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Music and ConsciousnessPhilosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives$

David Clarke and Eric Clarke

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199553792

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199553792.001.0001

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The music of what happens:

The music of what happens:

mind, meditation, and music as movement

(p.95) Chapter 6 The music of what happens:
Music and Consciousness

Ansuman Biswas

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

A significant lacuna in academic and scientific studies of consciousness is a description of how it actually feels to be here. The study of consciousness has proved to be extremely elusive when using the traditional third-person methodology of science. Any description of qualia — by definition lived, subjective experience — seems to necessitate the admission of first-person data, which has hitherto been the province of the arts. If the problem of consciousness is nothing more than the attempt to capture the mechanism and experience of being a person, then each of us can appeal to only one authority for an answer. This chapter speaks from the personal perspective of a multidisciplinary artist-researcher, drawing on the experience of a praxis that inhabits a space between art, science, and religion. It offers a richly personal account of music and consciousness that is at every stage informed by the practice and principles of vipassana meditation.

Keywords:   music, consciousness, vipassana meditation, qualia, personal perspective

‘What is the finest music in the world?’ asks Fionn of his son, Oisin.

‘The cuckoo calling from the highest tree’, says he.

Those gathered round say, ‘The belling of a stag across the water, the ring of spear against shield, the baying of a tuneful pack in the distance, the song of a lark, the laughter of a gleeful girl.’

‘Well, they are good sounds all’, says Fionn, ‘but what is the finest music of them all?’

Oisin listens.

‘The music of what happens, that is the finest music in the world.’

(Attrib. Fenian Cycle)1


A significant lacuna in academic and scientific studies of consciousness is a description of how it actually feels to be here. The study of consciousness has proved to be extremely elusive when using the traditional third-person methodology of science. Any description of qualia—by definition lived, subjective experience—seems to necessitate the admission of first-person data, which has hitherto been the province of the arts.

If the problem of consciousness is nothing more than the attempt to capture the mechanism and experience of being a person, then each of us can appeal to only one authority for an answer. In this chapter I want to speak from the personal perspective of a multidisciplinary artist–researcher, drawing on the experience of a praxis that inhabits a space between art, science, and religion.2 In the camouflage of an artist (p.96) I find I can infiltrate and range between disciplines without being restricted by conventional boundaries. I am free to devote myself not to the abstract and theoretical knowledge of an academic discipline but to the embodied and applied wisdom of a beautiful life.

This account, then, will show theory and practice as closely woven together, experiment and experimenter as necessarily indivisible. A key element in this narrative is meditation, specifically the tradition known as vipassana, of which I am a longstanding practitioner. Following an account of this practice I will map some connections between it and music, showing how the latter may be understood as a more public aspect of the former. In doing so, I hope to draw out the relevance of both music and meditation to consciousness studies.


Vipassana meditation is the cultivation of continuous mindfulness of the present moment. The distinctive feature of the practice as I have learnt it from the Burmese/Indian teacher S.N. Goenka, is the importance given to conscious awareness of changing bodily sensation. The technique is described in detail in the Mahāsatipa.t.thāna Sutta (Goenka 2000), which was written in the Pali language about 300 years after the death of Siddhārta Gautama, the Buddha.

The purpose of the practice is to clarify the mind, eradicate mental afflictions, and learn to be perfectly happy. The method is to cultivate clear comprehension of the dynamic, changing nature of the world. Attention is directed to every part of the physical structure of the body, from the top of the head to the tips of the toes, inside and out. Every sensation, from the unavoidably apparent to the vanishingly subtle, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, is consciously identified, examined, and analysed. Attention is trained on the one characteristic shared by every phenomenon: its changing nature. The object of meditation is movement. Over time the clear insight develops that in this flux nothing is permanently graspable or dependable. This is not a conceptual understanding but a moment-by-moment experience. The technique does not aim to foster a theoretical intellectual appreciation, but rather to clarify awareness of actual, physical experience, in as much detail as possible.

In the Burmese/Indian Theravada tradition two complementary meditative techniques support the practice of vipassana. The first is a preparatory exercise called ānāpānasati, which is designed to settle and focus the mind. It consists of sustained conscious awareness of the natural, unregulated breath as it passes in and out of the nostrils. The second, more extrovert, practice is metta bhavana, the cultivation of loving, compassionate, and joyful thoughts towards others. These three meditative disciplines themselves rely on a foundation of ethical action called silā, consisting of conscious avoidance of harmful activities in everyday life. As the practitioner progresses with these practices they become evermore tightly intertwined and mutually supportive.

Vipassana meditation, then, is just one part of a network of practices that operate together as a single methodology for understanding the nature of consciousness. The purpose of this understanding is not simply to satisfy curiosity or gain technical skill, but to address the problem of personal unhappiness that seems to be an integral part of experience.

