Scary Shostakovich and minding music

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve read historical comments from people in the 18th century who described their experiences listening to music. Usually they would say something like, “The Concerto was 20 minutes of unparalleled bliss and as the piece rose to a climax I could feel my very soul transcending my body and rising to the heights of Angels.” I’d read this stuff and think, “I’m into music, but I’ve never had an experience like this. It sounds like this guy is on drugs.”

Obviously, this relates to my thoughts on our (declining) ability to focus deeply on various forms of art, or really anything that can command our attention.

Lately I’ve been reading a bit about meditation. From my amateur viewpoint, it seems that there’s really two kinds of meditation. There’s the classic “Ommm” style meditation where you focus your attention on a particular act (staring at candle, repeating a phrase, breathing etc.) and become consumed by that. In this process, you’re basically tuning out your awareness of everything other than that one thing. Then there’s what in the modern era is referred to as mindfulness meditation. Here, you’re just kind of focused on whatever sensory information is coming in — the smell of flowers, the sound of a plane overhead, a funny pain in your leg, etc. You’re doing the exact opposite of tuning out the world; you’re embracing it.

I’ve also mentioned that I’m very intrigued by the notion that while we intake tons of sensory information, we can only consciously appreciate a limited amount — 40 bits to be exact. So, my view is that in traditional meditation, you’re aiming your 40 bits at the candle, the phrase, whatever. In mindfulness meditation you’re aiming it at whatever sensory information rises through the muddle. In both cases, however, you’re not aiming your 40 bits at “thoughts” e.g. analyzing why your neighbor doesn’t like you, remembering the need to call your aunt, wondering if anyone has liked your Facebook post etc. In essence, you’re experiencing life not as it relates to you and your ego, but just as it happens.

Part of my belief here is that this meditative state — the state of being focused on what you’re experiencing while not relating it to yourself (or more specifically, your ego) — is something everyone is familiar with. If you’ve ever gotten really captivated by your work, or just zoned out at the seashore, you’re basically doing it.

So back to music. Lately, I’ve been taking kind of a “mindfulness” approach to music. When it plays, I make an attempt to really listen to it. I’m aiming all my 40 bits at the consumption of the music. Now, it ain’t easy because invariably my mind drifts and wanders. But I do find that for the moments I pull it off, music becomes a very engaging, all-consuming force.

Just yesterday I went for a hike and I was listening to Shostakovich’s Symphony number five (Largo.) This is perhaps the scariest piece of music ever written. It’s long sections of dissonant, yearning, creepy strings. So, I’m walking along, focusing on this piece, and, frankly, I got kind of freaked out. Then, I ended up on a trail that had a sign saying that there were lots of bees around. That remind me of the fact that a friend of mine recently got stung by 75 bees and reportedly almost died (he’s fine.) So that, plus the freaky music, was really creeping me out.

Suddenly a horde of bees appeared in the skyline. As I watched, they descended upon a young man hiking, and actually crawled into his ear, nose, and mouth holes. The bees, once inside his head, then flew out from the center and as I watched the young man’s face literally burst into thousands of pieces.

Anyway, my larger point here is that I begin to understand how someone could react to music as those commentators from the 18th century did.

Here’s that Shostakovich piece if you want to zone out on it.

4 Responses to “Scary Shostakovich and minding music”


  1. John Saleeby

    I frequently had that experience listening to Music as a kid. My Dad would play a weird variety of records – Classical, Jazz, Movie Soundtracks – and I would get all freaked out. And once I become a Seventies Rock And Roll Dumb Ass I’d sit around listening to albums over the headphones and . . . Well, it’s the most ordinary thing in the World, no sense in getting all Cameron Crowe over it.

    Now I’m an old creep and I do the same thing with pictures of girls on the internet.

  2. Wil

    Yeah, it makes sense that as kids we experience music (or anything) on a much more intense level. We’re bathing in weird hormones and everything is new. I remember reading some book where the author talked about how they would sit under their mother’s desk and listen to the radio and be blown away.

  3. John Saleeby

    Is Scary Shostakovich Scary Spice’s real name?

  4. Wil

    Scary Spice’s real name is Howard.