Why does Music have such an effect on us? Where does it come from?

In the beginning, there was rhythm. In our mother’s womb we hear the beating of her heart and the rhythm of her breath. We feel the stillness and movement and the sleeping and waking of her days. We are born into the world by the rhythm of contractions. She waits, they come, she pushes. Repeat and you’re a little closer to trading one home for another and a birthdate that will forever be your milestone. And entering the world we embrace the heritage of all living things: we breathe in, out, in, out. Our breath connects us to all living things.

Our relationship with others begins with the rhythms of hunger and feeding, suffering and peace, sleeping and waking. The Sun rises, the day passes, night comes. Repeat.

Our flowering is marked by the passage of days. And when we learn to crawl and to walk, we learn anew the ways of rhythm, of marking the passage from here to there. Young, the rhythm of our lives is quick. Our hearts beat faster, we grow faster, we heal faster… and our impatience turns minutes into hours. As we grow older we learn that the rhythm of consistent effort bears great fruit over the long journey. And, learning the sustained tempo of patience, we know in our bones that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

The Roman Catholic liturgical cycle (Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Ordinary Time, repeat) gears into the rhythms of earthly life to sustain our spiritual journey. The lifeblood from the living heart of God, eternity itself, courses through the rhythms of our days.

Music is full of life because it begins with life itself.

what makes a space sacred

The spaces we dwell in have a powerful effect on us. Moving from our parking lot toward the church we enter into community. The doors open to welcome us. The narthex is a passage into fellowship and a prelude to prayer. Anticipation is in the very air held within those walls. Grasping the handles of the doors to the church is like the handshake of a solemn and joy-filled old friend. Entering in, we sense an invitation into worship built into the very bones of the space. Front and center are the altar, the crucifix and the call to prayer in our moments of need in the Gethsemane window. The center aisle, the pews, the banners and even the center ceiling beam  all direct our attention toward the center of our communal worship.

The people, the light, the colors, the art and the music that fill this space shimmer with God’s glory.  This space is thick with the incense of memory. Every act of worship, every sacrament, every prayer lifted up and every prayer answered, every moment of grief, despair, reconciliation joy and love brought into this space live here in and between these walls. God’s love for us and our love of God and neighbor—the very substance of our faith—are incarnate here.

love, freedom and creation

What if we are so much of creation that the gift of free will, given in love, had consequences for all creation?

“…for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;”           – Romans 8:20-22

First you have to recognize that we’re not separate from creation. Imagining ourselves as separate alienated egos is a fiction (a creative act) grounded in our capacity for self awareness. As a fiction it contains a nugget of truth but forgets something else. Notice instead that in our every breath, in every meal, in every time we open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, our mouths to speak, our skin to touch is the rhythmic pulse – the give and take – of the universe. Our bodies could not function without the bacteria that team through us. Our thoughts, our language, our culture, every created object in our daily lives, even the cast of characters in our dreams speak to our social nature. You are plural. That the universe is intelligible and accessible to inquiry means that our minds, (emerging within that universe) are made of the same stuff. We are not connected to the universe because that would imply that we are separate to begin with. We are of the universe. We are universe-al.

Second, love does not seek to control. In loving us, God, though he/she guides gently, allows us to choose well or badly. Here is the crux of the matter: God’s creation is of one piece so much so that allowing our freedom for the sake of love has implications for the whole of creation. Though we at times wish for a rigidly controlled universe where nobody gets hurt, there would be no room for love there. This is difficult to accept.

We can more easily reconcile with the consequences of freedom in the moral order because we have some control there. We can take responsibility and learn from our mistakes. It is harder to accept the consequences of our freedom given in love for the (a-moral) natural order because these are largely out of our control. Maybe it helps to consider that the universe-al conditions which give rise to nature’s destructive capacity also give rise to our capacity for free choice (including destructive choices). As beings free to choose, we are vulnerable – vulnerable to our own weakness and to the forces of nature. Meanwhile we long for a perfect (or re-born) universe where there is no sin, death or natural disasters.

We tend to think that God was finished creating things a long time ago but creation is still groaning in labor pains even until now. To ask the question of why there is suffering, disease and natural disaster is to feel in our bones the tension of this “not yet.”


