What is the Meaning of that Music in my Head?!

In my previous post, I said I was trying to create a new habit: writing more often! I also promised to explore the theme of how practicing the Feldenkrais Method can bring benefits to your life beyond the realm that we typically think of as “movement.”

If you have found this blog, I’m guessing you already know something about the Feldenkrais Method and what happens in an Awareness Through Movement class. If not, I highly suggested you have yourself a first-hand experience!

What follows is not about what we do in class, but it is not unrelated.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the following story would never have unfolded if I had not been practicing the Feldenkrais Method since 2012 and become familiar with its highly potent strategies of self-examination and transformation. These strategies, enacted in the process of investigating skeletal movement, are, in my opinion, nothing less that a basic template for how to transform any problem in your life into an opportunity.

Simply put, in an Awareness Through Movement class, we do three things:

First, we observe ourselves in action in order to discover our habits.

Second, we explore new patterns of action that differ from our habits in order to increase our range of options.

Third, we listen inside of ourselves to try to determine which pathways – whether they be the ones we are familiar with or not – point most clearly towards goals we have set ourselves. This final step actually happens somewhat organically. We don’t usually have the sense of deciding on a new way of moving. Rather, we find that our explorations have made this new experience somehow inevitable.

Along the way, we also sometimes encounter unexpected surprises. Some days bring dramatic insights and we feel big changes while other days muddy the waters and we find more new questions than answers. But if we stick with the process – and make it a practice – we learn to become more and more curious about ourselves. Once that happens, whatever twists and turns the road may take, the more we cultivate this curiosity, the more we discover the true possibility of living the words of Moshe Feldenkrais’ most famous phrase: “If you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”

So here is a story about my own current struggles with a very, very deep habit. You may not relate to this story directly in the sense of having had similar experiences. However, I think you may find something useful in my account of how I decided to interact with my habit and what it taught me. Perhaps it will give you some ideas related to some habits of your own . . .

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For practically all of my life, I have identified myself as a “musician”, a “music lover”, a “musical person”, or some other variation on this theme.

As a teenager, I discovered Bob Dylan and took my guitar to the Pike Place Market in Seattle to sing my own original (Grunge-influenced!) folk tunes for the passers by. In college, despite having very little formal musical training, I majored in music and briefly joined the Ghost Trance Ensemble of the genius saxophonist, composer and improviser, Anthony Braxton, playing the stand-up bass. I later led and co-led my own ensembles and even invented an imaginary language called Beeayboll to explore my interest in the musical sounds of human speech. While in the end I did not build a career as a musician, I still give occasional performances and continue to regularly turn musical ideas over in my head.

All along, I have also been a fanatical music listener.

When I hear my favorite music, I don’t simply “sing along”. If I’m alone or unguarded I will move my body in synch with each turning phrase and squeeze my eyes shut to relish the most magical moments. If I’m happy, I will celebrate with music. If I’m sad, I will turn to music for solace. Raised by devoutly atheist parents, I often thought of music as “my religion” as I was growing up and today I still see music as a vital piece of my identity.

So, for me it was a somewhat radical experiment when I recently decided to find out what it might mean to remove music from my life.

Why would I want to do this? Let’s just say that one day I realized that music isn’t only a passion for me. It is also a very, very deep habit.

Well, after nearly a month of this inquiry, I have concluded that it would be nearly impossible for me truly remove music from my life. Nor do I wish to do so. However, considering the idea has helped me to ask myself important questions that I had never previously considered.  I have begun to test long-held assumptions about myself, including the romantic notion that music has always played a beneficial role in my life.

To begin, I decided that I would not listen to any music at home, driving my car, or anywhere else. Then I decided that I would stop singing, something I usually do throughout my day. Finally, I gave myself my most difficult challenge: would it possible to remove music from my thinking?!

Two days into my first experiment (not listening to any music) I noticed that a favorite artist of mine had released a new video on YouTube and I clicked it. I watched half the video before I realized I had “broken the rule.” I decided to let myself go with a warning.   After that, I was disciplined for another couple of weeks before similarly forgetting and again clicking on a music video online. I have now gone another couple weeks without any further listening.

Interrupting the habit of perpetually filling my environment with music has taught me a couple of things. First, by noticing how often I had to inhibit the urge to press “play”, I learned just how strong my habit is. Second, by spending more time in “silence”, I began to more fully appreciate the rich sonic environment around me.

At first my apartment felt “empty” without the constant presence of a symphony or the joyful chorus of a favorite rock song. But as I accustomed myself to listening to the sounds already present around me, I became interested, sometimes even fascinated, by ticking clocks, the interaction of my footfalls with the creaky floor, the buzz of the refrigerator and the wave-like ebb and flow of traffic sounds on the street below my window.

I chided myself as I rediscovered the inherent music of the environment because it was not something I hadn’t previously known about.

It was more than two decades ago when I was first introduced to the composition 4’33” by the great American experimental musician, John Cage, often known as “The Silent Piece.” In the 1952 premiere performance, the virtuoso pianist David Tudor sat at the bench for 4 minutes and 33 seconds without playing a single note.  All he did was open and close the lid over the keyboard to denote the start and end of each of its three “movements.”  What the audience heard was the sounds of wind and rain outside the window and the uneasy sounds of their own lack of silence.

By exploiting the atmosphere of heightened attention in the concert hall, Cage focused our ears on the sounds that were already there, allowing us to begin hearing their musical nature. Cage considered 4’33” to be his most important work, and for many musicians – myself included – his illumination of the musical environment opened up new universes of possibility.

