See The Sound!
Updated: Nov 22
In the last post I said,
I have found the right-brain/left-brain distinction to be very useful to my teaching methods as well as my own growth as a person and a musician...I use it as a framework for defining different types, ways or modes of thinking/perception - I call them L-Mode and R-Mode.
I defined L-Mode and R-Mode:
L-Mode: L-mode is linear, sequential and cannot multitask. It goes from A to B to C in order. It cannot perceive patterns; pattern recognition is R-mode. It is concerned with naming and defining things. It understands things in a literal, concrete sense.
R-Mode: R-mode is parallel processing. It is visceral, that is, emotional. It is intuitive and holistic; it can recognize patterns...It is associative and delights in discerning relationships between things. As such, it understands things in terms of symbolism and analogy. It is not aware of time. It is visual. It is experiential, not abstract. It doesn't care about names, definitions, chronology or the order of things.
I said, "Integration is the goal!"
So I had this dream:
I saw my left hand on the fretboard of a guitar. It looked like this:
This would be the fretboard diagram for what I saw:
I heard each note being played individually from low to high, in order. At the same time, I heard my voice say, "Let's see, this is C, E, A, D, F#. If C is 1, then E is 3, A is 6, D is 9, F# is a sharp 11. So this is C6/9(#11)."
This dream illustrates an integration and balance between L-Mode and R-Mode.
First of all, dreaming itself is an R-Mode language. It's visually based and non-linear. So right away we're in an R-Mode dominant situation. If you get into dream interpretation of any kind, whatever the school, you know that the images in dreams are not literal, they are symbolic. Also, dream stories are not chronological. When you tell someone your dream, you say things like,
"Well, I was in this room and so-and-so was there and such-and-such happened. And then, all of a sudden, I was walking through this forest - I don't know how I got there, I was just there...."
There is no sense of linear time or chronology. As I said above, R-Mode language is visual, non-literal, associative and is not aware of time. R-Mode can multi-task.
L-Mode is linear-thought (as in an if/then proposition) and is concerned with names, definitions and math. L-Mode cannot multi-task. It has to go through things one-at-a-time, in order.
So in the context of my dream, which is a Right-Brain dominant activity, we have the R-Mode seeing the geometrical pattern on the fretboard all at once, associating that pattern with the sound of each note in that pattern and (though not explicit in my description of the dream) I was associating that pattern and sound with a corresponding feeling and color. That came first. That's how the dream opened; I saw my hand on the fretboard and heard the sound of the chord. Then, it integrated the L-Mode when naming each note and defined their mathematical relationships by an if/then proposition. Lastly, it named the chord by working step-by-step through the math.
In our waking, conscious day-to-day life, we are primarily L-Mode dominant. Linear, sequential, living from one moment to the next, cause-and-effect, getting things done. R-Mode is functioning constantly, but usually subconsciously. For instance, if you had no R-mode going on you wouldn't recognize anybody; facial recognition is pattern recognition - which is R-Mode.
To really play music, one must do what I call a cognitive shift; a shift from L-Mode dominance to R-Mode dominance. I've heard athletes refer to this shift as, "being in the zone." I've also heard it referred to as, "flow."
When I was young and stupid (emphasis on stupid), I went through a phase where I was doing drugs. These included certain hallucinogens. One of the things that would happen is what I called, "cross-sensory experience."
A certain stimuli would trigger a different sense than normal. I would hear colors, see sounds and feel music with my hands.
The most common one was seeing sound. Years later, even after I had ceased all drug use, I had a waking vision; I saw notes coming out of my guitar as glowing, yellow-orangish spheres that went into people (through the solar plexus) who were listening.
I theorized that there was a mechanism in the brain that divided reality into sensory perception, much like a prism divides light into different colors. That mechanism can be screwed with or damaged. Drugs can do it; fasting, sleep deprivation, prayer and meditation of various kinds, concussion, brain damage etc.
BTW; 20 years after my formulation of this theory based on my hallucinogenic experiences, I came across a book by a neurologist named Richard Cytowic called, "The Man Who Tasted Shapes." It was a book on synesthesia, which is the technical term for what I described as "cross-sensory experience." The similarities between my subjective theory and the scientific discoveries detailed in the book were quite remarkable.
Our language itself reflects the idea that sound can be seen. We speak of sound in visual terms all the time, like, "That's a very dark-sounding scale" or, "That's a bright tone." We speak of music in tactile terms as in, "That's some heavy music!"
In part because of my experience, I love song lyrics and poetry that are synesthetistic in nature:
You can hear happiness staggering on down the street; footprints dressed in red.
The drug use came to a screeching halt in 1973 as a result of an LSD trip gone horribly wrong. The experience itself was extremely traumatic - there's an emotional rawness to the memory of it even to this day - but the end result was no more drug use from that day to this. It was like a death-and-rebirth kind of thing. All my addictions and compulsions in relation to substance abuse were excised from me in one fell, painful swoop. I guess my brain was instantly rewired; trauma can do that.
For years I turned my back on all my hallucinogenic experiences because of the trauma of the final episode. Gradually I began to realize that denial and repression wasn't the way to deal with all that stuff and began sorting through the various experiences and coming to terms with them - I started moving into acceptance if you will. I consciously searched for ways to integrate those experiences into the Who-I-Am-Now.