Of course, this is merely a meditation on the connection of love, freedom, nature and suffering. It offers only a cosmic context for the question of suffering and a piece of healing for our relationship to creation. There is a more important layer to the question. Especially when asked in the midst of suffering, the quest in the question is for relationship: in it and through it we seek God and find God seeking us.

why heaven is up

Of course we’re not talking literally “up.” That would lead to all sorts of absurdities. We’re speaking metaphorically, which is to say that we’re speaking psychologically. So how do we get at the meaning of the metaphor? – by playing with it until we begin to see through it as through a lens and by doing a sort of archeological dig into language, collecting instances of the metaphor buried there. After all, language is a repository of lived experience. And here’s the crux: in seeking to understand why heaven is up we have to see through the metaphor to the lived experience it evokes.

Growing up: developmental

In a young child’s world they are surrounded by people who are taller, more powerful, experienced, knowledgeable, capable and have a more complete perspective. The literal difference in height becomes a metaphor for all that goes with maturity. The phrases being raised (nurtured by those more powerful to see beyond the immediate moment etc.), growing up (becoming more capable), looking up to someone (respecting and taking them as an example to be lived up to), looking down upon (seeing another as less capable and less worthy of respect) flesh out the metaphor.

Verticality as lived by a child (a child of God even) is connected to images of heaven when we experience God as a parental figure. Living God as a parent has other implications. Parents chastise and correct, helping children to live uprightly-to be upstanding citizens so that they live with integrity and affirm the dignity of others. Parents, recognizing that children naturally strive to be like them, (hopefully) teach by example and try not to bring them down or leave them downtrodden.

Being upright: ethical

This connection in the parental metaphor to accountability (as a child to a parent) brings us to ethical aspect of the vertical metaphor. Looking up to someone and holding them up as an example means you try to measure up to the standard they represent. Once you know where you stand, and you learn to take a stand, live what you believe (live an upright life) and hold your head high.

But be careful. Pride comes before the fall: don’t get uppity and put yourself above others.

Vertical is the dimension of striving – even striving for virtue. We strive for new heights and climb the ladder (or the mountain). The metaphor works because it is grounded in bodily experience: standing up and climbing require that we oppose gravity. So it is that can also speak of the fall, our fallen nature, Satan’s falling from grace and his being condemned to crawl on his belly (Gen 3:14). The pursuit of virtue (being upright) requires that we remain vigilant and resist the gravity of our fallen nature.

And be wary of the perils of unrestrained ambition – the vertical without a connection to the divine (to what is greater). The Tower Babel was doomed because they sought to reach the heights of heaven on their own power. Icarus, throwing caution to the wind, flew too high and fell to his death while his father, Daedulus, respecting the limits of his man-made wings, lived and was later given wings by Athena so he could fly like the gods. Humility is to participate in divinity as a gift.The Latin root of humility is humus, meaning earth. Humility is having both feet on the ground. It is accurate self knowledge; not puffed up, nor beaten down. It is grounded in a connection to what is larger than oneself (and outside one’s control) whether that be the cosmos, divinity or the human community.

The mountaintop experience: spiritual

And yet it’s worth climbing the mountain. You see more from up there and with distance comes perspective. On the mountain you begin to see the interconnectedness of all things and people. (Seeing the Earth from orbit feeds the ecology movement.) The power of that perspective is in our instinctive desire to weave a coherent life story – to have life make sense – and in a cosmological context: my life is part of the whole. The spiritual drive is to live a connection to something larger than oneself and the mountaintop experience is about that connection.

And so Christians seek God on the mountaintop for God has the ultimate perspective (the heavens are above even the mountains), stands both outside and inside creation, is all-knowing and tells the biggest stories relevant even on the smallest of scales. So it is that on the mountain we are uplifted (rather then feeling down).

It is on the mountaintop where Jesus is transfigured and the disciples glimpse his divinity and his place in the grand scheme of salvation history. And, not surprisingly, they don’t want to leave. The mountaintop is the quintessential experience of transcendence – both an elevated state of spiritual awareness in the divine presence and a sort of freedom from the weight/gravity of everyday existence (that can bring us down.) Taken in the wrong dose it can be a way getting high and avoiding the messiness of living. Or we can bring the mountaintop down with us when we remember, when we allow what we gained there to change us and matter in our lives and when we lift our hearts in prayer.


The cross & the paschal mystery: vertical and horizontal

In our exploration of the spatial metaphor of verticality as the spiritual dimension we have arrived at the perennial danger of spiritual experience (the vertical) being disconnected from daily life (the horizontal.) The Christian answer is in Jesus, God incarnate, the unity of divinity and humanity, the intersection point of heaven and earth who hung on a cross – a symbol of the intersection between the vertical and horizontal. His teaching pointed to a loving God and his living showed what that meant concretely. The story goes that he was raised up on a cross, died, was buried, descended into hell, raised up to new life, sent his Spirit, and ascended into heaven (vertical)– all for us (horizontal). Christians participate in this vertical movement in baptism and through difficult transformative experiences: “take up your cross and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Heaven is up

So the answer at hand is a psychological one-one based on how we live verticality and how express what we live through vertical metaphor. The metaphor – as with all metaphors – is a mode of understanding – a lens through which we see and make sense of the worlds and our experience.

