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The Buddhist Musicianship Series


The Buddhist Musicianship Series Listening by Phil Nyokai James Dharmasong Publications •

by Phil Nyokai James


Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha discovered a method for living life more freely and compassionately. His method was empirical rather than religious: instead of theological concepts and devotional commitments, he outlined a set of practical techniques his followers could try out for themselves.

The Buddha rarely mentioned music, and yet much of what he taught can be applied directly to what I call Buddhist musicianship. Buddhist musicianship is a radical return to the basics of working with sound, emphasizing concentration, mindfulness, personal discipline, attentive listening, breathing, community, and compassion.

This Buddhist Musicianship series of pamphlets is about becoming a musician or, for those who are already musicians, about revisiting the foundations of the craft and discovering new approaches, using the Buddha’s teaching as a framework. By “musician” I don’t necessarily mean a professional musician – I mean somebody who is creatively engaged with the world of sound.

For music to exist in the world, one of the most basic requirements is attentive listening. What a simple idea, but one that is often ignored because it seems so obvious. That’s why the first pamphlet in the Buddhist Musicainship series delves deeply into the practice of listening, drawing parallels with Buddhist methods and offering exercises that bridge the gap between art and meditation.

Do you have to become a Buddhist to learn Buddhist musicianship? Absolutely not. Though this pamphlet casually draws on many of the Buddha’s insights along the way, it does not require a commitment to his overall approach. I avoid highly technical explications of Buddhist thought, emphasizing instead those features of Buddhism that help illuminate the musical path.

I hope that through the Buddhist Musicianship series, and through this individual pamphlet, you will develop a sense of the world of music that is at once broader and more precise than you thought possible. I hope you will begin to see yourself as an active, creative, and self-assured participant in that world. I hope, too, that the Buddhist approach to musical expression enriches other areas of your life.

May all beings be happy. May all beings be filled with love and compassion. May all beings be liberated from suffering.


Part 1: Listening to Sound as Sound

For at least three centuries composers and academics have busied themselves proposing new definitions of music. Over time these definitions have of necessity become more inclusive as actual practitioners expanded traditional musical vocabularies with scales and rhythms from other cultures, new instruments, and the sounds of the changing industrial environment. But despite this expansive evolutionary drift, definers of music have most often served as the voice of a particular class or cultural elite, asserting essentially conservative values. They could simply exclude from the exalted realm of music anything they didn’t like and that good people like them shouldn’t like either. “Rock and roll? That’s not music, it’s noise!”

Of course there were always more radical intellectuals who attempted to enlarge the scope of music with their definitions. In the early twentieth century Edgard Varèse bypassed the notions of style and taste by declaring that music is simply “organized sound.” But this definition, seeming at first so expansive, creates more problems than it solves. Organized by whom? Who is the agent of this creativity? Does it require consciousness of artistry on the part of the creator? Could a bird or the weather come up with organized sound? Just how organized does organized have to be?

What if we turn the tables 180 degrees and define music not as something that’s made, but as something that’s listened to? Instead of talking about how sound is organized, we can simply say that music is sound that’s listened to as sound.

What exactly does this mean?

If I listen to your voice only to extract the literal meaning of the words you’re uttering, it’s not exactly music to my ears. But if I notice the rise and fall of your breath, the changing pitches of the syllables, the sharpness or gentleness of your tone, then I am certainly listening to a song. Similarly, if the pattering of the rain means no more to me than a signal to go indoors, it would be a stretch to call it music; but if I am attentive to the complex ever-changing rhythms of the raindrops, I experience the same type of fascination as when I listen to Indian


tabla drumming or jazz, a clearly musical fascination. In other words, through my attentiveness to sound I have entered a state of music.

Buddhism and listening

Buddhism has a lot to say about perception and about attentiveness to sensation, including sound. The Abidhamma, an ancient collection of Buddhist treatises on psychology that is remarkably in synch with modern cognitive neuroscience, outlines a journey from the first physical sensation of a sound through its complex processing in the brain. The Abidhamma makes clear that there are decision points along the way, moments of choice between accepting a sound as just sound or rejecting it as something we don’t want to hear, between noticing its various interesting features and cutting off engagement by hurriedly identifying and labeling it. What I have just called “a state of music” would be considered, in more Buddhist parlance, simply a state of relaxed non-judgmental awareness, the ground from which deeper realizations may grow and ripen.

Concentration and listening

Essentially there are two approaches to meditation in Buddhism: concentration and mindfulness. In concentration meditation, you focus on an object of the senses. This could be the feeling of the breath as it enters and leaves the body, or it could be a repeated sound such as a mantra or a chant. The idea is to keep bringing the attention back to this object. As many times as the mind wanders to other thoughts or other sensations, you rein it back in. This is also the essence of “musicianly” listening: bringing your attention back again and again to the sound at hand (or at ear). If you’re a working musician in the middle of a performance, you might find your mind wandering away from the passage you’re playing right now to thoughts of the next phrase or song – or even of your next gig! But it is essential, for the life of the music, to bring your attention back to the “right now” sound. And of course it is essential to listen to this sound as sound. As you do this over and over again, it starts to become second nature. This is Buddhist musicianship in action.


Exercise: Concentration on sound as sound

Sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight. You may sit on the floor cross-legged or in a chair, but if you use a chair be careful not to slump or lean against the back. If you are sitting on the floor, a pillow under your buttocks may help you to keep your spine straight. Optionally, you can try sitting on your knees with your buttocks between your heels. This position, sometimes called “seiza style,” is considered a position of power in the Japanese arts. It allows you to breathe very deeply into your abdomen.

Start this exercise by watching your breath. Don’t try to control it in any way, but simply notice the sensation of the air entering and leaving your nostrils. Or, if you prefer, notice the sensation of your belly expanding and collapsing as you breathe in and out.

Once you feel somewhat relaxed, pick a sound to listen to. It may be a fairly steady sound, such as the drone of a distant electric motor, or it may be more changeable, such as the song of a bird or a rushing river. It could even be the sound of your breath. Whatever sound you choose, stick with it, noticing every slight change in pitch, volume, tone quality, location, etc. Even the steadiest sounds will “undress themselves” to reveal a complex and ever-changing character if you listen with enough attention. If you’re focusing on an electric drone, for instance, you may notice that it’s actually composed of tiny fragments of sound strung together closely enough to give an illusion of continuity – thousands of sonic arisings and passings-away every minute! And if you listen to your breath, you may find that the sound is as complex and powerful as the ocean. If your mind wanders, bring it back again and again to the sound you’ve chosen, trying to hear it with more and more precision.

To exercise aural acuity, focus in now on the smallest sound you can hear. Listen with ever-increasing attention until you can hear it in the minutest detail. Again, this may be the breath itself. Notice how the sound changes through time. Resist the temptation to identify it or to figure out how it’s being made. Simply notice everything about it. Notice how the sound begins, how it progresses, how it ends, perhaps how it starts again. Notice any change in volume, or pitch, or any other qualities such as roughness versus smoothness. Don’t try to analyze, just notice all these aspects of the smallest sounds.

After a while this level of concentration may feel like a strain. In that case return to noticing the feeling of the breath, the sensations at your nostrils


or in your belly as it enters and leaves your body. When you are more relaxed restart your detailed investigation of sonic phenomena. Eventually the focus on sound will become as relaxing as the focus on other body sensation. You may notice that your mind becomes quieter, that you are clearing a mental space in which the sonic events can live their brief life. Concentration on sound naturally develops quietness, not necessarily the quietness of a library or monastery, but a deep inner quiet.

