Saturday, September 26, 2009

More Jung

For our Vermont readership especially, want to paste in a comment I made on Jonathan West's latest post on musicality:

Jonathan - Per usual, lots and lots to think about in these posts of yours on musicality. For right now, though, want to pull out this bit:

>>When playing in a large group doing well, all kinds of instantaneous feedback and adjustment is going on between and among the players, who are responding to each other and not merely to the conductor. And this happens far too fast and unconsciously for anybody to be able to describe in any kind of detail exactly what is going on, even after the event.<<

My personal working assumption about this is that it really is a kind of what they used to call ESP, extra sensory perception. Some time ago I did a post linking research showing that when musicians are playing together, it can induce brain wave entrainment amongst them. That, along with all the sensory cues pouring in, seems to be able to create an altered state where things can happen that go beyond our normal individual capacities. That's when egos can fade and the music is more channeled than made. Sort of a brief manifestation of what Jung called the collective unconscious.


  1. Hi Lyle,
    Of course, it's not really ESP :-)

    If you make a detailed video recording of all the players participating, in sufficient detail to see the individual players' expressions and who they are looking at, and you examine it in minute detail (freeze frame if necessary), I suspect you will find that there are very rapid transient changes of expression and body language, and that these are caught by other players out of the corner of their eye. When a group who know each other well play together, they get used to how to co-ordinate in this way without quite realising the details of how they do it - and nor do they need to know the details. All they need to do it make it work!

    I don't know if anybody has done this specifically in the context of a musical performance, but this kind of study has been done in other contexts. It seems probable that similar dynamics are going on in a musical performance.

    It is easier to see this happening in a small chamber performance - a string quartet or even an instrumental sonata, as you have fewer people involved and it is much easier to see who is reacting to whom.

  2. Jonathan - I take your point. It's like that thing about any technology we don't understand appearing as magic (A. C. Clark?). But surely it's possible that the brain wave entrainment enables us to pick up on cues more subtle than we'd otherwise notice? Also, I'm pretty sure that it's fairly well established that something different is going on when we're in the "flow" state, and part of that is stuff that won't be amenable to left brain, freeze frame analysis, if only because there is such a complex interplay of all the senses and their input being shaped by our thinking, feeling and intuition. I think you'd have as tough a time proving it's all part of normal consciousness as I would that it's ESP. As I said, it's just a working hypothesis. It's a handy bit of shorthand for a very complex phenomenon that lies at the center of ensemble music making. If you can come up with a term for it as useful as "musicality" has been for me (I'm still not finished commenting on the original post), I'm all ears.

  3. Ah, flow! Yes, every musician hopes to get into that state. I've really managed it in perhaps a dozen performances in my whole life, and always hope that the next concert will provide another similar experience - though it rarely does.

    As I understand it, it happens when you are sufficiently in control of the mere technicalities of performance that the left brain can relax a bit and let the right brain make a greater contribution. And of course use of the right brain puts you into "open" mode where you more easily pick up cues from around you as to what is going on. the left brain is still doing its thing, after all you do still have to produce the notes, but control is being shared with the right brain which is picking up all the subtle cues around you.

    All musicians, professional and amateur, do this to a certain extent, unless they are so totally buried in their own part that they aren't even looking at the conductor. But it is rare to be able to bring it to that pitch of effortless control that allows you to just float within the music, while remaining totally conscious and aware of your surroundings.

    But the freeze frame analysis is still potentially useful to understand how all the interactions work, because despite appearances, there is no direct mind-to-mind communication going on here, it is all being filtered through the senses - sight, hearing (of course), and touch. So you need the freeze frame to see what is being communicated to whom and when.

    I'm very conscious that this is happening when I play in a chamber group - I make a specific point of looking at the other players as much as possible in order to pick up those cues, even though the other players may not be consciously giving them off. I also make a point of consciously supplementing the cues I give off, for instance by taking a breath before an entry of precisely one beat, so that anybody watching will have a better idea of when the sound will first appear.

  4. Jonathan - Thanks again for the thoughtful comment. I was sort of winging it in the first response because all I can really remember about the "flow" concept is that the originator of the term has one of those amazing Polish(?) names with lots of consonants and not many vowels. Will investigate before commenting further on that. Totally agree on chamber/small ensemble playing. Besides not really enjoying band repertoire, the size of the group makes good ensemble very difficult. As to mind-to-mind communication, I'm agnostic. Some physicist said something along the lines of, "The universe isn't just as weird as we might imagine, it's weirder than we can imagine." Think I'll poll my group and some others and see what they say, and if they have a better word or concept for what we're talking about.

  5. Two very good books which describe flow and "open" mode are "Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman and "Life and How to Survive It" by John Cleese and Robin Skinner. (Yes, that John Cleese!)

    They have somewhat different ways of going about their descriptions, but it is quite clear they are both referring to the same phenomenon.

  6. Jonathan - Thanks for those tips. I did know Cleese had moved into new areas since Monty days, and I think Goleman may have started out as an explicator of Tibetan Buddhism. The main thing, though, is that this exchange has led me to realize the "flow" state is something I should really know a lot more about as a music therapist. Maybe there's some way to help players benefit from it without having to have the transcendental peak experience, i.e. that maybe it's not necessarily either/or.

  7. Certainly it is possible to enter open mode to some degree without getting the full peak experience. Once you know how, it is possible to climb the lower levels more or less at will.

    I try to go into that mode whenever I play in any kind of performance. And I suspect that most professional musicians do the same, though they may not put that name to it.