Gathered here in the down side of the metaphor – as a cautionary tale – are disrespect of others, being demeaned, pridefulness, denial, death and the consequences of striving without a connection with what is greater than oneself. Gathered in the up side of the metaphor are nurture, coming to maturity, becoming capable and aware, respecting and being respected, being and finding examples to emulate, living with integrity, affirming the dignity of others, being humble, life itself-especially new life, transcendence, purpose and seeing/living the connectedness of all things.

Verticality with its developmental, ethical and spiritual facets is a means for imagining heaven. And the metaphor of heaven as up has a trajectory – a progression toward a goal – a striving of sorts. The metaphor points to heaven.

transformative ideas

“Perhaps ideas are the single most precious miracle in human existence. For ideas determine our goals of action, our styles of art, our values of character, our religious practices and even our ways of loving.”
-James Hillman, Kinds of Power p. 16

The experience of a taking in a transformative idea

Coming across an idea that is somehow compelling – that grabs me – i am drawn into it, wrap my mind around it, meditate on it, ruminate on it, chew on it and, pondering the implications, swallow it whole allowing it do its work as it is digested. (Most of the digestive processes beyond chewing and swallowing are out of conscious control.)

The idea bumps into other connected thoughts jostling them about and causing them to vibrate and shake loose, leading me to suspend my allegiance to them wondering what else. Some old ideas are reinforced, others amended, some even thrown in the trash though perhaps to be pulled out again – even if they contradict.

Make no mistake this filtering down process is not (only) in my head. I can feel it in my body. This is the continued forging of a path through a dense forest. Finding the path anew is liberating like the freedom of having one’s spine in correct balance and alignment. Sometimes the release of energy causes me to laugh. I know it in my seeing. Certain things become brighter, more transparent. I see differently. I speak differently. My speaking expands outward from my core so change the core, change the speaking. I know I am changed, even if just slightly. I feel it in my body, I see it in my seeing, I hear it in my speaking.

And yet the best and most powerful ideas are about me only to the degree that I am a vehicle for collective thought – the relatively autonomous life of ideas we share and evolve by means of shared intention spread in bits over many. I am the grateful and wounded recipient of the thought of our age. Ideas course through us as our collective lifeblood. More often than not they carry us along on currents so powerful we can’t swim to shore to glimpse the river. Though with effort and a willingness to be different it is possible to stick our heads up long enough to see and wonder “what else?”

You could say there are two sorts of ideas: Some ideas come from within the river, the river’s voice articulating the wisdom of the age with its strengths, biases and blind spots embedded in its ideas. Some ideas come from poking up out of the river to see through or under the wisdom of the age teasing out its biases and blind spots, forging new ideas and wondering what else might be true. The strength of the first sort is in the “aha” moment of hearing clear expression of what was forgetfully lived. The energy released is that of simple awareness – seeing more clearly what one has been living, confirming one’s unspoken assumptions.  The strength of the second sort is in the “aha” moment of being freed from the biases of the age by forging new understanding. It satiates, for a moment, the hunger that arises out of the sense of “not yet.” New understanding opens us to question and wonder. This sort of thought is on the forefront of personal and maybe even collective change – the emergence of a new consciousness.

So who would want and choose to wonder “what else?” Who among us is called to question? Who among us is called to see differently? Where does that call come from? How do honor the call when it comes? Many blessings on your quest.





reimagining memory

While we may imagine memory as the collection and recall of facts, compared with technologies we create to help us remember facts, we are actually quite poor at factual recall. We forget far more than we remember and often what we remember and how we remember it is considered suspect. We have learned to create tools to shore up our weaknesses and augment our abilities, so we concoct devices and techniques (paper and pencil, cameras, computers) to help us collect and recall. We forget that those devices began with an act of imagination and, because they embody that act of imagination, are themselves an invitation to imagine.
Devices that help us collect and recall facts, especially in the context of today’s technology, invite us to imagine memory in a very narrow way. As acts of imagination, these technologies can become a lens through which we view ourselves and our memory is measured against their standard. When we imagine ourselves in this narrow way, we are impoverished. Freed from the trance of these technologies we can ask anew the question of how human memory works and begin to re-imagine the symbiosis of human and technological memory.