Mindful listening

The second Buddhist approach to meditation is mindfulness. In mindfulness meditation, you let go of concentration on a particular sense object and open up your awareness to include the constantly changing states of your mind and body and the world around you. In other words, you ride the waves of sensation and thought as they arise and disappear. If an image of a lemon meringue pie pops into your head, for instance, you simply notice it, let go of it, and let the next mind-object rise and pass away. You may discover that you’ve been stuck in lemon meringue pie bliss for several minutes, but it’s never too late to let go. In some traditions you softly label the mind-object that arises. “Thinking,” you say to yourself when a thought comes up. Then you feel an itch on your leg. “Feeling,” you say to yourself, and then let that go as well. In this way you get more and more adept at being present and at allowing every experience to arise and perish without clinging to it.

How does this apply to musicianship?

You can get close enough to a painting that nothing else is included in your visual arena – all you see are the colors and shapes and textures on the canvas. But with sound it’s different. Sound never exists in isolation. A Sousa march blaring from a band shell is embroidered with the sonic events of the entire soundscape. A dog barks, a jet flies by, somebody sings along. And as you listen you may also be aware of the sounds of your own body: the wind rushing past your ears, your heart beating, even the sound of swallowing. It is impossible to completely block out all these inputs, and so the musicianly thing to do is consider them a part of the music, to hear the entire sonic environment as a symphony (symphony means “sounding together,” by the way).

This sort of inclusionary listening is a fundamental skill for performing in instrumental ensembles. If you’re playing with other musicians, you have to open up your hearing to include everything they’re doing as well as everything you’re doing. It doesn’t work to just concentrate on your own part, playing it as


accurately as you can – you must be receptive to the miniscule moment-to- moment changes in the overall sound. The more mindful each member of the group becomes, the more unified and enthralling the music. And if the group can extend that mindfulness to include the sound qualities of the space – incorporating into their music the reverberation of the walls, the random sounds of traffic, even the occasional fidgeting of the audience – then we have a truly remarkable musical event rather than a simple “recital” of a composition.

Exercise: Inclusionary listening

Start with an abbreviated version of the first exercise above: watch your breathing for a while, then move your concentration to a particular sound, once again trying to notice even the minutest changes over time. Again, this could be the sound of the breath itself if you want. Stick with Exercise 1 until you feel that external and mental distractions have less power over you.

Now try to open up your hearing so that it encompasses the entire world around you. This is the mindfulness part of listening – being mindful of everything that’s happening. It may help at first to scan your surroundings. Are there any sounds to your left? How about your right? Or behind you. Or above you, or even beneath you. Notice the different types of sounds:

drones, percussive bursts, fragments of melody, white noise, etc. Soften your hearing so that it all fits together and bathes you in a gigantic many- textured ocean of sound.

Now try to combine the two aspects of attentive listening: at the same time your ears are open to the broad range of sonic information, you become more and more tuned into the details of the sound. Try and get to the place where you don’t have to switch off one aspect of listening (concentration on the fine ever-changing details of sound) in order to engage the other (inclusionary awareness of the soundscape as a whole). This may be very difficult at first. Sometimes I think of it as fractal listening: the variety of the entire sonic environment is reflected in the varying qualities of the smallest bits of sonic data. To hear it all as a continuum, from minutest sound to the entire soundscape, is the goal of this exercise.

It’s an exercise you could work on your entire life. After practicing it a few times I think you’ll find that it’s like plunging ever more deeply into the ocean of sound – a world that’s as mysterious and surprising as it is familiar.


Concentration and mindfulness in musical cultures

The two exercises I’ve suggested so far may seem unusual in the context of music education, but many cultures have them built right into their musical forms. Much Indian music, for instance, includes an introductory “Alap” section in which a performer slowly and teasingly works toward full-out expression, listening carefully to the sounds he or she is making and to all the sounds of the environment, intuiting a pathway into a state of music.

I play the traditional Japanese shakuhachi flute. Simply crafted out of bamboo, the

shakuhachi is capable of a surprising range of sounds, many of them reminiscent of the sounds of nature such as the blowing wind or the calls of birds. For centuries the shakuhachi was used by wandering Zen monks as a meditative tool rather than a musical instrument. They wandered the Japanese countryside looking for ichi on jobutsu, the one sound that would lead to enlightenment. In the shakuhachi tradition, many pieces start with a sort of prelude called “shirabe” or “choshi.” This section of the music provides the performer an opportunity to get in tune, to feel out the mood of the instrument itself (shakuhachis are notoriously sensitive to temperature and humidity), and to methodically enter a state of

concentration and mindfulness.

(“blowing the note called ro”), engaged in daily by virtually all shakuhachi players. In ro-buki, we repeatedly play one note for the full length of a breath. That’s all there is to it. This very slow meditative practice pulls us into concentration on the fine details of the ever-changing sound, makes us aware of the rise and fall of sonic phenomena, and with each long in-breath opens our ears to the myriad sounds that surround us. It is a sort of automated concentration and mindfulness exercise – practicing ro-buki, you can’t help becoming more attentive.

In addition we have a practice called ro-buki


In traditional Japanese music we also have a concept called ma. Ma means the space between intentional sounds. Like many Japanese terms, though, it is a highly condensed nexus of concepts. The idea of ma includes listening, relaxation, patience, and attention. Its outward manifestation in performance is an intuitive artistic sense of the spacing between musical events (breath-length phrases or individual notes), but “good ma” demonstrates many underlying qualities of musicianship and even of a more general meditative attitude toward life.

Needless to say, traditional Buddhist shakuhachi music emphasizes ma. Silence, in fact, or not playing, is the ground from which the music is reborn with each


breath. Shakuhachi is notorious for the difficulty of producing pitched sound, but I believe it is not making sound that is the hardest aspect. The real challenge is returning again and again to a quiet receptive state – a ma state -- between phrases, letting go of worrying about what comes next. This habit, I believe, is the essence of Buddhist musicianship. Fortunately you don’t need a shakuhachi to practice – all you need is your body, your breath, your ears, and the exquisite mysterious world of sounds.

Exercise: Developing good ma

Make a single sound with your voice, your hands, whatever. Pay close attention to the sound while it is alive. Now simply listen to the sounds around, remaining silent yourself. Try to be patient, observing your sonic environment carefully and lovingly. Now make another sound. Pause again, listening once more to the soundscape.

As you play with making sounds and being silent, try to think of the entire activity as a piece of music. The silences – the periods when you are not making sound yourself – are as much a part of the piece as your audible sonic gestures. Hear them as equally valuable.

You may even want to experiment with mentally switching perspective from our usual way of thinking about sound: hear ma as the primary ongoing component of the music and your own sounds as momentary punctuation points or as a sort of framing for the silence.

Start to experiment with a natural-feeling rhythm of making sound, listening to silence, making sound, listening to silence. The rhythm can be irregular, with silences and sounds of widely varying lengths. Just relax, listen, and hear how it all fits together.

Whole body listening

We tend to think of the ears as the only organs of hearing. But we actually perceive sound with much more of our bodies than we are normally aware of. Think, for instance of the low rumbling of a distant jet: we feel the sound viscerally, in our bones and our guts, before our ears enter into the action.

Much of our body is actually more sensitive to very low frequency sounds than our ears are. Our ears are only sensitive down to about 20 Hertz (twenty vibrations of a sound per second), but some of the most interesting and sensual


sounds fall below this range. The 32-foot pipes of a giant church organ give worshippers an almost silent (to the ears) bodily thrill that is akin to the pleasures of sex and may keep them coming back to church for more. Dancing barefoot you feel the booming of bass and drums enter your body through your soles, not your ears. Giant subwoofer speakers speak to our vibrating skeletons.

Why the increased emphasis on bass sounds in popular music over the past twenty years? I believe it is an attempt to “re-corporealize” music, to bring it back to our bodies. When music was a participatory feature of daily culture, it lived in the bodies of individual music makers and in the body of the community as a whole. As we specialized the activity of music making, separating performer from listener, we also robbed the majority of the culture of active engagement with sound. The dramatic “whole body” experience of heavily amplified bass sounds returns us, in a way, to a physical participation in the world of music.

