The Flow of Music or How Sounds Improve Our Quality of Life

Music is an artistic creation strongly rooted in the diverse cultures and human societies, which give it a multitude of purposes and functions. In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explores the qualities of music in our con-temporariness and the important effects that it causes his learning, whether in children or in people of all ages.

In all known cultures, sound ordering in ways that appeal to the ear has been used to improve the quality of life. One of the oldest and perhaps most popular functions of the music is to focus the attention of the listeners on models appropriate to the desired mood. Therefore, there is music for dancing, for weddings, for funerals, for religious ceremonies and for patriotic occasions, music that facilitates romance and music that helps soldiers to march in orderly ranks.

The Flow of Music

When the pygmies of the Ituri forest in Central Africa arrive at bad times, they believe that their misfortune is because the benevolent forest, which commonly provides them with all their needs, has accidentally fallen asleep. And, at this point, the tribal leaders extract the Sacred horns buried under the ground and blow for days and nights, trying to awaken the forest and restore the good times.

The way music is used in the Ituri forest is paradigmatic of its function everywhere. The horns may not have awakened to the trees, but their familiar sound must have convinced the pygmies that the help was on their way and they will be able to face the future with confidence. Most of the music that comes out of current Walkmans and stereos responds to a similar need. Teenagers, whose fragile evolving personality suffers threat after rapid succession during the day, rely especially on the soothing model of sound to restore order to their consciousness. But so do many adults. A policeman told us: “If after a day of making arrests and worrying about shooting me, I could not turn on the radio in the car when I go home, I would probably be crazy”.

Music, which is organized auditory information, helps organize the mind that hears it and therefore reduces psychic entropy or the disorder we experience when random information interferes with goals.
Listening to music moves us away from boredom and restlessness, and when we take it seriously, it can induce flow experiences.

Some people argue that technological advances have improved the quality of life by enabling music to be available so easily. The radio, the laser discs, the recordings in cassette, sound with the most recent music twenty-four hours of the day in clean recordings like the crystal. This continuous access to good music is supposed to make our lives much richer. But this kind of argument suffers from the usual confusion between behavior and experience. Listening for days pre-recorded music may or might not be more enjoyable than hearing an hour of the live concert that one had been looking forward to for weeks.

It is not to hear what improves our lives, is to listen. We hear music, but we seldom hear it, and few can get flow as a result of it all.

As with anything else, to enjoy the music you have to pay attention. As the recording technology provides us with music that is too accessible, we can stop valuing it and reduce our ability to get enjoyment from it. Before the arrival of sound recordings, live musical performance retained some of the excitement that music spawned when it was still entirely involved in religious rituals. Even the musical band of a village, not to mention a symphony orchestra, were a visible reminder of the mysterious skills necessary to produce harmonious sounds. One approached the event with expectation, with the awareness that it had to pay attention because the performance was unique and could not be repeated again.

Attendance at today’s live concerts, such as rock concerts, continues to participate in some degree of these ritual elements; There are few occasions when a large number of people are witnessing the same event together, thinking and feeling the same things and processing the same information. Such joint participation produces in an auditorium the condition that Émile Durkheim called “the collective effervescence”, or the feeling that one belongs to the group with a concrete and true existence.
Durkheim believed that this sentiment was in the roots of religious experience. The conditions of a live concert help the focus on music and therefore make the flow experience more likely to arise as a result of a concert rather than when you hear the sound played.

But arguing that live music is naturally more enjoyable than recorded music would be as invalid as arguing the opposite. Any sound can be a source of enjoyment if we listen properly. In fact, as the Yaqui sorcerer taught anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, even the intervals of silence between sounds, if we listen to them carefully, can make us enjoy.

Many people have impressive collections of musical recordings, with the most exquisite music ever written and yet fail to enjoy it. They listen to it a few times in their music team, marveling at the clarity of the sound it produces, and then they forget to listen to music until it’s time to buy a more advanced computer. On the other hand, those who make the most of the potential for the enjoyment that is inherent in the music, have strategies to obtain the flow experience. They start off by having specific hours to listen to music. When the time comes they ease the concentration by lowering the lights, sitting in your favorite chair or following some other ritual that will focus your attention. They carefully plan the music selection they will listen to and formulate specific goals for the audition that begins.
Listening to music usually starts out as an experience of the senses. At this stage, one responds to the sound qualities that induce the pleasant physical reactions that are genetically connected to our nervous system.