Hope as recall

Let’s start with how we remember our infancy. If we think of memory as the recall of facts, then the conclusion is that we don’t. Let’s take another look. In developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson’s, scheme, the first two years of life is about discovering whether we can trust others. As an infant is utterly dependent on his/her caregivers this is no small “question.” The “answer” to this emerges in overall patterns of care or neglect. Sufficiently consistent, adequate care yields a capacity not just for trust but for hope throughout life.
How do we remember hope? In the way we live our relationships, in our expectations for those who care for us, in the way we carry ourselves, in our expectations for the future. As evidenced, for example, in post traumatic stress cases, this sort of memory is not limited to early childhood. Trauma is remembered in part in “overreactions” to present situations.
From this we can glean that memory is (at least in part) carried as patterns of experience, perception and expectation. Memory shows in how we make sense of the unknown and in how carry ourselves, conduct our lives and relate to others. It shows in our emotional, bodily reactions. We begin to suspect that memory is in part bodily.

Memory as bodily

We remember our ancestors by more than facts or even stories. Ancestral memory is embodied in our ways of walking, talking, laughing, styles of humor, inclinations and aptitudes and even in genetic heritage like body type, facial features and tendencies toward health or disease. Psychosomatic symptom formation suggests that symptoms are a form of memory – a way of remembering what we have reflexively disowned and discarded but which cannot and must not be forgotten. Athletes talk about muscle memory, retention through neurological adaptations gained by repeated actions, which helps them react quickly and effectively in performance situations. In the heat of the moment their bodies remember what to do.

Collective memory

Carl Jung, noting numerous repeated motifs in stories, art, dreams, etc. across cultures, posited archetypes as an inherited collective repository of human experience. Archetypes are lived as a set of inborn potentialities for experience and behavior, much like instinct, that find individual and collective expression. They shape the way we imagine and live out relationships, the way we tell stories and the way we story our lives. They are a sort of collective memory painted in broad strokes.

A tapestry of meaning

In re-membering the story of memory as the collection and recall of facts (as told by our technologies of memory) we have begun to re-imagine memory. We started telling a different story. We are meaning-making creatures and it is by narrative that we create and weave the threads of memory into a relatively coherent tapestry.

Founding stories

Recall your earliest memory. Consider the ways in which that memory – that story is a paradigm for your life. Chances are you are still living that story. Early memories stick because they serve as your foundational narratives in the same way that nations are defined by their founding stories. Stories of origins define us here and now where we imagine the future. What we remember and how we remember it is bound up with how we make sense of the present and how we project the future. Stories of origins suggest that memory is also forward-looking. The same act of imagination that stories the past projects the future. The future makes sense in terms of what came before.

Memory as narration

We are meaning-making creatures and we create and organize meaning through narrative. Stories grab us because they fit the way our minds work. We remember best what is meaningful and what is meaning-full is what fits our adopted narratives and helps us live our stories. Conversion of heart, for example can be understood as a re-telling of our story, weaving through our past re-membering it according to new, liberating narratives that project a renewed future.
Odd indeed are the memory tests that challenge us to remember meaningless factoids in random sequence. Our only chance is to find ways to connect them into a sequential thread – a narrative of sorts. Memories come when we get our story straight.

A newfound freedom

In our newfound freedom gained by recognizing technologies as invitations to imagine, how do we retell the story of why we created technologies that help us collect and recall facts? What does a healthy working relationship between human memory and technologies of memory look like?
Let’s start with the example at hand. An extended meditation such as this would not be as fruitful or refined without some means of recording thoughts (like paper and pencil or word processing software) – to retain and remind so the thinker can return and refine and offer the ideas up to others. Memory technologies embody the life of ideas outside the mind of one. The ideas can stand on their own partly because of their incarnation. The artist paints, leaves and returns to see with fresh eyes, reacts and paints again. The painting quickly takes on a life of its own making demands and awakening the artist to budding truths. All this is impossible without the capacity of the paint to remember.
Self aware, we can imaginatively stand outside our thoughts and impulses observing while also being in them, experiencing them. This self-awareness manifests, in part, as inner dialogue. The spark that ignites the inner dialogue already has something of a life of its own – an “otherness” – hence the dialogue. When it is expressed (takes on relatively enduring material form) the dialogue is externalized and the “otherness” of the spark becomes more concrete, enriching the dialogue. Technologies of memory as incarnations of inner dialogue enrich that dialogue.
Or look at it this way. How do we “collect facts?” – by organizing them into narrative threads. Our technologies cannot by themselves create those organizing threads. They need our guidance. We do narrative. They do retention: they are good at that. We are not. They do facts, we do meaning. In our narrative re-membering we necessarily discard things that later may prove important when our beloved stories fail us. Effective stories can’t say everything at once. We are prone to losing track of facts and truths that our stories leave out. New facts or facts seen anew can spark renewal – a transformative retelling. Facts only have power when they help us tell story. Facts without meaning are powerless. This is the symbiosis of human memory and technologies of memory.