But it is not only bass sounds that can be sensed through organs other than the ears. I remember as a child touching my father’s larynx, or “Adam’s apple,” as he read me a bedtime story. As I drifted off to sleep I could feel the words entering my body through my fingertips.

Many years later I created an instrument that helped me relive this experience. It was a glass jar containing metal bars of various lengths in a hanging circle, somewhat like a wind chime but with the bars fixed rather than movable. As you tilted the jar at different angles a sea-shell hanging from a string struck different combinations of the metal bars. Because the jar was closed, you could not hear the sound of the miniature chimes with your ears, but you could feel the vibrations in the palms of your hands. At first the vibrations seemed general and vague, but as you held the jar and concentrated on the sensations you started to distinguish a range of different “vibrational events” as the shell hit different combinations of bars with different levels of force. In other words, you experienced an ever- changing piece of music that included melody, harmony, and dynamics – all without your ears!

Some teachers of Buddhist mindfulness meditation – most notably Ruth Denison – suggest experimenting with mindfulness of the body, breath and sensations “off the cushion,” in positions other than just sitting. She says that “what evolves is meditation while standing, walking, running, jumping, lying down, rolling on the grass -- meditation in the entire scope of the body's mobility and expression, in yoga àsanas, in dance and laughing, in sound, touch, taste, sight or imitation


motions such as crawling like a worm, etc.” 1 Exercises in noticing the sensations of sound in the body are at the heart of this approach to Buddhist meditation.

Exercise: Whole body listening

As you wander through the soundscape, experiment with touching resonating surfaces. Touch the walls of the subway station and see if you can feel the sound of the arriving train before you hear it with your ears. Touch the back of an upright piano as somebody plays, or touch the various surfaces of a guitar as you pluck the strings. Rest your head on the ground and try to feel the rumbling of the earth. Put your face close to a bass speaker (a woofer or an even deeper sub-woofer) and notice the slight blast of air with each low beat. Feel the vibrating of the sand under your feet as an ocean wave approaches or recedes. Become a “whole body ear.”

Listening to space

As a child I spent lots of time at the beach, playing in the hissing, sputtering and roaring Atlantic waves. It was a sound I loved and found exhilarating. One day I suddenly noticed an aspect of the sound I had never heard before. Waves do not hit the beach completely head on, they break in a long slow spiral against the shore. In other words, if you’re facing the ocean the sound of a wave crashing might start far down the beach to your left, and then it hits closer and closer until it breaks directly in front of you. At that point it may keep crashing against the sand to your right, making contact further and further down the beach until the sound is a distant whir. By then a new wave will certainly have announced itself to your left, and the whole cycle repeats with sounds that are always slightly different.

Why hadn’t I noticed this before? There are a couple of reasons. One is simply that it hadn’t occurred to me that there was anything to be gained from consciously listening to the ocean the same way I was used to listening to instrumental music. More importantly, the concept of sound as moving broadly through space was new to me – or more accurately, had become alien to me. As school emphasized the importance of paying attention to the one focal point at the front of the classroom, I had lost some of my peripheral hearing and the joy of noticing the spatial play of sound.

1 from a 1997 interview in Insight Journal, a publication of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies


Living with or close to nature, sonic location is an essential human skill. You have to know where that hissing or snarling is coming from, and whether it’s headed your way or not. You have to know how far away the thunder is and which way the wind is blowing – both of these pieces of information can be derived from sound alone. Without the aid of artificial lighting, we are partially blind for fifty percent of our time on earth – but all through the night our ears are working overtime, busy locating sound sources and analyzing their movement in order to compensate for our night blindness.

Exercise: Sonic mapping

This is one to try at home. It may be more interesting at night, when the louder sounds of traffic and daily activity are at a minimum and the subtler sounds of night come to life.

Close your eyes. Once again, start by watching your breath: the sensation of the air entering and leaving your nostrils, the sensation of your belly expanding and collapsing as you breathe in and out. Once you feel relaxed, open your hearing to all the sounds around you. Notice the soundscape in as much detail as you can. Notice the tiniest hums and clicks that live in your house like microbes. Notice random sounds from far away and the sounds of your own bodily systems. Notice especially any directionality to the sounds: sounds approaching or getting more distant, moving to the right or left, moving up or down.

Now start to walk around, still with your eyes closed. Try to feel your way through a space you know by sight and touch, but this time relying only on sound. Mentally create a sonic map of your house or apartment, complete with landmarks (soundmarks?) and pathways through the auditory jungle. The refrigerator is easy, clocks are easy, but what about windows? What about plumbing? What about the hum of electricity in the walls? Is it louder in some places than others? Are there sounds that move, are there sounds that remain still?

With a little practice, you may be able to construct a precise sonic map of your home that will enable you to navigate in total darkness, without the aid even of your hands.


Playing space

Whenever we make a sound – whether it’s a so-called musical sound or not – we are sending vibrations into a particular space, a space that contains the vibrating substance (air, water) and that is contained by substance (walls, trees, mountains). The vibrations interact with the space, including its container, to create the quality of the sound. We all know that in a large empty room sound is very resonant, while in a small carpeted closet sound is flat and “present.” As every performing musician knows, when we make a sound we are “playing the space” as well as our instrument. And our own voice is affected not just by the room we’re in, but by the various bodily containers it passes through: our throats, mouth, and lips.

Recently I stayed for a few days in the old center of Perugia, a medieval Italian city whose streets and buildings have hardly changed in five hundred years. Since the central area is almost exclusively pedestrian, subtler sounds are not obscured by traffic noise. And because of this, you can hear very clearly how the extreme variety of architectural spaces – from wide open piazzas to narrow circuitous alleys, from intimate shops to huge cathedrals – affect sound. As you walk around, your voice may at one moment be a flat whisper, the next moment a booming oracle.

Old cities like this are a sonic playground, and I’m sure acoustic playfulness went into the original design. I can imagine children running through these spaces shouting and laughing, listening to how the sound of their voices changes as they run. This is a form of play we have lost for the most part in modern environments, where it’s harder to hear these differences due to ambient noise, to muzak that imposes its sameness everywhere, and to architecture that represses rather than invites sonic experimentation. (In the buildings that stand out as acoustically interesting, such as churches and old libraries, we are told to be quiet.) The situation is a little better for kids who grow up on farms: there are the barns and other outbuildings, each with its own sonic identity; there are the varied rooms of an old farmhouse; and there are highly specialized spaces such as silos and old- fashioned wells that offer children an opportunity to play wildly with sound.

Though for many of us the possibility of this sort of play has been greatly diminished, through careful listening we can still explore the acoustical differences in our environment and develop a greater appreciation for the relationship between sound and space.


Sound, space, and Buddhism

So what does this spatial aspect of sound have to do with Buddhism?

I think it points to the very essence of Buddhist practice: living each moment in

the here and now. Meditation (including listening meditation) trains us to notice the particularity of each experience, its grounding in this moment, this place. Rather than really experiencing each moment fully, we usually cling to it or reject it by means of abstract thinking: “That’s a nice sound I hear” or “That song sucks.” Buddhism teaches us to plunge into a recognition of the actual event that is occurring, as it occurs. Part of this heightened awareness is noticing that the event is happening in a real space. Becoming sensitive to the spatial aspect of sound, the relation of sound to space, grounds us in physical reality. From this grounding we can begin to experience the world as it really is and to become free of our prejudices and quick judgments.

Exercise: Playing space

This is another one to try at home and at night.

As usual, start by watching your breath. Now take a breath and try to make a steady sound, a drone that maintains pretty much the same pitch from beginning to end. Take another deep breath and repeat the drone tone. Keep alternating between relaxed deep inhalations and this steady pitched sound.

