad variations of irritability, unease, and nervousness, both conscious and unconscious.
Discos provide an excellent example of the effects of music's vibrational qualities. Good disc-jockeys test every number before playing it, previewing it with earphones to make sure that the rhythmic beat and emotional tone match the cut which is playing. If, by chance, a cut is played that is diffuse and limp in rhythm and tone, the movements, attitudes, and temperament of the dancers and everyone else present take on that character. The effect is very strange and disconcerting. People complain immediately. Most disc-jockeys quickly fade to another cut rather than finish that selection. As soon as a selection of better quality is played, the people again feel comfortable and the quality of their movements improves. The effect is similar with all music (or other types of sound), whether or not it is specifically meant for dancing, and whether it is meant to be heard at home, in public, alone, or in large groups.
Sound vibrations are among the strongest influences on well-being and the capacity to function rationally and well. All moods and general physical conditions such as agitation, weariness, intensity, calmness, and diffuseness are rhythmic characteristics and qualities of the manner in which the body is vibrating. They are the result of the characteristics of the internal, involuntary rhythms of the body which are reflected in the patterns of its voluntary movements and in its physical attitudes. Agitation, for example, is a faster than normal bodily rhythm of an erratic, usually uneven nature. Calmness is a slow, even, smooth bodily rhythm. Few realize that mental states follow those of the body in the sense that they are determined by the states of the body and not vice-versa. It is impossible to feel agitated when the body is calm. Similarly, when agitated, the only way to calm the mind is to first physically calm the body. If the body is ill, one's mental states and abilities are the first to be affected. Since the sound environment affects the way the body vibrates, it obviously has to have a profound effect on physical and mental well-being.
The quality of the sound environment in today's society is of a decidedly low level. At home, in the workplace, or in public establishments, little attention is paid to the sounds of machines, TV sets, household radios, hi-fi systems and recordings. Musical performances are of low quality and recorded sound, which has not yet been perfected, has distortions in the frequency balances that need to be, but are not, compensated for during playback., One is constantly buffeted by sound of a poor, distorted, erratic quality. Much of the high rate of neuroticism, nervousness, and unease in modern society has to be a direct result of this poor sound environment.
The medical sciences are increasingly aware that many non-contagious diseases (physically unpleasant conditions), the ability to resist contagious diseases, and the control of pain are traceable to two things: posture and the surrounding vibrational influences.
Debilitating conditions of health are increasingly traced to posture, particularly the position of the spine, which also controls the experience of pain. Dentistry has found precise alignment of the jaw, which strongly affects posture, to be a major influence in a patient's feeling of well-being. Chiropractic correction of the alignment of the body also improves well-being. Noise is known to cause stressful, neurotic reactions and music-therapy has been found effective in improving numerous aspects of illness, including the relief of pain. These are just a few examples.
But posture itself is affected by external vibrational influences. It is influenced by and reflects emotional attitudes. Emotions are physical states, not mental abstractions. An emotion can only be experienced if the body assumes the attitude and vibrational qualities characteristic of that emotion. Emotions are caused mainly by vibrational influences on us: the sight and sound of a laughing baby, or a crying baby; the tone of voice of a message-bearer; the moods of music; the sounds of an accident, etc. Even when reading silently, the moods and emotions are caused by the author's carefully organized rhythms and textual patterns which the reader hears internally as sound. The reverse can also be true. Posture can determine emotions. Actors know well that assuming a particular posture can precipitate a mood or emotion. But external influences that create moods and emotions and therefore control posture occur much more often and more regularly than conscious impulses to purposely control posture. However subtle its dominance may be, the vibrational environment must be seen as the overriding, more important influence on physical well-being.
The only defensible aim in life is to realize one's potential for self-development. Since vibrational influences determine the quality of sensory perceptions and emotional experiences as well as one's sense of well-being, the problem in reaching one's potential is that of ensuring the presence of vibrational influences conducive to finer, more exquisite, more refining experiences.
A refined, highly sensitive person will usually recognize and feel uncomfortable around a coarse quality of vibration and both consciously and subconsciously avoid it. But the reverse is not true. The more coarsely vibrating person will not be delicate enough to experience the finer vibrational qualities and will therefore neither be able to recognize the coarse vibrations nor feel uncomfortable around them. Nuances that are finer than the vibrating of one's own body cannot be heard. That is because the vibrations from the source are not themselves heard (or seen, felt, or tasted, for that matter). It is the vibrating of the body after it is stimulated by those external vibrations that is heard. Obviously the body's own vibrating has to have an influence on hearing. If the vibrations and rhythms are from a source that is vibrating more finely than the body, they will be coarsened by the vibrating of the body.