One of the things I got into for personal growth was dream-work. I kept a dream journal for several years. This had nothing directly to do with music or my guitar playing (I was making a living as a musician all this time); the impetus concerned a different area (more on that below) but it spilled over into my playing, as I hope to show, and led to the application of the L-Mode/R-Mode concept to my playing, performing and teaching.
As a result of certain situations in my life I came to the conclusion that I was cut off from R-Mode. I didn't think in those terms at the time; I was thinking in terms of Masculine/Feminine. The Masculine corresponds to L-Mode; The Feminine corresponds to R-Mode. I was cut off from conscious access to my Feminine side. That is, R-Mode.
This dysfunction was the reason I was so obsessed and drawn to music and playing the guitar; it was the only way I could, at will, access R-Mode. As a matter of fact, the realization of this dysfunction explained almost everything - including my foray into hallucinogenics. My Feminine - my R-Mode - was stunted, under-developed and immature. It was also alienated and I had been subconsciously searching for it.
The question then became, "What can I do to fix this?" (Typical L-Mode response.)
One answer for me was dreaming. Dreaming is an R-Mode language. If you learn your dream-language, that is, learn to interpret your dreams, you are accessing your R-Mode and using it for data acquisition - data that L-Mode has no direct access to. Thus the dream-journaling.
I said that R-Mode corresponds to the Feminine. Pay attention to her and she will respond. Disrespect and ignore her and she will shut down. Dream journaling was consciously (as opposed to subconsciously) searching - it was me paying attention. The response became overwhelming!
The response affected everything, including my music and guitar playing - as illustrated by the dream I shared at the beginning of this post. That dream was significant in relation to more than just my guitar playing - though it was true about that. Remember I said R-Mode can multi-task? Dreams can have layers of meanings - multiple meanings all from one image. That dream was telling me I was making progress; my Masculine (L-Mode) and Feminine (R-Mode) were integrating. It was about a much bigger picture than just my guitar playing. My guitar playing was the symbol or the microcosm of the larger process in which I was engaged.
People ask me what I think about when I play;
The answer is I'm thinking on different levels at the same time - and most of it is R-Mode dominant. I've described it above in an impersonal way but will try to describe it as I experience it.
I'm generally an improviser. So I'm making choices about what to play at a speed that's beyond L-Mode. L-Mode is linear processing and speed-wise the linear processing power of the human brain is mediocre at best. Not near fast enough to improvise through the changes of a typical jazz standard.
R-Mode, however, is parallel processing. For me, it's primarily visual; I associate patterns on the fretboard or intervals in a scale pattern with emotion. There are strong color and textural components. It's a matrix of sound/feeling/color/texture. I make choices based on what I want the sound/feeling/color/texture to be.
This description sounds very static but I experience it as a living, breathing, growing and changing thing. All descriptions will fall short, because reading words on a page is primarily L-Mode.
Colors are frequency, frequency is sound and sound is feeling. And because I am manipulating sound, I can manipulate the frequency of the color and the feeling.
That is my primary mode of "thinking" when I play.
The L-Mode components are there but are mostly sublimated - except time-keeping. Even time-keeping I perceive visually; my R-Mode sees the form of the tune as a whole and my L-Mode is like a "now-marker" on a computer screen scrolling through the form of the tune measure-by-measure.
At certain points during the course of a performance, L-Mode concerns pop into view. Sometimes I'll struggle with a technique issue; maybe the tempo is challenging, or I become aware that I'm not being as efficient as I should (those two things are almost always related) and so I have a split-second flash of analytical thought about hand position or minimal force or whatever.
Another example would be when I'm consciously trying to avoid playing what I usually play. I'm trying to kick myself out of a rut. I will use my knowledge of music theory (L-Mode) to intellectually come up with different possibilities to try.
Yet another example: Say I want to make a big jump on the neck which means there is increased potential for error; I'll bring the name (L-Mode) of the target note or chord to the forefront of my consciousness to make sure I don't miss it by a half-step.
Sometimes I may not be inspired, my R-Mode is letting me down. At that point I'm going to make analytical choices based on my intellect - L-Mode; what's the key? What's the appropriate scale? Where are the positions on the neck for this? - and so on. I have the confidence to trust my experience, knowledge and training to pull off the performance. (See I Trust Myself and Keep Playing.)
These are all examples of L-Mode serving R-Mode. The L-Mode/R-Mode roles are reversed.
As I said, in a waking, everyday state of consciousness, L-Mode is dominant and R-Mode, though constantly functioning and necessary, is sublimated. When I play, it's the opposite. R-Mode is dominant, and L-Mode, though still functioning, is sublimated. And yet, I can access L-Mode whenever I face a situation that R-Mode can't handle, like, "What the hell key am I in?"
A player who has few L-Mode components in place will simply be lost in that situation.
Keep in mind that I was playing real music before I had hardly any L-Mode components in place. The world is full of players like that. I played professionally for several years before studying music or taking guitar lessons in a formal setting. But by the time I was 21 I had hit a wall that only L-Mode could surmount. (See A Little Story.)
The previous blog in this series described what an R-Mode-dominant student has to do to get past the plateau on which they've stalled and reflects my own experience.
The next blog in this series will talk about L-Mode-dominant learners and will offer some suggestions on what it takes to get them to cognitive-shift into R-Mode - which is necessary in order to really play.
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