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Priests of Another Knowledge - An Afterword of Sorts

Some time after writing the preceding article I had a long conversation about these matters with a friend, a systematic musicologist— a musical scientist, not working in styles and artistic musical history. He works in acoustics, psychoacoustics, and the applications of "hard science" methods to musical questions. He asked me the ultimate question in this line of reasoning (my summary): If music is a system of knowledge, has music ever told you something, some concrete fact, some tangible idea, that wasn't in your head before? I didn't have an instant answer for him.

No, I had never listened to music without lyrics or a mathematical code in it and had a solid, verbal datum arrive in my mind. An orchestra cannot (so far) teach you who the ninth president was or the quadratic equation or how to read hieroglyphics.

Music will not give us input/output data. It is NOT a language. It is not a substitute for verbal quantifications. But we have seen concrete transmission of a kind of data into our heads.

In computers we have three levels of primary function: hardware, software, and data. There is much still to be understood, but it is a demonstrated fact that human brains physically rewire themselves in response to sensory experiences. The experience is common and well documented that exposure to music will alter how data move in a person's mind. More than just adding pressure to some vague emotional tides, music therapy, both formal and informal, can cause people to change directions in the content of their thoughts. In clinical situations, people who are brain-damaged, autistic, depressed, etc. may be enabled to release, process, describe, and otherwise work with data, emotions, or other content of their lives in ways they cannot achieve without musical intervention.  Does this not suggest that music has supplied real "software-level" changes in the program logic — altered the algorithms of the mind?

In my own experience — and, 1 know, in the experiences of millions — the routes of thought processing that are at work in my mind may lead me in certain ways. I will fall into a consistent mood, have a consistent interpretation of events, relationships, decisons, emotions, etc. But this apparently stable understanding of some aspect of my life will often become malleable, take on a different look and feel; I will often see things in a new light, and have access to new possible or preferred conclusions when the single new element of some musical influence is added.

It has been a deliberate tactic in my life, since I was two or three years old, that if I were depressed, bored, sad, or locked into any negative state, I could listen to records or the radio, or sing; or, later, play musical instruments; and apply a predictably powerful leverage to change my state of mind. I could predictably apply a magnifying, enhancing leverage to positive thoughts, too. The power of the musical input was generally predictable. But the content of the change was not — and the content of the musical input was the largest variable in the process sometimes. Certain songs would lead me through a certain repeatable influence. Certain records could lead me back to a sense of a same "place." But this was never like deja vu. The current content of my mind and life were always the content of the input; and then the output was also in terms of that current stuff. Music would not replace thoughts, but it would reroute them, and change the final outcome in that way.

My friend the systematic musicologist would rightly caution that erratically gathered and experienced anecdotal material is poor proof As long as we are dealing with human brains, we cannot get any brain to repeat any experiment exactly. And given my suspicion that we are dealing on the algorithmic level—software—results will always spill out as data, always in terms of the input that varied hugely from brain to brain and momentto moment.

But ask yourself a few questions: Have you had your mind work somehow differently when a musical influence was added? Did you play music to get over the blues? To wallow in the blues? To get your homework done? Have you everturned on some music to help yourself "think?" To manipulate the mood of a party? To synchronize the thoughts and feelings of people at a wedding or other ritual occasion? Did you ever find yourself at a concert or similar event and believe that music had channeled you and others into a shared vibe, groove, wavelength? Did you ever believe that you had something figured out, and then change your mind after letting a musical moment intervene? Has a fragment of music in an elevator ever kidnapped yourwhole brain? When you go to a concert or have your headphones on does your head work the same as at other times? Has the world ever seemed different after a concert, a new record release, a new kind of music heard on the radio? Does the world seem the same driving home after a concert as it did driving the same route to get there? Has MTV changed the world, or has the phonograph, or the radio? What are the differences in your relationships with books, records, movies, concerts, food, other commodities you buy and use? Why does movie music make such a big difference?

Anecdotal evidence, once collected in mass quantities, becomes statistical, anthropological truth. Do you think you have some of the evidence? Does music change minds? Is music a pure energy, or is there solid matter in it? Is it a wave or a particle? Can a thing be both? — RH, September 7, A.D. 1995