(p.97) While examining the changing nature of the mind and body, a few categories of phenomena become apparent. There is the body itself, belonging to the field of matter. This is a huge category of course, including the entire physical universe and everything that can be discerned by the organs of sense, but it may be roughly lumped together in order to distinguish it from the mind. The mind is a hazy, nebulous entity, but may be characterized, again roughly, as everything that is not the physical stuff. Mind is the feeling, thinking, knowing, reacting thing. Further subdivisions of it can be made precisely on this broad basis—feeling, thinking, knowing, reacting.

In the Mahāsatipa.t.thāna Sutta these large categories—matter, feeling, thinking, knowing, and acting—are called the five khanda, collections or aggregates.3 Everything that exists can be taken to fall into one or other of these categories:

  • r¯upa (matter): the world of forms, the material universe, composed of the various elements;

  • viññā.na (consciousness): the cognizing part of the mind, the feeling of knowing;

  • vedanā (sensation): the physical feeling arising at any of the sense organs;

  • saññā (perception): the naming, labelling, evaluating activity;

  • sa˙nkhāra (volition): the reactive, formulating part of the mind which generates things.

As Jay Garfield comments, this categorization should be taken as a practical, empirical division, not an ontological fundamental (1995: 142). The categories should be taken not as a credo, but simply as signposts that may or may not be useful. The meditation technique does not rely on them. What is paramount is the practice of training the attention on what actually presents itself.

A key finding expressed in these terms is that all phenomena flow along with sensation, an idea expressed in Pali as ‘vedana-samosarana sabbe dhamma’ (Hardy et al. 1900: 107). The sensation may not always be in conscious awareness, that is to say viññā.na may or may not arise along with vedanā, but at some level of the mind sensation is always present, giving rise to further chains of reaction. Sensation, then, is a primal and influential part of the world and it is this sensation which is the object of the meditation regardless of any naming or labelling.


The biological value of music is widely contested. Charles Darwin thought it played a vital role in sexuality but in Steven Pinker’s provocative caricature music is just ‘auditory cheesecake … a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once’ (1997: 524, 528). Such a position contrasts sharply with that of Michael Thaut who suggests that music is an ‘innate, modular, perceptual language of the brain … a part of our basic brain architecture’. According to Thaut, ‘Music, driven by the affective-aesthetic responses, is a critical input for appropriate regulation of physiological arousal. To further specify: Music communicates critical time dimensions into our perceptual processes’ (2008: 34).

These contrasting positions exemplify the wide-ranging debate on the nature of music, which seems as resistant to scientific analysis as consciousness. One important (p.98) reason for this continuing mystery is identified by Daniel Levitin in terms of a peculiarly modern blind spot:

The arguments against music as an adaptation consider music only as disembodied sound, and moreover, as performed by an expert class for an audience. But it is only in the last five hundred years that music has become a spectator activity …. And it has only been in the last hundred years or so that the ties between musical sound and human movement have been minimized. (2006: 251)

Clearly embodiment has a political as well as organic dimension. During the industrial revolution, music gradually shifted from something one does to something one consumes. Such an enervated music, floating in an ideal, imaginary space, and piped directly into our ears, might well seem like a rarified luxury, a biologically superfluous ornament. But in thinking only of disembodied music we forget that the ear is not only the organ of hearing but also the organ of balance. The ear measures our place in the world but it is not until we take our place that the music is resolved. Sound and movement, reception and action, are intimately connected. A dance watched from the sidelines might lead to partial understanding, but only when enacted, however falteringly, can it lead on to grace. In the pursuit of happiness a disembodied sound is as unhelpful as a disembodied science. When put into practice however, both music and meditation become powerful tools.

Music as meditation: a personal history

My own relationship with music has paralleled my meditation practice. It had been a ubiquitous but only incidental part of my childhood until the middle of one hot summer’s night in my early twenties when a pair of drums flew through the open window of my ground floor bedroom and landed on me. I still have no idea where these drums came from, and can only surmise that some revellers had randomly discarded them on their way past. For me they were a godsend. While casually tinkering I gradually became fascinated by the repetitive rhythmic playing they facilitated. It was at around this time that I was first formally learning meditation. I made no deliberate connection but in retrospect my trajectory seems clear. I began to use the drums in the same way as the initial meditative exercises are used, to attain a degree of mental concentration.

According to Buddhist practice, before it can engage in any sustained analysis the attention needs to be made firm and stable to prevent it from being blown away by every passing thought. Any object can be used as a tether. In ānāpāna the attention is repeatedly brought back to observe the unceasing rhythm of the breath. This voluntary, repetitive gathering of attention around an object to make out its details concentrates and strengthens the mind. The faculty of viññā.na (consciousness) increases. Deliberate repetition gives way to longer and longer periods of awareness of the involuntary, naturally repetitive rhythm of respiration.

