Music as experience and information

§ Some people have the stars. Some people have tarot. Some people have the yijing. I have the music I listen to.

Looking back, it is uncanny the correlation I can detect between what I listen to and what comes up in my life. For instance, when my work is enjoyable and getting me up early in the morning, I’m usually listening to piano jazz from the 50s. Why? I probably happened to be listening to jazz a lot during early phases in my career, and made an association. Or, sometimes I’m listening to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” on repeat. That happens when some phase in my life is ending. It makes sense that song would resonate with me in a time like that—that’s exactly what the song is about: a flighty, mercurial person perpetually in transition.

And that’s exactly what the mechanism is: resonance of ideas and/or of memories. It isn’t that music is a divinatory medium like the signs in astrology, but rather that it tells me what’s going on in my heart, mind, and environment.

It’s obvious in the abstract, of course, but in practice it’s hard to pick up on. Unless someone else is listening to all the music I choose to listen to and paying attention to what’s going on in my life and emotions, no one can make the connections except me. Meanwhile, I’m too busy listening to the music to think about whether the song means I feel a certain way or am in a certain groove in life.

However, becoming aware of music (or something else) for its indicative properties provides an excellent path to greater self-awareness. The last time I listened to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” over and over and over, I noticed it, and knew it meant something important to me was about to end. I wasn’t quite sure what (although I could guess), but I sure knew the ending was coming. It wasn’t so much that it predicted the future as it indicated high-level situational information that I wasn’t picking up consciously—except for noticing the song and knowing that there’s only one reason I listen to it. That’s useful information.

§ Perhaps even farther down this path is greater self-direction. I didn’t figure out what was wrong in time to change course in the previous example, but I definitely think harder about what my music choices mean and about what’s going on around me. It’s definitely a source of information, and a medium through which to practice self-contemplation.

I wonder too if it’s possible to change my internal state through choosing music more deliberately. Sometimes when I’ve been unhappy, I’ll try to listen to music that I’ve listened to when I’ve been happier. So far that’s met with mixed success, mostly because I’m not strong enough, and change the song a few seconds later. Other times, I might itch to listen to those ballads about memory and romantic focus (think “Vanilla Twilight” or “Got My Mind Set On You”) that I’ve listened to in the past during foolish, misguided obsessions—and catch myself, and repress that urge to listen, knowing it will only reinforce unhealthy ideas, and ruin relationships.

It’s a road, at least. Some people navigate with the stars. Some people navigate with maps. Some people have supposedly navigated using music (think “Follow the Drinking Gourd” or songlines) so maybe it’s viable for me. On the other hand, it does change what music means for me. Every piece enters my mind now on two levels: what I experience in the moment and what my listening signifies as information. Music remains an aesthetic experience, and now it’s also an encounter with objectivity.

That’s complicated.

On the outer rim

§ One solution (among others) to the “problem of evil” is to classify “good” and “evil” as strictly human-derived models. That is, our concepts of good and evil may not line up with God’s; therefore, whatever might be God’s good and evil, we can’t ourselves make normative statements about the world. We can certainly make pragmatic statements about preferred outcomes (about which we may disagree), but we must humbly defer judgment when something happens that we otherwise might call good or evil: it’s not our call.

It’s a nice solution, free from paradox. However, acceptance of this solution necessarily damages your position in social discourse, and that’s understandable. It’s hard to take seriously someone who doesn’t take seriously the usual terms of conversation. Much of social identity derives from the good-and-evil dichotomy, albeit sometimes in different form: us-and-them, clean-and-dirty, success-and-failure. Diregarding those identities creates quite a communication gap.

There is an Abrahamic story that around Creation there was a garden planted with, among other things, a tree of knowledge of good and evil. God told humans not to eat of its fruit, and that we would regret it. We did eat the fruit and were cast out of that garden. I think humans are still in a sort of garden, though we now know good and evil. There is another tree here that we weren’t explicitly told about—well, honestly, probably many. But this specific is, I suspect, also potentially regrettable to have eaten of: it makes you forget good and evil again, and once you’re sensitized to good and evil, the absence feels vastly empty. You’re out in space, far away from the atmosphere of ideas breathed by most of us.

Suppose it is an accurate solution, and you opt for it—opt to trade an internalized, intuitive recognition of illusory normative categories for an internalized sense of positive, unweighed being. The trade may or may not be worth it. Truth is nice and all, but is it useful to be out in space? If it turns out not, it might not be possible to return from that outer rim, but, perhaps there is another solution, similarly free from paradox: one which, in addition, doesn’t rift so with human discourse.

That would be a wonderful miracle.