the impact of music ministry in worship

One of the great benefits of communal worship is that witnessing the expressions of faith of our brothers and sisters strengthens our own faith. When you come forward to serve in music ministry you give a visible and audible testimony of your faith and that testimony awakens and strengthens the faith of all who worship with you.

Awe is an opening to the divine. Awe’s sister and catalyst, beauty, likewise can open us. Like the Spirit, music immerses us. Like the Spirit, music moves us. Both touch our emotions and move us us along, calling us to respond. Music well done opens us, immerses us, moves us. It is spiritually effective because it imitates and readily cooperates with the Spirit.

So why be a music minister? Why work at your art?

group mind V: connection to the audience

Related posts

  1. group mind I: like conversation
  2. group mind II: transcendence
  3. group mind III: the nature of music
  4. group mind IV: chemistry
  5. group mind V: connection to the audience

Insight: For every ensemble, whether in rehearsal or in performance,  there is always present, their audience.

Always at issue in every rehearsal and every performance is the “for-whom.” In this, even in rehearsals the audience is implied. And within the ensemble each member is both performer and audience caught up in the moment.

The performer desires to share what they love. While the motivations can be simple or complex, each motivation points to what is at stake for the performer in the performance. To the extent that their sense of worth is at stake, the appreciation of an audience strengthens their sense of self worth (less so if their self worth was fragile in the first place.) To the extent that beauty is valued, awakening a love of beauty in the audience is paramount.

The one concern that unites all motivations is the desire to draw closer through a shared experience. What drives the musician to practice? To be true to what is awakened through music and to share that awakening with others. To tap and express what is at the shared core of our humanity. To remember that we are not alone.

All these concerns and more are present in the performance. Audience members come for an experience. Performers hone their art to share/evoke an experience. Success is measured by whether performers and audience connect. When this happens no audience is passive. They are engaged participants, witnesses and co-conspirators breathing the same air, vibrating to the same chord, at once being unique and one. This is group mind at its broadest and best.

Whether or not there is a public performance, the audience (the “for-whom”) also appears as each other, as the inner voice shared and individual, as the musical conscience witnessing, evaluating and comparing to the cherished ideal.

And yet there is a drive to share what is loved outside the confines of the rehearsal room. Believing that the beloved is of great value and being dedicated to its communication, the performers believe they have something to offer. And when the performance itself is transparent enough to allow the beloved to show through, the audience, if sufficiently open, experiences without hindrance the very thing that burns in the hearts of the musicians. Dare we say that every audience desires to experience directly what is on the hearts of the performers? And what joy is released when this happens? Such a triumph!

Perhaps the greatest fuel for this fire is the desire for connection. We all know at some level that the medium of spoken language leaves a great chasm between us. So much room for misunderstanding, motivated or not. Any language is limited in its scope of possible thought. Too often misunderstandings of each other and more amount to failures of language. We invent languages, like mathematics, or “dialects” like philosophical systems to open our understanding. And still there is so much more to see and grasp and feel.

What sort of language is music? What is it best at expressing? Perhaps we could call it a poetry of sound; engaging, evocative, emotional, bodily. Perhaps because it affects us most profoundly in a non-verbal way it is the best language for expressing our common humanity. It is multivalent (supporting multiple meanings and associations) like most experience and so is an apt vehicle for communicating experience by recreating it. Because it is multivalent and because it is capable of (re)creating experience for a large group at once, it gives us and reminds us of our common ground, satisfying our (shared) desire for connection.

mind and nature

In abstracting we imagine ourselves as outside of nature looking in and Forgetting the “as” we are left alienated and homeless.


The design on this 20th century New Guinea war shield – an organic response to the given shape of the wood – evokes the symbiosis of nature and thought.

In using a tool, the tool becomes an extension of our body. In use, the tool fades in favor of the task at hand. Yet we can readily stop and notice the tool itself. So it is with our selves. We can just do and who we are fades in favor of what we are doing. Or we can stop and notice our thoughts and actions, perhaps even contemplating what those reveal about who we are. Self-awareness and the capacity for using tools spring from the same source.