Different objects suit different temperaments. I found repetitive drumming to be an extremely effective focus. My whole body was engaged and yet, once a continuous rhythm had been established, intentional activity was minimized. I was free to observe the complexity of my various sensations, some of which seemed to be under conscious (p.99) control but many more of which were accidental and involuntary. This method gave access to aspects of the body that had hitherto been below the threshold of consciousness.

As conscious control relaxed, rhythmic processes throughout the psychosomatic structure became progressively more coherent, and over the course of the next few months I spontaneously discovered profound states of absorption and trance. At the time I was not deliberately trying to achieve any particular state, nor did I have a particular terminology for my experiences. It was interesting and fun, and felt therapeutic. Looking for external references the nearest I could find were the trance drumming traditions of Shamanic cultures and African possession rituals. But, searching through various precedents in disparate cultures in an attempt to ground my experience, I gradually homed in on my own cultural identity and embarked on a serious study of Indian classical music. Here, in the physical activity of riyāz (daily practice), if not necessarily in all the details of its conceptualization, I found something familiar. Sustained and tightly focused concentration on the basic material, with an underlying attitude of humility seemed like a good approach to the study of the mind.4

A key attraction of Indian classical music was the importance given to improvisation. I had already learned theatrical improvisation techniques and now I began to consciously connect these with music. I then came, via Western avant-garde practices, to free improvisation and the approaches represented by Fluxus and the London Musicians’ Collective. The openness to irrational bodily impulses and the eschewing of both political hierarchy and performance conventions seemed to connect these musics to meditation. Close mentors such as John Stevens and Paul Burwell introduced me to an exploded notion of drumming which respected the materiality of the instrument without fetishizing it. For a percussionist perhaps more than for other instrumentalists, any object has particular properties to be sounded out, but the music lies in the musician’s attitude. This embodied approach militated against any identification with a particular instrument, and the development of associated technical skills in the service of an external composer. The purpose of repetition was to cultivate the quality of listening that exists in free improvisation. As John Stevens says, ‘Improvisation is the basis of learning to play a musical instrument’ (quoted in Bailey 1992: 98).

Progressing through the practice of free improvisation I have gradually put aside instruments altogether to focus on the musicality that subtends sound. This route is paralleled in a meditation practice that moves from unconscious identification with the body and the myriad particularities of its sensations through to an embodied understanding of the dynamics that underlie all perceptual phenomena regardless of self-identification. In my case, drumming focused the mind enough to enable it to begin to discern the subtler motion of the breath. Even if one begins with prescribed exercises, eventually the mind’s conceptual rigidity may relax enough to allow it to perceive the constant stream of changing phenomena. Such exercises progressively establish quiescence, a subsiding of compulsive hyperactivity, until ultimately interference gives way to insight. Or, to put it another way, the initial deliberate restraint of sa˙nkhāra (volition) gives an opportunity to glimpse vedanā (sensation) and weaken the rigidity of saññā (perception).

(p.100) The difference between preparation and performance dissolves, and in practice, as in playing, a flow is released, a motion with eddies and currents within it. Areas of blockage or tension appear and disappear. The attention may sometimes focus on variations in the grain of the most minuscule details, and sometimes expand to take in the widest overview. The balance between wilful decision making and choiceless observation gradually shifts. That which was overdeveloped in some parts and weak in others is brought by degrees into a perfect proportion.

Gregory Bateson invokes Aldous Huxley’s use of the word ‘grace’ to describe such a state:

The problem of grace is fundamentally the problem of integration and that what is to be integrated is the diverse parts of the mind—especially those multiple levels of which one extreme is called ‘consciousness’ and the other the ‘unconscious’. For the attainment of grace, the reasons of the heart must be integrated with the reasons of the reason. (1972: 129)

Meditation is the work of attaining a gracefully integrated consciousness. When the roiling turbulence of vedanā can be brought fully into awareness without throwing it off balance, then there is a gracefulness about the movement. Any object may be grasped to steady oneself. It might be a spoken mantra, a beautiful picture, a geometrical figure, a candle flame, or an idea. The object itself has no particular meaning or significance. Like the Pole Star for a mariner, or the lamppost for a drunk, it provides support rather than illumination.

A problem with many objects, however, is that while the mind becomes concentrated and somewhat steady, it can begin to become fascinated with the object itself and ascribe meaning to it. A set of nonsense syllables may be treated as a magic spell, a picture of a god as a real being, or an invented idea as an ultimate truth. This kind of delusional attachment limits flexibility and openness to alternative points of view. Nevertheless, for an extremely unbalanced or agitated mind, a carefully designed handle can be helpful. Music, despite its cultural accretions, can function as such a device.