A coarsely vibrating body will feel more immediately comfortable and at ease around erratic, coarse vibrations because those vibrational characteristics are closer to that body's own vibrational characteristics. (I say "immediately" because, if subjected to finer vibrations for a long enough period of time, the coarser vibrating body will absorb and take on all or most of the vibrational characteristics of the finer vibrations.) This accounts for the prevalent idea that such things as taste in fine music are wholly a matter of opinion and personal preference when in reality they are not. Those who prefer a less than impeccably fine performance are simply not hearing the finer nuances in the finer performances.
Those people who are delicate enough to be able to hear and experience all the nuances of finest music seldom disagree as to whether or not a performance was great, if they possess a sufficiently trained and cultivated hearing to recognize exceptional musicianship. True, once one knows what emotion the composer meant his music to express, there is some range for individuality and variation in performance, and therefore for personal preference. But that range is really much narrower than the public has been led to believe if the music is to truly express a particular emotion. Outside that narrow range, the effect intended by the composer just does not happen.
Within the small number of great, authentic performances of a particular piece of music, the knowledgeable connoisseur may have a preference, but this preference in no way detracts from the enjoyment of other performances of similar quality. Such great performances differ only as variations within the composer's intentions. Since they happen so seldom, it is, of course, a great joy to find more than one equally first-rate performance of a particular piece. A performance that is well-played in accordance with the composer's intentions is similar to an ideal, well-oiled and perfectly functioning machine: metrically, everything flows with perfect ease, regularity, and smoothness. The sensitive, knowledgeable listener feels comfortable and at ease listening to it.
How can the requisite refinement and discrimination for achieving one's potential and entering into higher levels of experience be developed? Since the body takes on finer as well as coarser vibrational characteristics, the best way to become finer is to be regularly subjected to a finely vibrating environment. Music is the most potent vibrational environment and offers the greatest possibilities for developing personal sensitivity, refinement, and range of emotional experiences. But, when listening to fine music, it takes time for the music to work. The body first has to calm down, absorb, and duplicate the flow of the music's rhythms and qualities before it will be fine enough to allow the finest nuances to be heard.
The purpose of the higher arts is to elevate the members of the audience into finer levels of being and experience. Music is the highest of the arts. That most people will not be bothered by a pedestrian performance of coarse vibrational quality and will probably even enjoy it does not mean that it is right for them. Such music is not fulfilling its purpose and is keeping the experiential aspects of those people's potential at a low level of development. There is no other way to reach higher levels of experience and personal development than to be subjected to fine artworks that embody those levels, preferably together with another person who is conversant with those artworks. In the finest performing arts, one is elevated because the body takes on the characteristics of the vibrational flow of all elements of the production, whether they are solely musical or include dance, speech, or mime. This refining of the physical body then allows for finer experiences than would otherwise be possible.
To allow oneself to become accustomed to, and remain satisfied with, anything but the finest in music negates the whole point of art. One limits oneself experientially to one's own insignificant frame of reference, while strengthening one's physical weaknesses. It is important to understand this if mankind is to truly transcend today's possibilities, improve the quality of personal experiences, and thereby improve the quality of the interaction of people in society.
The refining nature of music also has an obvious benefit to health. Music therapy has, in fact, been found to be highly effective on many levels as a help in the treatment of illness. There is not only the refining vibrational influence, but also the distraction from pain, and the changing of the patient's mood (from depressed to hopeful, for example) which, as explained, is really a changing of the body's characteristic vibrational qualities. But it should also be understood that music can just as easily have a negative effect if it is not of a fine quality, i.e., if the rhythm is not impeccably even, if the delivery is coarse and unrefined, if the performer is unsure, nervous, less than totally concentrated, etc. The body will take on the negative characteristics just as it would the positive ones.
Hearing poor performances of known works can also have a detrimental effect on the way one will hear those works for the rest of one's life. First impressions are decisive and determine how the same music will later be heard. In the way we hear, we are all like the "Pavlov dog" When we have heard a piece one way, we continue anticipating it that way, even while it is being played a different way. Being subjected to a poor performance can ruin the possibility of ever hearing a piece of music correctly.
When buying a diamond, an expert is sought. But few would simply trust that expert's recommendations without having them very carefully scrutinized by other experts. In music, it is important to be even more careful. The traditions and insights into musical performance have been just as carefully guarded and passed on with just as much exclusivity as the rarest, most esoteric of yogas. Those who have not studied or worked with the few musicians privy to these insights simply do not know what they are. The unsuspecting concert-going and record-buying public would do well to seek out and listen to the very few people who can guide them to the finest musical performances. Those performances necessarily are the ones with the finest vibration. But the great performances are few and far between. The bulk of today's classical recordings exhibit all the faults alluded to: less than impeccable rhythm and rhythmic steadiness; uneasy, tentative, or vulgar expressive qualities; etc.