Self-awareness is based on the ability to live simultaneously as subject and object: In self-aware moments we live as the subject who, imagining ourselves as other, stands outside ourselves observing as we act. So it is that our relationship with ourselves is always at issue. We can live forgetfully, going to great lengths to avoid self-reflection. We can live the other half-life of relentless self-examination. We can move freely between immersion in activity and reflection.

The ability to imaginatively stand outside ourselves means we can also imaginatively stand outside nature. And, because we can imagine ourselves as separate from nature, our relationship with nature is always at issue. We can live as vagabonds forgetful of our roots and our environmental impact. We can live in self-condemnation as if we were an alien cancer to the planet. We can live as if we belong here.

Though we imagine ourselves as separate from it, it is nature that gave birth to we, who are capable of abstraction. It follows that abstraction itself is present in nature. Our seemingly Promethean capacity for abstract thought comes from nature.

The scientific quest for truth is based on the assumption that at the heart of the natural world are consistent principles/laws. This pursuit of truth would fail if it were not for two factors: nature itself is based on rational principles, and we, being of and from nature, share in that rationality. It’s ironic that the very rationality we are given by nature also invites us to imagine ourselves as separate from nature.

Certainly, when we wander too far from home, ideas can go awry and paradigms can be wantonly imposed on the facts. Our war shield above speaks the solution to healing the pursuit of truth: the path is the relationship of thought and nature as reciprocal dialogue.

On the evolutionary scale of things, self-awareness is relatively new. Our relationship with our own nature and nature itself is bound to be adversarial at times. And yet, after having spent so much time imagining ourselves as separate from it, there is an ongoing growth of awareness that we are of this world. In its healthiest forms this is no nostalgic longing for simpler time when we were one with nature. This is a call to continue forging a whole relationship with our roots – a call to be at home.

group mind IV: chemistry

Related posts

  1. group mind I: like conversation
  2. group mind II: transcendence
  3. group mind III: the nature of music
  4. group mind IV: chemistry
  5. group mind V: connection to the audience

Insight: When an ensemble really gels and their performance is organic and alive, you’ll hear “That band has great chemistry.” “Chemistry,” is so essential and is so broad a term, it’s nearly synonymous with “group mind.”

An ensemble that has chemistry:

  • Anticipates: each member has enough familiarity with each others’ tendencies as to be able to anticipate what they’ll do next (like being able to complete each others’ sentences.) Any musical moment is stronger when what comes before it sets that moment up. Familiarity means individual members can set up what comes next from other members.
  • Listens: simply put, you can’t interact if you are in your own world. Chemistry requires each member connecting simultaneously with their inner voice, the piece at hand and the rest of the ensemble.
  • Has common ground: shared musical sensibilities, gravitating toward similar styles of music and interpretation of phrases, cadences, harmonic treatment, rhythmic variations etc., perhaps from having a similar musical education.
  • Is reciprocal: there is a give and take. Call it hospitality – making room for other voices while honoring one’s own.
    • More concretely, each member bases what they play on what they hear both externally and internally. “Externally” meaning the here-and-now sounds coming from the other members as well as the palette of possibilities of the piece. “Internally” meaning one’s inner creative impulses refined by the musical disciplines like mastery of the instrument and an understanding of the style of the piece.
    • Also includes members’ good working sense of how their instrument contributes to the whole – of the breadth and limits of their role in the ensemble and the piece at hand.
  • Balances individual and group concerns: there is room for both individuality and unity. “Speaking as one” but not to the point of losing one’s individuality. Not insisting on one’s individuality to the point of reducing the performance to a clamor of individuals competing for attention.

group mind III: the nature of music

Related posts

  1. group mind I: like conversation
  2. group mind II: transcendence
  3. group mind III: the nature of music
  4. group mind IV: chemistry
  5. group mind V: connection to the audience

Insight: The way “group mind” appears in performance is tied to the nature of music.

