We do this every day, though perhaps less so with the explosion of smart phone use, where spare moments are spent flipping through dubiously interesting posts on social media. But going into a reverie is what I’m talking about here. Call it daydreaming, call it trance, it can be an altered state of consciousness psychologists call (normal) dissociation, and it enables us to go on auto-pilot in doing repetitive daily activities. For example, you’re driving to work with the radio off, and you’re thinking about what you have to do that day. Before you know it you’re driving up to your parking lot. Perhaps a more disturbing example is ‘highway hypnosis’, which is the experience of not remembering the last 200 miles you drove on a long highway trip. Nevertheless, highway hypnosis is a common example of normal dissociation, and you probably didn’t hit a pedestrian anywhere . . . as long as drugs or alcohol were not involved.
The brain works as a colossal interconnected network of overlapping connections, connections of connections more properly, and the hierarchical organization of the brain enables us to do simple, vegetative things (digest food, breathe) without paying any attention at all, and once habituated into more complex activities like driving a car, many of those activities can be automatic as well, at least as long as the routines are not disrupted. In the latter case, a car running a stop sign in front of you snaps you out of automatic pilot, reverie mode.
Calling this state of consciousness the reverie mode of listening may seem to stretch the concept of ‘listening’, because in this mode of consciousness the music becomes a background, a soundtrack, for the flow of our primary thinking; what is ‘on our mind’ in the moments of primary awareness. Indeed, the reverie mode of listening is characteristic of the experience of music in a compelling movie experience. The viewer becomes taken up in the visual images and narrative action of the film, and the soundtrack, if it’s doing its primary work, recedes into a background which underscores, amplifies, intensifies, and suggests meanings and emotions . You are still ‘listening’ to the soundtrack music, but it calls only secondary attention from your primary attention to images and action. Of course, there are times when the soundtrack music becomes part of the primary narrative action – as in this scene from the film La La Land. Here the music is the primary experience. Amazingly, the music can turn into the background of our consciousness on a dime. That’s the art of the soundtrack composer to move from the reverie background to the foreground dance as the story demands.
For me, the reverie mode of listening is an important creative tool. When you are thinking about a problem or a creative project, reverie breaks your thinking out of the rigid, stereotypic paths, and leads you to new associations, with new connections and perhaps new solutions and novel ideas.
Some genres of music intend to provoke the listener into reverie. Brian Eno was a pioneer of ‘ambient’ music in the 1970’s, and he still explores the genre he help define today not just in his own recordings but in software and apps . Musics around the world invoke reverie with the intent of deepening spiritual experience, from the Master Musicians of Jajouka to medieval Gregorian chant. The master of contemporary ‘minimalism’ in classical music, Steve Reich, evokes reverie in many of his pieces, with his Music for 18 Musicians , an amazing work where overlapping textures, rhythms, pitches, and meters ebb and flow, rapidly inducing a state of reverie in the receptive listener.