A musical focus for attention

The focal object in Indian classical music is swara. The word might be translated as ‘note’, but swara is certainly not the same thing that a Western musician means by a musical note. In English, a note exists in an idealized space. It is objectively verifiable. The note ‘A’ is a particular rate of vibration, consensually determined (at least in the West in present times) as 440 Hz. Swara, by contrast, exists only when I sound it. When sung it is a function of my particular body and breath, and the space and time in which it occurs. It is the vibration of this embodied moment. When sung perfectly it is not even my vibration, but simply resonance in which the notion of me or mine becomes vestigial. The perfection of swara consists of this dissolution of the singer.5

This delicate distinction between embodiment and identification is of utmost importance. Swara happens only here and now. But without any active, creative person, free of ownership, swara is part of a much wider music for which this body is simply an instrument. The music continues under its own momentum, effortlessly (p.101) influenced only by past conditions. It may be appreciated in all its intricacy without judgement. As swara manifests, viññā.na and vedanā become predominant while saññā and sa˙nkhāra dwindle away.

Recognition of this state underlies Rabindranath Tagore’s entreaty in the following song, in which some of the complexity of the idea of swara may be glimpsed. The word ‘shur’ is the Bengali cognate of the Sanskrit ‘swara’, which I have translated here as melody:

Bajao, amare, bajao

Bajale je shurey probhato aalore

Shei shurey more bajao

Je shuro bhorile bhasha bhola geete

Shishuro nobino jibono bnasheete

Make me your instrument

Just as you play the dawn light,

Play me with that melody

The melody with which you fill the wordless song

In the newborn flute of a child

(Tagore 1961: 127; my translation)

From tool as means to tool as object: the passage to awareness

A mind that is not yet sharp enough to appreciate that it is itself an instrument played by a supra-personal musician, or sharp enough even to observe its own singing, may begin, as I did, by relying on external tools. The musical instrument, like the scientific instrument, is not an end in itself but a means. Technical facility is incidental, the natural result of parts of the body falling under the spotlight of conscious intention. Siddhi, a Sanskrit term for the seemingly miraculous powers that are a by-product of meditation, are inevitable and spectacular distractions from the goal of understanding consciousness. When siddhi becomes the goal, further progress halts. The erection of a dazzling edifice of technique can only obstruct more vital traffic. Instruments can likewise become obstructions if they become ends in themselves. The most appropriate appreciation of a musical instrument is to use it to sensitize the mind to the music of what happens.

Instruments are bequeathed to us socially. Every given instrument has been shaped by other bodies before ours. Its shapes and mechanisms are designed to suit the pressure human lungs can exert, or the surfaces and extensions of human fingers. The structures of human societies too are written into instruments which might be loud enough to be heard by vast crowds or quiet enough for a drawing room, which might have been forged by teams of blacksmiths or whittled by a lone boy. By engaging with a given instrument I accept the proclivities and decisions of all those generations who have contributed to its design. The shapes and balances of their bodies are figured into its size and materials. I echo those bodies and enter a larger social body when I pick up or sit at this trace of them. I become the reification of a social idea.6 But to examine the mind in itself, all such reifications must eventually be abandoned. This is why in Indian classical music the voice is accorded the highest status. Even if all other (p.102) instruments are renounced, the voice continues to embody millions of years of accidents between individuals and environments. As an object of meditation the voice is an ideal site at which to observe the interplay of conscious control, cultural conditioning, and biological determination.

Even without the specificity of language, singing may fall into culturally determined patterns that initially draw attention to, but increasingly obfuscate, the nature of the mind. An important aspect of vipassana is to strive to see reality ‘as it is’, yatha bhuta, in itself, without anything added or removed. If singing is treated as a step in the cultivation of a clear view of the world, then its cultural accretions must gradually be dropped. Any words should be downplayed or replaced completely by sounds free of meaning. In forms such as jaap mantra, zikr, or dhrupad the words may be meaningful but, through constant repetition, it is their sound that becomes important. The melodic and rhythmic material may then be simplified in order to minimize distractions from the examination of swara.

This process of focusing in on the basic reality of the present manifestation can continue until even vocalization is abandoned completely. All that remains is the breath itself. Any boundary between music and meditation then dissolves. Ānāpāna reduces the musical material to pure movement. All that is left as an object of awareness is the varying speed and rhythm of the breath, and even this rhythm is left to be free. Voluntary control is relinquished in order more clearly to discern the underlying patterns of long and short, deep and shallow breaths governed by the brain stem.