Now project the sound onto a wall or some other surface. Imagine it is a beam of light that you are directing at a particular spot. Listen very carefully to the sound. Walk around your house slowly, projecting this beam of sound onto different surfaces, into different spaces, listening carefully to each new sound. At first you might not hear much difference, but once your mind gets still enough and your listening subtle enough, you’ll be able to detect the effect of different spaces on your tone.

A story

Back in the early 1970’s I was traveling around the country working with music in a very experimental way. A naïve but somewhat conceited young hippie, I had

published a piece of “conceptual music” in an avant-garde journal of the times. Here’s the whole piece: “Listen very long to the sounds around, then simply join.”


encompassing – never mind that it had been every good musician’s basic exercise, consciously articulated or not, since the dawn of human performance. I presented this so-called composition in parks, cafés, and even the occasional concert hall. I collaborated with other musicians and non-musicians in group performances of it, and I used the idea as the basis for working with several post-modern dancers.

One day I was sitting on a porch in San Antonio performing my piece. Listening, sort of, were a wealthy old art patron and a famous WWII general who was wooing her. To me, my strange little chirps and clicks and growls seemed to fit perfectly into the bright Texas day. To them, I must have seemed like the ultimate New York nut case.

Then it was time to get up and go to a restaurant. But a very strange thing happened: because I had been practicing it so much, the piece wouldn’t end! As we drove to the restaurant, I kept noticing the sonic events all around me in a very detailed way, I kept noticing my body and my breath, and every move or sound I made seemed to be a carefully placed component of the ongoing symphony. I would try to go back to a less focused mode of engaging with the world, but it was all music. I noticed myself being alternately amused, frightened, and excited by this newfound ability to extend the exercise into more routine activities.

It is tempting for me to think of this heightened and relaxed awareness as a special ability, a talent I have for hearing music everywhere. It’s not. Everybody already knows how to pay attention to sound, we’re born with that skill – we just sometimes forget to take the time to do it in our hurry-up-and-buy-something society. Children and other species seem to bathe routinely in this sonically aware state, and the world is full of great musicians who already understand – on an intuitive level – everything I’ve talked about so far. This first tool in the Buddhist Musicianship Toolkit – listening to sound as sound – is really nothing special.

But as many Buddhists point out, neither is enlightenment.


Part 2: Our Listening Problem

We all have ears – why can’t we just listen without needing to practice concentration and mindfulness?

Listening, or rather not listening, is apparently a serious problem in our society. Relationships fall apart all the time because a partner “doesn’t listen to me.” We all want to be listened to, and yet often we refuse to listen well enough to satisfy another person.

Not listening to another person is essentially the same as not listening to any other sonic information. Sounds enter our consciousness through a haze of distracted thinking and preformed assumptions, and it’s sometimes moments before we notice, for instance, the sound of a bird chirping, cars whizzing by, a kettle whistling on the stove, or a partner claiming she’s unhappy. With atrophied listening skills we are alienated not just from other individuals, but from our entire environment.

The Buddhist psychological perspective

In Buddhist thought, consciousness is granular rather than solid. It is entirely made up of a series of tiny “mind-moments” – what I sometimes call quanta of attention -- that arise and pass away. Each quanta lasts perhaps a thousandth, or even a millionth, of a second. The Abidhamma, an ancient collection of Buddhist psychological teachings, traces the path of a sensual input, such as a sound, from its physical occurrence all the way through our advanced conceptual and even moral processing via a patterned succession of these mind-moments. Leaving out the details, here’s roughly how it works (each step may be composed of many mind-moments):

1. A sound strikes the ear drum, causing a disturbance.


2. If we are at least somewhat attentive to sonic input at that point, “receiving-

consciousness” begins. The sound is still only a fuzzy background event, but our ongoing stream of consciousness has been interrupted.

3. Now it is possible for “investigating-consciousness” mind-moments to arise,

the very beginning of listening. We start to decipher the sound.

4. Next, “determining-consciousness” may arise – we figure out on a

subconscious level what the sound really is.

5. From here, it is possible to either “taste” or reject the sound, and it is only after

this that it really registers in our minds.

6. Any sort of post-processing can occur now, such as judgments about the sound,

decisions to stop paying attention, etc.

At any point during this process, other objects of consciousness will sneak in between the mind-moments that add up to hearing this one sound. A sudden awareness of hunger, for instance, can turn into millions of little donut-vision mind-moments cutting in line. Obviously this weakens the impression of the auditory input as it stretches out the listening process, and if the donut-visions are strong enough the listening process might short-circuit before the sound even registers in the brain as a sound.

The Abidhamma suggests that it is possible to take control of this process to some extent, to develop such a sensitive awareness that we can monitor the succession of mind-moments directly and choose what inputs to privilege. A firm ethical grounding, according to the Abidhamma, will create habits of choice such that we may automatically pay attention to our friend in need rather than letting our minds drift too far into donut-land.


We all share the ability to block out or filter sonic information. In Abidhamma terms, we have developed a habitual short-circuiting of the listening process when it comes to certain kinds of sound.

This is a very interesting skill, sort of the inverse of mindful listening, and an extension of a survival technique common to many animals. A tiger roaming through the forest cannot treat all sounds equally: respond with full attention and concern to every creaking of a branch and you may miss the more important signals, not to mention that you’ll be a nervous wreck. Those proto-tigers who survived long enough to pass on their genes were ones who could let the sounds


of nature meld into Muzak that was occasionally pierced by the cry of some particularly delicious or nutritious prey species. And those smaller prey who survived were ones endowed by evolution with a built-in “everything-but-tiger filter” -- they could put the sounds of a thousand scurrying creatures on an aural back burner but quickly went into high alert at the sound of a single feline footstep.

Perhaps the most obvious example of a hard-wired filter like this in humans is a mother’s ability to hear the soft cry of her awakening infant two rooms away even through the blare of a stereo. It’s a filter that insures the survival of her offspring. If she were listening with full attention to every sound, she might miss her baby’s cry, or at least it wouldn’t stand out in importance from the rest of the soundscape. In addition, the attentiveness to every sonic input would leave her too exhausted to deal effectively with her biologically-dictated tasks.

School daze

It’s early spring, the sun is pouring through the classroom window. It’s hot and sticky in the room, your desk is uncomfortable and constraining. You’re daydreaming about romping barefoot in mountain meadows, picking wildflowers, standing under waterfalls with your face to the sky and your arms spread wide, maybe even riding unicorns. Every once in a while you notice the clock at the front of the room: the second hand seems to be barely moving. The teacher’s voice is a distant, dismal blur. You think he is droning on about the quadratic formula, but it may be the War of 1812, you’re not really sure. In any case it’s not something that matters very much right now, you’re sure of that at least. The mind-moments of listening to the teacher are almost constantly interrupted by your daydream, and the listening process is short-circuited somewhere between steps 4 and 5 of the Abidhamma outline above.

Suddenly you hear a sound that makes you sit bolt upright. Your daydream screeches to a halt as soft reverie is immediately replaced by harsh reality. What was this alarming sound? Simply your name. The teacher said it just once very softly, almost inaudibly, but it somehow penetrated the haze of your inattention and hit you like a clap of thunder. In fact, the sound probably was inaudible to most of your classmates, who were still busy with their own unicorns and rocket ships. It wasn’t their turn to wake up.

This story reveals what I call the “everything-but-your-name filter” at work: all other sound is blurred and muted, and only your name is allowed to pass through loud and clear, like a tiger’s footstep. What’s interesting about this filter is that


it’s not hard-wired. There’s nothing in your genes that makes you predisposed to straighten up and fly right when you hear “Johnny” or “Janey.” And yet it is common to all humans and to many dogs I have known. Thus there must be survival value attached to the ability to program new “everything-but” filters.