We respond to chords that seem to have universal acceptance, such as the plaintive sound of the flute, or the vibrating call of the trumpets. We are especially sensitive to the rhythm of drums or bass, the rhythm in which rock music rests and some say that reminds us of the first thing we hear, the beating heart of the mother heard in the womb.

The next level of challenge that music proposes is the analogue listening mode. At this stage, one develops the ability to evoke feelings and images based on sound models. The passage of a plaintive saxophone reminds us of the feeling of awe we have when we see the storm clouds accumulate on the prairie; The musical fragment of Tchaikovsky achieves that one is visualized driving a sled through the snowy forest, with its bells ringing thanks to the movement. Popular songs, of course, exploit the analogue mode fully through lyrics of songs that put words to the mood or history that music represents.

The most complex stage of musical listening is analytics. In this mode, attention changes towards the structural elements of music rather than fixate on the sensitive or narrative elements. Listening skills at this level have to do with the ability to recognize the underlying order of the work, and with the means that achieve harmony. They include the ability to critically evaluate interpretation and acoustics; To compare the work in question with previous and subsequent works of the same composer or with the work of other composers; Compare the orchestra, the Director or the ensemble with their own previous and later performances, or with the interpretations of others. Analytical listeners often compared the different versions of the same blues song, or they sit down to listen to music with a plan that could be typically this: «Let’s see how different the recording of the second movement of the seventh Symphony carried out by Von Karajan in 1975 of its recording of 1963 ‘, or «I wonder if the metal section of the symphony Orchestra of Chicago is really better than the section of Berlin». By setting these goals, listening becomes an active experience that offers constant feedback (for example, “Von Karajan has gone slower this time”, “Berlin metals are sharper but less sweet”). By developing analytical listening skills, opportunities to enjoy music increase in geometric proportion.

So far we have considered only the flow that comes from the listener, but the bonuses are even greater for those who learn to make music. Apollo’s civilising power depended on his ability to touch the lyre, Pan carried his auditoriums to the frenzy with his flutes, and Orpheus, with his music, was even able to stop death. These legends indicate the connection between the ability to create harmony with the sounds and the more general and abstract harmony underlying the kind of social order we call civilization. Knowing that connection, Plato believed that children should learn music before anything else; Learning to pay attention to beautiful harmonies and rhythms his whole consciousness would be able to be ordained. Our culture seems to put little emphasis on teaching musical skills to children and young people. When a school’s budget is to be cut, music courses (as well as art and physical education) are the first thing to be eliminated. It is discouraging that these three basic capacities, so important to improve the quality of life, are generally considered superfluous in the current educational climate. Without serious music education, children become teenagers who, because of this early deprivation, must invest enormous amounts of psychic energy in finding their own music. They will form rock groups, buy tapes and discs, and generally become prisoners of a subculture that does not offer many opportunities to make their consciousness more complex.

Even when children are taught music the usual problem arises: it puts too much emphasis on interpretation, and too little on what they experience. Parents who push their children to excel playing the violin are generally not interested in whether children really enjoy touching it; What they want is for the child to play well enough to attract attention, win prizes and finish on the Carnegie Hall stage. By doing this they pervert the purpose for which the music was devised: they make it the opposite, in a source of psychic disorder. Paternal expectations about musical behavior often create great tension, and sometimes a total crisis.

Lorin Hollander, who as a child was a prodigy to the piano and whose father perfectionist was first violin in the orchestra of Toscanini, tells how he used to get lost in ecstasy when he played the piano alone, but also how he used to tremble with terror when his Demanding adult mentors were present. When he was a teenager, the fingers of his hands froze during a concert and he could not open his hands until many years later. Some subconscious mechanism beyond the threshold of his consciousness had decided to save him the constant pain of paternal critique. Now Hollander, recovering from psychologically induced paralysis, takes time helping other talented young instrumentalists to enjoy music the way it should be enjoyed.

Although it is better to learn to play an instrument when you are young, it is never really too late to start. Some music teachers specialize in adult and senior students, and many successful entrepreneurs decide to learn to play the piano after the age of fifty. Singing in a chorus and playing in a set of amateur rope are two ways to enjoy experiencing the mixing of your own skills with those of others. Personal computers now have a very sophisticated software that facilitates the composition and allows one to immediately listen to the orchestration. Learning to produce harmonious sounds is not only pleasing, but, like the dominance of any complex skill, it also helps to strengthen personality.