So the voice can function initially as a focus for the mind, but then also as an object in which we can examine the nature of the mind itself. As we follow the voice to its essence we approach the origin of consciousness and move from the flowering creations of the neocortex towards the impulses of the primitive hindbrain. Graceful riyāz is the retracing of the evolution of voice to arrive at the primal origin, integrating rational awareness with the animal body. Then at the point where vocalization is abandoned there begins the field of anāhat nād, the unstruck sound, the vibration that is below the threshold of hearing. Without audible sound, just the attitude of listening remains and the musician becomes aware of the more subtle motions of the mind. Listening is an open space in which the rhythm of arising and passing away of all phenomena becomes apparent.

Close attention to the decaying note of a bell leads the awareness from a loud sound to the continual underlying vibration of what previously seemed inanimate. Similarly the progression from voice to breath hones the mind’s sensitivity to quietness until all that remains is an attitude of listening to the music of what happens. Gradual training in this way leads the observer from the deliberate, conscious, surface functions of the brain down to the workings of the autonomic nervous system and the dark zone in which lie the roots of awareness.

Deep listening and meditation

The composer and performer Pauline Oliveros, describing her practice of deep listening, distinguishes between the ‘involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature of listening’ (Deep Listening Institute: mission statement (n.d.); see also (p.103) Oliveros 2005: xxi). While this might be understood as a narrowing of the field of attention, it can also indicate an expansion of awareness. Listening is voluntary because it entails active restraint from habitual, involuntary reactions; and it is selective because it seeks out that which is subtle or obscure, at the fringes of awareness. Listening perseveres with what was at first too loud to bear, and reveals what was at first too quiet to hear.

The practices of meditation and deep listening are analogous. Both send a border patrol out into the landscape of consciousness, whose mission is to bring to light the faintest, subtlest, most tenuous facts. Just as appreciation of music increases with deep listening—revealing the partials and overtones rather than the fundamentals, the reverberation of the space rather than the source, and sensitizing us to echoes and allusions—so the study of one’s own mind can proceed by sustained and patient attention to the details which are just beyond the known. Although some phenomena are apparent to consciousness, a great many things happen unconsciously. These two affect one another. To be fully understood, experience must be examined not just at the flower, or thorn, of lucid, conscious awareness, but down to its roots in the dark soil of the body. From a third-person perspective, it is the body that is clearly materially present and the mind that is mysterious. From a first-person perspective, it is the mind that is clearly evident and its autonomous nervous system which is hidden. To arrive at a full understanding from either direction, some expansion is necessary. For a meditator a deliberate expansion of awareness, a mobility of perspective, is the only activity in the radical passivity of listening. It is a voluntary activity only insofar as it is a restraint from the irrational, automatic reactivity of saññā and sa˙nkhāra, which locks the mind to a viewpoint. Restraint from ignorant action steadily lessens our susceptibility to the illusion of fixity, definition, and stability.

Meditative listening reveals the seated body, whether singing or just breathing, as wide at its base and tapering to an apex at its fontanelle. Distinct in its parts like the crown, shoulder, waist, and lip of a bell, the body similarly resonates as a whole. It is a sensitive oscillatory system through which even the tiniest forces undulate and ricochet—forces as small as a quantum of light, the glimmer of a thought, or the rippling ion exchange along a single dendrite. Indeed the neural network is a very clear example of a system poised in the most precarious of instabilities, resonating in response to forces so small as to be indiscernible.

Listening is a skill that can be practised. But we get things back-to-front when we practise music in order to perform. For someone interested in fathoming the nature of the mind, performance is practising for listening. A wise musician is first and foremost one who has learned to listen. For this kind of musician, practice is about not the construction or achievement of something—functions of saññā and sa˙nkhāra—but the reception of something—functions of viññā.na and vedanā.

In this sense listening is the core of vipassana meditation. The Pali phrase ‘atapi sampajana na rincati’ (Rhys Davids 1925: 425) is an exhortation to the meditator to strive to maintain continuous uninterrupted clear understanding of sensations—‘atapi’ (‘work hard’), because listening, as opposed to hearing, is not an easy skill to learn. For an organism that has evolved to be acutely responsive to pleasure and pain, listening consciously without any reaction may even feel like a revolt against nature. (p.104) But it is evolution that has brought us to this juncture. The hyperdevelopment of the cortical layer in the human brain has enabled us to make deliberate choices and thus control our habitual tendencies. For a musical yogi the challenge is to appreciate swara continuously. Listening must be deliberately cultivated at this very moment, however difficult, rather than as a special framed activity done in ideal conditions.

The ear and the voice are connected in a loop. The voice projects both inwards and outwards. It makes oneself audible to oneself and to others. In the choral antiphony of a formal meditation teaching session, one’s commitment to an intention is made audible not only to others but also to oneself. One hears oneself as a deliberate actor in the world rather than as a series of accidental overspills from a private interior. This may begin as a formulation of rational thoughts, an intention then voiced in speech, but the voicing of intention beginning at the surface of the mind is heard by the body and soaks through to its depths. Ultimately the sound knits together—integrates—intention with actuality.