Creating these new filters enables us to adapt to our environment in the course of

a single lifetime, to watch out for new predators that have evolved quickly or have been introduced recently into the environment – such as boring teachers.

How does this relate to our general problem with listening? I believe humans have an overdeveloped tendency to create these “everything-but” filters. The ability to self-program in this ad hoc way served us well in the wild, in environments that required a great deal of contrast-enhancement between the thousands of sounds that were not survival-significant and the few that were. However, I think we spawn filters that are inappropriate to our current manufactured environment and cooperative social arrangement. And once a filter is used a few times, it quickly becomes a habit. If you’d gotten used to blocking out your ex-partner’s abusive rants, you might have a hard time even hearing your next partner’s effusive words of love.

Humans and filtering

I think there are at least four reasons why humans are even more prone than other animals to self-program “everything-but” filters:

Source location. Due to the placement of our ears, and our inability to move them independently as a dog or cat can, it is not easy for us to locate the source of sounds. Backgrounding what is unnecessary to us for survival enables us to more accurately discern the location of foreground sounds that we allow to pass through to full consciousness.

Damage control. As our manmade environment has become noisier, with decibel-levels that evolution has not physically prepared us for, we seek to protect our sensitive and easily damaged hearing apparatus. Earplugs help, but we don’t always have them with us, and so we try a tactic that seems like it might work, mentally filtering the noise. Of course this does nothing to protect our ears on a physiological level, but “blocking out the noise” quickly becomes a habit, especially in cities.

Neocortical bias. Animals with a less-developed neocortex (the “conceptual kitchen” of the brain, the area that turns raw inputs into fully cooked thoughts) have a remarkable ability to notice and recall piecemeal bits of perceived data. Anyone who’s had a pet dog, for instance, knows


that if Bowser had car keys he would never forget where he’d put them. Similarly, squirrels and nut-hatches can quickly find thousands of nuts they buried two seasons ago, returning to very precise locations for their precious sustenance. Humans are pretty bumbling and inept when it comes to skills like this. Our neocortical ability to see patterns and create conceptual connections between discrete bits of information is balanced by some pretty fuzzy attention and recall. Because there is no way for us to really “take in” and process vast numbers of discrete sounds the way some other animals can, it works better for us to use the foregrounding/backgrounding techniques of “everything-but” filtering.

Visual intoxication. I suspect we were gatherers long before we were hunters. A hawk’s eye is ideally suited to the chase, with incredibly high- resolution long distance vision. Our own eyesight lacks that kind of acuity, but we make up for it with the ability to distinguish a broad palette of colors. We can quickly tell an edible berry from a similarly shaped poisonous species that is subtly different in color, which obviously gives us a great survival advantage. Of course in the past ten thousand years we have become agriculturists and no longer gather food from the wild, but the instincts and abilities are still there. Our gathering instinct has made a complex art of shopping, or clever gleaning in the case of the poor, and our penchant for distinguishing colors has inspired advertisers to provide an amazing and intoxicating variety of eye candy. Alas, advertisers have not followed suit in the auditory realm and provide nothing like the rich and varied sonic environment of the woods, or even of a village, and so we are left with an overemphasis on the visual in our culture. This, I believe, has dulled our attention to sound. As we wander through consumer culture we are so overwhelmed by visual stimulus that we can’t really pay much attention to auditory inputs anyway, and we tend to filter out everything but what is essential for our safety or consumer benefit. We deploy, in effect, an “attention shoppers!” pass filter. Background music of the sort played in malls helps with this filtering by blocking out any jagged interesting real world sounds.

Filtering and taste

I started this book with a redefinition of music as sound that’s listened to as sound. But ironically, even if we revert to a much more constrained definition of music as, for instance, “melodies like the ones played on the radio,” we often don’t listen to it with full attention but instead apply various sorts of filtering.


That’s odd, because unlike a tiger’s footsteps this kind of music’s only reason for existing is to be listened to!

This brings up the whole ugly issue of musical taste.

I have met a few people who are able to listen to music completely non- judgmentally, with no regard for what they think they should like. Most of us, though, grew up developing preferences and aversions based on peer pressure, radio airplay, and many other extra-musical factors. Perhaps you went to a symphony concert once as a kid and were completely bored. The human penchant for generalizing can turn this experience into a lifelong aversion to classical music. Or perhaps you associate a style of music with a particular social group that you don’t feel you’re a member of, such as the heavy metal crowd. Even John Cage, famous for introducing all sorts of new sounds into western art music, had a notable “deaf spot” when it came to jazz.

“Deaf spot” is a good term for it, because when you have an aversion to a particular kind of music you don’t really hear it. If Cage had been able to truly hear John Coltrane and Rashied Ali performing Interstellar Space, for instance, he certainly would have appreciated the sound itself. Instead, he heard only enough to determine that something fit into the jazz pigeonhole and immediately abandoned the open attentive listening that was the supposed hallmark of his musical sensibility. (What a loss for the world that the classical experimentalists and the free jazz pioneers of the late sixties did not join forces on a more regular basis – all because of filters based on extra-musical attitudes.)

When we mentally classify music in a particular genre, we unconsciously affect our ability to listen. I may say to myself, for instance, “That’s brass band music” and move the listening experience to a back burner of my mind. I may resume “real” listening only if some sonic fragment catches my attention and demonstrates that it’s within a genre I already believe I like. If we return to our definition of music as sound that’s listened to as sound, then certainly this can’t be a musical experience: we are listening to sound as style, not sound.

Pauline Oliveros is a very wonderful composer and performer, one of the greats of the late 20 th and early 21 st century, but she inspires me more as an audience member. No matter what music is being performed, she sits there calmly with her eyes closed, apparently deep in sonic meditation. At least for the moment, she has clearly suspended judgment and jettisoned any notion of musical taste – it is the immediate experience that matters. I have seen her do this with music that should have been way outside her learned comfort zone, but perhaps her comfort zone is close to all-encompassing. Especially when we redefine music from the point of


view of the listener, being an open and receptive audience member is an important skill.

Why does musical taste exist at all? Why can’t we appreciate the sensuality of all sound rather than insisting on classifying it and privileging it or rejecting it based on extra-sonic criteria? My guess is that humans are a tribal species, and we use sound – as we use fashion – to flag ourselves as members of a particular tribe: the hip-hop tribe, the downtown art-scene tribe, the refined classical tribe, etc. Intrinsically, these are no different from any other tribal affiliations. The more we can get beyond this tribalism, I believe, the more chance we have of cooperating with each other and surviving as a species. In less global times there was great survival value to tribalism. To the extent that music is a bridge into other cultures and other modes of relating with the world, there is now great survival value to letting go of taste and its attendant fundamentalism.

Buddhism and taste

Musical taste is an example of what Buddhism calls attachment and aversion. Attachment and aversion are two sides of the same psychological coin. Attachment is a clinging to that which has made us feel good in some way in the past, and aversion is a rejection of that which has made us feel bad in some way in the past. The phrase in the past is key here: if we listen to a new sound with attentive new ears, or what I sometimes call “Buddha ears,” we will hear immediately that it has nothing to do with the past. We can hear it with equanimity, neither rejecting it nor clinging to it hungrily at the expense of other experiences.

In essence, Buddhist meditation is about letting go of attachment and aversion. In a relaxed attentive state, we can come closer to accepting each moment as it arises, to letting go of each moment as it passes away.

Exercise: Expanding your comfort zone

Go to a CD store or browse an online venue such as iTunes. Find some music you’re pretty sure is outside your comfort zone: music in a style you’ve “always hated,” or by a musician you find insipid, grating, or just plain idiotic. Set aside enough time to listen to the entire CD or set of tracks you’ve selected. Sit quietly watching your breath for a few minutes, then play your new treasure. Listen to it with open ears, trying to hear the sound as sound. Listen to every nuance of every sonic event, noting the


changes as the music progresses. Of course you can also include the other sounds around you in your listening experience. See if you can get past the whole notion of style and taste, hearing only sonic events.

