Can music reveal more than physics?

Can we directly experience a reality beyond the ordinary experience of the here and now—beyond the normal duality of I, myself, on the one hand, and you and the rest of the world on the other?

Consider this: The truths science has revealed about the universe are simply astounding. We now know that there is an unimaginably gigantic and unimaginably tiny universe in which we live, and in which our experience has no relevance.

And as for time, there is only our being alive in this moment right now. The billions who have gone before us had their moment, their “right now.” And the billions to come after us will have theirs.

So what does music have to do with that? It is perhaps the most direct way to actually experience the truth that our experience of reality is not the only one—to experience that truth, not just to know it’s true in some factual sense.

We know that other levels of reality do exist. We know there is a reality in this room right at this moment where, if you want to raise your arm, your brain will trigger billions of sodium and potassium ions to flow through tiny holes in your nerve cells to send a signal to your muscles to raise your arm. Yet, real though we know it is, we can’t directly experience that.

We also know that in this room, at this moment, running through every single square centimeter are particles streaming from the sun at the speed of light. They’re so tiny that they almost never hit any of the atoms or subatomic particles that make up all we see here.

Photo by Dyu — Ha on Unsplash

How many of these particles are flowing through the tip of your thumb right this second? 65 billion. In every square inch, every second, night and day. How small are these things? 140,000 trillion times smaller than the width of a human hair. They’re called neutrinos and they go through everything we see here just as easily as sunlight goes through window glass.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there are gigantic galactic clusters whose size and distances we can’t fathom. We know these things are true, even though they are outside the realm of direct, lived human experience. But what if we could go beyond our lived reality to directly experience a different level?

It turns out we already have the capacity to go beyond our normal limits of time. We do it all the time. We hear a word. We know what it means even though the beginning of the word doesn’t exist anymore when we get to the end. The beginning is already past. What do we do, then? Do we recall from our memories the beginning of every word once it’s gone so we can compare it to the ending and thus know what that word is? What about the middle of the word? And the word before that? Is there an endless chain of recalling? And does it start the instant something is past-perhaps after one millisecond, or after one nano-second? If that were true, the time needed to store the present perception into memory and then go retrieve it would exceed the duration of the now, no matter how little time such an operation would take.

No, we don’t constantly recall memories to compare what’s happening now to derive understanding or meaning. We do something very simple. And we all do it without trying or thinking: We extend “now” to include the beginning, middle, and end of the word. To include whole sentences. Or whole paragraphs. There is no strictly defined limit to the extent of this “now.” But we do have a “now” that we live in, that paradoxically includes the past and the future. We never experience a now that comprises only the timeless, razor-thin point between past and future. There is no such thing. And if our capacity to construct our now within ourselves breaks down, we have a serious problem.

“Now” is not something science can measure. It is not a physical phenomenon. A strict “present-only” now has no length, so it can’t be measured as a unit of time. It has no space, it has no physical properties whatsoever. But to conclude, therefore, that “now” doesn’t exist runs so deeply counter to what we know is true, that it sounds absurd. But the fact is that “now” is not an objective, physical attribute of the universe. And thus the now can’t be measured or studied in physics (although some, like Richard Muller, are trying to do that).

Perhaps “now” is a psychological phenomenon, like love, honesty, wonder, or fear. Those things, too, have no physical properties. Maybe “now” is purely a aspect of human experience, a fundamental organizing principle of the brain.

And that is exactly the point. Our experience of “now” is fundamental to our being. We do not doubt it. Because we accept it as fundamentally true, we also see “now” as a part of the world itself. To us, it seems that “now” is the only reality there is. And yet, precisely because it is something that emerges from who we are, it is possible to stretch it, to extend it, to go beyond it’s normal limits. In other words, because we construct the present within our own minds, we can consider it a sort of universally shared hallucination. As such, it can be manipulated to produce a quite different experience of “now.” Music can trigger a sort of manipulated or “hacked” hallucination that extends our “now.”

When we extend “now” even farther beyond its ordinary boundaries, we reveal in stark, astounding, direct experience that “now” is actually in us, and is not a constant, universal part of the world. We reveal — via direct experience — that there is a reality beyond “now” and that we can live in that beyond-now for a moment.

This seemingly tiny step outside the normal, day-to-day, has a profound affect on who we are, how we live, who we think we are and what we think the world is. It reveals a truth to our minds, not as a fact discovered and proven by scientific instruments, but as a “see-it-with-my-own-eyes” direct experience of another level of reality.

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

That is the importance of playing music. It gives us the opportunity to directly experience the truth that our own, most personal, fundamental notion of reality-the here and now that we live in every day-is a feature of experience, and not the only “true” reality. This is a direct experience that looking through a microscope can’t give us, nor can looking across the universe at 10-billion year old stars that have long since died. It’s an experience where we and our human-constructed reality is revealed to be malleable, instead of fundamental and unchanging. It’s revealed as no longer the bedrock (or only) truth we believed it to be. And all of that is revealed within a direct, lived experience, not in a claim stated on a page, or in a simulation shown in a video, or in a learned concept we convince ourselves to be true.

Of course, music can make us feel things. It can encourage us to tap our feet, bob our heads, dance. It can make us feel comfortable, sad, warm, fearful, nostalgic. It can please us and delight us. But it can also do more than that. Music can bring us outside the normal experience of time and space that we all take for granted as “the” truth and let us, for a moment, live in a different level of reality. A different truth.

Could this sort of experience be just as important for us as knowing that the earth is not the center of the universe? It’s one thing to know that earth is not the center of the universe, but how many of us have directly experienced that truth? Through music, we can actually live that stark truth for a moment as plainly and as directly as taking a breath or seeing the sky.

Originally published at

Designer and musician. Former student of Leonard Bernstein and Sergiu Celibidache.

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