Shared consciousness

Allowing the vocal cords to vibrate brings awareness very firmly into the experience of the present moment, and a resonance that is social, external, and objective as much as it is personal and internal. Positioned at the portal between inside and outside, the vocal folds broker a sympathetic resonance between the body’s proprioception and the space of the environment, between the oxygen that sustains a single body and the body of air that moves through the world.

David Abram (1996) examines the etymologies of words for ‘air’ in various languages. Prana, psyche, ruach, spiritus, anima, and woniya wakan all attest to the intertwined nature of breath and mind. And the body of air enveloping the planet is suggestive of a mind that is likewise not confined to the single individual. Atmosphere flows through every one. It is not simply the gaseous layer that clings to the earth from troposphere to stratosphere, but also something invisibly shared, something that suffuses mind and body.7 ‘Atmosphere’ is recognized in common parlance as that emotional quality which is not confined to a single consciousness, a shared feeling. As this atmosphere flows through the standing reed of my body, the mind cannot help but sculpt it. Between us all mind can be heard, and in this social construction of conscious experience the voice is a central force.

Deep listening makes it clear that every part of the mind is in vibration. There is no fixed point and, in this fluidity, no boundary between listener and sound. Motion, experienced as music, weaves together, soaks through, and connects what might otherwise be sharply demarcated as Self and Other. The saxophonist Evan Parker evokes this space when he describes how his ‘“ideal music” is played by groups of musicians who choose one another’s company and who improvise freely in relation to the precise emotional, acoustic, psychological and other less tangible atmospheric conditions in effect at the time the music is played’ (cited in Bailey 1992: 81).

Thought and emotion

Since Darwin, language has seemed to be the last bastion of human superiority over the rest of nature. However, even in this achievement there is far more continuity than (p.105) discontinuity between humans and other animals. Language is rooted in the ancient reptilian centres of the brain. The sounds of speech arise from the motion and emotion of the body. As David Abram puts it, ‘We learn our native language not mentally but bodily’ (Abram 1996: 75). Merleau-Ponty (2002), in the Phenomenology of Perception, devotes a whole chapter, ‘The body as expression, and speech’, to the sensational, gestural basis of both emotion and language. Gregory Bateson likewise describes the communication of emotion as being fundamentally a matter of the body: ‘If you want to know what the bark of a dog “means”, you look at his lips, the hair on the back of his neck, his tail, and so on’ (1972: 370).

These notions have their precursors in eighteenth-century philosophers such as Giambattista Vico, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Johann Gottfried Herder, who all trace the roots of language to the pre-conceptual, gestural, emotional expression that also gives rise to music and dance. The additional conceptual element of modern speech, abstracted from the particular, embodied instance, might be seen as a thin crust recently grown over a deep and ancient substrate. Leonid Perlovsky (2010) suggests that this thin layer is quite literally the cortex of the brain.8 Identifying the split between the limbic and cortical systems in the control of vocalization in proto-humans, he argues that music and language evolved from a common ancestor along divergent paths. This divergence allowed the separate hyper-development of the intricate semantic and emotional patternings that we experience today. In a variation of the organically based mental development described by Steven Mithen (1996: 94) as ‘cognitive fluidity’, Perlovsky considers how the extensive development of the cortex in modern humans now provides the hardware with which to decouple emotional from intellectual utterance.

Attentive vocalization, then, might lead back to an archaic consciousness that prefigures discursive, conceptual thinking. From this perspective ‘cogito ergo sum’ seems a most misleading formulation. The root of the mind is not thinking. Saññā and sa˙nkhāra, based as they are on partial awareness, gradually fade away in the light of sustained attention. At a more fundamental level what remains is feeling. I am not so much a thought as a dance. Consciousness is rooted in a feeling of movement. A body in motion. Emotion.

Motion and emotion

Emotion is fundamentally to do with movement, or more accurately the tendency to move.9 Any movement is always away from or towards something. In Pāli, tanha signifies this potential energy—desire, the urge towards some thing, away from another. Vipassana meditation is the investigation of this movement at the level of immediate bodily experience. In giving attention to vedanā, the physical sensation of change, one also inevitably becomes aware of the mental feelings of which they are an aspect. Vipassana meditation is the practice of awareness of the emotional basis of consciousness at the subtlest level. At surface levels the emotions may be describable in words, identified as they often are with external thoughts events and objects. But at deeper levels the conceptual, linguistic faculty diminishes and there is simply awareness of subtle tendencies of movement in the physical sensations and mental feelings. Music too is the investigation of just this motion. In the words of composer Roger Sessions (p.106) (1965: 18–19), ‘The basic ingredient of music is not so much sound as movement … music is significant for us as human beings principally because it embodies movement of a specifically human type that goes to the roots of our being and takes shape in the inner gestures which embody our deepest and most intimate responses.’