In addition to paying close attention to the actual sound, monitor your mental activity as well. Every time you find your mind wandering to a judgmental thought about the music, gently bring it back to the sound at hand. Try to fine-tune your attention so you can notice some of the actual process of listening as outlined in the Abidhamma, from the physical sensation of the sound at your eardrum to determining its origin to creating mental impressions.

The most important part of this exercise is finishing it: no matter how difficult, just sit there and listen. It may not be a pleasurable experience, but after a while you might find that it’s emotionally neutral rather than unpleasant. And watching your own programmed reactions can be a fascinating experience.

After the music is over, spend some time thinking about your reactions to it. How much of your problem with the music had to do with the sound itself, and how much was based on extra-musical information? How much of your problem with listening was due to your past “tribal” affiliations?


There is also the opposite kind of filtering when it comes to what we normally consider music: the habit of turning off our listening when the style is too familiar. Well, perhaps we don’t completely turn off our listening in this case – we relegate the sonic information to the status of “background music” and listen to it in a different way, as the soundtrack to our foreground activities. I wonder if this experience of music as a soundtrack existed before the movies – and I wonder if it exists in cultures that have never experienced movies or TV.

When I was a kid what we now call “lounge music,” and what is now considered a retro delicacy, was everywhere, serving as a narcotizing sonic background to the pressures of city and suburban life in the late fifties. It was an over-the-counter sedative that took the jagged edges off our experience of an environment that was quickly becoming harsher than the wilderness of our prehistory. It also served as a sort of social lubricant, providing a musical lowest common denominator at cocktail parties, in offices and elevators, and of course in dentists’ waiting rooms. Because of its ubiquity, I never really heard it, and years later when encountering the newly-chic novelties of fifties-era musicians like Esquivel or Raymond Scott I


had to force myself to turn off my backgrounding filter in order to really experience the brilliance and humor of their arrangements. Today’s Muzak is comprised of defanged orchestral versions of great old rock and roll songs, sonic pablum for the baby boomers. Sometimes music that’s “stood the test of time” is music that’s played but not heard.

“Familiarity filtering” is a hazard for performers, too. I’m sure we’ve all experienced some legendary musician simply going through the motions of playing the composition he or she is most identified with. On some tours Bob Dylan will play his oldest hits in a perfunctory disinterested manner, but on others he seems to reinvest them with new life. And how does a performer invest a song with new life? By listening! It is only through coming back again and again to the auditory moment at hand, really paying attention to the sound of the sound, that we get past the drudgery aspect of public performing. After practicing a piece of music a few thousand times it may be hard to keep it fresh, but our contract with the audience requires, I believe, that each performance feel like a totally new listening experience. When it is a new experience for the performer, it becomes a new experience for the audience.

Peak experience

There is one more filter that affects our listening to what is ordinarily called music – the “too much of a good thing” filter.

Perhaps not everyone experiences this, but for many of us listening to music – or performing it – approaches ecstasy. Leonard Bernstein claimed he regularly experienced actual orgasms while conducting Mahler, for instance. And certainly the theatrics of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin had more in common with religious ritual than with tin pan alley. But as we come close to ecstatic experience, whether by means of sex, drugs, or rock and roll, we may become fearful. We may back away from the edge, refusing to take the plunge into a full-blown altered state. Perhaps we don’t want others to see us as contorted and writhing (or even blissfully smiling) ecstatic animals rather than self-controlling adults, or perhaps we are afraid that if we let go we might never get back to our prosaic bubble of a workaday world. In any case, we shut down a little, our listening seems to go away, and we are no longer truly “in the moment” with the sound. We make a decision to be responsible citizens -- a decision which, if made too many times, can ruin your life.

While in general Buddhism favors an attitude of subdued equanimity toward sensual pleasure, various schools of Vajrayana and Tantric Buddhism celebrate an


ecstatic embrace of the sensual world, including sound, seeing it as a gateway to acceptance of all experience. And throughout the world, various religious and secular cultures have adopted musical trance rituals as the safest form of intoxication humankind has found.

The demise of social listening

When we talk about trance rituals, we are talking about social listening, or listening together – exercising our listening abilities as a group rather than as individuals. One of our modern “listening problems” is that we engage in fewer and fewer activities like this, preferring instead to put on headphones for an enwombed solitary experience of the sonic world.

I remember as a very young child sitting in front of the radio with my father, trying to follow the opera broadcast with a huge orchestral score spread out in front of us like a map of the world. I would get lost and he would patiently point over and over again to the place in the score that corresponded with the current sonic event. This experience was perhaps unique to my musically nerdy childhood, but even in the most Leave-It-To-Beaver households the radio provided a social anchor. And as TV became prominent, sucking curled-up couch-embryos into its isolating bedtime-story magic, listening to the radio or to records still remained an essentially social activity. You’d go over to a friend’s house with a new LP and share the ear-opening sounds of the latest rock and roll, jazz, or even classical music. I clearly remember getting turned on to Dylan this way, and the Fugs and Zappa and Coltrane. And I remember introducing others to rare Cage and Stockhausen and Sun Ra and Harry Partch recordings, dragging shy schoolmates against their will into the sonic wilderness. There were free form FM radio stations, too, that unleashed new and revolutionary sounds on the excited public. Throughout the fifties and well into the sixties you’d listen to the radio and records together with other interested, curious people. There weren’t headphone jacks in the old radios or phonographs, which meant that listening was by default a social activity.

As time passed, listening to recorded music – which is the whole territory of music to many people -- became more and more of a “bubble” activity (or passivity), something that isolates the individual and bathes him or her in a constructed sonic environment. Instead of listening parties it’s mix CDs or shared iPod playlists; instead of the musician on the street it’s the song in your earphones.


Recorded music itself has changed in a fundamental way. For the first fifty years of recording technology, “records” were just that: records of an event. They were sonic snapshots showing us some unfamiliar territory or reminding us of an old sonic friend. Then with the advent of stereo and other ear-candy tricks, producers began to create ever more elaborate artificial environments intended to immerse the listener in a world apart. I have noticed in myself that immersion in recorded sonic environments makes me turn off my critical thinking and my sensitivity to physical surroundings in a way that an audio document does not. Maybe this is a healthy form of temporary escape, but I think we should at least be cautious of anything that takes the edge off our moment-to-moment awareness.

I even know people who listen raptly to nature recordings but would never take the time to get out to the woods! This is the extreme example of a trend I call “the wombing of the world.” In the sixties we started spending more and more time in our cars – archetypal air-conditioned bubble worlds with sound systems that can completely block out the outside world. Our homes, too, became more and more womb-like, artificially safe environments full of our favorite toys. It is no coincidence that we started using the word “crib” for home. TV, of course, helped the process along. Later, personal computers almost finished the job of re- wombing the individual: you can hole up in your room or your cubicle for hours on end without being considered an antisocial nutcase or bad worker. Even food can be delivered, or you can get it in a drive-through lane without leaving your car. The only reason to exit your artificial womb is to defecate or buy more toys.

And of course it is no surprise that the history of listening tracks pretty closely with this more general social trend.

In Buddhism we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (his teaching), and the Sangha (our community of fellow practitioners). Community is considered essential to the practice. The whole cannon of Buddhist ethical teachings, too, emphasizes an ongoing relationship with society, an attentive engagement that is clearly the opposite of self-wombing. But just as the wombing of the world has affected our consumption of music, it has also distorted our view of Buddhism. There are some, at least in our culture, who think all you need to do to “be a Buddhist” is meditate in blissful isolation. The Buddha himself was crystal clear on this point: without engagement there is no Buddhism! And of course engagement with the world can be practiced in the activity of listening.