  • Music is immersive: We are immersed in sound and by this quality sound naturally reinforces the performers’ “immersion” in the performance. And though musical conscience (a self-awareness aimed at evaluating and refining the performance in the moment) necessitates a degree of distance, there is an immediacy – being caught up in the moment – whereby the performers and the performance “become one.”
  • Music is rhythmic. Rhythm is bodily. It is also one of the palettes that unifies compositions. Musical group mind is bodily. The shared palette of rhythms unifies the ensemble in a physical way like movement in a group of dancers. Dancers and musicians know what it means to be moved by the music.
    Music is gestural: it’s movement expresses meaning. Interesting that “movement” refers to a section of a longer composition which often coheres by what it is intended to express.
  • Music is temporal: duration Like all human experience, music has duration. From the beating of our mother’s heart in the womb, marking time walking or running or counting our years, in music and in life there is tempo and pulse and measures, beginnings, repeats and endings and beginnings. This is one way music, rooted in our lived existence, taps our common humanity.
  • Music is temporal: in the moment  Musicians are bound by what is probably their single greatest motivation and desire: to be caught up in the moment during a performance, forgetting all else. Clock time ceases to be at issue as metronomic time becomes a brush for painting what is “eternal:” delight, ecstasy, misery, longing, love, beauty etc. Musicians talk about these “peak” or “transcendent” moments as “becoming the music.”
  • Music is emotional. Music is perhaps the most apt vehicle for embodying, conveying and evoking emotions because it is structurally similar to emotion. We are immersed in emotion. We are immersed in sound. Emotions color our perceptions and show themselves through how we see the world around us. Music colors our perception conveying and evoking emotion-laden experience – “painting a world.”   Music and emotions are bodily. They move us in ways specific to their character. Music and emotions ebb and flow, rise and fall over time, marking time, which drags when we are down and flies when we are elated.
    Musical group mind is necessarily emotional and because music is evocative, it awakens the performers’ shared humanity giving them immediate common ground.
  • Music expresses the ineffable: Music expresses what exceed words and especially in its nonverbal aspect is sufficiently open-ended to both unify and leave room for individual differences. What is most important in life exceeds the capacity of words to express. Of what value, then, is music? And what bonds of fellowship does that inspire in ensemble musicians?
  • Music is communal. Music is written by people for people. Its vocabulary (of rhythm, melody, harmony etc.) is relatively prescribed or at least exists in an historical context that is defined by the efforts of others. Ensemble players share enough of a common musical heritage to be able to “speak the same language.” This “mother tongue” binds them. The performance is a shared experience that is both immediate and transitory while tapping and evoking what eternal and universal. The ensemble player must be open to being influenced by what they hear from fellow performers.

group mind II: transcendence

Related posts

  1. group mind I: like conversation
  2. group mind II: transcendence
  3. group mind III: the nature of music
  4. group mind IV: chemistry
  5. group mind V: connection to the audience

insight: We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves – something greater that gives our lives meaning. Call it the desire for transcendence. We could even call it spirituality in the broadest sense.

One essential ingredient to group mind in ensemble performance is a shared sense of being part of something larger than oneself, like:

  • the shared creative impulse
  • the desire to create, express and evoke communal shared experiences (of intellectual and bodily joy, rage, desire, etc.)
  • beauty whose creation depends on participation and cooperation
  • living out a calling (being true) to what is “higher” in our shared humanity like the longing for beauty and the desire to express our shared humanity
  • being a conduit for art (the performing arts depend on performers giving themselves to their art disciplining themselves so they become relatively transparent so the art make be conveyed through them without hindrance.)
  • the performer must connect with their own humanity, which becomes a wellspring of energy for the performance. So it is that the desire to be connected and responsive to what is larger than oneself also means turning inward, for the “I” is but a small part of the human soul. Our ability to respond and tend to the intentions of composer and fellow performers is dependent on our relationship with “our own” inner wellspring: relations with the outer world mirror relations with the inner.

group mind I: like conversation

Related posts

  1. group mind I: like conversation
  2. group mind II: transcendence
  3. group mind III: the nature of music
  4. group mind IV: chemistry
  5. group mind V: connection to the audience

Insight: ensemble performance is like a conversation in which everyone can speak about the same topic at the same time and the result makes sense.


In conversation there is:

  • A narrative thread – a connective tissue of meaning (or at least the expectation of one) which amounts to a certain continuity of content
  • Immersion in a shared field of meaning that stimulates thought
  • A certain self-perpetuating though finite energy (the conversation has a certain life of its own)
  • A social subtext (a network of relationships)
  • A desire to understand and to be understood which means that language itself is always a concern insofar what is meant and what is said aren’t necessarily the same.
  • Certain general guiding principals/rules:
    • speak one at a time (which introduces the difficulty of balancing attention between the thoughts being expressed and one’s own forming thoughts.)
    • what you say next should have something to do with what was just said


Where the conversation analogy applies

In music the narrative threads are compositional; are relatively prescribed, based on time signature, key signature, modality, tempo, melodic construction, rhythmic motif all of which contribute to a relatively coherent gestalt (or palette) of mood(s) and ideas. The performers are immersed in a gestalt – a shared field of meaning – that offers a certain self-perpetuating though finite energy inspiring the performance.

