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The Design of an Optimal Music Experience: A Matter of Life and Death (Part II)

This article continues to approach the concept of an optimal music experience outlined in part I of the series. It deals with the inescapable attraction and inherent danger that the engagement with music holds.

Heightened Awareness

Just as musicians perpetually hone their skills composing music and playing instruments, we as listeners must constantly develop our skills of perception to get the most out of what we hear. This is no easy task, but it is possible to learn to let go completely and immerse yourself in the experience.

While few of us do this naturally, it is a state that can be achieved by anyone — and I don’t mean with formal or academic musical training, but rather a psychological willingness to be open-minded and become aware.

If you are game, you will be able to enter a world full of wonders, like circles in spirals and wheels within wheels … [1, 2]

Altered states of consciousness

Altered States of Consciousness

Human beings naturally shift among different states of consciousness, recreating their reality perpetually, from a waking state to trances to dreams to a variety of other altered states. This human trait shows us the world as the wonder it is.

But typically we are not aware of the psychological power we wield. During the transition from childhood to adulthood we inhibit many of our innate capacities, distracting ourselves by focusing on and creating problems that aren’t as serious as we might imagine in our seemingly normal state.

Music can be a vehicle to transport us safely through the experience of altered states, opening the door to incredible mental adventures. Music is not just "entertaining," "saddening," or "uplifting." It can alter our perception of reality in an instant and carry us far beyond emotions to a universal, crystal-clear sensation of perfection.

Music Can Serve as a Powerful Drug

Well crafted music has drug-related properties and can produce effects comparable to strong stimulants and depressants, or even hallucinogens. As with the use of any drug, caution is advised! Music has great power but it can become addictive and destructive, mentally and physically.

Right at the very same passage during the second movement of the opera "Tristan" [3] by Richard Wagner, conductors Felix Mottl († 1911) and Joseph Keilberth († 1968) collapsed on their stands and died. Great music holds something dangerous. Something occurs between the physical body and the psyche that, gone to the extreme, can even claim one's life.

Music is dangerous and liberating

Music is Both Dangerous and Liberating

Music can give us an inkling of death, the moment when we have to give up all that has ever been dear to us and all that we cling to in life.

But viewed another way, death can be seen as a liberation, forcing us to let go of everything in one single moment. It is the driving force of life, confusing and threatening at the same time. It accounts for a lot of anxiety in life if not perceived as the great opportunity it can be: the ultimate liberation from anxiety.

At certain moments, music can push us into the present so forcefully and unexpectedly, depriving us of all thought, of past and future, that we experience an approximation of "death" in its purest sense, freeing us from all earthly stress. Within the safe environment of sound and music, many willingly succumb; nothing else counts during that short moment except the feeling of perfection and bliss.

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