Exercise: Social listening

Throw a listening party: invite some friends over and practice a variety of listening exercises together, perhaps some of the exercises presented earlier. Or, if you think that might be too strange for your friends, just listen to some CDs together – preferably in silence -- and discuss them afterwards. Make clear that the whole idea of the get-together is listening, not random gabbing.

Try inviting people who don’t usually hang out together, people from different social spheres or walks of life. Use a listening party as a way to build social bridges.


Part 3: Noise

There’s a lot of noise these days about noise. Most would agree, I think, that noise is now a part of our environment. But do we really know what we mean when we talk about noise?

For some, noise is anything that’s not music to their ears, and they may even consider it inherently evil. Think of a parent shouting “turn down that infernal noise!” But for others, those who have wholeheartedly accepted the definition of music as sound that’s listened to as sound, noise is an interesting set of sonic phenomena that can be used in all kinds of artistic ways.

So which is it?

Defining noise

A technical definition would be “data that interferes with the transmission or reception of the intended information.” This definition counterpoises the concept of noise against the concept of signal. But in certain forms of very intentional music, random information that interferes with the basic communicative elements is an important part of the overall signal. Think of guitar feedback, an effect that’s not completely controllable but is used purposefully to distort – and enhance -- the melody of a rock song. Or think of the ever- changing sound of a flute player’s breath that both obscures and enriches the tones, adding a complexity that would be absent from synthesized flute. These simple examples demonstrate that instead of considering signal and noise as enemies, you could consider them allies in the production of music. And as soon as we quite correctly consider noise an essential element of the music, it becomes signal!

This means that at least in the context of sound and music we’ll have a lot of trouble coming up with an absolute definition of noise. Perhaps we should leave it at this: noise is complex signal, signal that we can’t analyze on the fly for simple parameters such as pitch, adherence to a particular scale, place in a predefined rhythmic structure, etc. Of course this can be no more than a provisional working definition, since it depends on a judgment call that will vary from culture to culture and from individual to individual.


Now let’s go back to our definition of music as sound that’s listened to as sound. Within this framework, the only thing that keeps noise from achieving the exalted status of music is our refusal to listen to it attentively – to listen “with Buddha’s ears.”

Filtering noise

Noise has received bad press in part because we are not careful with our definitions. For instance, many people use the word noise to mean a loud sound. Of course, very loud sounds at certain frequencies can damage our hearing quickly. But “too loud” and “noise” are not the same thing. As far as our ears are concerned, it doesn’t matter whether too- loud sounds are from a jack hammer, a punk rock band, or a recording of Mozart sonatas turned up to eleven. And much of the very rich sound-soup we often consider noise -- sounds of traffic and overhead jets and distant construction – is physically harmless at the volume levels we usually encounter it.

Even though the sounds of the city – urban environmental noises – are physically harmless at a distance, we know that they are physically damaging close to their source. This makes us fear them, even from far away. And when we fear them, we filter them out, closing down our listening facility. Ironically, these sounds that are physically innocuous become dangerous because they make us shut down our attentiveness to the sonic world around us. And inattentiveness, as we learned in the previous chapter, quickly becomes a habit. If you are used to filtering out the subtleties of traffic noise, you may not notice the subtleties in the sound of the ocean.

We have developed a variety of strategies for filtering out what we consider noise. Most commonly, we treat it like Muzak, a gauzy soundtrack to our lives that effects our emotions in a generalized and often negative way. We don’t hear the details, only the overall effect. Even sirens become part of the barely noticed background music. This is why emergency services and security companies have to change the sound of sirens every few years, just as advertisers use ever more blatant imagery to stand out from the blur of our culture’s visual “background music.”

At the extreme, we make ourselves literally deaf to the environment by putting on earphones and listening to a constant stream of “real” music from our iPods. As an occasional street performer, it’s humorous to watch the droves hurry by with their tiny sound systems, not even noticing that there’s a live musician in their midst. This is yet another one of those grand absurdities of the human world: certainly no other animal creates environments from which it feels it must protect itself! It started with streets that required shoes – now we have soundscapes that require MP3 players!

But just as you can still go barefoot, so you can still throw off your earphones and your psychological filters and listen -- really listen! -- to the world around you. It starts with accepting noise as just another kind of sound, as musical as any other.


Accepting noise

Buddhist meditators are often forced into a more open way of perceiving noise. I remember a meditation retreat many years ago in an old building where the radiators clanked and sputtered ceaselessly. Looking around the meditation hall, it was clear that many people were annoyed with this environmental distraction and were determined to use all their meditative power to ignore the sound. They had steely angry looks on their faces. Probably some of them were regretting the money they’d spent on what they thought would be a week of serenity. The leader of the retreat urged everyone not to block out the noise but to embrace it, to listen with full attention to every fine detail and then let it go, listen again, let it go again. After a few days the room felt incredibly peaceful. Clearly the radiator noises had become a music as spiritual as any chant or anthem! And I have seen Zen monks in the middle of the noisiest areas of Tokyo with amused but serene expressions on their faces, looking as if they were attending a wonderful concert – which they were!

Of course it would be nice if we could all live where the soundscape was a symphony of breezes and bobolinks. But these days most of us wander through an aural clutter of cars, cell phones, overly-communicative friends, and electric drones. Many of the sounds we hear are carriers of human-scale information, the news of the day, advertising for yet another SUV or diet pill, songs meant to sell lifestyle accoutrements, and dire warnings of all sorts from sirens to political rants. We try to extract the messages from the sounds, or we try to reject the messages by closing our ears to the sounds. Instead of reinforcing our armor, it would serve us better to remember the serene amused faces of the Zen monks.

There is a story about the great shakuhachi master and Zen roshi Watazumi Doso. Some engineers came to his apartment to record him. It was a hot day, so Watazumi threw open the windows. Immediately the sounds of traffic all but drowned out the sounds of the very quiet flute. But Watazumi insisted on keeping the windows open, and the engineers had no choice but to record what they knew would end up being a commercially unviable tape. As it turned out, you couldn’t hear the flute at all on the recording. When they played it back for Watazumi, he purportedly only uttered one word. “Perfect!” he said.

Exercise: Embracing noise

Go to a noisy place, somewhere that you’ve always thought of as sonically unpleasant. Perhaps it is right by a construction site, or in a mall, or the middle of Times Square. Do everything you did in Exercises 1 and 2 above: start by watching your breath, then extend your awareness to the minutest details of particular sounds, then to the soundscape as a whole. There is one difference this time: notice your reactions to the sounds. If you find yourself trying to push a particular sound out of your consciousness, listen to it more acutely. Even the most bombastic noise may be full of subtleties and nuances that you’ve never explored before. Listen to it all as music rather than as an affront to your sensibilities. I am convinced that you can hear everything as music.


Try listening to the gentle qualities that live within loud noises, and the fierce energy that’s the backbone of some very quiet noises. Listen as you’ve never listened before, neither rejecting nor clinging to any sound you become aware of. Imagine that the you are just another performer in a giant unending symphony of noise!

Noise and instruments

When people with a limited notion of musical signal talk about music they often refer to the sounds of the environment as extraneous or distracting. Similarly, when discussing the sounds of a particular instrument these same individuals are likely to refer to its annoying artifacts, those accidental and incidental noises that a “good” player tries to suppress.

Every instrument – including voice – includes a component of noise that is an essential characteristic of its overall sound. Early attempts to synthesize the sounds of instruments often failed because they did not include, for instance, the clicking of the piano or saxophone keys, the sound of a guitar player’s fingers sliding along the strings on the way to a new chord, etc. And hearing a wind instrument without any inhalation on the part of the player is definitely an eerie experience.