Today, there are two sources of music, live performances and recordings. It is important to understand the difference in the physical effects of the two. In live performance, the audience and performers all interact and vibrate together. The people in the audience, all vibrating at the same time, set up a powerful overriding vibration that is the sum of all of the individual vibrations. The performance takes place in relation to that overall vibration. The quality of the performance is determined by the quality of the audience's vibration. Since everyone is vibrating together, there is no difficulty for each individual to enter into the flow of the music. Not so with recordings.
Listening to recordings presents two problems:
1) With recorded music the body is seldom in the same rhythmic flow as that of the music when one begins listening. It therefore takes a good part of the recording before the body settles down into the music's flow, thereby allowing the fine nuance of the music to be heard.
2) Hardly any sound systems are able to reproduce the tiny dynamic subtleties of the finest expressive content. (The weakest links are the mechanical components that have to convert sound vibrations into electrical signals and vice versa, i.e., the phono-pickup and the loudspeakers.) And all sound-reproduction has to be equalized if the true expressive content is to be heard.
It is generally believed that, although sound-systems differ in price and features, they all essentially reproduce the music on the recording. This is absolutely not true. Few even come close to reproducing the recorded performance, particularly not the small dynamic nuances that contain the individual interpretation. What is heard is a falsification that is a different work of art altogether. Because of the importance of this point, I repeat that, with all but a very few sound systems, the listener is not hearing what is on the record, the music is changed, and one is hearing a different performance altogether.
Logically, the recordings with the finest nuances suffer most from these and other problems of hearing recordings. Because they are truly expressive, those performances often are slower than usual in order to allow time for the expressive nuances to blossom. When robbed of those nuances, the performances seem empty and dull and the expression is changed. Otto Klemperer's recordings are excellent examples. Their emotional content is too fine for most sound systems to reproduce and, when well reproduced, much time is necessary for the body to settle into their extraordinary level of refinement. A great number of Klemperer's performances reach a level of intense concentration, fineness of vibration, and exquisiteness of expressive detail that can only be equaled, not bettered--even in loud passages. Along with their highly expressive qualities, they achieve perfect smoothness of legato and evenness in meter, i.e., in sound as a seamless, perfectly even flow of space in time. But their expressive qualities are usually unappreciated. For example, the last movement of Klemperer's Mahler 9th Symphony is usually heard as pompous or grand, when it is really sad and inwardly crying. The last movement of Schumann's Third Symphony is also heard as a grand, heroic apotheosis, when it is really ingenuously childlike and playful. Klemperer's superb performance of Mozart's Dog Giovanni, which embodies the whole range of emotion from despair to the ingenuously loving, to the demonaic with extraordinary subtlety and differentiation, is called "elephantine" in a book of record critiques, Opera on Record .3
Anyone who listens to the above-mentioned recordings and does not have an extraordinarily delicate, completely engrossing emotional experience of a decidedly human, non-heroic nature has simply not heard their contents. If the listener does not react at all, the sound system is not reproducing the nuances; otherwise, the listener does not have the necessary discipline to hear them. Listening is a discipline. Even listening in a non-technical manner only to expressive nuance, which is all that is necessary for the non-performer, is a discipline. As with any discipline, it demands effort and application to be mastered.
A major problem in seeking out the best recorded performances is that record critics, victims of the same problems of hearing records, are unreliable judges of the qualities of music. It takes time for their bodies to enter into the flow of each selection to be reviewed and, when listening to records of widely differing vibrational character, at the beginning of each selection the body will be vibrating in the character of the last-heard selection. Therefore, many critics who have to listen to a lot of music in a short amount of time are not able catch the all of the nuances of the finest performances, even if they have the requisite equipment. As a result, many of the best performances have gone unrecognized and unappreciated by the critics and have disappeared from the catalogues.
It is worth whatever time and effort is necessary to seek out the best performances if access to some of the most meaningful of possible human experiences--experiences that never dull or tarnish--is desired. It is impossible to play live music twice in exactly the same manner. But recordings of great performances of musical masterworks can be repeated. When the reproduction is faithful to the original, these performances are among the very few experiences in this world that improve in their effect, becoming deeper and richer the more familiar with them one becomes.
1 See our paper "Sound-Equalization in Relation to the Way We Hear",
2 "The tone makes the music. The emotional response to a message is determined more by the vibrational quality of speaker's voice than the content of the message. A sad message delivered in a sparklingly happy manner will not elicit an unhappy response and a happy message delivered in a lugubrious, sad manner will not elicit a happy response.
3 Further especially recommended Klemperer performances are the Brahms German Requiem, the Berlioz Fantastic Symphony, the Strauss Metamorphosis for String Instruments, and all of his recordings of the Mozart symphonies and serenades.
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate stress-producing vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand stressful vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide research and explanations for a practical understanding of the psychology of seeing and hearing.