But the sound of a buzzing refrigerator is only interesting if you listen to it as music – otherwise you may just find it annoying. When I rediscovered the joy of listening to subtle environmental sounds, I noticed how quiet I had to become inside myself. The thought arose that my habit of always having music playing had also been a way of not allowing myself to find that quiet space. In fact, I wondered, was I trying to avoid that place by always covering it up with sound?

The second proposition, not to sing, was even more difficult than the first. I have always enjoyed singing my favorite songs, filling my chest with air and feeling the vibrations in my throat and in the air around me.  So I often sing to accompany a task like washing the dishes.

Furthermore, one of my particular interests when I was an active composer was to investigate the sounds of language and the wide range of expressive possibilities of the human voice. So, just as often as I sing songs, I also like to sing overtones, beat-box, sing while inhaling, invent novel phonetic combinations and other carry out other vocal experiments. (This is another realm of my life where the process of investigation of the Feldenkrais Method has enabled me to make exciting discoveries.)

But by deciding this past month not to sing, I discovered that there is also a certain compulsivity in my music making. Previously I’d already noticed  that I would often start to sing hardly before I realized what I was doing, surprising myself with the sound of my own voice. And, on many occasions, singing to accompany a task would derail it completely. There I would be, standing at the sink holding a dirty dish in one hand and a sponge in the other – and just singing!

Just as with the urge to listen to music, this past month I found myself having to actively inhibit the urge to sing. And on more than one occasion I actually did begin to sing before I was able to stop myself. I also noticed how often I would begin to drum my fingers or make some other percussive movement with my body without ever seeming to decide to do it.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with singing or drumming one’s fingers. But it a humbling realization when you discover a pattern of your own behavior that seems to operate outside of your control.

As I struggled not to listen to or make music, I uncovered my deepest musical habit: constantly listening to or making music inside my head. As I observed the sounds of my mental radio, I identified three general ways in which they manifest.

The first category, probably quite familiar to you, is the experience of having a song “stuck in my head” (eg., think of any of the Christmas tunes you have been subjected to repeatedly over the last month…).  In other words, some music that I know or have recently heard seems to play continually in my mind, whether I want it or not.

A second category, of a different character, might be called “musical inspiration”, where some creative impulse inside of me opens up and I begin to hear music that I have never heard before, a kind of spontaneous mental improvisation. This experience was something that I deliberately cultivated for years when I was a regularly performing musician.

A third category of mental music lies somewhere in between the first two: I hear some kind of repeating musical phrase or pattern that might not be identical to any music I have previously heard, but likewise, is something less than “inspired.” This last experience is like listening to a musician playing a couple of bars of a composition that she is trying to perfect over and over. While at times I find something interesting in the repeating figure, just as often, I feel like I’m listening to a broken record.

Over the past month, I have tried to develop a new habit: turning the knob on my mental radio to the “off” position each time I hear it playing. But what I have found is that sometimes, it seems to be stuck in the “on” position!

I may command my brain to cease the music it is playing, but moments later when I try to turn my attention to another thing, I find that it is playing once again. So I have had to dig deeper to try to understand why I turn my mental radio on and come up with new strategies for how to turn it off.

Many years ago, some wise person advised me that the best way to banish the annoyance of an unwanted song “stuck in my head” is for me to replace it with a different, more likeable tune. And that is what I have so often done. But the idea of my current experiment was to replace that song with “silence.”

To explain what this has meant in practice, perhaps it would be useful to return to the story of John Cage’s 4’33”.  Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry about Cage’s famous composition:

In 1951, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. Such a chamber is also externally sound-proofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” The realization as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33″.

I certainly don’t live in an anechoic chamber, so in my own attempts to “silence” my mental radio, what I have discovered is that I am replacing the music in my head with the music of the environment. What this means in practice is realizing that I am doing something “in my head” and then consciously turning outward to reconnect to my surroundings.

A startling revelation has been that each time I shift my attention outwardly, I have the experience that the sound of the buzzing refrigerator, the traffic outside or whatever else I’m hearing, literally seems to get louder. In other words, when I play music in my head, I turn down the volume on the world around me. And I’ve also noticed that when I don’t have the experience of a mental musical interruption it is often at those times when I am socially engaged, looking another person in the eyes and sharing in conversation.

As I’ve said, I love music, and I have no wish to truly remove it from my life. But I have recently discovered that, perhaps because music is such a powerful force, if I don’t bring awareness to how I interact with my musical nature, it can become a stumbling block in my life. I have had wonderful experiences of connecting to other people through the plane of music. But now I have to also acknowledge the real danger that I can lose myself in music, removing myself from being present in the “here and now” with the people all around me.

When we practice Awareness Through Movement, we are always engaged in a similar struggle – how to connect to ourselves and our environment in the “here and now” so that we can choose to act in the way which serves us the best – rather than flying on autopilot with no sense of where we are going.

I don’t yet have all the answers to my questions about the role of music in my life, but I have discovered an improved quality in my relationship to music, to sound, to myself and to the people around me. I have a new awareness of my habits that gives me opportunities to choose a different way of being in the world at certain moments where previously I may not have seen a choice. This awareness gives me a greater sense of control over my life and greater confidence in the idea that I can reach toward my goals.

There is actually a lot more that I could have said about this investigation and what it has taught me, but I think I’ve said enough for now. But some time soon I will revisit some of these themes and another initiative I have recently undertaken (which also informed my experiments with music): starting a modest, but consistent practice of sitting meditation.

In modern life, too many of us have become disconnected to our bodies, which is why Moshe Feldenkrais thought that exploring movement was such a potent strategy for people to begin to realize their vast untapped potential. But he always made clear that the changes that could take place would extend far beyond the physical plane. As he once put it, “Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”

At the beginning of this post, I said that this was not a story about the Feldenkrais Method. But the more I think about . . . yes, it was!