Despite the undeniable importance of noise elements in the “personality” of every instrument, the historic development of many Western instruments increasingly emphasized the theoretical over the physical. Wind instruments became less breathy, with

a more focused pitch. Organs became less clicky and wheezy. Everybody was retuned to

a tempered scale that privileged a tidy tonal system over the naturally occurring

overtones. The development of the orchestra paralleled that of the automobile, following

a trajectory from rattletrap to luxury SUV. In the smoothness, power, and consistency of modern instruments, however, we may miss sometimes the random voice of nature and the physicality of the performer.

In the living traditional music of Japan, on the other hand, an instrument’s mechanical and human artifacts are considered absolutely essential to the music, sometimes even more important than the pitched component of the sound. Traditional Japanese instruments have changed very little over the years, still emphasizing the natural sound of the materials and the physical presence of the performer. Rather than considering these elements imperfections, the Japanese aesthetic often considers them the heart or spirit of the music.

Classical Japanese koto (zither) includes non-pitched sonic events that were unheard of in Western art music until the twentieth century. The technique called suri-zume, for instance, calls upon the player to scrape a string with the edges or back of the finger picks.

Shakuhachi is even more extreme in its inclusion of nature and the performer. It is a simple bamboo tube, improved only by shaping the bore and carving some finger holes and a notch. A performance by even the most accomplished shakuhachi master is still


very close to the sound of the wind blowing across a raw piece of bamboo. The techniques emphasize this rawness. For instance, muraiki is a technique in which the player blasts the instrument with breath like a sudden gust of wind, causing a very noisy and overtone-rich sound of somewhat indeterminate pitch. Soraiki is a more extreme version, a sound that has no pitch at all: it is just air. These are not modern avant-garde techniques -- they have been around for centuries and are an integral part of the traditional music.

More significant even than specific techniques, the very rhythmic structure of shakuhachi honkyoku (Buddhist meditative music) is based around the length of the performer’s breath. There is no abstract or predetermined beat – a player takes a deep (usually quite audible) inhalation and then blows out for the entire length of his or her breath, fitting a musical phrase into this physiological event. The breath, rather than being hidden behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz, is prominently featured, its white noise collaborating with the bamboo in creating a rich sonic texture. The rhythm emerges biologically, in a sense, and the melody is corporealized – it becomes fused with the body of the player. You cannot say that a particular piece of honkyoku “goes like this.” It goes however the player goes!

There are popular traditions around the world that use noise to great effect in instrumental music. For instance, mbira (“thumb piano”) players in Zimbabwe add bottle caps to their instruments, creating a jangling buzzing drone that enlivens the quiet beauty of the primary pitched sound. And American jazz has incorporated more and more noise over the years, from the growling clarinets of New Orleans to more recent free jazz experimentalism.

Many composers, myself included, invent and perform music that not only includes noise but is actually based on noise. In this sort of composition, the concepts of western musical theory are completely abandoned in favor of working in a more immediate and sculptural way that wakes up the listener to the complex beauty in all sound. And an important outgrowth of noise music, glitch music focuses on those noises that are usually considered a problem – the skipping of a CD, digital errors in sound files, etc. We encounter these glitches constantly. They are a part of our sonic environment. It makes perfect sense to hear them – attentively -- as music.

The highlighting of what is normally unintended reminds me of an interesting childhood experience. Since my father was a composer and conductor, we often attended orchestral concerts. I always loved these concerts best before the conductor entered, during that suspenseful interval when the musicians entered one by one or in small groups, talking casually, tuning their instruments, having one last go at some difficult passage of the score. The randomly juxtaposed sounds had all the bristling excitement of a dawn in the mountains. In a sense, this was an orchestral alap. Then the oboe would cut through the noise with its biting focused A and the mood suddenly became formal and hierarchical. From there the concert only went downhill for me. All the best music had already happened – another demonstration that music can simply be considered sound that’s listened to as sound.


Exercise: Noise as musical substance

Even if we accept that certain kinds of noises are an essential ingredient in instrumental music, we may still mistakenly consider them as spice rather than rice. This is an exercise in reprioritizing our listening on the way to “de-prioritizing” it.

Go listen to a live performer, perhaps a singer-songwriter in a coffee shop or in somebody’s living room. Using the techniques outlined earlier, start to focus on the sound itself – not on the style of the song, not on how good or bad the performance is, not on anything except the “sound as sound.”

Now start to notice especially the un-pitched artifacts of the instrument – the clicking sound of the player’s fingers on the strings, or the airiness of the flute player’s breath, or whatever small noises arise in the singer’s voice. Concentrate more and more on these small incidental noises.

Concentrate so fully on these sounds that you can think of them as the essence of the music: the pitched sounds in between are merely filler, a background for the noises or a way of getting from one noise to the next. Think of the noises as the skeletal structure of the music.

Now go back to a more everyday way of listening to the music, allowing the melody and rhythm and lyrics to come to the fore again. See if you can go back and forth between these two ways of perceiving the music. If you get good at that, see if you can engage in both ways of listening to the music at once, deeply attentive to the pitched and “noisy” aspects of the music simultaneously.

As you practice this kind of listening, music that you thought of as very ordinary may suddenly reveal an astonishing textural and human complexity.

Noise and Buddhism

Before he became known as the Buddha, the young Siddhartha lived the sheltered life of a prince. But when he started wandering outside his family’s palace, he discovered that nature and society were both full of tumult and suffering. Rather than rejecting this newly discovered reality and returning to the cloistered comfort he was used to, he decided to embrace the roughness of the world. Thus his teachings emphasize that everything, from the most sublime spiritual vision to the annoying buzz of a mosquito to the horrors of a violent death, can be the subject of our meditation. Not only that, none of these experiences is intrinsically any “better” than any other. It is through paying close


attention to the rough and beautiful details of the world, not by rejecting or clinging to them, that we can eventually achieve a state of peace. What an absolutely simple but absolutely radical idea!

Accepting noise as music is clearly in synch with the Buddha’s project. Buddhist musicianship requires us to let go of our sentimental attachment to pretty melodies and embrace the noise of our lives. It requires that we open our ears fully and non- judgmentally to the entire world of sound.

Does that mean that if your alcoholic neighbor is violently shouting at his girlfriend at two in the morning you should just accept it as a new kind of music and go back to sleep? Of course not. The Buddha never counseled us to avoid interaction with the world, to allow avoidable violence, to ignore pain that we can alleviate, or to sit back and tolerate injustice. Embracing the noise in our lives often means doing something about it. Listening to the world – really listening to it after years of avoiding it – often wakes up a new energy for engaging with society.

Noise and more noise

If we don’t restrict ourselves to the realm of aural sensation, we can think of noise as any phenomena that don’t fit neatly into a preconceived notion of what the world “should” be like. In other words, we can think of noise as imperfection, at least from an individual human point of view. You wake up late and have to hurry to work, it’s pouring rain, the car doesn’t start, you notice that the tree in your front yard has fallen down – let’s call this an especially noisy morning.

What would the Buddha do in the face of these circumstances? Probably work to solve the problems in exactly the same practical ways you do, but with an inward equanimity, a recognition that this is not a bad day but a pretty typical day in our imperfect world. Just as sonic noise is an essential part of music, a more general and sometimes extremely harsh randomness pervades our world and makes it what it is. Buddhism recognizes that we can’t escape this reality by sitting on a mountaintop. Instead, in striving toward happiness we must face imperfection with courage and a non-judgmental attitude. Buddhism is, in essence, a meditation on the noisiness of living in this world.

About the Author

About the Author Phil Nyokai James has been composing and performing music for over thirty years

Phil Nyokai James has been composing and performing music for over thirty years and is a licensed shihan (master) of the traditional Japanese shakuhachi flute. You can read more about him at