William James defined emotion in physical, bodily terms. For James emotion is the mind’s response to the physiological conditions that are caused by a stimulus. It is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run. We see a bear and run, and as a consequence we fear it. Our response to the higher adrenaline level, increased heartbeat, shortness of breath, perspiration, etc., is the emotion (James 1884: 189–90). This has important implications for aesthetics. Could the feelings aroused by music be a result of the physical movements it engenders? In this passage from James’s Principles of Psychology, a clear connection is drawn:

aesthetic emotion, pure and simple, the pleasure given us by certain lines and masses, and combinations of colors and sounds, is an absolutely sensational experience …. To this simple primary and immediate pleasure in certain pure sensations and harmonious combinations of them, there may, it is true, be added secondary pleasures; and in the practical enjoyment of works of art by the masses of mankind these secondary pleasures play a great part. The more classic one’s taste is, however, the less relatively important are the secondary pleasures felt to be, in comparison with those of the primary sensation as it comes in. Classicism and romanticism have their battles over this point. Complex suggestiveness, the awakening of vistas of memory and association, and the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom, make a work of art romantic. The classic taste brands these effects as coarse and tawdry, and prefers the naked beauty of the optical and auditory sensations, unadorned with frippery or foliage. To the romantic mind, on the contrary, the immediate beauty of these sensations seems dry and thin. (James 1901: 468–70)

To try to capture the infinite varieties of emotion in a linguistic net is futile and misleading. The navarasa, the gamut of emotions described in the ancient Indian Nātya Sāstra treatise (Bharata 2000) or the elaborate emotional schematics of Robert Solomon (1977) or Kate Hevner (1935), all tend towards what James calls romanticism. By contrast scientific studies of music and emotion often find it more useful to reduce the complex designations of emotion down to two or three, such as ‘happiness’, ‘sadness’, and ‘fear’, as used by Johnsen et al. (2009).

This ‘romantic’ tendency is the work of the saññā and sa˙nkhāra, naming and labelling, relating one fact to another and making associations. James does not discuss which approach is ‘right’, but to a vipassana meditator it becomes clear that the saññā is always wrong because it never knows the whole truth. The actions generated by sa˙nkhāra on the basis of these valuations proliferate on the basis of a partial truth. Any words or concepts describing emotional experiences are themselves based on this saññā and therefore inadequate. Words such as ‘fear’, ‘happiness’, ‘anger’, or ‘pride’ are like spears thrust into a moving school of fish. The seabed is strewn with these spears while the living schools flash and glint just out of sight.

The perception of change

In vipassana no attempt is made to name or label an object. The focus of meditation is change and movement. The insight to be developed is that everything is in motion. (p.107) Even what appears static is part of a stream. In the Western tradition, Lucretius in the first century BCE first wrote of the existence of atoms while watching the glitter and spin of motes of dust in sunbeams (see Lucretius 1921: Book II, 67–9). Their motion is usually hidden from our sight, he said, but in 1827 the Botanist Robert Brown described the jittery motion of particles he saw through a microscope. This Brownian motion hastened the acceptance of atoms in modern science. Nowadays the existence of these invisible corpuscles is generally acknowledged. No rational person denies that everything is made of atoms and that atoms are in constant motion. Yet this knowledge is very difficult to square with our senses. Unconscious saññā is quick to evaluate hazy sensory information, to judge it and label it. And then the irrational sa˙nkhāra, behaving as if the world were fixed around us, attempts to move closer to or further from the objects it perceives. This motion is experienced as emotion. But if vedanā can be attended to more closely it becomes sharper, like a microscope coming into focus. Then details become clearer. Movement and change can be discerned in what had seemed static. Saññā is proved wrong again and again, and the reactions based on it weaken. That is not to say that emotional experience disappears. The movement of life continues, but one is not dragged along by it. Rather one is free to observe calmly, and to appreciate the motion in its subtle detail. In tranquillity one is free to act skilfully and rationally.

Like meditation, music creates a space in which to practise this special point of view. As Thaut puts it (2008: 34), ‘In music we exercise and express the aesthetic components of our biology, the logic and critical thinking of musical perception and cognition, just as we exercise motor control aspects in sports or cognitive aspects in mathematics or language.’ Music is a perfect laboratory for the examination of what David Chalmers (1996) has called ‘the hard problem’. It allows the observer to discern fine physical and emotional details, allows experimental manipulation of states of mind, creates a forum for the comparison and verification of otherwise private, subjective experience, and has begun to establish a literature and methodology for just such activity.

