Friday, 4 June 2010

Music as Meditation - Introspective and Dedicated listening

Do you ever use music to relax? I'm betting most people do, in the form of some background music whilst they read a magazine or work on their computers. But do you ever really focus on what you're listening to, getting lost inside it and using it as a form of meditation?

In this post I'm going to share some of the methods I use when I really want to relax or listen closely to a piece of music. I'm not saying that this is how it should be done, or that this is the best way to do it, but its just what works best for me and what I like doing.

Music is a really powerful force for many things. It can spark inspiration, trigger emotions, transport a listener to a certain memory and give people the irresistable urge to dance. It can sound better under the influence of some drugs, it can sound better when you're winding down, it can sound better in the car on the motorway, it can do many things.

A lot of these different applications come into play depending on how the music is being listened to; whether it be on speakers in the corner of the room, pumping from a subwoofer in the back of the car or blaring from huge club PA system. So when it comes down to deep, meditative listening, we have to find a certain method of listening which works for us.

I've addressed things like this in my previous post about Headphone Listening, which brings me to the first stage of my 'method'. Although it can be done with some nice speakers, I always 100% of the time prefer having a nice set of headphones on. The complete immersion and isolation make a big difference in helping you to filter out distractions, and gives your ears a single lane of information to filter through.

Which leaves the visual sensory organs - do the eyes distract from listening? For me, I find that they can. The era of the internet has caused me to develop a short attention span and a dependance on information on a screen in front of my eyes for as much as possible. Even when I'm working in my studio, I have my laptop to the side with my internet pages open so I can quickly go and browse whenever I take a break from audio work. If I browse the web and interact with it like I normally do, it distracts from my listening a lot, particularly when reading content.

So how to counter this? Closing your eyes is the obvious answer, but depending on your level of fatigue its all too easy to drift off into a trance and possibly go to sleep! If you're winding down before bed this is a perfect situation, but if its still the middle of the day, closing your eyes and relaxing to music for an hour can sometime render you a little bit more sleepy-headed once you come out of it.

I play mindless, casual games on my iPod. These are games that are incredibly simple and consist of coloured shapes, and I also favour games which aren't running on a time-limit system (i.e. Tetris) with which the pressure can build and you start focusing more on the game than anything else. My current favourites are Drop Zap and Bejewelled 2, both avaliable on the Apple App store and many other places.

I'll play these games with the sounds off and on endless/relentless mode, which is especially good on Bejewelled as its literally endless - as far as I can see, the game engineers its play in this mode so that you cannot possibly lose or die, which makes it perfect for long listening periods. Drop Zap has been a longtime favourite of mine in that it encourages strategy and thinking, but I've played it so much that I can still listen closely whilst playing (Even when I get fidgety and start playing this game during college lectures, I can still listen in on the lecture as well as if I wasn't. It seems having the visual stimulus which I apply during heavy listening can also help me focus in other applications too!)

I've found that the repetitive nature of these games, combined with headphone isolation, gives me the space to fully immerse myself in music and really study its subtleties, inflections and various other things we may miss when we only half-listen to music. I listen to a lot of Bass Communion this way, and it really helps since the music is so ambient that if I only half listen to it I tend to miss the whole thing and wonder if I actually listened to anything (which, I think, is the main reason a lot of people dismiss ambient music - 'nothing is happening!')

I find that after a good, long uninterrupted listening session I'll come out a lot more relaxed, sometimes I'll have sorted some stuff out in my head that was bothering me or I'll have cleared my mind of the flurry of information which my longer internet sessions clutter it up with. Its a great way to refresh yourself, unwind and clear the cobwebs - my sessions tend to last about an hour, which is the average length of most albums.

So over to you - do you do any deep, meditative listening? What bands/artists do you prefer to listen to like this? What playback systems do you favour? How do you avoid distractions?

If you've never tried introspective listening like this, I strongly urge you to put aside an hour, find your favourite album and give it a go. It may take a few tries to find a situation which is comfortable for you, but I can guarantee that even if you only do it once, you'll enjoy it and possibly come out with a greater understanding and appreciation for the music you just listened to.

Keep loving music,

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