And always at issue is the network of relationships among the musicians, though often for the sake of the music.


Where the conversation analogy fall short

  • One point of difference is a matter of emphasis: music inspires greater personal investment in its creation leading to greater motivation toward cooperation than most conversation topics do. The question is: what is it about music that brings this about?
  • Musical performance, being based in time, rhythm and mood is more bodily and is hence able to express what exceeds words. And being mostly non-verbal sidesteps the barriers to understanding inherent in spoken language.
  • In conversation, the social interaction generally takes priority, opening the possibility of “chit-chat” where the topical content is relative unimportant but the social interaction is. The social situation is always at issue. In ensemble performance, the creation of music generally takes priority over (and even requires putting aside to some degree) the social situation. The motivation for maintaining good relationships among fellow performers is more commonly derived from their shared commitment to the music.
  • In conversion we take turns speaking. There is prescribed rhythm of interaction between listening and speaking. In ensemble performance there is an ebb and flow to which instruments come to the fore but it is common for all to be making sound at the same time. Listening and “speaking” are simultaneous.
  • In conversation, listening requires attending simultaneously to what is being said and what one might say next. In ensemble performance, holding back as other instruments come to the fore is much less because there are still ways to actively participate.

group mind

The phrase “group mind” in reference to ensemble musical performance is intended to gather the following below. These are developed in a series of reflections under “group mind.” (Links listed at bottom)

  • That the collaborative process of ensemble performance results in music that is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • The music takes on a life of its own – a life that is palpable, making demands on the musicians and feeding their creative process.
  • This process is far more than intellectual, involving every aspect of the performers.
  • An artistically effective ensemble performance requires members to be competent (which presumes some ego investment in their competence) and cooperative toward a shared goal (which presumes a willingness to put ego aside to some degree for something greater than oneself.)
  • Effective performance includes some degree of interactive spontaneity (more so in improvisatory music) which implies a discipline of simultaneous playing and listening; feeding the process through playing and feeding off the process through listening – making room for others’ contributions and adding to the whole.
  • This spontaneity requires a certain permeability on the part of the individual performers – a willingness and even a desire to be influenced by both the other musicians and the music itself.
  • “I” to some degree becomes “we” and even “we” fades into the background putting the “music itself” in the foreground.
  • The desire for transcendence – being part of something greater than oneself by “giving oneself” to it – is always at issue for the performers.
  • The unitive effect of music brings about a unity of purpose and experience for the performers.

Related posts

  1. group mind I: like conversation
  2. group mind II: transcendence
  3. group mind III: the nature of music
  4. group mind IV: chemistry
  5. group mind V: connection to the audience


music and spiritual experience

Consider the character of spiritual experience and what it has in common with the experience of music.

Spiritual experiences often include a sense of immersion in the divine. Because we are likewise immersed in sound, music is the best art for evoking the divine.

Spiritual experience is deeply emotional. The experience of emotions is also one of immersion and duration. They color our perceptions of everything and everyone around us. Music, with its ebb and flow, its rhythms and evocative harmonies, is emotive because it emulates and expresses the immersion and the ebb and flow of emotion. Music, an expression of our humanity, is rooted in emotions.

Another feature of spiritual experience is that words cannot adequately express it (is ineffable.) The words that do come can only provide an opening for the same divine spark to awaken in the listener. Music, being an evocative non-verbal language can also provide an opening for the divine spark to awaken. Music is an excellent vehicle for expressing and evoking what words alone cannot.

Probably the most universal religious experience is that of awe when faced with natural beauty. (“awe precedes faith…” Abraham Heschel) Beautiful music, just like the beauty of nature, can open us to the divine. So one way to answer the question of how music opens our hearts to God might be to look at the connection from natural beauty to awe to faith and ask what it is about music that helps us make that same connection.

Those who have spiritual experiences seek to make sense of those experiences. Religions provide a stories – a narrative context that helps us story (make sense of) our experiences. Music is also narrative. It takes us from A to B and leaves us transformed by the journey. It gives expression to our shared story – our common humanity. Religions provide a social context – a validating context of like-minded seekers who share and seek to live out fully a common story. Music is also communal. Musical ensembles are united in common purpose, immersed in the moment together for the sake of their art. Performers and audiences share a bond that goes beyond words and is rooted in our shared humanity. Music, in its narrative structure and communal nature, is a apt vehicle for creating and strengthening religious communities by expressing and evoking the very realities that bind them.