Mind in motion

Rhythms reverberate through the entire structure of a body. According to Thaut, the brain is sensitive to rhythmic movement at a deeper level than we can know:

The motor system is very sensitive to arousal by the auditory system. Neural impulses of auditory rhythm project directly into motor structures. Motor responses become entrained with the timing of rhythmic patterns. The entrainment process can be modeled well via resonant network functions and coupled oscillator models. The motor system has access to temporal information in the auditory system below levels of conscious perception. (2008: 57; see also Chapter 14)

The organic basis of consciousness, then, is in some way musical. In becoming self-aware, humans learn to play with this very musicality. The energy that animates an individual body also affects its environment and other bodies around it, so it may be amplified, shared, and compared. Whereas music arose as intrinsic to the function of the organism, it has evolved to become available to us as an object in itself.

(p.108) Music abstracts movement for its own ends. There is no danger to escape, enemy to vanquish, or food to ingest. Listening to music allows us to feel emotion without acting on it. In vipassana this way of listening is characterized as upekkha—literally ‘waiting’: waiting with awareness but without interference or expectation, allowing the object to develop in its own way. The word has also been translated as ‘detachment’ or ‘equanimity’. Music allows us to practise this attitude under controlled conditions. In music, since there is no substantive danger or reward, no real-life object of hate or desire, the emotion can be observed in itself, as a bodily fact. Just as mathematics delineates the structure and pattern of logic without its referents, music maps the dynamic of emotion without its content. When desire or hatred can be viewed without personal identification with them, they are reduced to mere movement. Like pressure, magnetism, gravity, or a game of boules, emotion can then be reduced to a simple binary of attraction and repulsion.

Unlike an abstract, theoretical pursuit, however, both music and meditation afford techniques for moving beyond mere analysis to social agency. We might posit that all music makes audible the mind of its creator, whether or not that is the conscious intention. The technique of metta bhavana can be compared to a musical practice in which investigators consciously amplify and share only their positive, loving mental states. Some music, according to this view, can act as a kind of extroverted meditation. Whatever qualities of mind have been developed radiate outwards. The practitioner’s conscious state does not remain isolated but is promulgated through sound, the vibrations permeating the environment and potentially moving other sentient beings to resonate in sympathy.


Music and meditation are complementary tools in not only the study but also the transformation of consciousness. I have described three distinct mutually supportive phases of meditation practice, ānāpāna, vipassana, and metta bhavana, and have mapped these onto three aspects of musical activity: practice, the investigation of emotion, and social interaction. These three aspects are interdependent, each effective in its respective field. The overall aim in the case of meditation is wisdom and peace. If there is an analogous goal in music it may be aesthetic beauty.

Music, used as an object of study and a series of training exercises, can have a regulatory, balancing effect on the mind. Like the breath, music can be deliberately used as a bridge between the voluntary and autonomic nervous systems. But as the skill of listening develops, consciousness reveals itself to be fundamentally musical. Music is deeply rooted in the irrational processes of the body. It moves beyond intellectual, conceptual, discursive thinking towards an emotional, sensual realm. An explanation of the emotional and sensual quality of experience is a fundamental problem in consciousness studies. Abstract language leaves out the essential person and ordinary speech is imprecise. Music, supported by a contemplative practice, affords a highly effective means by which to both examine and communicate the nature of consciousness.

Pre-composed music is useful as an object of attention. A composition with a defined structure can be employed to focus the mind, establishing a state of uninterrupted (p.109) vigilance and clarity. Of all musical forms, however, improvisation seems particularly suited for opening up awareness to the dynamic, irrational, embodied mind. It offers a set of practices for training the attention and directing it to examine the constantly changing, emotional substrate of conscious experience.

And emerging from this introverted phase, music also offers a means of sharing and communicating the insights gained. Language can share only fixed concepts and labels, but music communicates the feeling of the constantly flowing and changing world. It is the social pattern of the mind. Music is mind in the environment. Mind is the music of what happens.


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(1.) The Fenian Cycle is one of the major cycles of Irish mythology. The version of the characteristic passage cited here is my own paraphrase of an orally transmitted rendition.

(2.) For information on my work see www.ansuman.com.

(3.) This notion and meditation in Buddhism more generally are also discussed in Chapter 7, this volume.

(4.) See also the discussion of riyāz in Chapter 8, this volume.

(5.) See also Chapter 8, this volume.

(6.) A related point is made in Chapter 3 (this volume) by Michael Gallope—see the section entitled ‘The history of life and the emergence of the world’.

(7.) Cf. the Hindu concept of ākāśa (‘ether’), discussed by David Clarke and Tara Kini in Chapter 8, this volume.

(8.) See also Perlovsky (2008) for a further account by this author of music and emotion.

(9.) See also Chapter 14, this volume.