When I’m listening to music – especially live in concert – and close my eyes, the quality of listening changes.

Music becomes immediate and intimate.
With my eyes open, I am an observer. With my eyes closed, I am immersed in the music and filled with it. It becomes closer, intensified, more real. It is like opening a door and letting the music in, instead of viewing it through a window. When my eyes are open, I see the musicians on the stage, and there is a distance between us. I close my eyes, and space and distance disappear. Music fills the space that used to be there. Instead of being in front of me on the stage, it is around me.

But at the same time, it is like closing a door, and closing out everything that is not the music – like darkening a room to make a movie projected on the wall stand out better. Music becomes purified and distilled. The material aspect is removed; music is no longer the result of instruments manipulated by human hands, but pure sound. I no longer hear individual instruments, and even the distinction between the vocal and instrumental components becomes blurred.

It is a timeless state of consciousness and joy, very much like meditation or sex. In fact it is like meditating with music, and puts the mind in a similar state of relaxed focus. Everything external and irrelevant goes away. Rational thought is suppressed; the music bypasses reason and goes straight to the soul. Time disappears. I could not tell you afterwards how long it took or how many songs I heard. Sometimes I cannot even remember the melody.

I only learned today that there is a word for this state of mind in the Indian raga tradition. It is called rasavadhana. (*)

This doesn’t work with all music, of course. It needs to be melodious and not too sharp, and even, as anything too sudden will break the spell. Some Indian music works very well, which isn’t surprising given their focus on this. Minimalist music like Philip Glass or Steve Reich has also worked well, as has jazz such as EST.

And this state is not always desirable, either. Sometimes I want to enjoy the human element – see how the musicians enjoy what they are doing, and see their virtuosity in action. Or to remember the melody and be able to appreciate the music from an intellectual perspective as well.

(*) I heard a concert today – Kronos Quartet and Asha Bhosle.