Imagine yourself in a big gathering of witty Italians, dragged by many participants into all conversations simultaneously. Maybe a better example: imagine yourself reading a book, then being able to comment on it mentally without stopping to read, and there you go, commenting on your comment, keeping track of the book’s story and your commentary. Parallel processing, say the engineers.
Listening to music, when a part has a held note or when it makes a pause, the attention naturally focuses on the other voice played as a counterpoint: you listen to the melodic line and wonder how it was before you shifted your attention, you also wonder how it is going to develop, that is, if your attention does not get distracted by another part coming into play. Six parts may come into play, that’s a lot of parallel processing. Take one of the fugues in the Musical Offering or The Art of Fugue, it’s all about getting surrounded by voices. Once you focus on what’s happening in the music, your capacity for attention is constantly challenged, and you know you miss out a lot. There’s this voice and then that one which get intertwined, on top of it a commentary or a variation, then another melody… It seems impossible to keep track of each melodic line and admire the playful complexities woven between each other and step back to get the bigger picture all at the same time.
I believe that on some level and in some situations we are capable of parallel processing, especially when unaware of it – when accomplishing a gesture for instance that needs many different parameters adjusted (riding a bike, hammering a nail, pouring water in a glass…).
There are different ways of listening to music.
On the one hand, some of you will abandon yourselves to the blissful sensation of being overwhelmed, probably not even trying to “understand”, yet admiring the architect’s work in awe by just being receptive. It is likely that some unaware processing does take place within the body, out of reach of the intellect, but let’s be honest, any intentional processing is all but necessary here: the music is like a river and you wouldn’t even think of processing the water movements in order to enjoy the spectacle of a river. This art of listening is very close to faith, which is confidence and has not necessarily anything to do with God.
On the other hand, some want to FULLY UNDERSTAND (the capitals are ironic, I confess). Those of you belonging to this silly category of mine will be like: first things first, let’s get some historical background, some information about music at that time, etc. Fine, I get your point. If the interest is still alive after your period of research, you will eventually give it a listen and while listening to one fugue you will try like hell to keep up with the loads of data. Parallel processing, learning new things is your challenge and you may well succeed. You may end up frustrated though because once each part of any music piece is deconstructed and “understood”, the music is gone and you say: What can one learn from music anyway? Well, nothing that you could stockpile like cash, if that’s what you’re looking for. With time and patience though, you may find a renewed awareness by listening to just one fugue, over and over. You might also unlearn instant gratification patterns. You might even for an instant leave a controlling habit, make something else than your brains be the center of your body. But it all might just be too much.
The understanding of music, what a blurry concept. Darkness within darkness, really.