Tuesday, September 06, 2016

A Note from Class: Getting Past Hard Listening

Several hundred years ago in the West, human beings decided to start over. Some say Nicolaus Copernicus is to blame. Copernicus was the sixteenth-century Polish astronomer who discovered that the earth swings around the sun. When he published his ideas in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), people were shocked! Everything they'd assumed to be fixed and solid now moved--everything. It blew people's minds. It terrified them. But it excited them too. "What else are we mistaken about?" they asked. And they decided to find out.

They thought a lot about how we know things, and they came up with a rule for knowledge: What we know, they said, we know through the senses and the mind.

So what you know comes from your senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing. (So the next time you're nose is stuffy with a cold, what you're really having is a knowledge problem.) Your senses act as collectors. Your mind picks through what they collect and remembers or discards. Together, they assemble the experiences and facts that live inside your head.

From this, let's say two things:
  1. Their rule for knowledge is handy for most things, yet flawed in a small-but-wildly-unfortunate manner that maybe we'll get into later.
  2. There is far more information constantly sliding by than our senses can ever collect or our minds notice (just ask Harold Edgerton).
So, what would happen if we focused in on one of our senses, say, hearing? And that is exactly where the trouble begins.

Our culture favors speech and action. It can even find listening a waste of time. And so we have never been taught to listen; we don't know how. When was the last time you truly listened to anything--listened until something was deeply asked of you?

Compounding the problem, new things are uncomfortable. We won't know what to do with what we hear. We may feel shut out, if we feel anything at all. Everyone is talking in another language (sometimes quite literally), and we feel excluded. It is uncomfortable.

Here are a few thoughts about uncomfortable listening.

Principle One: Expect Revulsion, but Press On.

Your ear has an age. It can be naive, and it can mature. And people tend to like music that matches the maturity of their ears. Children only eat a few things at a little table; adults enjoy many different dishes on a wider table. Yet, growth is uncomfortable. So expect to feel disoriented and maybe even bored the first time you hear a piece of music that isn't what you're used to. It has happened to me that what I once hated I grew to love. So press on, and don't believe your first impressions.

Principle Two: Passive Exposure

It is a funny thing about the mind, it is so curious that it will listen even when we aren't listening. Use this to your advantage. Play some new music in the background, but pay no attention to it. Let it exist almost out of hearing. And slowly, ever so slowly, it will slip into your mind. You will discover it in your dreams. You will catch yourself humming it. The mind can't ignore it, you see. Your ear will mature into it, and you may have enriched the rest of your life. (This principle works well when learning a new language, by the way.) It takes time, but it works.

Principle Three: Choose Quality Cuts

Let's say you want to know more about jazz. You've heard about it but don't know where to begin. Use that fabulous tool called the Internet, pull up a list of the "ten best" or "five most important." Use those to train your uneducated ear on the best diet that you can find. Don't waste your time randomly listening. The best sets you up for the rest.

Principle Four: Fill in the Blanks

Thanks to the Internet, we can look up information about performers, composers, and individual songs or pieces of music. We can translate foreign words. We can fill in the blanks as we learn something new. Make sure to fill in the blanks.

Principle Five: Music is Always Better Live

If at all possible, expose yourself to live music. Every kind of music--even music that you don't like--is toe-tapping fantastic when performed live by living people. Live music makes for a rich life. Make time for it.

And here is what this is about: this year, aside from our usual (and frankly more important) discussions about the Bible, we are going to listen. Together and privately, we are going to listen to music--to sacred music. And by this I mean music that is connected in some way to the Bible.

Exactly what this means is something I'll explain on Sunday morning. I look forward to seeing you there.